What if the first serious books about country music contained a few massive errors which were then repeated by nearly everyone who’s since used those books as a source? How long do you think it would take for society to build a fundamentally flawed history of an entire genre on top of such a foundation? Fifty years? Well, that’s exactly what happened.
Owen Bradley’s name means nothing to many country music fans. Some recognize it from the album credits of a few of their favorite country artists. Others manage to cast him as an enemy of country music. But anyone who hears the name Owen Bradley and thinks anything less than “he’s the single most important producer in the history of Nashville, who made some of the greatest and most influential records of all time in any genre” simply has not been given enough information about the man or the music. That changes today.
Contents (Click/Tap to Scroll)
- Primary Sources – books, documentaries, etc.
- Transcript of Episode – for the readers
- Liner Notes – list of featured music, online sources, further commentary
Transcript of Episode
48 Different Flavors
In 1964, Music Business magazine released a full issue dedicated to the city of Nashville. One of the articles contains this quote from Owen Bradley, “You know, music could be compared to ice cream. When we were kids there were only about three ice creams – vanilla, chocolate and strawberry – and only about two music styles, slow and fast. The other day I went into a Dipper Dan parlor and they had 48 different flavors, including licorice. And, today, there are many, many flavors of music. I suppose you call them ‘trends’ but they go down in history and frequently are revived.”
1955: Little Richard releases “Tutti Frutti.” Most listeners assume he’s singing about ice cream or, at least, comparing the girls he dates to flavors of ice cream. And he kind of is, since tutti frutti is a minced fruit ice cream, served in Europe since at least the mid-1800s. But there’s a bit more to the story. Richard Penniman, a self-described “omnisexual” and ex-drag queen, started his career in gay nightclubs of the 1940s by hammering on piano keys and screaming out songs like “Tutti Frutti,” which his producer and several band members recall originally had the chorus “Tutti Frutti! Good booty!” Verses were mostly improvised for each performance, typically on the dominant theme of why and how to have anal sex. Years later, on a short break from a frustrating recording session in which Richard’s struggling to cut loose the way he does on stage, he goes over to a piano and launches into the old vulgar standby. His producer knows it’s a hit… and that they’ll all be thrown in jail if the lyrics aren’t changed. So he brings in a wannabe songwriter, named Dorothy LaBostrie, to clean up the words. Years later, Dorothy will claim Little Richard wrote none of “Tutti Frutti.” According to her, she had the title in her head ever since seeing the flavor in an ice cream shop years earlier. When asked to write new lyrics for Richard’s song, she came up with the title and scribbled out lyrics in fifteen minutes with no input from anyone else. Cute story. And it could be true, if told 20 years earlier by Slim Gaillard or Slam Stewart, writers and performers of “Tutti Frutti,” a song that is definitely about ice cream and was a #3 pop hit in 1938 when Little Richard was five years old. Given the all-but-identical chorus, Richard’s song likely began as a crass parody of a familiar hit, rather than an idle thought in the mind of a lady in line for a waffle cone.
But, you know, music could be compared to ice cream…
It’s easy to forget how much refrigeration technology changed the world, how fast it happened and how recently it was. I can’t imagine many people were very excited about dinner every night before refrigerators made it into the average home. The ruling class has always eaten comparatively well, so, naturally, none of this applies to them. And, don’t get me wrong, working class families have always celebrated special occasions with food worth bragging about to the other kids. If your family was wealthy enough to send someone to market every few days, dinner could even be pretty great several nights a week. But when we watch TV shows and movies from the 1940s and 1950s about a group of kids from blue collar families and it seems like there’s always one kid who can’t wait to get home to see what his Mom made for dinner, even though it’s just a Tuesday, no special occasion? The reason this character started showing up in this era is because it’s when his family got a fridge. (Or when the show’s TV station picked up a name brand appliance sponsor.)
Prior to the 1940s, the closest thing you’d find in most homes was an icebox: a small, cabinet-like box with an ice compartment to keep the contents cool but not refrigerated. Basically, a shitty vertical cooler with shelves. The reason Irma Rombauer’s landmark cookbook The Joy of Cooking placed such priority on reusing leftovers (including a dish called Eggplant Filled with Leftover Food) is because it came out in 1931, when leftovers had much shorter shelf lives. Since leftovers not eaten or hidden in another recipe would soon spoil in the icebox, what you were having for dinner on any given night was almost never a surprise. Just like coolers need their ice replaced to keep cool, so it was with an icebox. Since ice produced by mechanical means didn’t really become standard until around the year 1900, ice had to come from a natural source for most of human history. Ice harvesting is about as old as human history. There’ve been people living near mountaintops and in Arctic regions for millennia and those folks never had to go very far for ice so they used it in various ways, according to the tools and knowledge of their era. But just about every major city in history with conceivable access to a natural source of ice was home to a ruling class who wanted ice, even if only to serve cool drinks or slushy desserts at a party. This ice could be obtained by sawing bricks out of frozen lakes, as was done in China at least as early as 11 B.C.; freezing shallow sheets of water by manipulating cold air in the desert at night, as was done in Persia at least as early as 5 B.C.; or sending a team of people a hundred miles away to climb a mountain and bring some ice back without letting it melt. Of course, anyone with enough money to fund such labor-intensive enterprises could also afford to build an icehouse: a small, specially-insulated structure on one’s property to store large pieces of ice, chipping off smaller pieces as needed. Eventually, some enterprising minds thought to build commercial-sized ice houses where they stored huge amounts of ice and sold it to everyone who owned a personal icehouse in the area. The ice trade was born.
Since the only practical way to obtain and transport commercial volumes of ice was the big-blocks-sawed-from-a-frozen-lake method, ice vendors either hired a supplier or went and got the product themselves. Either way, costs were forwarded to the customer and ice remained an expensive commodity in most of the world for most of history. As you’d expect, whenever a dessert we’d recognize as ice cream shows up on this timeline, it’s a dish for the privileged few. While the French certainly had some version prior to the 1500s (when Catherine de Medici is wrongly believed to have introduced ice cream from Italy), no reasonably affordable café in Paris had ice cream on the menu until the late 1600s. In the early 1800s, Frederic Tudor figured out how to ship unprecedented amounts of ice from New England to icehouse depots in the Caribbean, then forward to the southern U.S., launching an Industrial Era upgrade of the ice trade. Since this natural resource was far more plentiful than, say, gold, Tudor’s business model quickly attracted heavy competition, which drove down the price of ice around the world.
1825: the horse-drawn ice cutter is invented. Within ten years, ice becomes affordable for pretty much everyone. Within twenty years, the patent is filed for the first hand-cranked ice cream churn, leading to greater numbers of ice cream parlors and mobile vendors. In the mid-1800s, the food industry starts figuring out how to ship commercial quantities of perishables with huge blocks of ice inside insulated compartments on ships and railroad cars. As industrial freezers and reliable ice manufacturing technology begin rolling out in the early 1900s, there’s another increase in the number of ice cream parlors and mobile vendors, then again when Prohibition hits in the 1920s and adults crave alternative indulgences, like sugary frozen desserts and malted milkshakes from a soda shop counter. Speaking of drinks, I’m sure many of you enjoy iced tea. It was invented in 1860-something, soon after the insulated railway car, but most people learned about iced tea at the same 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis where the idea of serving ice cream in a waffle cone was popularized. It had been done before but, for whatever reason, the one ice cream vendor serving waffle cones at this World’s Fair began outselling everyone else, so all the other vendors switched to waffle cones and a fad was born. Even at this point in history, ice cream remained a dessert for special occasions. One could even call it a “destination dessert,” typically requiring at least a trip into town and far likelier to present itself in already-special destinations, like beach towns or theme parks or a World’s Fair. It’s true those who cared to go through the trouble could make ice cream themselves. According to a New York Times article from 1943, pilots in World War II tied 5-gallon buckets of ice-cream mixture to the outside of their planes before flying missions. When (or if) they landed, it was with a bucket of ice cream, thoroughly frozen from the extremely cold temperature of flying at high speed and great altitude. Most people just used the hand-cranked churn. But however you got your hands on some ice cream, the only thing you could do was eat it before it melted.
Then, after World War II, factories went back to making domestic product rather than war supplies and freezers became a common household appliance in the United States. The option to take ice cream home and keep it frozen revolutionized the industry and a smorgasbord of new flavors appeared. Still, though, Owen Bradley was not exaggerating when he said vanilla, chocolate and strawberry were the only flavors he knew as a child. There were homemade recipes… Gourmet vendors in major cities offered greater variety… And the menu at Howard Johnson’s restaurants eventually grew to 28 flavors… But the original location opened with only vanilla, chocolate and strawberry in 1925 when Owen Bradley was ten years old. Baskin Robbins didn’t even hit 31 flavors until 1953, the year before Owen built the first modern recording studio in Nashville to manufacture the take-home containers of sound he’d been shipping to market since the 1940s.
Setting the Stage
The story of Nashville as the capital of country music begins with the launch of the Grand Ole Opry in the middle of the 1920s. But that’s only the beginning and several other southern cities still had a chance to become Country Music USA right up until the 1940s, when The Opry moved into The Ryman Auditorium following 20 years of venue changes caused by local complaints over the noise, traffic and out-of-towners coming to the big country music show every weekend. Nobody wanted to lived next to this circus. Even wealthy residents, whose neighborhoods were never affected, still worried over the reputation WSM’s hoedown would give the city. They didn’t want the rest of the world thinking Nashville was a place full of low class hillbillies playing a lower class of music. And, indeed, anyone with this impression of the city would have been mistaken. There were some honky tonks in Nashville at the time but they were no more prevalent, popular or accepted than in any other city of the south. “Disreputable” is a word frequently used by country musicians of this era to describe the way they were viewed and treated while trying to eat at restaurants or check into hotel rooms in Nashville. If you took a drive around town looking for live music, the nicer evening spots were way more Cab Calloway than cowboy, same as any other metropolis in the 1920s and 1930s, the era of big band and swing jazz. And it probably did come as a shock to some early Opry listeners who made the pilgrimage to attend a broadcast, expecting to find a city built from hay bales and chicken wire. But Nashville being an ordinary city didn’t stop them from coming back, more every year and from further away as WSM continued to expand its reach, quickly creating the new national headquarters of country music.
