Saving Our Soul 

Before, Music City’s history was in black & white. A new compilation CD puts it in color

Before, Music City’s history was in black & white. A new compilation CD puts it in color

History teases us with the prospect of counterfactuals—worlds and possibilities that might have been but weren’t. So let’s play make-believe for a second and imagine: What if Nashville hadn’t been whacked into two halves, a white half and a black half, in the guise of “urban renewal” in the 1960s? What if the thriving black social and business district with Jefferson Street at its hub hadn’t been kneecapped in the process?

We might be Atlanta—congested on one hand, home to the epicenter of 21st-century pop music on the other, stank you very much. We might be Memphis, coasting on a glorious legacy of rhythm and blues that continues to draw pilgrims from all over the world. We might be something other than what we are—mildly progressive, cautiously imitative, socially segregated. At the very least, we might not have the inferiority complex that leads us, as a city, to eye our neighbors to the south and west with envy.

That Nashville seems so white to the rest of the world isn’t the problem. It’s that the city seems self-consciously white. We’re not talking unabashedly white, like Franklin. To Memphis and Atlanta, we’re the white guy who prides himself on eating once a year at Swett’s while talking loudly about the time he watched Moesha. The rest of the world looks at our chief export, country music, and its vanilla touring company, and says, “Damn, they’re white. Always were, always will be.”

It’s time we shook off this stereotype once and for all. And the way to do it is to embrace the richness, the beauty, the pulse-quickening joyousness, of the musical heritage that belongs mutually to black and white Nashvillians. This, by God, this is a city that broke down racial barriers at the height of segregation with a 50,000-watt howitzer booming from Toronto to Tijuana. In a Nashville radio station, WLAC-AM, white deejays (who sounded black) played records by black artists (whose producers and sidemen sometimes were white) for a united audience of black and white teens. However divided they were by day, under the inhumane strictures of Jim Crow and enforced inequality, jocks and crooners with konked pompadours and kids who huddled under blankets with flashlights became one single rhythm-and-blues nation once the late-night dial locked in on 1510.

The first step toward reclaiming this heritage, and making Nashville whole again, is learning about it. Toward that end, two related events have just arrived to give the city a massive boost of hometown pride. One is a monumental long-term exhibit opening next month at the Country Music Hall of Fame devoted to the history of Nashville R&B (see sidebar). The other, and possibly more momentous, is an accompanying two-disc compilation called Night Train to Nashville: Music City Rhythm & Blues 1945-1970, a painstakingly assembled collection of 37 vintage singles, B-sides and radio transcriptions.

For many listeners, the set itself will appear counterfactual. Quite simply, the songs on Night Train to Nashville are nothing less than a revision of Nashville’s musical history. To be found here are staples of the oldies-station canon, along with blues instrumentals, soul shouters, girl-group pop and loping jump blues—all testaments to a hitherto unheralded depth of talent, ambition and even influence among the city’s oft-neglected R&B industry. Together, though, they add up to something even larger. They form a portrait of the Nashville that was a half-century ago—and suggest a broader, richer Music City that might have been. And, perhaps, that still might be, particularly as tens of thousands of immigrants and refugees bring their rich musical legacies to the city.

The Nashville that swaggers forth on Night Train to Nashville seems unimaginably vital. It is the most exciting place in the world for the duration of one two-minute single—and the next, and the next, and the next. It is a city crackling with energy and humor and nervy ideas, a crossroads for cultural collision and change. “To young blacks growing up in East Tennessee, the city was our version of Harlem, Chicago, 52nd Street, Central Avenue and Beale Street combined,” writes critic Ron Wynn, a Knoxville native who grew up forming his vision of Nashville—like listeners all over the South—from the wee, wee hour broadcasts on WLAC.

The city takes its stride from Night Train’s opening track, a walloping boogie called “Nashville Jumps” by Cecil Gant, a proto-rock-’n’-roller who left his native Nashville for California and war. Billed as “Pvt. Cecil Gant,” the hard-driving piano player had scored an unexpected hit while in the service out west: a plaintive 1944 ballad called “I Wonder” that would later be covered by Aretha Franklin and others. It was Gant’s version, though, that scored so deeply with the war-sick home front that the demand almost destroyed his record company. In 1951, seven years after his career-making hit, Gant would die in a Nashville hospital of causes variously reported as pneumonia or alcohol poisoning. He would not see age 39.

