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Air Castle of the South

Air Castle of the South: WSM and the Making of Music City

Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Air Castle of the South
    Book Description:

    Started by the National Life and Accident Insurance Company in 1925, WSM became one of the most influential and exceptional radio stations in the history of broadcasting and country music. WSM gave Nashville the moniker "Music City USA" as well as a rich tradition of music, news, and broad-based entertainment. With the rise of country music broadcasting and recording between the 1920s and '50s, WSM, Nashville, and country music became inseparable, stemming from WSM's launch of the Grand Ole Opry, popular daily shows like Noontime Neighbors, and early morning artist-driven shows such as Hank Williams on Mother's Best Flour. _x000B__x000B_Sparked by public outcry following a proposal to pull country music and the Opry from WSM-AM in 2002, Craig Havighurst scoured new and existing sources to document the station's profound effect on the character and self-image of Nashville. Introducing the reader to colorful artists and businessmen from the station's history, including Owen Bradley, Minnie Pearl, Jim Denny, Edwin Craig, and Dinah Shore, the volume invites the reader to reflect on the status of Nashville, radio, and country music in American culture._x000B_

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09434-7
    Subjects: Music, History, Performing Arts

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Introduction THE MUSE OF MUSIC CITY
    (pp. xiii-xx)

    On the bitter cold morning of January 8, 2002, a grassy berm at the sprawling interchange of Briley Parkway and McGavock Pike in Nashville, Tennessee, became an impromptu grandstand for protesters. More than one hundred citizens waved signs, clapped their mittens, and urged passing motorists to honk in support of traditional country music. “Keep country alive!” they chanted. “Keep country alive!” Singing legend George Jones drove up to voice support from behind the wheel of his SUV. Local honky-tonk glam character Melba Toast shouted in the wind from beneath her outlandish, platinum bouffant wig.

    The rally pitched its message toward...

  5. ONE On the Very Air We Breathe
    (pp. 1-17)

    Dr. Clayton E. Crosland, associate vice president of one of the Southeast’s finest finishing schools, wasn’t precisely sure what to say, but he did not wish to be misunderstood.

    This is Ward-Belmont, Nashville,” he said, a bit too loudly, into his “microphone.”

    The contraption wasn’t entirely foreign—quite like a telephone without the ear-piece—but it was most modern. After a pause, Crosland spelled out the name of the school, as if to make sure: “W-A-R-D—B-E-L-M-O-N-T.

    He continued, “We have today installed a radio sending station and will tonight broadcast the concert by Mr. Philip Gordon, the distinguished American...

  6. TWO The Ears Are Eyes
    (pp. 18-40)

    WSM took Tuesday off and switched on again Wednesday afternoon. Opening-night announcer Jack Keefe sat before a microphone in the velvet opulence of the WSM studio and described game one of the World Series, based on a steady stream of balls, strikes, hits, and outs from a news wire. A few blocks away, police had shut down Commerce Street for a promotion sponsored and hyped by the Banner. Men in boater hats and boys in knee britches listened to Keefe’s broadcast over loudspeakers and watched the game unfold on a mechanical Playograph scoreboard. Animated players cycled about the bases as...

  7. THREE A Pleasing Spectacle
    (pp. 41-60)

    The skywave, bouncing between the atmosphere and the earth, carried WSM’s 5,000-watt, clear channel signal remarkable distances. In the early 1930s, the station received letters from Honolulu, New Zealand, and Northern Ontario. Margaret Joyce, the ten-year-old daughter of a Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman stationed near the Arctic Circle, wrote a letter that traveled seven hundred miles by Eskimo-driven dogsled to a railway, and ultimately to WSM. All to say, “We have a dandy radio set, and have been listening to your music. We enjoy it very much.” Gustavo Barros of Havana, Cuba, wrote to alert WSM that he’d been translating...

  8. FOUR Air Castle of the South
    (pp. 61-87)

    Late in the fall of 1933, WSM transmitter engineer Jack Montgomery stirred himself at about ten minutes to five in the afternoon and left the white transmitter house in the meadow in Brentwood. The sun was setting early now, heralding the nightly coming of the skywave that would amplify WSM’s signal over thousands of miles. The tower soared above his head, poised as if for take off, caught in the sunset like a tall flame against a darkening sky. Gravel crunched beneath Montgomery’s feet as he walked out the gate and down Calendar Road toward the road cut. A half...

  9. FIVE We Must Serve These People Tonight
    (pp. 88-103)

    With two additions between 1929 and 1934, the National Life Home Office grew into a muscular, U-shaped edifice just off Nashville’s Capitol Hill. Out front, Union Street dropped down a block to the Hermitage and Andrew Jackson hotels and the grand quadrangle that was War Memorial Plaza. And from WSM’s fifth-floor studios, it was easy to see the cylindrical cupola of the capitol building just one block away. A visitor coming up Union Street would have seen National Life across a sunken garden, watched over by a bronze tribute to “Confederate Womanhood”—two women in Greek robes ministering to a...