1939: WSM partners with NBC’s affiliate network. Roy Acuff joined The Opry lineup the year before, so he’s the hot, new thing as the show goes national and he is instantly turned into a star.
1940: Roy Acuff and The Smoky Mountain Boys go to Los Angeles to play “Wabash Cannonball” (complete with Acuff’s train whistle imitation) in the movie Grand Ole Opry. Not counting Hollywood singing cowboys, Roy Acuff is now the most famous country singer alive.
1942: Roy launches Acuff-Rose. The idea is to own his publishing and create a better company for country artists who, like himself, are tired of being treated like dumb hillbillies or novelty acts and getting screwed over by big city publishers and go-betweens. From this point forward, guest artists in town to perform on The Grand Ole Opry can expect to be pitched the best songs in the Acuff-Rose catalog. Many of those artists sign to Acuff-Rose as writers.
1943: the biggest hoedown on American radio finds a real home at The Ryman, signaling a point-of-no-return to the country music recording industry. Artists invited to join The Opry lineup move to Nashville without a second thought. Ernest Tubb is one of them. The city becomes the national epicenter of country talent, touring and songwriting. But there are still no modern recording studios, so major label artists travel to New York City or L.A. or Chicago to make records in cities where the labels already have offices, studios and publishing company “relationships.” When most of the country songs in these big city recording sessions suddenly start coming from the Acuff-Rose catalog, the rest of the industry realizes they need feet on the ground in Nashville to stay competitive in the genre.
Fall 1945: the end of World War II lifts wartime rations limiting access to the materials needed to make records. It takes Nashville less than a year to start pumping out product. By the time Ernest Tubb opens his record shop in 1947, there’s no denying country music has a new home.
Back in the 1930s, Owen Bradley was in his late teens/early twenties, playing piano as a frontman and arranging all the music for a big band orchestra in Nashville nightclubs. He and his orchestra were sometimes hired for radio work. Before stations had digital banks of pre-recorded bumpers and beds, they needed live bands to play the music listeners heard between or behind announcements, commercials and DJ segments. In 1940, soon after the affiliate deal with NBC’s national network, WSM hired Owen Bradley’s orchestra as the house band. That’s callsign “WSM” for “We Shield Millions,” motto of the National Life & Accident Insurance Company, who launched the station to promote their insurance policies. In order to maximize sales, WSM tried to secure as wide a listenership as possible, which is why they programmed nearly nothing but pop music in their first few decades on-air. Serious efforts to support The Grand Ole Opry with other country music programming did begin in the late 1940s but WSM was not a country station and didn’t switch to an all-country format until 1980. Prior to then, they largely stuck to the middle of the road and played plenty of whatever most listeners wanted to hear. (The biggest record of 1940 was Tommy Dorsey’s Orchestra with Frank Sinatra singing “I’ll Never Smile Again.” So, you know, boring stuff.)
“Big band orchestra” should have already given it away but the kind of music Owen Bradley’s band played was rarely even a little bit country. Most of what WSM wanted from him fell on the “classically influenced” or “easy listening” side of big band jazz. Owen Bradley grew up loving both classical music and jazz. When he was a kid, his family inherited some money and used it to buy a piano. Owen quickly learned to play the piano, then learned everything he could about the sounds of commercial music. And right now we’re talking about his dream of earning a living as a musician, not his personal taste. Regardless of whatever you may have been told, Owen Bradley grew up loving country music just as much as anything else. This was a kid born in middle Tennessee in 1915. Before his family could afford a piano, the first instrument Owen learned was guitar, playing country music with his younger brother Harold plucking along on a banjo. But working musicians have to play what people want to hear or they starve. Aside from The Grand Ole Opry, there simply weren’t many paying gigs for country musicians in Nashville because the genre was still commonly regarded as a joke. When Owen switched to the family’s new piano, he gave his guitar to Harold and said to learn it. He said guitar, not banjo, would be the sound of the future. Again, these were always business decisions. Even after he started working primarily in big band jazz, Owen took country gigs when they were offered. For anyone looking to investigate Owen Bradley’s country music pedigree, a good place to start would probably be the fact he’s a co-writer on Roy Acuff’s 1942 hit, “Night Train to Memphis.”
Once Owen began building a reputation as the leader of a sophisticated musical outfit, he often did country work under a pseudonym, like how country artists a decade later would use fake names to cut rock records. In 1946, the first record released on the Bullet label was by Brad Brady and His Tennesseans. Though other musicians, starting with DeFord Bailey in the 1920s, had recorded in Nashville using portable units, this single is typically considered the birth of what became the Nashville recording industry; not because it was cut at WSM’s facilities, as several major label singles already were, but because Bullet was the first record label based in Nashville and their first single being a hit inspired many more labels to set up shop in town, creating a local need for recording studios. As for the music itself, “Zeb’s Mountain Boogie” probably sounds more like jazz than country to modern ears but what you’re hearing is essentially 1940’s pop country: Zeb Turner’s version of a guitar boogie going on a joyride up a mountain with Owen Bradley’s orchestra in the back of his truck. After orders began pouring in, Owen Bradley told Bullet they could put his real name on the record instead of “Brad Brady.” I’ve never heard the a-side but it’s a cover of Elton Britt’s #3 country hit, “Wave to Me My Lady,” which ain’t exactly a foot stomper. These were the sounds of the time.
When Bullet’s instant success cut a trail for others to follow, a few WSM engineers decided to get serious about putting the station’s (very nice) facilities to use during off-hours to meet Nashville’s sudden demand for studio space. They named the enterprise Castle Recording Laboratories (a.k.a. Castle Studios), after WSM’s nickname “Air Castle of the South.” Hank Williams’ first professional recording session (the one where he cut “Never Again Will I Knock on Your Door”) took place with the Castle crew at WSM in 1946. There wasn’t enough room at WSM for Castle’s massive recording machine, so they housed the unit in another building and forwarded the audio signal through a phone line. This is also how they cut the first song recorded in Nashville to go #1 pop. Francis Craig used to be a bandleader at WSM until he became a DJ and “Near You” was supposed to be his farewell to a career as a musician. But then the single came out on Bullet in 1947, hit #1 and brought the Castle team far too much business to handle during late nights at WSM. After finding a rundown banquet room at the Tulane Hotel, they converted it to a studio and Nashville had its first commercial recording space. Most major label artists who recorded in Nashville over the next seven years or so held sessions at Castle’s hotel studio. This includes Ernest Tubb, Burl Ives, Red Foley, The Stanley Brothers, Ray Price, Bill Monroe, Webb Pierce and Kitty Wells. Artists who didn’t arrive with a full band were typically backed up by Owen Bradley and whichever supplemental musicians he hired for the session. When you hear piano on records cut at Castle, if the artist didn’t bring their own piano player, there’s a strong chance you’re listening to Owen Bradley. He played on the session where Kitty Wells cut “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” and he played on many of Hank Williams’ Nashville sessions, which followed Castle from WSM to the hotel in 1947 and stayed there for the rest of Hank’s life. Whenever you hear Ernest Tubb on record calling out for “Half-Moon” to take a piano lead (like on “Lovebug Itch” with Red Foley and Minnie Pearl), he’s poking fun at Owen Bradley, telling him to go ahead and chop out a piece half as good as Moon Mullican.
The skillset Owen acquired during his years as a bandleader translated well to the studio. He knew how to scout, schedule and direct musicians. He was able to quickly arrange a song, show everyone what he wanted them to do, then lead the session on piano. As producers who worked at Castle increasingly relied on him, what began with Owen hiring and leading the musicians soon turned into his doing nearly all the work credited to various producers. This was most notably the case with Paul Cohen of Decca Records. Paul lived in New York City and previously brought country artists there or Chicago to record. Then Castle started up and Decca’s biggest country acts, like Ernest Tubb and Red Foley, wanted to make records near home with musicians they knew instead of traveling to other cities and working with strangers who may not know or care anything about country music. So Paul started coming to Nashville for two or three weeks at a time to produce sessions and he needed a local liaison, a musician known and respected by the other musicians in the room but who could also view and manage operations from Paul’s business-minded perspective. Less than a year after Castle moved into the Tulane Hotel, Paul Cohen created an Assistant Producer position at Decca for Owen Bradley. Please note this was a job title at Decca, not a credit Owen began receiving on the labels of records. Paul Cohen continued to receive sole credit as producer for Owen’s sessions, which begs the question: was Paul Cohen a producer or not? By modern definitions of the term, no, not really. But neither were the vast majority of “producers” in the early record business, nearly none of whom did most of the work we now associate with the job title. The first record producers were merely A&R executives. That’s A&R for “Artists & Repertoire,” as in these were the guys who scouted and signed artists and therefore had a vested interest in quality control of the artist’s repertoire. They chose or approved songs for their artists and oversaw production of the product they brought to the label. So, yeah, early “producers” went in the studio with their artists but mostly to make sure everything went down the way it was supposed to go down. Paul Cohen wasn’t selecting a key for each song, arranging and assigning parts or, really, giving any technical input to the musicians other than “that’s good” or “that’s bad.” He was there to keep his artists from making last-minute decisions to cut songs he hadn’t selected or approved. He didn’t need some bass player wasting expensive studio time getting everyone to try a rumba instead of a waltz. If one of the musicians had an out-of-tune instrument or showed up too drunk to play, Paul Cohen needed to find out during the session, not from listening to a tape after it was too late to fix. In today’s language, “presented by Paul Cohen” would make more sense as a label credit. Again, this is true for nearly every one of his peers and predecessors. According to Gordon Stoker of The Jordanaires, Elvis Presley was the real producer of every Elvis session Gordon worked, regardless of Chet Atkins’ or Steve Sholes’ names appearing on the label. Anyone ever “produced” by Pappy Daily will tell you he was mainly there to look at his watch while the session leader did all the actual work. If we’re talking production in the modern sense – a person who makes a career out of having the greatest influence and control over the sound and music on multiple artists’ records – Owen Bradley was probably the first producer in Nashville, full stop. No matter what the words on the label say, Owen made most of the important technical and creative decisions when arranging all the pieces and players into the music we hear on records “produced” by Paul Cohen and several other executives who held sessions at Castle.