But this is five years earlier, in 1946, and Gant’s thundering left hand evokes nothing but the can-do gait of postwar optimism. His lyrics tell a different story. His girl’s left him, he’s broke and there’s nothing to do but go to Nashville and get his juice on. The cool thing is, everybody else is going there too, fueled with some swill “from Jack Daniel’s still.” It’s an utterly urban record, an all-points bulletin from the big-city South, in which the shuffling late-night rhythm of New Orleans rises to meet the dawning light of Memphis rock ’n’ roll. The groove just barrels along, gathering steam. When Gant punctuates his solo with the command, “Jump, Nashville!,” he expects the whole city to ask how high.

So how high did Nashville jump in those days? The city’s position as a major railroad conduit whisked most of the early century’s leading lights through town, from Caruso to Rudolph Valentino. For touring musicians after the war, it was a can’t-miss stop, since they’d likely have to pass through on their way south. That brought a steady stream of outsiders through Nashville, creating ample opportunities for musical cross-pollination with the hungry young performers rising on Nashville’s own chitlin circuit.

These forces tended to converge on Jefferson Street, the center of African American culture in segregated Nashville at the time. The clubs were there or close: the Del Morocco, the Club Baron (now the Jefferson Street Elks Lodge), the New Era on Charlotte. Conveniently nearby was Brown’s Hotel, the lodging of choice for black musicians forbidden to stay in white-run establishments. It was not uncommon for bands to play the swanky Plantation Club for white supper-club audiences, then repair to Jefferson Street for late-night jam sessions and hanging out.

Thus, at various stages in the development of Nashville’s R&B scene, a visitor could have seen Ike & Tina Turner or James Brown perform in an Exit/In-sized club, or witnessed the meeting of jazz legend Charlie Parker and a young TSU grad named Hank Crawford at the Del Morocco. Years later, Crawford would return in triumph to play the East Nashville roller-rink Maceo’s with his new boss, Ray Charles, for whom he played baritone sax and later served as bandleader. At the Del Morocco, bassist Billy Cox and guitarist “Jimmy” Hendrix gigged regularly, and reportedly it was down the street at Club Baron that Hendrix had his famous head-cutting match with the city’s fieriest blues guitarist, Johnny Jones.

In the 1960s, Hendrix even made his very first TV appearance in Nashville, in the house band on the short-lived WLAC-TV show Night Train. Hendrix was already a vision of the future, even though he ducks, bobs and sways right in line with the other musicians, members of Little Richard’s road-honed band The Upsetters. They back an R&B duo introduced as Buddy & Stacey, thin and limber as whips, who do a hip-swiveling dance in high-waisted slacks of R-rated tightness. When the Night Train episode screens as part of the Hall of Fame exhibit, sometime in May, it will blow your mind that local TV was ever this cool.

Up to now, Nashville’s homegrown R&B has been treated as a footnote—significant mostly for its relationship to tangential figures such as Charles and Hendrix, as well as its not inconsiderable influence on the blues-loving bands of the British Invasion. The young Keith Richards ordered his American R&B sides from Randy’s Record Shop, the appliance store turned mail-order powerhouse once located downtown. Not coincidentally, one track on an early Rolling Stones album was a cover of “You Can Make It If You Try,” a majestic single written by local producer Ted Jarrett and sung with heartbreakingly fervent belief by Nashvillian Gene Allison. The Beatles covered another Nashville R&B classic, Arthur Alexander’s “Anna (Go to Him).”

Yet as Night Train to Nashville proves, the diverse, dynamic and deeply felt R&B coming out of Music City needed no gilding by association. The record’s yeoman producers, Daniel Cooper and Michael Gray, don’t make a case for a “Nashville sound” of R&B as defining as that created by country pickers and producers on Music Row. Instead, they celebrate what Cooper calls “the sweep of the dial”—the abundance of styles that collided at Nashville’s crossroads. That sweep includes not only music recorded in Nashville by visiting artists, such as Etta James’ classic Rocks the House live album, but music made by Nashvillians outside the city limits.

