While Nashville has long been known as Music City, due in large part to its thriving country music scene, in the mid 20th century, country music began to face competition for the national airwaves. As rock ‘n’ roll gained national traction, traditional country music – filled with the rough-edged sounds of fiddles and steel guitar – started to decline in popularity, leading sales to plummet and forcing many industry professionals to re-evaluate their approach to the genre altogether. As a result of this cultural shift, executives at a number of Nashville-based record labels (including Decca Records, RCA records, and Columbia Records) began to tinker with their sound by infusing country music with many of the smoother, more easily digestible sound elements common to jazz and pop music at the time. Steel guitars, fiddles and rough-sounding singers were replaced with string sections, background vocals and velvety lead voices.
In 1949, pre-Nashville sound, country legend Hank Williams released his version of the 1922 Cliff Friend and Irving Mills song ‘Lovesick Blues.’ Williams’ version sat at number one on the Billboard charts for more than four consecutive months.
The term ‘Nashville sound’ was first used in an article written in 1958 in the Music Reporter, and again in a 1960 Time article, about country music (and as some argue, ‘country-pop’ music) legend Jim Reeves. Today, Reeves is recognized as one of the most prominent voices in the Nashville sound movement, with many of his songs topping both pop and country music charts between 1955 and 1969 (despite his unforeseen early death as a result of a plane accident in 1964). The exact song, record, or artist that truly ‘founded’ Nashville sound, however, is difficult to pinpoint. A number of different figures in the industry at the time have been pointed to as paving the way for this momentous country music pivot, including Elvis Presley’s 1956 hit Don’t Be Cruel, Ferlin Husky’s Gone (below), and the Chet Atkins-produced Don Gibson song Oh Lonesome Me.
While the popularity of the Nashville sound movement began to decline by the 1960s, its influence shaped the course of country music to come. In particular, the 1960s saw the emergence of a movement referred to today as ‘countrypolitan,’ an even smoother-sounding spin on country music, complete with background orchestra and background choir vocals. Later decades would similarly see the rise of ‘country pop,’ a movement similarly geared towards tapping into a more widespread, mainstream audience. And while country music continues to be a sort of umbrella term for a genre that contains more nuance, complexity, and diversity than is often recognized, turn on the radio and you will undeniably notice the influence of the Nashville sound movement still reaching into the airwaves today.
Later ‘countrypolitan’ hits influenced by the rise of Nashville sound, including Glen Campbell’s 1975 ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’ and Gretchen Wilson’s 2004 ‘When I Think About Cheatin’.’
By Katie Miller