In Michael Kosser’s book, How Nashville Became Music City USA, Muscle Shoals studio bassist Norbert Putnam gives an account of Owen Bradley’s process. Owen auditioned Norbert by hiring him to play a show at a dinner club. When Norbert found out the band would be himself on bass with Owen on piano and a drummer, performing light jazz standards as a trio, he wondered if anyone knew the Muscle Shoals scene was mostly R&B… But Owen was only interested in seeing how well he handled completely unfamiliar material, how quickly he could figure out what to do by following Owen’s left hand on piano, all under the pressure of being watched by an audience. At the end of the night, Norbert learned he was Owen’s new third-call bassist. If neither Bob Moore nor Junior Huskey could make a session, Owen would call Norbert. Then he was given a stack of records and told to go learn to impersonate Bob Moore and Junior Huskey because it’s all he was ever, ever going to be asked to do. The most important rule: never play something fancy over one of Owen’s singers. And Norbert did get enough of those third-on-the-list phone calls to see how Owen Bradley ran a session. When Norbert later became a producer himself, he called Owen’s way the correct way to run a session. Owen would walk in the studio, call everyone over to the piano and play through a song one time while telling each musician and singer what he wanted them to do during each segment of a song. If anyone had a question, this was the time to ask. After the rundown, everyone went to their places and played through the complete song once, giving engineers enough time to make sure all the mics and cables were good while Owen listened to make sure everyone understood his instructions and the lead singer wasn’t having any problems with the rhythm or key. Then the engineers hit record and everyone played the song again. And you had to play for keeps because this second performance sometimes ended up being the record. More often, it was a reference take for all the musicians to join Owen in the control room and listen to playback of what they’d just done. The tape was played at a loud enough volume for Owen to walk around and give quiet comments to each musician without allowing everyone to hear whether they were receiving praise or further instruction. Then everyone went back in the live room and made a record, usually in one or two takes. This was years after the Castle days but it’s how Owen Bradley always worked and it’s what Paul Cohen hired him to do at Decca in 1947.
Owen Bradley Is the Single Most Important Producer in Nashville History
Before we really get started here, just as a frame of reference, all the guys most rock history books credit with “pioneering” the art of record production, like Phil Spector, Joe Meek and George Martin? None of them did anything that matters to the history of record production until the late 1950s. When Paul Cohen left Decca in 1958, Owen Bradley stepped up to become head of the Nashville division and finally began receiving production credit after over a decade of uncredited work. Now I think it’s time we give him credit for the Nashville Sound…
The topic we’re about to broach has been made quite difficult by the spread of misinformation and confusion. In order to answer one question – a question I’ve intentionally left unpacked until now because of how many people I’m about to upset – I’m put in the unenviable position of having to correct fundamental mistakes in the most well-respected, influential and commonly-cited books on the subject of country music. The problematic question: what is the Nashville Sound? (Since an accurate understanding of the Nashville Sound is necessary before we can move on to the rest of the season, the complete answer will require the rest of this episode and most of the next. Please think of the first three episodes in this season as a bridge between Season 1 and the main body of Season 2.) As with the Bakersfield Sound, let’s start by asking: what is the first record with the Nashville Sound on it? Nearly every attempt at answering this question begins with a list of singles from the year 1957. This list typically includes songs like Ferlin Husky’s “Gone,” Jim Reeves’ “Four Walls” or Jimmy C. Newman’s “A Fallen Star.” None of these are the first Nashville Sound record and neither is any other from the year 1957. “Young Love” by Sonny James is only one of many earlier records which debunk such lists. I’m not saying “Young Love” is the first Nashville Sound record because I know for a fact it is not. But if any person wants to suggest a song from 1957 is the Nashville Sound while “Young Love” is not, it’s purely because they believe something they read in a book or saw in a documentary more than they trust their own ears and judgement. “Young Love” was produced by Ken Nelson in late 1956 in the studio Owen Bradley built in 1954 after learning Castle would shut down the following year.
Because of the internal power struggle at WSM over Jim Denny’s control of the Grand Ole Opry in 1953, all other WSM employees entered 1954 knowing their side gigs in the music business would soon be officially declared conflicts of interest. When the WSM engineers behind Castle found out the Tulane Hotel was scheduled for demolition anyway, instead of looking for a new studio space, they decided to shut down Castle and keep their day jobs at the radio station. And I do wonder if they ever kicked themselves for not rolling the dice because, when the Castle crew called it a day, Nashville still didn’t have a modern recording studio. There were other rooms being used to make records but none were designed and built for studio use and none were any better than Castle’s repurposed hotel banquet room. When Paul Cohen told Owen Bradley he was thinking of moving Decca’s entire country music operation down to Texas once Castle closed, Owen suggested going in 50/50 to build a new studio themselves. Paul agreed but never actually put up his end of the money, so Owen moved forward on his own, taking out a loan to purchase a house at 804 16th Avenue South. He and Harold gutted the house and removed most of the ground level’s floor to turn the basement into a live room with a two-story tall ceiling. The first time Sonny James used this studio, he recorded “Young Love.” The following month, Ferlin Husky recorded “Gone” in this studio. The first time Jimmy C. Newman used this studio, he recorded “A Fallen Star.” One of the only singles commonly listed as the first Nashville Sound record not cut in this studio was Jim Reeves’ “Four Walls,” so let’s follow that thread for a second…
In 1954, RCA Records rented a big, unused meeting room in a building owned by a Methodist church organization. It was a very similar setup to Castle, a repurposed room not built for audio but decent enough to serve as RCA’s Nashville studio for several years. This is where Jim Reeves recorded “Four Walls” in 1957 in a session produced by Chet Atkins. As such, people who believe this to be the first Nashville Sound record believe Chet Atkins created the Nashville Sound. And there really are just millions of people who will believe and repeat something they read in a book or saw in a documentary more than they will trust their own ear. In 1968, Bill Malone published Country Music USA, the first serious scholarly work on the genre, in which he writes of how Chet Atkins moved to town and “immediately began to shape and direct the style of music heard in Nashville.” I have so much respect for Mr. Malone but this is not remotely what happened and his book greatly overstates Chet Atkins’ role compared to Owen Bradley’s role in creating and reinventing the sound of Nashville recording sessions. Country Music USA returns to Chet Atkins over a dozen times while Owen Bradley is given only two passing mentions in the entire book. This has proven to be a disastrously influential oversight. As one may expect from the title, Paul Hemphill’s The Nashville Sound has been the first and only source consulted and cited on this topic by most interested parties ever since the book was first published in 1970. Following set precedent, this book tells readers that if one man can be credited with creating the Nashville Sound, then the man would be Chet Atkins. I have so much respect for Mr. Hemphill but this is objectively untrue. If there is one man, his name has always been Owen Bradley. In his autobiography, Chet Atkins remembers the first session he worked in Nashville being produced by (you guessed it) Owen Bradley in 1946, the year before Chet signed an artist contract with RCA. Chet Atkins’ early RCA records did not sell well enough to justify remaining in Nashville, so he didn’t. And this is the timeline on these two men: one was already defining what would become known as the Nashville methods of recording, arrangement and production years before the other mattered enou gh to be able to afford rent in the city. Chet Atkins did not move back to Nashville until 1950 and, when he did, it was only because the Carter Sisters and Mother Maybelle joined the Grand Ole Opry and Chet was their guitar player. By 1950, Owen Bradley was indisputably the most important producer in Nashville.
After Chet returned to the city, he spent years working as a session guitarist before reaching any significant level of influence as a musician, let alone session leader, let alone producer. In fact, Chet Atkins was still being hired to play guitar in Owen Bradley’s sessions at least as late as 1953, when Webb Pierce cut “There Stands the Glass” and “Slowly” and Hank Locklin cut “Let Me Be the One,” all produced by Owen, all including unremarkable guitar parts from Chet. According to Chet, he spent every session studying Owen’s production style. By the time Chet started leading sessions for RCA, he and everyone else in Nashville were simply doing things the way they’d learned from watching Owen. These careers did follow a similar path – from studio musician to session leader to producer to powerful label executive – but Chet Atkins would always be the first to tell you he was following in Owen Bradley’s footsteps, did not innovate much of anything and had at least three employees who deserved more credit than he did for producing his sessions. A-Team musicians used to joke with each other about how you could not make a mistake bad enough for Chet Atkins to say another take was necessary. This in contrast to Owen Bradley, who heard every wrong note and accepted nothing less than what he walked in the room knowing he wanted on the record. When RCA finally built a modern studio in Nashville and put Chet Atkins in charge, there was this engineer he never got along with, so Chet had the guy transferred somewhere else and advertised the open position. In 1959, Bill Porter got the job. Whatever “sound” fans and critics attributed to RCA’s studio, Chet always credited to Bill Porter. This was backed up by studio bassist and producer Bob Moore, who said, “Bill Porter changed the sound of the room when he got there in 1959.” Compare these statements to any account of Owen Bradley personally tinkering with every minor detail to control sound waves in the studio he built five years earlier, where nearly all the first Nashville Sound records were cut.