The first disc covers up to 1960, a period when “black music” was marginalized despite the growing popularity of rock ’n’ roll. The diversity of sound and styles is still striking. In contrast to the one-man-band spareness of Cecil Gant’s “Nashville Jumps,” the track that follows, a zany man-vs.-vulture novelty called “Buzzard Pie” by Rudy Green & His Orchestra, could pass for one of Louis Jordan’s brassy full-band romps. Completely dissimilar, even from each other, are a pair of early-1950s singles by the unjustly obscure Nashville vocalist Christine Kittrell. Possessed of a deep, smoky voice of surprising flexibility, Kittrell could kiss off a no-good lover on the chugging “L&N Special” with arm-swinging confidence, then pour on the mournful vulnerability for an after-hours blues appropriately titled “Sittin’ Here Drinking.”

With the entry of Motown, Atlantic and other R&B labels into the pop-music mainstream, the tracks on Disc Two take on a more polished and adventurous feel, the sound of the city’s musicians breaking down boundaries of race, region and genre. There are The Avons, two Nashville sisters and a schoolmate from Pearl High School, whose summery “Since I Met You Baby” introduces some Southern grit to Detroit’s brand of buoyant girl-group pop. There is Joe Tex, the mighty Texan soul singer who found his stride with white Nashville producer Buddy Killen. His 1965 single “I Want To (Do Everything for You)” amounts to two delicious minutes of sweet, slow grinding and double-tracked cooing.

Perhaps most eye-opening is the visionary fusion of R&B and country that Night Train to Nashville commemorates. Given a roomful of Music Row session pros, many of them steeped in Southern blues and the deep-bottomed soul coming out of Alabama’s Muscle Shoals, a visiting belter like Ruth Brown could recut her own “Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean” and somehow top the original’s spitfire fury. The track gives ample room to a recurring Night Train MVP: the redoubtable Jerry Kennedy, the guitarist and Mercury Records producer best known for country acts like Jerry Lee Lewis and The Statler Brothers. Here, backing Brown, he tears off a solo of equal parts twang and fatback, flanked on piano by none other than Ray Stevens of “Ahab the Arab” fame. On another of the set’s rowdiest numbers, Peggy Scott & Jo Jo Benson’s psychedelic 1969 workout “Soul Shake,” you’ll find Kennedy doinking an electric sitar like an amplified rubber band, while around him an army of first-call country session players throws down.

In some ways, this Nashville seems less segregated musically than today’s. On a record like Joe Simon’s magnificent “The Chokin’ Kind,” a Harlan Howard cut that had been a hit for Waylon Jennings, a black soul singer and his white country sidemen seem to relocate a shared language in the blues, a common ground that lets everyone relax, settle in and stretch. From Simon’s gently rumbling vocal to Wayne Moss’ river-deep bass line, the combination results in an almost bottomless reservoir of feeling. “I’ve written some good songs and some hit songs,” Simon says in the liner notes, “but...I can feel the country songs so much better.”

There are hints that this sharing of idioms was leading places no one could have predicted—a place beyond Nashville, beyond the South, beyond even the narrow demarcations of “black” and “white” music. The proof is in the single biggest hit to appear on Night Train to Nashville, a record local listeners will have heard a million times yet never have connected to their hometown.

The song is “Sunny,” a 1966 composition by Nashville native Bobby Hebb that has become one of the most covered songs ever recorded. It was produced in a New York City studio, and yet, as Hebb has readily admitted, it’s a synthesis of the many influences he absorbed during his youth in Music City. As members of a large local family of entertainers, Hebb and his older brother Harold had sung and danced at Nashville’s Bijou Theater, a major downtown venue for African American variety acts. Yet Hebb had also been handpicked by none other than Roy Acuff to play spoons and other instruments in Acuff’s band The Smoky Mountain Boys, which he did well into the 1950s.

