Music has always played a vital role in the cultural fabric of both Memphis and Nashville. While the easiest point of demarcation for many observers is to peg Memphis as the home of the blues and Nashville as the country-music mecca, the truth is a lot more complex. Both cities were also home to distinctive jazz and gospel performers, both made inroads during the ’50s and ’60s in R&B and soul, and both had their share of country artists as well. In short, both cities were ripe breeding grounds for many forms of American popular music.
In the end, the difference between these two Tennessee towns may lie in how they’ve come to identify themselves. As the home of Al Green and Booker T. and the MGs, Memphis is deeply connected to its black-music legacythough it took the city a while to acknowledge and celebrate that history. These days, thanks to its substantial black population, which is now slightly in the majority, very few cultural events in Memphisfrom symphony performances to Memphis in May to street festivalsare organized without African American input.
Part of this can be attributed to social factors: The election of Mayor Willie Herenton, who is black, forever signaled the effective end of the segregationist, cotton-belt mentality in the Bluff Cityat least in terms of public policy. And a corresponding spill-over has been that blues, soul, jazz, gospel, and R&B are recognized as the foundation of the Memphis music legacy. From the statue of W.C. Handy in the park that bears his name, to the city’s numerous blues-oriented clubs and venues, Memphis’ past glories are very much part of the city’s here-and-now.
Nashville, as the nexus for the country music industry, has maintained a completely distinct identity, thanks to the Country Music Foundation, the Grand Ole Opry, and WSM-650AM. Obvious as that might be, it’s an interesting point when you consider that the city has essentially ignored its own significant role in the development of the R&B genredespite its own sizable African American population. During the late ’50s and into the ’60s, WLAC-1510AM was without question the nation’s most influential R&B outlet; after dark, the station’s clear-channel signal boomed the voices of deejays Hoss Allen and John (“John R.”) Richbourg to thousands of listeners across the country.
As the first broadcast institution to spread music to the masses, and one that remains vital even today, radio may well embody the core differences between Memphis and Nashvilleespecially when it comes to African American musical traditions (which, it can easily be argued, form the bedrock of modern American pop music). During the 1950s and ’60s, WLAC-AM and Memphis’ WDIA-1070AM were both broadcasting giants. WDIA-AM was the among the nation’s first outlets to devote its entire format to black popular music, and the first to have African American broadcasters on staff. Nat D. Williams, B.B. King, Rufus Thomas, and many others demonstrated an original flair, wit, and personality that helped attract young black and white listeners alike. Whether they were making up poems on the spot or urging their listeners to stay in school, these deejays made WDIA the true pulse of Memphis.
Though it wasn’t much a part of the city’s culture of recording studios and publishing houses, WLAC in its way represented Nashville’s growing role as a national music center. Due to its powerful signal, and to the sponsorship of a couple of local mail-order record outletsErnie’s Record Shop and Randy’s Record Martthe station was such a force that deejays Allen, John R., and Gene Nobles were able to turn a record into a hit, based solely on WLAC airplay. They helped break, among other artists, James Brown, Joe Simon, and even local performers like Clifford Curry and Robert Knight.
Interestingly, both these stations were united in one thing: They were powerful enough that they acted as agents of social change. Because their audiences consisted of both black and white listeners, they helped pave the way for the civil rights revolution of the ’60swithout ever engaging in overt political commentary. As many young whites became exposed to black music, they started to call into question the Jim Crow rhetoric that had historically dominated Southern public discourse and politics.
But it’s these stations’ modern-day presence that says so much about the difference between their respective cities. WDIA is still regarded as a historical institution in Memphis; such longtime performers as Bobby “Blue” Bland and Lou Rawls always make a point of dropping by when they’re performing in town, and they cite the station’s role in helping develop their careers. Even more significant, WDIA maintains a strong following among African American adults, and its no-rap format emphasizes the wide split between members of today’s hip-hop generation and their parents, who were raised on old-school funk, soul, and R&B. The station maintains a high community profile thanks in part to its promotions, which range from weekly WDIA luncheons to talk shows that are listener-directed and caller-dominated.
WLAC-AM also remains a local institution, but of a completely different sort. Even though the late Hoss Allen continued to host a late-night gospel program into the early ’90s, the station has since become an all-talk station with an accent on conservative dialogue. Its past role in black music history, though well known by musicians and historians, isn’t nearly as much a part of the city’s public consciousness as WDIA is in Memphis.
There are small signs, however, that Nashville hasn’t completely forgotten its heritage: Allen’s passing several years ago was mourned by people from all parts of the citya testament to his unique presence in the community. And these days, the local blues scene has a solid, if circumscribed, following. Musicians such as Earl Gaines and Roscoe Shelton, both hitmakers in Nashville’s R&B heyday, continue perform in local clubs every so often.
That said, Nashville could learn much from Memphis when it comes to honoring its black music heritage. But as long as country music remains a lucrative tourist draw, don’t expect the city to devote much (or any) attention to this vibrant and colorful part of its past.
That’s a shame, for while Memphians crow about their incredible musical pastwhich ranges from Charlie Feathers to Stax RecordsNashvillians seem to care far more about how many records Garth Brooks or LeAnn Rimes is selling this week. Indeed, we should consider ourselves lucky to have such a thriving music businessMemphis certainly doesn’tbut does that mean we should ignore the greatness that WLAC, along with such labels as Excello Records, conferred on our city not so many years ago?
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