When Owen bought 804 16th Avenue, he didn’t stop at gutting the house and converting it to a recording studio. He also bought a kit for a 75-foot-long by 35-foot-wide and -high Quonset hut made of corrugated sheet metal, which he put up in the backyard. The idea was to record music in the house and use the big hut to film videos, like the many great Al Gannaway clips available on YouTube, which were shot in the hut. Harold Bradley said it may have been producer Don Law who first booked the bigger studio out back to record music. If Harold’s memory was correct, this would have been a Mel Tillis session in April 1957 and “Jukebox Man” doesn’t sound bad for a record cut in a big garage. This was around the time the record industry adopted stereo technology, creating more sonic space to fill, and sessions began calling for more musicians and singers to perform bigger arrangements. When producers kept asking for the larger building out back so they had more room for everyone to spread out, Owen decided to convert his video studio to an audio studio. This could not have been an easy thing to do with a curved, metal building but, two years before Bill Porter showed up and gave RCA’s room a “sound,” Owen Bradley went into his Quonset hut and turned it into “The Quonset Hut.” He built makeshift versions of things you’ll find in modern studios, like vocal isolation booths, baffles and various devices to direct sound waves where you want and keep them away from where you don’t. Some improvements came by happy accident, like the time an Al Gannaway video shoot called for a wooden floor to be built over the tile in part of the hut. The wood fixed a weird sound nobody realized was coming off the tile, so they left it there. Other solutions were built from the ten years of trial-and-error experience Owen Bradley had behind him by this point. Since curved ceilings are not ideal for sound, they built a giant, rectangular sort-of window shutter-looking thing out of wood, suspended it above the live room, then piled old curtains on top to absorb sound. This is how invested Owen Bradley was in the sound of his rooms, thus impacting not only his own work but the work of anyone who used his rooms. And this is why it’s significant nearly all of the first Nashville Sound recordings were made in his rooms.
Having read everything there is to read on the subject, I’ve never seen anyone give a good reason for why any record from 1957 or any record not produced by Owen Bradley should be considered the first Nashville Sound. The lists of records from 1957 and credit to Chet Atkins always seem to be presented as matters of fact, never supported by logic or argument. So I don’t know what anyone thinks they hear in “Four Walls” that makes them say, “There! Something we’ve never heard before! A Nashville Sound!” And I will go as far as to suggest almost nobody has given serious consideration to whatever they think they mean when they use that term. To most country fans, “Nashville Sound” seems to be shorthand to refer to 1950s pop country (or pop masquerading as country) with string sections and/or background singers in place of fiddle and steel guitar, which is a little weird because this existed decades earlier and Nashville had nothing to do with it. Those sounds are all over the soundtracks of Hollywood western movies from the 1930s and 1940s. Whenever Ernest Tubb talked about being one of the first country artists to use a string section and vocal chorus in Nashville in 1951, he called it a “novelty.” What Ernest Tubb meant is using strings and a vocal chorus made him sound like a Hollywood cowboy, far more “western” than “country,” and the most mainstream pop culture version of western, at that. A lot of people think the “and Western” part of “Country and Western” is a reference to western swing. It is not. It’s a reference to western music, or at least Hollywood’s version of western music, performed by singing cowboys in western movies, which were also known as “horse operas” and which had exponentially larger marketing budgets than the entire country music division of any record label. This is at least 75% of how and why these sounds wound up on major label country music recorded in Nashville during the 1950s.
1941: Sons of the Pioneers record “Cool Water” for Decca. Note the vocals. Sons of the Pioneers will sing “Cool Water” again in a 1945 Roy Rogers movie (Along the Navajo Trail) and rerecord it several times in their career, including a 1948 version with Vaughn Monroe using a big band arrangement which becomes a Top 10 pop hit. A year later, Vaughn will release the most well-known recording of “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” hitting #1 pop with a song Gene Autry sings the same year in a movie, called… Riders in the Sky.
1942: “(I’ve Got Spurs That) Jingle Jangle Jingle,” written by Frank Loesser (the guy who wrote the songs for Guys and Dolls), is sung by Dick Thomas in the movie The Forest Ranger. Later in the year, Kay Kyser’s big band cover stays at #1 pop for two months. Gene Autry’s version hits #14, selling over a million copies.
1944: “Don’t Fence Me In,” written by (another Broadway musical guy) Cole Porter, is first sung by Roy Rogers in the movie Hollywood Canteen. A year later, Roy Rogers sings it in the movie… Don’t Fence Me In. Bing Crosby’s version goes #1 pop and Gene Autry’s hits #4 country.
What we’re looking at here is the same thing major label record executives saw at the time: millions of people watching movies about singing cowboys then going to stores to buy records that sound like the movies. In 1949, after years of trying to figure out what to call their “poor Black people music” and “poor White people music” charts, Billboard replaces their “race records” chart with the Rhythm & Blues chart and the “folk records” chart is changed to the Country & Western chart. To be clear, what we’re talking about is the leading music industry trade letting everyone know they’re going to continue charting the commercial success of western movie soundtracks (and similar releases) in the same group as all other country records, as if these products are created and promoted with comparable resources and for one single to outperform the others simply indicates superior quality. And they do this two years after Owen Bradley is hired to manufacture commercial product for Decca. Owen’s bosses want to open Billboard and see his records taking a significant share of the market against the competition. They want his artists to win awards in categories which will be named after these charts. They want his records to move units in stores which will categorize inventory based on these charts. Once his competition becomes Hollywood western soundtracks with their massive marketing budgets and silver screens around the nation pitching their product, Owen doesn’t really have a choice whether or not to use those sonic tropes. However, there is still a huge difference between Hollywood western soundtracks and Owen Bradley’s Nashville Sound. Because composers working on 1940s Hollywood westerns have the same goal as producers of all other pop music in the 1940s, which is to treat as many customers as possible to a familiar experience. Or, to make this point from the opposite direction, composers do not show up to score westerns intent on deviating from the formula to challenge the audience with revolutionary sounds, not until Ennio Morricone in the 1960s. [See: The Big Gundown]
Let’s go back to Sons of the Pioneers for a second. One of their most well-known songs is “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” made famous by Gene Autry in 1935 in a movie called Tumbling Tumbleweeds. But listen to the recording Sons of the Pioneers made for Decca the year before. A few years later, an immensely successful vocal group named The Ink Spots (also signed to Decca), release one of the best-selling and most popular singles of all time, “If I Didn’t Care.” Listen to that and you’ll hear these records do have some differences. The melodies are not the same. The Ink Spots’ record has a lead singer. The Sons of the Pioneers record has a faster tempo. But, otherwise, the way these records actually sound is very similar. The only difference in instrumentation is one has fiddle where the other has piano. Either group could provide the other’s vocal harmonies. And this is not an accident. This is commercial product created by the same record label, then sold to as many people as possible through separate divisions of the label telling fans of different genres this product is made for them, when really it’s pop music with one or two small concessions – like band costumes, lyrical themes or the presence of a certain instrument – to suggest it’s the genre fans want to buy. It’s the way this has always worked. It’s the reason we can say a record sounds like it was made in the 1920s or 1950s or 1980s and everyone gets the reference. This is not simply a matter of the technology available in those decades. It’s a matter of industry professionals using it the same way, trying to create and sell the most profitable variations on approximately the same popular product. So, imagine you’re Marty Robbins in 1955. You record “Singing the Blues” in Owen Bradley’s pre-Quonset Hut basement studio. (Don Law gets credit for producing the session but Owen’s in the room on piano, so you do the math. Or, take it from country singer Johnny Bush, who wrote in his autobiography the best thing about A&R men like Don Law is “they kept their fucking mouths shut and they left the musicians to work it out and let the artists be artists.”) “Singing the Blues” comes out in 1956, goes #1 country and even makes the Top 20 pop songs. If you’re Marty Robbins, this is all pretty great. Then Guy Mitchell puts out a cover that sounds like he’s got his thumb up his ass the whole time he’s singing and it goes #1 pop, selling three to five times as many copies, a difference of millions of records and millions of dollars. Does Guy Mitchell deserve those sales just because his product has a bigger marketing budget and better distribution? How many times do you have to hear his record all over the radio before saying, “Well, shit, if more people want to buy it this way, I can make it this way.”
January 1957: Marty Robbins goes to New York City to record in the same studio as Guy Mitchell with the same arranger and session leader, Ray Coniff. Marty cuts “A White Sport Coat (And a Pink Carnation),” which hits #2 pop and would be the biggest hit of his entire career if he didn’t go full Hollywood western two years later on “El Paso.” The arrangement of Marty Robbins’ “White Sport Coat” is identical to other 1957 singles commonly given as early examples of the Nashville Sound, so people who casually use the term as shorthand for “pop country with strings or a vocal chorus” probably do place this in the same category. However, I would urge anyone interested in a practical definition of the Nashville Sound to spend time comparing this record with those coming out of Owen Bradley’s studio the same year. Because the difference you will hear lies in a collection of recording techniques and production practices standardized by Owen Bradley and his favorite studio musicians in Nashville during the 1950s. In my opinion, this is the only functional definition of the Nashville Sound. It also happens to be backwards-compatible, a satisfactory and meaningful replacement for whatever ill-informed usage of the term one may encounter. This definition includes but does not limit itself to pop country with string sections and a vocal chorus. It is crucial to understand The Nashville Sound exists entirely outside and apart from genre. We can demonstrate why with a little guessing game… Everyone’s heard Bobby Helms do “Jingle Bell Rock.” Listen to it again while considering what genre you’d call it if the words were about any topic other than Christmas. Okay, maybe you’re having trouble imagining it as anything but a Christmas song. Let’s try the same exercise with Bobby Helms’ previous single, “My Special Angel,” recorded by the same musicians and in the same room as “Jingle Bell Rock.” Got a genre for that one? Here’s a hint: both singles came out in 1957 after being recorded in Owen Bradley’s studio… That’s right: “Jingle Bell Rock” and “My Special Angel” are country songs!
