I started to write this from a hotel in downtown Nashville, Tenn., the perfect place to reflect upon the influence Music City USA’s No. 1 product has had on the subject of this blog — The Music, rock and roll.
Most everybody thinks “Nashville = Country and Western.” The C&W Hall of Fame is here, after all, and “the Mother Church of Country Music,” the Ryman Auditorium, home for many years (and still for a few days a year) to that uniquely American musical institution, the Grand Ole Opry.
Also, lots of record companies producing country music, and scads of honky-tonks where C&W wannabes practice their craft. And places that sell cowboy hats, boots (buy one pair, get two pair free, one sign says) and suits.
Country, after all, makes up one-half of the name of an important sub-genre of The Music. Some of the most influential and successful acts in rock and pop influenced, came out of, or tried their hands at “country rock” — the Eagles, the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield, for instance.
Bob Dylan changed the trajectory of his career with country-influenced albums in the late 1960s, most notably Nashville Skyline. Then there’s also Southern Rock, heavily influenced by the roots music of that region.
The Grateful Dead’s reputation was built on psychedelia and jam band extended pieces, but one of the band’s best albums, in my opinion, is Workingman’s Dead, very much a country album. Founding member Jerry Garcia seemed to find more creative expression in the country and bluegrass groups he sidelined in.
But you have to back up another decade or two to understand how country music impacted rock and roll. The vocal stylings and song-writing of the Hillbilly Shakespeare, Hank Williams Sr., influenced rock singers and writers early and later.
Rockabilly, that early blend of rock and country, brought artists like Carl Perkins and the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley, to prominence. Bluegrass also had an influence; Bill Monroe, the father of that musical style, is one of only two artists who are in both the Rock and Roll and Country and Western halls of fame (Elvis is the other).
But the best way to grok the importance of country, and Nashville, to rock and roll is to go to another hall of fame entirely. Jeanne and I spent nearly three hours in Music City’s Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum, and I would recommend a visit to any fan of The Music who travels to Nashville.
Its name starts with Musicians, but those recognized and represented in the hall are overwhelmingly country, rhythm and blues, rock, rockabilly and soul artists. In amongst the “guitars of the stars” (and studio musicians, too) exhibits, the walls of gold and platinum records and so on, are things like the Sun Records section.
For those unfamiliar with that Memphis, Tenn. studio (which ended up in Nashville), it recorded many of the 1950s rockabilly, R&B and soul artists who were the major influences — and in some cases — the foundation, of rock and roll. Sun founder Sam Phillips discovered and promoted artists like Perkins and Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison.
Phillips opened Sun in 1950, a year before he recorded Jackie Brentson performing “Rocket 88,” credited by some as being the first rock and roll record. Ike Turner, another one-time Sun artist, was likely the one who actually recorded and performed the song, which ended up being released by Chess Records, the Chicago, Ill., label best known for its blues products.
The Sun area at the MHoF includes amazing videos of the Killer — Jerry Lee Lewis — in performance, throwing his hair back out of his eyes and pounding the piano to death. And displays of the other artists who recorded there, a Who’s Who of blues, R&B and soul: Howlin’ Wolf, Little Milton, Rufus Thomas and others.
There is also a Jimi Hendrix exhibit in the MHoF. Knowledgable fans of The Music mostly think that rock’s dead-too-young guitar virtuoso got his start playing for R&B/soul acts like the Isley Brothers and Curtis Knight.
He did indeed. But what many — including myself, sad to say — don’t know is that Jimi actually learned his chops playing in Music City USA, while he was a U.S. Army paratrooper and assigned to nearly Fort Campbell.
“That’s where I really learned to play guitar,” Hendrix was quoted as saying of Nashville, where he played in clubs. That was a handful of years after picking up the guitar, and less than a decade before his untimely death.
Rock owes a lot to R&B, soul and what was then awkwardly called “race music,” and much of that originated in that other Tennessee city, Memhis. But when you drop the needle on some rock on your old-school turntable, or punch it up on your iPod, remember that a bunch of it came from the country.
I will cite no less an authority than John Sebastian, that Greenwich Village-born, boarding school-educated musician. He turned a musical heritage — his dad was a classical harmonica player — and an interest in blues into a folk-rock monster, the Lovin’ Spoonful, that lit up pop music in the 1960s.
Just past the end of that decade, Sebastian can be heard blowing harp (under a pseudonym) on the Doors’ “Roadhouse Blues.” He wrote the following in the Spoonful’s 1966 Top 10 hit “Nashville Cats”:
“Yeah, I was just thirteen, you might say I was a/Musical proverbial knee-high/When I heard a couple new-sounding tunes on the tubes/And they blasted me sky-high/And the record man said every one is a yellow sun/Record from Nashville/And up north there ain't nobody buys them/And I said, ‘But I Will.’”