This collection contains 25 wonderful songs about the State of Tennessee. We’re going to bend the rules a little and begin by talking about a song that isn’t here because, the lyrics get us directly to two important points. Here are the opening words to Tennessee, a song written and recorded by Carl Perkins in 1955.
Now there are folks who like to brag about where they came from
But when they start that stuff I let ‘em be
But it makes me feel like I want to brag some
To know that I come from the state of Tennessee.
Let’s give old Tennessee credit for music
As they play it up in Nashville every day…
Old Carl reminds us that most of the songs on each of these 'State' collections are really about bragging. The polite term is probably 'regional pride.' But you and I know it’s bragging, pure and simple. We know there’s lots of national pride among Americans, but never underestimate the feelings about one’s home state (or city, or neighborhood!) “Yeah, I’m an American and proud of it. But I’m also from Tennessee. And don’t you forget it!”
Bragging is OK under some circumstances. Nobody likes to hear someone else go on about what he’s accomplished or how important he thinks he is. But if you want to raise the flag about where you were born or about your home town, most folks will cut you some slack. It’s not like you chose to be from Tennessee, and that little bit of arm’s length seems to give you permission to brag. Of course, it doesn’t hurt if you’re surrounded by a few other folks from Tennessee at the time.
The second point is about Nashville. Ask most red-blooded Americans where country music comes from, and they’ll tell you exactly what Carl did. And to some extent, they’re right. But even Carl, who came from Jackson, Tennessee, knew the picture was slightly bigger than he let on. Few people would argue about Carl’s home state. Tennessee has been the cradle of American country music for most of the past century. It was simply in the right place at the right time: the mountains, rivers and roads saw to that.
It’s the part about Nashville that may trigger a few raised eyebrows. We think of Nashville as the center of things today, but that wasn’t always the case. Earlier on, Bristol was the magnet for aspiring artists as Ralph Peer’s makeshift recording studio drew billies out of the hills (and valleys) to record for the man who could make them famous. The chance to perform in front of his primitive recording equipment lured in more than a fair share of talent, including Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter family.
Memphis also had its own tradition of country music and as late as the 1950s it sounded distinctively different from what was going on in Nashville. Midway between Memphis and Nashville lay Carl Perkins’ home, the rough-hewn town of Jackson, and it too had a country sound with a honky tonk identity all its own. But eventually Nashville drew most aspiring musicians, writers and performers to its bosom, and once they arrived, they came under its influence. Nobody spent time at the Opry or on Nashville’s Music Row, and said, 'I think I’ll try Bristol next week.'
By the 1950s, Nashville had established itself as the place where country music did its business. The Opry and the recording studios, with their direct pipelines to major labels, saw to it that business was ruled with a semi-iron hand. Styles were homogenized, sounds were smoothed, regional traditions were tamed in favor of what would sell to the greatest number of folks beyond Tennessee’s borders. Many artists were satisfied to bend what they knew best to the demands of outside interests. Poverty and limited opportunities can make such the prospect of fame and fortune look mighty attractive.
Thankfully, most of what we include here is decidedly not homogenized 'sweetened' music. We’ve chosen carefully to produce a collection of honest country music with Tennessee as its central theme. Whether or not these artists hailed from 'The Volunteer State,' they sure found something positive to say about it in song. One of them, Ernie Ford, came from Bristol, and liked his home state so much he adopted it as his name. Ford became Tennessee Ernie and he took his name and "aw shucks" attitude all the way to a national TV show.
It turns out that 'Tennessee' is a great all-purpose adjective. On this collection alone, Tennessee is used to describe tears (as well as teardrops), church bells, a horse, a train and a guitar. On the musical front, Tennessee is the name of a boogie, a blues, a waltz, a form of rock 'n' roll, a two-step, a rag, a polka, and that all purpose category: jive. And people take it for a name too. Who can forget the delightful Tennessee Toddy or Tennessee Rose?
If you have an interest in the history of country music or, for that matter, the emergence of rock 'n' roll, there are quite a few interesting moments on this collection. You can just feel some of these artists struggling to come to terms with the demands of that pesky upstart, rock 'n' roll. Some of them, like Bobby Helms (who hailed from Indiana), were just too country to become a rocker. (Helms did enjoy a couple of pop hits in 1957.) Often the background musicians, including some of Nashville’s finest studio pickers, had an easier time making the transition to the emerging sound of rock music than the singers, themselves. Again, the Bobby Helms record we present here is a great example.
Speaking of fine pickers, we offer instrumentals by two of the best: West Coast studio man Joe Maphis, and Nashville Superstar Chet Atkins, working with Homer & Jethro in 1952 as the Country All Stars. Also worth a special listen is Zeb Turner’s Tennessee Boogie from 1949. It’s a sobering reminder that while rockabilly might have taken another five or six years to reveal itself in the mid-‘50s, its direct ancestor 'country boogie' was well established a decade earlier. And have a special listen to Ernie Ford’s Tennessee Local. Ford cut this incredibly rural record more than two years before Elvis saw his first release on the Sun label in 1954. Nobody even knew what rockabilly was in 1952, yet Tennessee Local reveals many of the instrumental sounds that would find their way into the rockabilly boom in 1956.
One more track deserves special mention. Eddy Arnold’s Tennessee Stud is about as perfect a record as you’re likely to find on this, or any country compilation. Arnold’s vocal is flawless, the picking is minimal but tasty, and the simple arrangement is ideally suited to the timeless lyric. Arnold spent ten weeks on the pop charts with this record in 1959, before re-appearing in the mid-1960s with a series of slick, some would say over-produced, sides that became the very essence of Nashville 'countrypolitan' music. Forget the smooth crossover hits of his later career; Eddy Arnold has never sounded better than he does here.
Today, Tennessee remains Operation Central for country music. Nashville is still the place to be to record or pitch songs, although Branson, Missouri has cut a swath through the big-venue live performance side of Nashville’s business. There are still places in Nashville like the Bluebird Café where aspiring singer-songwriters can show their unadorned wares to an appreciative crowd. Occasionally, new artists sound traditional. They avoid the histrionics of modern pop singing for some simple, honest music – the way it used to sound in the 1940s and ’50 before 'countrypolitan' became the road sign to respectability and wealth. The way it still sounds on this collection.