Or, at least, Paul Cohen and Decca decided to act like they were country songs. These and many other Nashville Sound records were promoted and sold as country product, even though they were created as and remain pop product. If you put “My Special Angel” on a playlist of 1950s pop music, nobody will ever ask why you tried to sneak in a country song, which is precisely what will happen if you try doing the same thing with “Just a Little Lonesome” from Bobby Helms’ previous session. “Just a Little Lonesome” is a country song with steel guitar and honky-tonk piano and, even though it doesn’t have a string section or background singers, it’s also an example of the Nashville Sound, if we use the definition capable of explaining a difference between Marty Robbins using background singers in New York and Marty Robbins using background singers in Nashville. While I understand not everyone is going to be able to let go of the way they’ve been defining “Nashville Sound” their whole lives, everyone who refuses to update their definition is still going to have to take it away from Chet Atkins and hand it to Owen Bradley. Because less than two years after Billboard created the Country & Western chart, when Ernest Tubb and Red Foley used strings and a vocal chorus to make a “novelty” record in Nashville in 1951? Owen Bradley played organ and produced the session at Castle. The strings went on a version of “Kentucky Waltz” for the record’s a-side and the b-side was “Strange Little Girl” with The Anita Kerr Singers (who Owen signed to Decca around this time) five years before The Jordanaires ever sang with Elvis Presley. Novel though it may have been, relegated to the b-side as it was, “Strange Little Girl” was a Top 10 Country & Western hit. The two sides of this record are the earliest examples I’ve heard of the ahistorical and misinformed concept of the Nashville Sound. Using a logical and cohesive definition, no recording from Castle captures the Nashville Sound because they didn’t yet have the rooms or equipment necessary to create or record its complex dynamics.
Loud & Soft
The dynamic range of an instrument comprises the span from quietest to loudest tones the instrument can produce. If you tap a snare drum head as lightly as possible with a drumstick, then hit it as hard as you can, the extreme difference in resulting loudness is the snare drum’s dynamic range. Similarly, the dynamic range of a record is the distance between its quietest and loudest moments. Some records maintain a relatively consistent loudness from beginning to end. These are not dynamic records. Other records feature abrupt shifts in loudness or suddenly introduce an instrument to the mix only to let it disappear again. These are two techniques to produce dynamic records. If we were to sum up Owen Bradley’s entire philosophy of sound in one word, it would be “dynamic.” By the time Patsy Cline cut “Walkin’ After Midnight” at 804 16th Avenue in late 1956, Owen Bradley was receiving an “Associate Producer” label credit for his work in Paul Cohen sessions. “Walkin’ After Midnight” was not Patsy Cline’s most dynamic hit but it was her first. She had no others until 1961, when she was finally released from a bad contract with 4 Star Records in California, who never gave Owen full control of Patsy Cline’s sessions. As soon as he was free to select her material and record it however he liked, Owen produced “I Fall to Pieces.” Because it’s a shuffle, the bass and drums in “I Fall to Pieces” are fairly static – they begin and end with the song and remain at the same loudness throughout – while other instruments, such as piano and steel, find little pockets of space to introduce dynamic splashes of sound. The static elements provide a constant frame of reference for the dynamic elements to weave in and out of the record. When this is done correctly, it holds our attention and keeps us looking forward to whatever may happen next. The fluttery little stumble half the instruments take after Patsy sings the title in every chorus is called a syncopation. This word shares a Latin root with “swoon” and was initially used to refer to the process of dropping syllables from multiple words in order to form contractions, like how the “o” and “u” are syncopated from “you all” to create “y’all.” In musical applications, you could think of syncopation as grabbing the rhythm of a song and shaking, so it… falls to pieces for a second. (The most widely familiar example is probably the hand clap section of the FRIENDS theme.) Syncopated rhythms disrupt a rhythm. The syncopation in “I Fall to Pieces” forces a split-second, seven-note riff into the song’s 4/4 rhythm. It shouldn’t work at all but it ends up being the musical hook, a dynamic element keeping us ready and waiting for whatever comes next in the song, even and especially if we’ve heard the song a thousand times. Owen Bradley loved syncopation. Really, he’d use any kind of musical cue to play into the theme of a song. Sometimes, as here, he was as blatant and literal as the song title but he could also be more subtle and abstract, as in Patsy Cline’s following two singles. In “She’s Got You,” the cue is Floyd Cramer’s twinkly piano, presumably representative of the love trance the “she” has placed upon the “you,” Patsy’s bewitched ex-lover in the song. In “Crazy,” it’s the dizzy, off-kilter way every instrument takes turns falling behind and catching up to the beat. Even the drums seem to subtly falter here and there. In both of these songs, Bob Moore’s bass plays a more dynamic role than in “Walkin’ After Midnight.”
It is Bob Moore playing on all the Patsy songs referenced in this episode. He’s on nearly everything she recorded, which is why his standup bass is in the Patsy Cline museum in Nashville. Owen Bradley first hired Bob Moore for a recording session in 1950, when Bob was around 18 years old. The year before, Bob’s roommate made an instrumental guitar record, called “Sugarfoot Rag.” Hank Garland is now a legend but he was just another working session musician when he had a hit with “Sugarfoot Rag.” Red Foley had Garland and Vaughn Horton write lyrics to the tune, then Red covered it with Garland on guitar and Tommy Jackson on fiddle. It went #4 pop… as the b-side of a record. The a-side went #1 pop and country, an early crossover hit for Owen Bradley as uncredited producer and a huge leap toward his Nashville Sound. Listen to WSM staff drummer Farris Coursey slapping his leg to meet Owen’s request for a musical cue to represent the popping sound of a shoeshine rag for “Chattanoogie Shoeshine Boy.” Farris hit his leg so hard and so many times it began to hurt and he had to switch legs halfway through the take. In 1950, the year Chet Atkins moved back to Nashville as The Carter Sisters’ guitar player, “Chattanoogie Shoeshine Boy” was the #1 country song in the nation for three months. Since it was cut the day before Hank Garland’s first Red Foley session, it’s Grady Martin playing guitar. Grady moved to Nashville in 1949 when he was hired into Little Jimmy Dickens’ band. In 1951, Grady Martin and The Slewfoot Five were signed to Decca. As far as I can tell, this band was just Owen Bradley, Grady Martin and the beginnings of the Nashville A-Team, including Bob Moore, Hank Garland and Harold Bradley. Any Owen Bradley session over the following decade without at least two of these musicians in the room would be a rarity. Each of these musicians “led” countless sessions for other producers in Nashville, working the way they’d learned from Owen. Don Law “produced” Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” at Owen Bradley’s studio in 1959 but you already heard how great Don was at shutting up and ceding control to the musicians, which that day meant Bob Moore on bass and Grady Martin on guitar. If a car accident had not ended Hank Garland’s career in 1961, he’d be counted with his friends – Bob, Grady and Harold – as both one of the most recorded musicians and uncredited producers in history. It was only a few months before the wreck that Hank Garland and Bob Moore played on Elvis Presley’s “Little Sister.”
Earlier in the 1961, Bob Moore arranged the string section and vocal chorus for Roy Orbison’s “Running Scared.” According to Harold Bradley, producer Fred Foster normally only paid attention to Roy Orbison’s vocal and left the studio musicians to their own devices. “Running Scared” does actually seem to have been at least half-produced by Fred Foster, though, because he had to pull rank to get Bob Moore to stop forcing a steady rhythm and let the song stagger through its series of crescendos. The lyrics have Roy worrying himself into a state of near-panic over his lover’s ex showing up on date night to try and get her back. For whatever reason, maybe there’s only one place to hang out in this town, Roy seems certain this will happen. And the problem is he doesn’t know what his girlfriend will do. Will she go back to the ex? Will she stay with Roy? This is his swirling turmoil throughout the song. From listening to this string arrangement, it’s obvious Bob Moore had worked thousands of Owen Bradley sessions. Bob’s strings lay out for nearly the entire first minute, until Roy really starts to get himself worked up, then the strings join in with the other instruments mimicking the pulse of Roy’s pounding heart, as all his thoughts and feelings circle this one fear, approaching the moment of truth. Suddenly, the song breaks open as the instruments scatter and, there, standing in the clearing, it’s the ex. There are two direct references in the lyrics to this rival’s physical presence. Each is trailed by high siren calls from the strings, a sonic representation of the all-consuming fear Roy’s anticipated in this moment from the beginning of the song. This is identical to the way important characters in opera may have recurring musical themes or motifs accompanying their presence, especially when in epic conflict with other characters who have their own themes and motifs. Young love is intense.
