Cataloging the city’s too-long-forgotten R&B history, the Country Music Hall of Fame’s “Night Train to Nashville” exhibit has been a revelation, a glimpse into a city that once rocked with abandon and blasted that galvanizing energy across the nation via the 50,000-watt AM beacon WLAC. The two-CD compilation Night Train to Nashville: Music City Rhythm & Blues, 1945-1970 has brought the exhibit further to life, charting the jump blues, R&B and deep Southern soul that erupted from North Nashville’s nightclubs and the city’s recording studios. When the museum debuted the exhibit and the disc in May 2004, it was a momentous occasion, as musicians, some of them retired for decades, emerged to find that there was an audience—young, old, black, white—overjoyed to receive them.
In the months since, the CMF has staged a series of live “Night Train to Nashville” showcases at the museum and at B.B. King’s Blues Club, each building on the excitement generated by the exhibit. Now comes a second double-disc collection compiling still more recordings from the city’s R&B heyday. A casual listener might wonder how much more might be wrought from this chapter of local history, but as with most any historical inquiry, the further you get into it, the more you find that the possibilities are boundless. The musicians’ stories overlap, intersect and converge, and the amount of music they made is seemingly inexhaustible. The biggest R&B labels in town—Ernie Young’s Excello Records, John Richbourg’s Sound Stage 7, and the family of labels that served as a platform for local producer Ted Jarrett’s outstanding work—each released enough music on their own to warrant a multi-disc reissue series.
If the first Night Train CD tells a story, following Nashville as it moves from the postwar years through the civil rights era, charting moments of optimism, heartbreak, striving and determination, the second volume fleshes out that story in greater detail, allowing us to burrow deeper into a thriving corner of the city. Unlike the country music industry, which drew performers from all over the South and beyond, the city’s R&B scene cohered around a nexus of people who either grew up here or settled here to make their way however they could. Living in the North Nashville neighborhoods that surrounded Jefferson Street, the musicians formed a tightly knit community; they literally moved among each other every day, sharing the same players, working with the same producers, gigging on the same stages. No wonder that the Hall of Fame’s “Night Train” events have had the feel of a big homecoming.
Many of the people featured on the first volume reappear here. A gutsy singer who started performing in her teens, Christine Kittrell affirms herself with a swagger in “I’m a Woman,” a song she swears that Leiber and Stoller wrote just for her before Peggy Lee made a bigger hit out of it. In a howl so pained it sounds as though he’s on the verge of breaking down, Roscoe Shelton wrings every bit of ache from “Strain on My Heart.” In a nice bit of sequencing, Arthur Alexander (“Soldier of Love”) and Earl Gaines (“Don’t Take My Kindness for a Weakness”) send out peacemaking messages to wayward lovers; the songs are perfectly suited to the singers, whose voices possess a warmth that runs through all of their work. Gene Allison isn’t so patient with his gal in “If Things Don’t Change,” but despite the lyrics, we can hear in his own voice the same sweet-natured guy who would later sing “You Can Make It if You Try” and “Have Faith.”
The CD also has its share of famous names who passed through Nashville and made their mark, however briefly, on the city—Ivory Joe Hunter, Clyde McPhatter, Esther Phillips—but the more captivating moments belong to the people we’ve never heard of, the musicians who circulated among the city’s nightclubs and recording studios, but never reached the same level of notoriety. Singer Willie Lee Patton and drummer Charlie Dowell performed in a revue at the Bijou Theater on Fourth Avenue, and their “Wail Daddy,” on which they’re backed by Dowell’s horn-powered orchestra, is the very first R&B single on Excello Records, from 1952. With only the aid of a small, 1940s-era photo of Patton in the CD booklet, the song conjures a rollicking feel for what the neighborhood at the foot of Capitol Hill must’ve been like before urban renewal cleared out the slums and nightclubs and houses of ill repute that once sat there.
Few songs on the collection, though, fire the imagination as vividly as Billie McAllister’s “31 E. Blues,” also from 1952. Little is known about this singer, save for the fact that he was from Hopkinsville, Ky., and frequently performed dressed as a woman. Sure, the song fascinates us because we’re hearing an openly transgendered voice from a time when we’re not used to hearing them, but it’s also rooted in a specific place: our own. McAllister sings of traveling down the highway that snakes through Kentucky before it hits town and turns into Gallatin Road, and once he crosses the Cumberland, he’s searching around Fourth Avenue—on that same strip where the Bijou stood—in search of his lover man. Where does McAllister find him? On Charlotte, with whiskey in his hand. The low, mournful horns and ambling piano behind the singer complete the picture for us.
The second volume of Night Train to Nashville is just as invaluable because it lets us hear some of the performers who continued to toil on the local club circuit long after the glory days chronicled on the CD. Foremost among these is Marion James, organizer of the annual Musicians’ Reunion concert, an ongoing Labor Day tradition that pays tribute to the history of Jefferson Street and the people who helped make it. On “That’s My Man,” a 1966 single on Excello, she’s backed by a band that featured bassist Billy Cox and guitarist Johnny Jones (another persevering presence in Nashville’s R&B scene), and their thumping groove suits the song beautifully—it’s about sticking it out with a no-good, two-timing man because she knows in her heart it’s the right thing to do.
James is one of the performers who’ll take the stage at 3 p.m. this Saturday when the Country Music Hall of Fame celebrates the release of the CD. In the museum’s Ford Theater, she’ll be backed once more by Johnny Jones and joined by many of the musicians who also share the track listing: Earl Gaines, Hal Hardy of the vocal group The Neptunes, Frank Howard, Herbert Hunter, Sandra King, Charles “Wigg” Walker and others. Together, with some of their fellow musicians in the crowd, and the photos and artifacts featured in the exhibit, they’ll do what the Country Music Hall of Fame has always done at its best: they’ll render history palpable. And maybe, the next time we round James Robertson Parkway or head down Jefferson Street, we’ll better be able to make out the shadows of the city that once stood there.