Fifty pages into The Nashville Sound, Bright Lights and Country Music, I had backed up about 60 years. My grandmother was streaming Tops strawberry snuff into a Maxwell House Coffee jar before saying, “Honey, shhhhhhhhhh!” I knew to drag my skinny feet on the sweaty concrete floor to stop the front-porch swing’s creaking. It was another Saturday night, and Nanny’s ears were tuned to the crackling sound of her AM radio. WSM was bringing us “live from Nashville, Tenn.,” the Grand
Hank Williams hadn’t been dead long, but his music and influence were still very much alive. One of Nanny’s favorites was Hank’s Kawlija. Over and over I’d beg her to play it one more time on her parlor’s Wurlitzer upright piano. She couldn’t read a note, but she could pound those 88 keys and make me pat my foot.
I can’t say I was smitten—at that early age—with the nasal twang of country music. But as I read Paul Hemphill’s 45-year-old book that was just reprinted by UGA Press, I gained a new appreciation for Kitty Wells, Porter Wagoner, Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, Tex Ritter, Lefty Frizzell, George Jones and Bill Monroe. And thinking about Minnie Pearl’s “howdeeeeeee” and the price tag dangling from her hat still makes me laugh.
Taste in music is akin to taste in food. You know what you like. There’s some of today’s music that you can’t force on me, but I respect everyone’s right to listen to whatever pleases his or her musical taste buds. The Chicago Sun-Times acclaimed Hemphill’s work as “the best book ever written about country music.” No doubt, The Nashville Sound was educational for me.
For the longest time, I had accused Garth Brooks of steering country music down the pop-rock path. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy Garth’s music, but I was wrong. Hemphill set me straight. He gives some of the credit to an “apple-cheeked country boy from Delight, Ark.,” who “sure didn’t sound country to people who always thought country music was an ear-splitting concoction of Ah-luv-yew’s and whiny steel guitars and scratchy fiddles.” He was talking about “Gentle on My Mind” Glen Campbell. Dementia has claimed Campbell’s short-term memory, but it cannot take away his significant role in country music’s transition.
When I drove back to UGA in 1968, I was riding in a new Dodge. I was proud of the green vinyl-topped white Coronet 440 that Pope Henry had sold me off Billie Clanton’s lot. I really liked what was hanging under the dash—an 8-track tape player. My first tape to roll was Johnny Cash’s “Live at Folsom Prison.” Hemphill gives you a good look at the Man in Black. That caused a flashback to the time I watched Cash perform one of his Christmas shows in Ryman Auditorium, the original home of the Opry.
The Nashville Sound is a roll call of country music legends. I particularly liked the “Whispering” Bill Anderson chapter. Raised in Decatur, Anderson came to the University of Georgia and worked as a radio DJ in between classes. The late Randolph Holder, then owner of WNGC, once told me that he fired Anderson for ignoring orders and playing country music on his Athens station.
Later both men laughed—all the way to the bank. Anderson became a multimillionaire singer-songwriter in Nashville, and Holder sold his converted-to-country radio station for megamillions.
Today, the preset buttons on my truck’s satellite radio are programmed for six stations: 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, Prime Country, Y2 Kountry and Willie’s (as in Nelson) Roadhouse. Primarily, I bounce back and forth from Beach Music (1950s and 1960s) to Prime Country (1980s and 1990s). Those are my favorites.
When I sample some of the newer country music, I drift back to that 1950s porch swing and imagine what my often irreverent and sharp-tongued granny would have to say about 2015’s version of the “Nashville Sound.” After a few blaring bars of rock music that calls itself country, she’d hiss, “If that’s country music, Honey, my bleep is a bass fiddle.”