The intro of Brenda Lee’s “Heart in Hand” teases a standard 1950s pop verse before her voice stomps into center stage and it becomes unclear whether or not she’s planning to actually rip out her own heart with her hand. She sings this song like it’s trying to kill her and, indeed, the music almost seems to sadistically toy with her, providing a place to stand only to disappear from beneath her feet, occasionally lifting her head but only to force her to look up and be reminded of how far she’s fallen. At the end, just before Brenda slips into recitation, the violin takes over her vocal melody, as if it knows she can’t last much longer. Then the music drops out completely in order to come back with her final note. These are dynamic choices. This is the Nashville Sound, produced by Owen Bradley in 1962, with Grady Martin, Harold Bradley and Ray Edenton on guitars, Bob Moore on bass, Buddy Harman on drums, Floyd Cramer playing piano and, if you listen very closely, Boots Randolph on saxophone. As recording artists, The Anita Kerr Singers had since moved from Decca to RCA but they still took session work and they’re here, too. (All these musicians were members of the Nashville A Team, the topic of this podcast’s next episode.) The biggest hits of Brenda Lee’s career were produced by Owen Bradley in the early 1960s. There is nothing country about them, which is why (following Owen’s promotion to head of Decca’s Nashville operations) the label didn’t ship the records to country radio, they weren’t played on country radio nor were they country hits. The genre lines were not even blurry enough to cross over to country radio after becoming major pop hits, which is what often happened in this era. Yet Brenda Lee’s biggest hits remain examples of the Nashville Sound, as influential on the city’s recording techniques and country music as everything else Owen Bradley did. Brenda Lee’s records are another of many reasons the Nashville Sound cannot be summed up as some bland, lifeless era in country music. There were bland, lifeless records created with the Nashville Sound (as is true of any “sound” in the history of the record industry) but its main architect and innovator created vibrant recordings, dynamic even when judged by modern standards. Owen Bradley and his Nashville Sound can not be reduced to and blamed for commercially-motivated attempts to piggyback on his masterpieces.
Compare Owen’s work on “Heart in Hand” with what Chet Atkins did the same year on Skeeter Davis’ “The End of the World.” This is a fair comparison to make. These songs have very similar chord progressions. Both have a bridge and a recitation. They share lyrical themes. Floyd Cramer, Buddy Harman, Bob Moore and The Anita Kerr Singers perform on both records. It’s easy to imagine two producers working in the same city at the same time with the same musicians on two very similar songs about the same thing would end up making a somewhat similar product. But the standard 1950s pop intro on “End of the World” is never subverted or transformed. It never becomes anything else. For a song about someone who’s surprised the entire planet hasn’t treated her broken heart like a stop sign, “End of the World” is almost military in its steady, rhythmic persistence. (The piano in particular is truly relentless.) The closest thing to a surprise happens when a pedal steel gently insinuates itself into the mix a couple times. The closest thing we get to tension is a little over halfway through, when all the instruments (even the piano) finally give the march a ten second rest… before starting right back up again. Where Brenda Lee sings “Heart in Hand” like she’s gonna die because there’s an Owen Bradley arrangement behind her, Skeeter Davis sings “End of the World” like she swallowed two Klonopin because there’s a Chet Atkins arrangement behind her. When Skeeter delivers the recitation, it sounds like a teacher has asked her to read out loud in front of a classroom. If you stripped Skeeter’s vocal from this record, everything you had left would be just as suitable for a song about a little kid’s pet goldfish swimming around in its bowl. Everything is subdued. Buddy Harman is definitely using brushes instead of sticks on his snare and Chet probably would have replaced the drum with a metronome if he thought he could get away with it. “End of the World” is heartache music for people who’ve either never had their heart broken or can’t handle being reminded of it. This safe, commercial product was a #2 pop hit. Comparatively, “Heart in Hand” is an emotionally dangerous record, it could easily ambush a person who’s had their heart broken and make it impossible for them to leave their house that day. It charted at #14. Since RCA shipped Skeeter Davis’ “End of the World” to country radio and promoted it as though it were a country product, it also hit #2 country. “End of the World” was such a big hit… Owen Bradley had Brenda Lee record a version in 1963. (It’s possible this was partly a response to how many people called out the change in Skeeter Davis’ sound after Owen had a #1 pop record in 1960 with Brenda Lee’s “I’m Sorry” and all the sudden Skeeter Davis records were drenched in strings.) Owen made no radical changes to the song structure or instrumentation on Brenda’s “End of the World.” He even had Buddy Harman use brushes on his drums. But this would be no military affair. Owen brought the tempo way down and made all the instruments do that “take turns lagging ever-so-slightly behind the beat” thing. Brenda, in particular, comes in almost aggressively late on most of her lines. The whole song drags, you know, as if the world may be about to end. Pay close attention to the piano part and, unlike the monotonous slog of Chet’s record, you’ll hear the individual notes played with varying force, like a child still learning to play scales or like the record is on a damaged turntable with a slight wobble. This sounds more like heartache. This record was not a hit.
Skeeter Davis cut her follow up single to “End of the World” in the same room with many of the same musicians but one enormous difference. Anita Kerr, who arranged the strings for “End of the World,” was given full control of the session. Now, Anita once told A-Team bassist Henry Strzelecki how frustrated she was with the major labels in Nashville because they wanted her vocal group on sessions and wanted her to arrange string parts but nobody would officially hire her in an A&R position and let her become a real producer. They gave her a session every now and then (even gave her label credit, sometimes) but nobody would give her the full-time job. A few years after this session, she sued her way out of the Anita Kerr Singers’ contract with RCA, broke up the group and moved to Los Angeles to see if it was any better out there. All of which is to say, there’s no telling why they let her produce “I’m Saving My Love.” Maybe Chet Atkins called in sick. But the difference between this and Skeeter’s previous record is mind-blowing. And either both records are examples of the Nashville Sound or the Nashville Sound is just what we call the Skeeter Davis singles we don’t like. Owen Bradley’s influence, here, is undeniable. Floyd Cramer’s piano part is lifted directly from what he played two years earlier on Patsy Cline’s “She’s Got You,” so we must have another sort of trance on our hands. Everything opens with a bolero-influenced drum breakdown, meaning Buddy Harman gets to actually hit his snare a few times before the verse falls into reverie. It’s clear from the jumpy beginning Skeeter won’t be going on another zombie walk but it does sound like she’s out on a bit of a melancholy stroll, dwelling on a past love. Then the chorus skips over to an entirely separate melody, so strong this record could easily have been taken apart into two different songs. When Skeeter starts singing about time – not that she’s waited but how long she’s waited – it’s almost like she’s now singing about a different person, her future person, the soulmate she’s awaited. For the first time in the song, another voice joins Skeeter’s and it’s her own voice, overdubbed, doubling her, mirroring her, beginning to pull her from this sad spell into the future, where the bolero builds… She briefly returns to the verse – singing the old words with new meaning, not faith but knowledge of what she’s foreseen – then the bolero pulls her forward in time, toward the voice, and the song ends as it began, only Skeeter is no longer alone. This is a piece with movement, a journey. This record was produced by Anita Kerr not to play it safe but for maximum dramatic effect in an obvious attempt to craft a record the way Owen Bradley would. It’s also a pop record, which RCA shipped and promoted as country. It hit the country Top 10 and barely missed the pop Top 40. A decent commercial success but much less of one than “End of the World.”
There was a market for what Chet Atkins did with the Nashville Sound, just like there’s always a market for the “safer” alternative to any trend. RCA and other major labels didn’t even have to go out of their way to create this alternative. All we’re talking about here is low sodium soy sauce. The leading brand doesn’t need to build a whole new factory to make low sodium soy sauce. It’s the same exact thing they’re already doing with some of the salt taken out and a different color bottle. If that’s what people want, no problem. Take out the salt and get it on the shelf. I don’t believe it’s fair to say, as many people do, Chet Atkins “hated” country music. Chet Atkins made a conscious business decision to provide the low sodium Nashville Sound and he caught so much shit for it he even apologized. In a 1976 issue of Rolling Stone magazine, after saying he hoped country music would never lose its whole identity, Chet said, “I apologized for anything I did in taking it too far uptown, which I sometimes did because we were just trying to sell records.” There are Chet Atkins productions we all enjoy, like Hank Locklin’s “Please Help Me I’m Falling” and Don Gibson’s “Oh, Lonesome Me.” When other major label suits in country music were wary of signing a Black man to a record deal, Chet Atkins took a chance on Charley Pride, as unadulterated a country voice as you will ever hear. And it’s definitely not Chet Atkins’ fault so many people have said so many erroneous things about him and his career. But, all of that being said, it would take a while to tell the story of every legendary artist who only found lasting success after struggling against and winning their freedom from Chet Atkins’ one-size-fits-all production methods. Bobby Bare, Waylon Jennings and Porter Wagoner are only a few. Because the thing about Chet Atkins is he either didn’t hear or didn’t care to hear when an individual singer couldn’t fit the mold he had in mind for them. Artists didn’t have this problem with Owen Bradley. He understood country records and pop records are created in the studio, not later, when the label decides it’d be easier to launch a pop product by following the old rock & roll formula of exploiting country music markets. Owen understood the sauce should be chosen to complement the entree of singer and song. There are no one-sauce-fits-all solutions, which is a lesson Owen learned at the beginning of the 1950s…
In December 1950, Eddy Arnold and his band went into RCA’s New York City studio and cut a version of Bill Monroe’s “Kentucky Waltz.” Bill Monroe was on Decca, so when someone at his label (probably Paul Cohen) heard about Eddy Arnold cutting a Bill Monroe song in a New York City session, they had the bright idea to beat Eddy to the punch by getting Bill Monroe to cut a new version of “Kentucky Waltz” using the modern instrumentation they assumed would be on RCA’s record. So Bill Monroe went to Castle with his mandolin but without his band to record with Owen Bradley’s studio guys. If you need proof this wasn’t a normal Bill Monroe session, they had Farris Coursey there to play drums. Jimmy Selph and Grady Martin were on guitars and Grady switched to fiddle in the middle of songs to double Tommy Jackson’s fiddle parts. Owen Bradley played organ. The results sound a lot like circus music. The best thing captured in these sessions was probably “Prisoner’s Song” but the fact is Bill Monroe just doesn’t fit into honky tonk arrangements. His sound is so unique, the musical equivalent of putting soy sauce on vanilla ice cream, it’s unsettling to hear him attempt being anything else. Other than a couple of Christmas songs cut later in the year, Bill Monroe was subsequently allowed to run his own sessions. And once Owen Bradley was put in charge of Decca, Bill Monroe got to do whatever he wanted. “Dark as the Night, Blue as the Day” was recorded in January 1959 in the Quonset Hut. Those still seeking a practical definition will note the only morsel of Nashville Sound on this tape is the room where it was made because to Owen Bradley, “producing” Bill Monroe meant leaving him and the Bluegrass Boys to do whatever they were going to do in the studio. But none of his other artists were Bill Monroe, which is why nearly everything Owen did after Castle was torn down is an example of the Nashville Sound.
