In Nashville Music Before Country (Arcadia, 128 pp., $19.99), Tim Sharp, dean of fine arts at Rhodes College and author of Memphis Music Before the Blues, takes a long view of history. Returning to the city's origins as a pioneer town in the late 1700s, he traces the subsequent effects of immigration, industry and education on what became Music City.
Sharp begins with the story of the Celts—Scotch-Irish, Scots, Welsh and English who, by the end of the 18th century, had established communities throughout the American South. Theirs was a culture of "song, story and dance," says Sharp, and they brought with them "thousands of songs and ballads that circulated throughout Appalachia and that flooded into the valleys of the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers." One of the most common folk ballads, "Barbara Allen," had 33 known versions in Tennessee alone.
Also migrating to Nashville were European immigrants from countries such as Italy, France and, most notably, Germany. With their "professional skills and conservatory musical training," they "established the first schools of music, music retail stores and professional concert programs in Nashville," and many of the city's new educational institutions hired them to teach.
During the Second Great Awakening in the early part of the 19th century, revivalist fervor—with its camp meetings and spirituals—spread to Tennessee. Celtic storytelling traditions adapted well to the "storytelling of preaching." Hymns and spirituals dominated the musical landscape; providing accompaniment were the fiddle, banjo and guitar, instruments still bearing a definitive influence on the sound of country music today.
Sharp addresses the founding, in 1923, of WSM as well as the Grand Ole Opry show two years after that, but his focus remains resolutely on Nashville prior to country radio. His thorough research allows him to take on everything from minstrelsy to Mozart. In more than 200 vintage photographs, he showcases editorials from long-gone publications such as the German language newspaper the Tennessee Staatszeitung, pictorial renderings of historic buildings like an 1835 Christ Church Episcopal and posters from an 1873 performance by the Fisk Jubilee Singers. A rich and revealing portrait, Nashville Music Before Country lends even more credence to Nashville's claim to be Music City U.S.A.
Tim Sharp will read and sign copies of his book at 5 p.m. Oct. 28 at the Belmont Mansion. The event is free and open to the public.
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