  10. SIX Guts and Brass
    (pp. 104-120)

    The night of December 15, 1939, was icy cold in Atlanta, but the thousands of people crowded on Peachtree Street scarcely noticed. They were dazzled by searchlights panning the sky and playing across the facade of the Loew’s Grand Theater, which, on this gala evening, was festooned with Confederate bunting and faced with a huge replica of a colonnaded Southern plantation. Loudspeakers announced the arrivals of Clark Gable, with his wife Carol Lombard, and Vivien Leigh, with beau Laurence Olivier. The day had been declared a holiday by the mayor, and three days of pomp and celebration had preceded this...

  11. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  12. SEVEN One of Our Boys Shoots the Moon
    (pp. 121-137)

    By 1943 troops nearly outnumbered civilians in greater Nashville, and the city was frequently overrun with soldiers in training or in transit. They filled the hotels, the bars, the theaters, and the streets. Sometimes, when space simply ran out, they slept in parks or on the steps of the post office on Broadway. Many of them loved the Grand Ole Opry, and olive uniforms became as common in War Memorial Auditorium as dresses and overalls. The only problem was they were punishing the governor’s beautiful theater, and Harry Stone had to answer for it. “By now I had developed a...

  13. EIGHT It Helped Everybody in the Long Run
    (pp. 138-158)

    Harry Stone felt betrayed. Over nearly twenty years he’d managed WSM from a part-time local station to a national powerhouse with a signature show. Just one year before he’d been named vice president and general manager of WSM. And then, without warning, old man Craig made Jack DeWitt his boss, at a much higher salary. It was but one reason that by 1947, Stone looked weary, with deep creases in his cheeks and forehead and gray streaks in his hair. He oversaw a ten-person staff of his own plus sixteen in production and a small army of sometimes unpredictable musicians....

  14. NINE The Balance of Power Has Shifted
    (pp. 159-177)

    Americans lived with the idea of television, the bewitching vision of it, for decades before the TVs themselves arrived like an army of flying saucers in department stores across the nation. Even before WSM radio went on the air, popular-science magazines showed people gathered around color television sets, and in 1928 Charles Jenkins, an inventor in Wheaton, Maryland, was issued the first TV broadcast license in the United States. In 1930 Jenkins broadcast the first television commercial, and the BBC began regular TV transmissions, even though there were scarcely any television receivers to pick them up. Philo Farnsworth and Vladimir...

  15. TEN Jack, We Got a Real Problem
    (pp. 178-204)

    Howdy you’nses! This is your bald-headed, hand-spanked, corn-fed, gravy-sopping, snaggle-toothed, cross-eyed old country boy, Eddie Hill, telling you he crochiates your cards and letters and is a hawg about you!

    In coat and tie, surrounded by records, he sat before an open microphone and a pair of industrial-weight turntables in a small studio on the fifth floor of the National Life building on a winter’s night in 1952. Wide-eyed and wired with enthusiasm, “Smilin’” Eddie Hill sounded like nothing that had ever been broadcast from the Air Castle of the South. He was a thirty-year-old hillbilly singer, instrumentalist, and humorist...

  16. ELEVEN A Code and a Concern
    (pp. 205-223)

    Bob Cooper wanted the world to know that the 1960 DJ convention was on the level. The general manager of WSM radio knew that Congress was investigating record and radio ethics and that rock DJs like Alan Freed were being pilloried on a national stage. Besides outright payola (money in exchange for airplay of specific records), the government had accused record labels of financing junkets by DJs to music conventions. To avoid guilt by association, Cooper invited two leading congressional payola investigators to Nashville that November. He disclosed that WSM had spent about $16,000 from its publicity budget on the...

  17. TWELVE The Whole Complex Is a Studio
    (pp. 224-243)

    Jack DeWitt’s retirement and Craig’s death coincided with the most radical changes yet for National Life. Chairman Dan Brooks and president Bill Weaver had both climbed to prominence through the company’s investment division, managing the billions of dollars in accumulated reserves insurers have to carry. Now they were as powerful as any businessmen in the state of Tennessee. That, combined with the trend of the day toward corporate diversification, made the company more interested than ever in new lines of business. In 1968, National Life merged with Third National Bank, under the name NLT, for National Life Third. A few...

  18. Epilogue: SIGNAL FADE
    (pp. 244-250)

    For his stewardship of the Grand Ole Opry and the growth of TNN and CMT, E. W. “Bud” Wendell was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1998, just one year after his retirement as Gaylord’s CEO. He was remembered by former employees and Opry artists as a warm, effective leader whose philosophy about the WSM/Opry complex strongly resembled its original leader Edwin Craig. Almost from the day Wendell left, Gaylord became a more controversial and troubled company.

    Wendell was, for example, surprised and mystified by one of the first decisions made by his successor, former Gaylord CFO...

  19. Notes
    (pp. 251-260)
  20. Bibliography
    (pp. 261-264)
  21. Index
    (pp. 265-280)
  22. Back Matter
    (pp. 281-287)