Most of Owen’s sessions came with a set of questions he needed to ask and answer ahead of time, like “is this a country singer or a pop singer?” and “is this potentially a country hit or potentially a pop hit?” As we’ve heard, it’s often the case these questions weren’t either/or. For example, “Don’t Touch Me,” written by Hank Cochran in 1966. This is obviously a country song, dealing as directly with mature emotional and sexual feelings as Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It through the Night” would do a few years later. By 1966, Hank Cochran had written country hits for Patsy Cline, Ray Price and Johnny PayCheck. He wrote “Don’t Touch Me” for his girlfriend, Jeannie Seely, and she recorded it in her first session for Monument, produced by Fred Foster with Floyd Cramer on piano, Charlie McCoy on bass and Buddy Harman on drums. Just to recap, this is a producer who we already know was inclined to focus on his artist’s voice, leaving the music to the musicians; this is Patsy Cline’s piano player, harmonica player and drummer; and this is a song by the author of “She’s Got You” and co-author of “I Fall to Pieces.” There is no universe where these guys don’t try to make a Patsy Cline record in this session. To be clear, at no point does Jeannie Seely attempt to sing like Patsy Cline. What she does is her own thing and it’s great. But the arrangement and production are an undisguised tribute to Owen Bradley’s work with Patsy Cline. The pre-tape rundown may as well have been a 45 of “I Fall to Pieces” played at 33rpm. As soon as he heard Jeannie sing “Don’t Touch Me” on the radio, Owen Bradley understood what it was and scheduled a session to cover it. This was obviously a pop song, written by Hank Cochran, who’d by this time written pop hits for Patsy Cline, Eddy Arnold and Burl Ives. The lyrics were about a search for commitment on the dating scene but phrased simply enough for mass consumption. For example, the clumsy little pop line “to have you then lose you wouldn’t be smart on my part” was probably only there to create a rhyme with the word “sweetheart.” A few years earlier, Owen signed Wilma Burgess to Decca because he thought her voice had a similar quality to Patsy Cline’s, in that it wouldn’t be out of place on country or pop radio. Aside from signing to Patsy’s record label to work with Patsy’s producer, musicians and songwriters, Wilma Burgess had also recently purchased Patsy Cline’s house in Nashville. It’s safe to assume she didn’t miss any of the references to Patsy in the Jeannie Seely record. Around the time Owen signed Wilma to Decca, he sold his studios at 804 16th Avenue to Columbia Records. In 1965, Owen opened Bradley’s Barn, an actual barn converted to a studio on his land outside Nashville. But when he booked the session to cover “Don’t Touch Me,” even though he had a whole new studio in his backyard, Owen rented the Quonset Hut from Columbia Records, in order to use the same room he’d used with Patsy Cline, to make the record Owen would have made with Patsy if she was still alive to sing the song. It’s a testament to the versatility of the Nashville A-Team that several of the same musicians played on both the Jeannie Seely and Wilma Burgess records. Buddy Emmons’ pedal steel parts are the most remarkable points of contrast. His playing behind Jeannie is tasteful, weaving in and out of a slow country song, as he’d done so many times. Behind Wilma, his instrument is barely recognizable. You could easily convince someone they’re hearing a theremin or synthesizer, especially since the background vocals sound like they were arranged by Brian Wilson for the Pet Sounds sessions… Only, this was recorded two months before Pet Sounds came out and once we notice the dream sequence rhythm guitars shimmering atop tic-tac bass – tropes used by Owen for a decade by this point – it’s maybe time to start asking how many Owen Bradley records Brian Wilson listened to in his room. There’s honestly no telling what instructions or reference points Owen gave his musicians to get these sounds on “Don’t Touch Me.” It may have been as simple as telling them to imagine a door to heaven opened up in the middle of the room. Jeannie Seely’s country record snuck into the pop Hot 100 at #85 and went #1 country everywhere except Billboard, where it’s possible Wilma’s smaller hit cut into Jeannie’s action and kept her out of #1. Wilma’s single went #12 country and did nothing on the pop chart. Wilma’s “Misty Blue,” recorded in the same Quonset Hut session, came out six months later. It was a Top 5 country song, still nothing on the pop charts. But the low-sodium version Chet Atkins produced for Eddy Arnold came out the following year, hit #57 on the Hot 100 and went #3 country, despite featuring zero elements of country music whatsoever.
It’s easy to see how the Nashville Sound and Chet Atkins’ role within it came to be so widely misunderstood when Chet’s “safer” alternative regularly outsold and out-charted Owen’s source material. (It’s like Owen used to say to Whisperin’ Bill Anderson: “Remember, vanilla still outsells all those thirty-one other flavors of ice cream.”) And Chet Atkins’ massive success with vanilla, of course, inspired other producers to create their own variations on the flavor, leading to more of the safer alternative than exists of the original source material. So the takeaway for most casual listeners and fans and writers who came to town after Owen Bradley left Music Row becomes something like “the Nashville Sound is what it’s called when record labels try to sell Frank Sinatra music on country radio,” which leads to endless debates over how much pop should be allowed in country, which is an argument about genre, which has nothing to do with the production techniques of the Nashville Sound. It’s like arguing over what genre a guitar is. Genre is determined not by the presence of a guitar but by the way it is used. The Nashville Sound is determined not by the genre of music but by a systematically-applied style of record production. We’ll get into more of these particulars during the next episode but the Nashville Sound is in the way instruments are arranged, played, mic’d and mixed for a record. If the Nashville Sound were a genre, it would be possible to reproduce in a live setting. An artist can bring the instrumentation and arrangement from any Nashville Sound record to the stage and their audience may leave having seen and heard a wonderful performance of songs they know from Nashville Sound records but they will not have heard the Nashville Sound itself coming from the stage. Ray Price was one of the very few country artists to ever hire a string section for his touring band in an attempt to produce even an approximation of his Nashville Sound records. John Anderson is the only country artist I’ve ever heard of hiring a full-time baritone guitarist for his touring band purely to recreate tic tac bass. The reason for this is simple: the Nashville Sound is the inverse of the Bakersfield Sound. In Bakersfield, bands needed to be heard over the crowd in loud, rowdy venues, so a sound evolved which was then translated to records. In Nashville, Owen Bradley and his favorite studio musicians standardized a collection of production techniques and practices for making records, thereby creating a sound that lives only on records. These techniques can be (and were) used to record different genres of music and some producers did use the Nashville Sound to pull country music in a pop direction. But it’s just as fair to say Owen Bradley pulled pop music in a country direction both with the far-reaching influence of his work and with the work itself.
In the early 1960s, country songwriter Harlan Howard was in a meeting with Owen when Harlan brought up a rock & roll singer he knew who secretly wanted to record country music but nobody would let him. After listening to a tape, Owen Bradley signed Conway Twitty to Decca and became his producer. In 1965, “Together Forever” was released as Conway’s first Decca single. You know you’re in for undiluted country music when it kicks off pretending to be a cover of Buck Owens’ smash hit from the year before, “Together Again.” Owen produced Conway Twitty until 1979. They made over 30 Top Five country singles together, 20 of which hit #1. Even as mainstream pop absorbed disco sounds and those influences made their way into the Nashville Sound, many of Conway’s hits (like “I See the Want to in Your Eyes”) remained unapologetically country. Shit, they were recorded in a Barn. Looking at Owen Bradley’s career from beginning to end, we see a journey toward country music, not away from it. Say we’re able to forget his co-writing credit on “Night Train to Memphis” and ignore all his early years with Ernest Tubb, Red Foley, Webb Pierce and Hank Williams. We can pretend he was just cashing paychecks and hated every second of it. Wipe the entire slate clean of everything before he took over at Decca and Owen Bradley still signed a rock singer to help him make country music. And the only reason Loretta Lynn’s name hasn’t come up yet is we’re talking about her in the next episode. Owen Bradley was never interested in trying to force a square peg into a round hole. He was there to serve the artist, the material and the sound. Owen was there to make something cooler than cool.
Thank you for reading this transcript of Cocaine & Rhinestones. Every episode is written and produced by me, Tyler Mahan Coe. If you enjoyed learning about Owen Bradley’s influence on basically everything that happened in Nashville in the second half of the 20th century, please talk about this episode on whatever platforms are available to you. This is an entirely independent podcast which owes its existence to word-of-mouth recommendations, so just talking about the show is a great way to help me keep doing this. If anyone you know doesn’t like listening to podcasts or hates the sound of my voice but you think they would be interested in these important pieces of music history, you can send them here to this post.