The circumstances that created “Sunny” were anything but. Vietnam was looming, and the tensions of the civil rights era seethed. On top of that came a devastating double blow of national and personal tragedy. According to Gray’s liner notes, on Nov. 23, 1963, as the nation mourned President John F. Kennedy’s assassination the day before, Harold Hebb was knifed to death outside Club Baron on Jefferson Street. “All of my intentions were just to think of happier times,” Hebb said, “basically looking for a brighter day, because times were at low tide.”

Indeed, what makes “Sunny” a strange and beautiful single is that it refuses to commit itself to any mood besides a cautious, fearful, but inextinguishable optimism. It’s less about sunshine, in whatever metaphorical sense, than about the promise of sun when only darkness is visible. Hebb sings with mounting intensity, as if to convince himself. The tentative melody, with its sudden fluctuations, adapts readily to country or R&B, and yet it doesn’t really conform to either. The ominous vamp and ghostly vibes that wind through the song resemble nothing so much as the James Bond theme. The mixture proved so haunting, though, that it became a crossover smash. The next thing Bobby Hebb knew, he was opening for The Beatles. The dandelion seeds of Nashville R&B had scattered around the world and spread.

For all the joy and high spirits captured on Night Train to Nashville, a lingering melancholy seeps in as well. It isn’t just confined to “Sunny.” For the most part, the music’s beauty and exuberance hold hard times at bay. Sometimes the songs just give in, as on the evergreen “Just Walkin’ in the Rain,” a despondent 1953 doo-wop ballad of unearthly loveliness. It was a major hit for The Prisonaires, a group of Tennessee State Prison inmates for whom singing was essentially a work-release program. In the liner notes, Bobby Hebb wonders if “Sunny” wasn’t just expressing the same sentiment as “Just Walkin’ in the Rain,” only from another point of view.

Where “Sunny” and “The Chokin’ Kind” might have led, for other Nashville R&B artists, we’ll never know. The city’s R&B scene was crippled by the onslaught of urban renewal and the building of I-40, which severed the artery of the Jefferson Street scene. Clubs closed. The Del Morocco was razed. The Bijou Theater was demolished to make way for Municipal Auditorium. At the same time, R&B as a genre was fading as the flag of funk was raised. Soul artists continued to make records in Nashville, but the vitality of the city’s R&B scene greatly diminished.

Even WLAC, which had done so much to change American pop culture from its hardscrabble perch in Nashville, eventually phased out all but its late-night gospel show. Today, that too is gone. The station that once broadcast the late Hoss Allen’s good-natured, all-embracing call to a colorblind America now hosts Rush Limbaugh.

Ironically, as our R&B history has receded from view, and country has become our sole identity to the rest of the world, Nashville’s insecurity about its hillbilly roots has only intensified. Apparently nobody realized that, to much of the world, R&B was the urban complement to our rural tradition. Like the down-home hybrid of “The Chokin’ Kind,” the two added up to a greater whole, a city of bright lights and back porches, a city with room and possibility for all. One wonders what would already have happened with Nashville’s rap and hip-hop communities if they had had the foundation of a thriving urban-music industry to build upon. Or just the access to that history.

For the Country Music Hall of Fame, then, to train its vast resources on Nashville’s rhythm-and-blues legacy has enormous symbolic weight. So does the Hall of Fame’s decision not to open its mammoth 18-month exhibit until March, immediately after Black History Month. Both gestures say that this is not “black history.” This is our history. To hear Night Train to Nashville, to hear Cecil Gant jump and Christine Kittrell wail, to hear Little Richard yelp like a madman on a riotous WLAC commercial for Royal Crown pomade, to hear the Prisonaires sing as if emotion could melt bars, is to realize this is a richer, fuller, more wondrous city than we often allow ourselves to believe. It is up to us only to believe it.

Fittingly, Night Train to Nashville ends with that most jubilant of pop singles, a paean to earthly and celestial love that has been covered by everyone from Gloria Estefan to U2. It was written and produced by two white Nashville rock ’n’ rollers, Buzz Cason and Mac Gayden, and it was delivered as if it were the most urgent message in the world by a Franklin-born singer named Robert Knight. The message is no less profound for being simple: “From the very start / Open up your heart / Be a lasting part of / Everlasting love.”

Words to live by.

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