When Alton Delmore, an aspiring musician, arrived in Nashville in the early 1930s, he was struck by the sight of the massive WSM transmission tower: “It gave off a seeming challenge to anyone who wanted to go far and do things. There it was, blinking and flashing its facility out to some little person or persons, who thought they deserved the plaudits of the great Grand Ole Opry audience.” It’s almost comical now to think of such profound meaning attached to a simple radio tower, but in Air Castle of the South, local writer Craig Havighurst contends that WSM did much more than inspire the dreams of young musicians. It also pioneered new radio technology, and, as one of the few high-powered “clear channel” stations that could be heard over large distances, it helped give birth to America’s national broadcast media. Its programming decisions defined country music, and it was intimately involved in the development of the publishing and recording businesses that became a cornerstone of Nashville’s economy.
WSM was the brainchild of Edwin Craig, son of the founder of the Nashville-based National Life and Accident Insurance Company, which sold policies door-to-door—to a largely black customer base—all over the South. After dropping out of Vanderbilt in 1913, the younger Craig went to work in the family business as an ordinary salesman in Dallas. By the early 1920s, he had made his way back to the company’s central office, where he began to lobby for a corporate radio station. Radio was in its infancy, and Craig believed the staid insurance business would benefit from such a powerful symbol of progress and innovation, not to mention the promotional possibilities of owning a spot on the airwaves. National Life’s senior management sniffed at the idea, but Craig persisted, and “Edwin’s toy” went on the air in 1925.
Air Castle of the South pulls together a wealth of research and interviews to create a finely detailed account of the early days of the station, profiling personalities such as Jack DeWitt, who abandoned a career as a radio operator on a merchant ship—where he was once offered a pet monkey in exchange for sex—to become chief engineer for the start-up WSM. Havighurst catalogs a multitude of the station’s early performers, who specialized in “swooning art songs and gentle classics.”
Such “potted palm music,” along with news and radio dramas, made up the bulk of WSM’s programming during its first years. The vernacular music of the South—variously called old-time, folk or barn dance music—was given only limited airtime. Like jazz, it was considered low-class and vaguely disreputable, and when WSM began featuring it on Saturday nights, Nashville’s upper crust complained. They wanted Nashville to be the Athens of the South, not the capital of cornpone culture. But the station’s manager and chief on-air announcer, George Hay, decided “to elevate the music of common people to a place of respect among the fine arts.” There was also a less idealistic reason for keeping the hillbilly tunes on the air: those “common folk” across the nation who enjoyed old-time music were an untapped source of profits for National Life. “The Grand Ole Opry was put on the air to try to get into the white [insurance] business,” according to Craig’s son, Neil.
Racial issues came into play in a number of ways at WSM, and Havighurst gives a fair amount of attention to Opry harmonica virtuoso DeFord Bailey and other black performers, who were audience favorites but inevitably found themselves shunted aside in favor of whites by the station’s conservative management. When R&B and rock began to hit the airwaves in the 1950s, WSM would have nothing to do with them, nor with artists such as Elvis, who combined country roots with black influences. The ultimate effect was to make country music the near lily-white preserve it is today.
The rise of WSM makes up the first third of Air Castle of the South, by far its most vivid segment. The rest of the book is largely devoted to detailing WSM’s role in the development of Nashville’s music industry. All the major players in that process—Jim Denny, Owen Bradley, Fred Rose, Jack Stapp and Buddy Killen, to name a few—are given their due. Havighurst also provides accounts of the birth of Opryland, WSM television and The Nashville Network, along with a brief rundown of the devolution of the WSM empire after National Life fell to a takeover from American General in 1982.
Havighurst gives little space to the events that led up to the near demise of WSM as country music’s mother station in 2002, when current owner Gaylord Entertainment threatened to switch to a sports-talk format. Perhaps that’s understandable. Nobody likes an unhappy ending, and given the current economic realities of radio and the music business, WSM seems unlikely to be headed for any return to grander days. As Havighurst writes, “The music business is changing radically, and radical change has never been in Nashville’s character.” He stops short of advocating public rescue, but it’s clear he sees the station as a cultural institution worth saving. For Havighurst, “Demanding that WSM live or die by the media economy’s new rules feels a bit like asking your grandmother to work at Burger King to make ends meet.”
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