For everyone who hasn’t seen it yet, there is now official podcast merch available. You can get a few different versions of the beautiful show artwork on t-shirts or a hoodie. There are also currently stickers, a tote bag and a koozie up for pre-order. I know a lot of people dislike preordering things but launching the store with preorders is the only way to ensure as many people as possible get the designs they like without everything selling out right away. Please note the only way to make sure you get an item you want is by placing a pre-order. All the designs currently in the store will be manufactured but I have no way to predict how fast inventory will sell out once the initial runs are in stock and we will only be restocking the most popular designs. Here, too, I have no way of predicting which designs those will be. If there’s something you know you want but you’re trying to wait until it’s “in stock” rather than a pre-order, you do run the risk of it selling out and the item may never come back.
I do make a small profit from merchandise but if you don’t need another t-shirt and you’d still like to do more for the show, hands down the best way to help is by becoming a patron. Season 2 would not be happening without the support of everyone who’s signed up for the Patreon at any point, even if only to give $5 or $10 for one or two months – every little bit helps. You can choose an amount to donate every month or receive a discounted membership by paying for a year in advance. Either way, patrons receive a monthly post documenting my work on and around the show as well as ad-free versions of new episodes as they come out.
As you already read, when the podcast returns it will be with an episode on the Nashville A-Team. These episodes are really two sides of the same coin. There’s no way to talk about Owen Bradley without talking about the A-Team and there’s no way to talk about the A-Team without talking about Owen Bradley. Just as we did here, we’re going to cover a lot of ground, correct a lot of misunderstandings and hear more about some of the best music ever made by some of the greatest artists of all time.
This episode featured excerpts from the following songs, in this order [with links to purchase or stream where available]:
- Little Richard – “Tutti Frutti” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Slim & Slam – “Tutti Frutti” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Roy Acuff – “Wabash Cannonball” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Tommy Dorsey’s Orchestra w/ Frank Sinatra – “I’ll Never Smile Again” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Roy Acuff – “Night Train to Memphis” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Brad Brady & His Tennesseans – “Zeb’s Mountain Boogie” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Elton Britt – “Wave to Me My Lady” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Hank Williams – “Never Again (Will I Knock on Your Door)” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Francis Craig – “Near You” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Ernest Tubb & Red Foley – “Love Bug Itch” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Ferlin Husky – “Gone” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Jim Reeves – “Four Walls” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Jimmy C. Newman – “A Fallen Star” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Sonny James – “Young Love” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Webb Pierce – “Slowly” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Mel Tillis – “Jukebox Man” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Sons of the Pioneers – “Cool Water” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Vaughn Monroe Orchestra w/ Sons of the Pioneers – “Cool Water” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Vaughn Monroe – “Riders in the Sky” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Gene Autry – “Riders in the Sky” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Dick Thomas – “I’ve Got Spurs (Jingle Jangle Jingle)” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Kay Kyser & His Orchestra – “(I’ve Got Spurs That) Jingle Jangle Jingle” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Roy Rogers – “Don’t Fence Me In” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Bing Crosby & The Andrews Sisters – “Don’t Fence Me In” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Gene Autry – “Don’t Fence Me In” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Ennio Morricone – The Big Gundown, seconda caccia [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Gene Autry – “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Sons of the Pioneers – “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- The Ink Spots – “If I Didn’t Care” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Marty Robbins – “Singing the Blues” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Guy Mitchell – “Singing the Blues” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Marty Robbins – “A White Sport Coat (And a Pink Carnation)” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Bobby Helms – “Jingle Bell Rock” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Bobby Helms – “My Special Angel” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Bobby Helms – “Just a Little Lonesome” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Ernest Tubb & Red Foley – “Kentucky Waltz” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Ernest Tubb & Red Foley – “The Strange Little Girl” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Patsy Cline – “Walkin’ After Midnight” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Patsy Cline – “I Fall to Pieces” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- The Rembrandts – “I’ll Be There for You” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Patsy Cline – “She’s Got You” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Patsy Cline – “Crazy” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Hank Garland – “Sugarfoot Rag” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Red Foley – “Sugarfoot Rag” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Red Foley – “Chattanoogie Shoeshine Boy” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Grady Martin & The Slewfoot Five – “Slewfoot Rag” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Elvis Presley – “Little Sister” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Roy Orbison – “Running Scared” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Brenda Lee – “Heart in Hand” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Skeeter Davis – “The End of the World” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Brenda Lee – “I’m Sorry” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Brenda Lee – “The End of the World” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Skeeter Davis – “I’m Saving My Love” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Eddy Arnold – “Kentucky Waltz” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Bill Monroe – “Kentucky Waltz” (re-recording) [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Bill Monroe – “Prisoner’s Song” (re-recording) [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Bill Monroe – “Dark as the Night, Blue as the Day” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Jeannie Seely – “Don’t Touch Me” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Wilma Burgess – “Don’t Touch Me” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Wilma Burgess – “Misty Blue” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Eddy Arnold – “Misty Blue” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Conway Twitty – “Together Forever” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Conway Twitty – “I See the Want to in Your Eyes” [Amazon / Apple Music]
These videos were excerpted in the episode. For any number of reasons, YouTube may remove them in the future but here they are for now:
Commentary and Remaining Sources
I know this entire podcast and especially episodes like this really sound as though you’re just listening to me go off on my own ideas about the history of country music, so I’m going to remind everyone of something I said in Season 1: receiving all this information through the medium of my words does not mean you’re reading my personal opinions unless I directly state that is the case. Even when I do state something is my opinion, like the practical definition of Nashville Sound given in this episode, that opinion is nearly always based on having deeply researched the perspectives of the people responsible for creating whatever I’m talking about. My “opinion” is not something I have fabricated out of thin air. It’s me agreeing with people who I believe were in the best position to speak with authority on any given topic, which belief is a product of the years I spent researching the topic in order to present you with the perspective of the people who were actually there when all of this happened. In this case, that’s the artists and producers and studio musicians working in Nashville at the time, often the originators of these concepts and even the terms themselves, which then become distorted through popular misunderstanding and misuse by people who really have no idea what they’re talking about and no authority to speak on the matter. So, yes, you’re receiving these perspectives as I’ve chosen to communicate them but I am 100% always trying to represent the thoughts and beliefs of important historical figures, not whatever random ideas I would like to be true.
I do know low-sodium products are not inherently safer for everyone to consume but that’s the way they’re often packaged and thought of, which is the mentality my analogy was borrowing.
A few more random things:
The train whistle sound in “Wabash Cannonball” really does come from Roy Acuff’s throat. It’s not any kind of trick or fakery. Train whistle imitations kind of used to be a thing. I’ve seen people do it in person but I have no idea how it’s done.
On the topic of Owen Bradley caring about his artists’ identities shining through the work, I should mention I’m aware of the story about Buddy Holly’s disastrous sessions for Decca in Nashville and that Jerry Allison of The Crickets tells the story like Owen Bradley really didn’t give a shit about anything other than being late to go water skiing… But that part of the story has never really made any sense to me because there isn’t a single other story like this about Owen Bradley. There’s not one other story of him trying to rush through a recording session to go be somewhere else. The reality is he could go water skiing whenever he wanted. There’s also the matter of this quote attributed to Jerry Allison: “Back on those dates I don’t even remember which guy was Paul Cohen and which guy was Owen Bradley or who the engineers were. It was like, they were the biggies and we were just dips. We didn’t groove with them or anything.” Since we have the source for this story point-blank on record as not really knowing who the hell they’re talking about, I think it’s entirely plausible Paul Cohen was actually the person in the studio who wanted to get out of there to go water-skiing, especially when you consider he could not go water-skiing in a Nashville area lake whenever he wanted because he flew down from New York for the session. And there’s the tape recording of Paul Cohen being a complete bastard to Buddy Holly about not letting Buddy out of his recording contract. This whole story is almost always told from a rockist perspective which positions Nashville studio players and producers as not really knowing anything about rock and roll. If this and the next episode aren’t enough to prove that’s one of the most ignorant takes imaginable, definitely go listen to the first Johnny Burnette & The Rock and Roll Trio album because that’s definitely Grady Martin playing guitar and probably Bob Moore on bass.
A little connection between this episode and the previous one, the band backing up Burl Ives on his version of “Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves” was Grady Martin and the Slewfoot Five.
As for my sources, other than the main reference books from The Library, I don’t have many…
I gave Michael Kosser’s How Nashville Became Music City USA a shoutout because that’s where I got the Norbert Putnam story and it’s probably the best single book from the Library for anyone particularly interested in this episode and the next.
The main book used for the Ernest Tubb episode in Season 1 was a source again here. That’s Air Castle of the South, Craig Havighurst’s great history of WSM. What I said in this episode about WSM not being a country station for most of its 20th century existence is why that book isn’t on the Library page but it will continue to be a source anytime WSM plays a big part in a story.
There’s the already mentioned 1964 issue of Music Business magazine and the 1976 Rolling Stone interview with Chet Atkins.
Other than that, a lot of this episode was just me talking about records from the perspectives of all the people involved in making them, which is informed by the books on the Library page and my time spent in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum archives. (Actually, that’s maybe an important thing to point out: how often the records themselves are the main source for episodes the show. If you know what you’re looking at and take the time to track down all the threads, there’s a lot of story hiding in the artists who recorded certain songs and when and to what degree of success, which all ties into larger career moves and industry trends and so on.)
As for all the ice stuff at the beginning, I did read a book called Chilled: How Refrigeration Changed the World and Might Do So Again by Tom Jackson. But the bulk of that book is really about the technology itself and the science of refrigeration and ice manufacturing, which I didn’t really even get into. A lot of what I put together in the intro around ice cream came from more general research on the dates of inventions and Howard Johnson and all the things I talked about. The narrative in this intro was constructing more from that raw data.
Okay, I’ll be back in a couple weeks with more on the Nashville A-Team, the Nashville Sound, and how Music Row ties into the larger histories of pop, rock and country music.