Nation's heart has a country beat Nashville: Music City, U.S.A. is the capital of a $2 billion-a-year industry that collects one-sixth of the U.S. music dollar.

Sun Journal

September 06, 1996|By James Bock | James Bock,SUN STAFF

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Venture into Music City, U.S.A. not knowing a pedal steel from Bethlehem Steel or a rhinestone from a gallstone, and you wonder: Can country music reveal to an outlander the secret of its appeal?

Something about country music clearly touches the American soul. It is a $2 billion-a-year industry, if catching twangy guitars and plaintive laments on tape and selling the results can be termed an industry.

And Nashville is as much the capital of "country" as Washington is the capital of the nation.

If Nashville has a Smithsonian, it is the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

It is the gateway to Music Row, a dozen square blocks that house the heart of country. The recorded torrent of sound that pours from Music Row's sleek office buildings and renovated 1920s cottages captures one-sixth of the U.S. music dollar, second only to rock 'n' roll.

The museum, like Music Row itself, is surprisingly modest. A low-slung brick building built around an A-frame core, it draws 225,000 visitors a year.

"Nine times out of 10, people are pleasantly surprised," says marketing director Karen Johnson. "They find we do wear shoes."

"For your $9.95," says a museum employee in a sugar-coated drawl, you get admission to the hall of fame and museum, an "insiders' trolley tour" of Music Row and entry to RCA's Studio B, where such classics as Elvis Presley's "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" and the Everly Brothers' "All I Have to Do is Dream" were recorded.

On the trolley (really a bus), our guide Georgianne propagates one enduring myth of country music: Anybody can write a hit song, and anybody can become a star.

Here's where Roger Miller was a $25-a-week songwriter until "King of the Road" made him rich.

Here's where Kris Kristofferson worked as a janitor until he wrote "Help Me Make It Through the Night."

Here's where Garth Brooks gave all his managers Jaguars for Christmas.

"All right, get busy now and write your songs," Georgianne says cheerily. "You never know when you'll be discovered on Music Row."

The museum itself is less starry-eyed, although you can gawk at Elvis' 1960 "solid-gold" Cadillac Fleetwood or his 24-karat gold-leaf piano (a surprise anniversary present from Priscilla in 1968).

Country music has been a slickly packaged product since the 1920s.

It was then that the Grand Ole Opry, a radio "barn dance" sponsored by the National Life and Accident Insurance Co. on Nashville's WSM, began to turn country into a national phenomenon.

The Opry homogenized the austere harmonies and scratchings of plain American folk on fiddle, guitar, steel guitar and banjo into mass entertainment.

George D. Hay, the Indiana-born WSM program director who named the Opry, created a Southern-rooted image of country music that still persists.

He put performers in folksy costumes, gave Opry string bands names like the Fruit Jar Drinkers or the Possum Hunters, and advised musicians to "keep it down to earth."

"The Grand Ole Opry is as simple as sunshine," Hay once said. "It has a universal appeal because it is built upon goodwill and with folk music expresses the heartbeat of a large percentage of Americans who labor for a living."

WSM grew from 1,000 watts in 1925 to 50,000 watts in 1932, and it was heard from the East Coast to the Rockies. In 1939, the Opry was first aired on the NBC network.

From 1925 to 1940, the value of National Life's policies quadrupled.

In the 1950s, producers such as Chet Atkins adorned country melodies with strings and backup vocals, creating the Nashville Sound as an alternative to rock.

The audience grew.

Today, the United States has more than 2,000 country radio stations, and the Nashville Network has made the music a fixture on cable.

"An essential part of country music is the idea that it's traditional or authentic, grounded in people's experience rather than being the artifact of an industry," says Richard A. Peterson, a Vanderbilt University sociology professor who studies country.

Peterson, the author of the forthcoming "Fabricating Authenticity: Creating Country Music," to be published next year by University of Chicago Press, believes that country music runs in cycles that swing from "hard-core" to "soft-shell."

He says hard-core country singers, such as Hank Williams and Loretta Lynn, tell you their own stories in unadorned fashion; soft-shell crooners, such as Vince Gill and Barbara Mandrell, put across a slicker rendition that isn't essential to who they are.

In the past few years, Peterson believes country music has been soft-shell.

Country has sounded more like pop, often like 1970s rock with a twang, and attracted some younger listeners disaffected with grunge and rap.

Peterson expects a swing back to hard-core.

"What is country music?" Peterson asks. "It's whatever they're playing on the radio."

Even in the pop-flavored 1990s, some country commandments endure:

No gerund shall end in "g" (e.g. pickin' and singin').

The word "can't" shall be pronounced "cain't."

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