What is history?
The French poet Victor Hugo described it as “an echo of the past in the future and a reflex from the future on the past.” And artist Marcus Garvey put it this way: “People without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”
For author and professor Don Cusic who teaches the history and business of music at Belmont University (and has had five students with number one records including Brad Paisley and Chris Stapleton) history is a foundation for the present day.
“History shows us that, although things change, human nature doesn’t,” the author of Nashville Sound: An Illustrated Timeline told me. “It’s important for people in the music industry to have an awareness of what went before–an historical foundation because that not only informs but also keeps current trends in perspective.”
Cusic is the author of over 25 books including Johnny Cash: The Songs, The Soul of Light, Roger Miller: Dang Home, Elvis and Nashville and The Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Music. In writing his most recent book Nashville Sound: An Illustrated Timeline (Reedy Press), Cusic had a specific question. How did Nashville become the Nashville we know as Music City USA and regard as the nation’s country music capital?
The lavishly illustrated coffee table book traces the history of the city over two centuries. In it Cusic writes that Nashville didn’t have a single record label or recording studio at the end of World War II. 15 years later Nashville was known worldwide as “Music City U.S.A.”
Cusic called it an “aha moment” in his research and still seems in awe of something he marvels as a dramatic journey. The Nashville Sound derives from the city’s breadth of Nashville’s rich history encompassing not only country music but also gospel music, contemporary Christian music, rhythm and blues, rock’n’roll and classical music. As he writes in the book: “The Nashville Sound was an attempt to bring country music into the musical mainstream with smooth-voices singers and a sound that wasn’t winy and twangy.”
We learn in the book that after Christmas 1945, record executive Jim Bullet recorded “Near You,” the first million seller for the fledgling Bullet Records (and a hit much later for George Jones and Tammy Wynette.) By 1946 Nashville had its first recording studio, Castle Recording Studio set-up by three engineers from WSM at the Tulane hotel.
As Cusic noted on a recent appearance on the Buddy & Jim Show on SiriusXM Outlaw Country, record labels had rules that artists had to record in their corporately owned studios. It was a real turning point when Ernest Tubb wanted to record in Nashville. “When you’re a big artist, your label wants to keep you happy,” Cusic said of the sea change that helped turn Nashville into a recording destination, attracting the likes of Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan and members of the Beatles.
The book showcases images of historical landmarks in Nashville history, detailing the Grand Ole Opry at the old Ryman Auditorium, Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge and Ernest Tubb’s Record Shop on Broadway which still operates today. Cusic brings you into the first studio created by one time big band player Owen Bradley who went on to produce some of country’s greatest sides by Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn and George Jones and Tammy Wynette.
By day Cusic works out of an office on the city’s Music Row where “Stand By Your Man” was written. In 2015 the National Trust For Historic Preservation designated Music Row a national treasure. Near the end of the book, Cusic details that between 2000-2015, over thirty buildings in the Music Row area were demolished for redevelopment projects, primarily condominiums. They include studios where the likes of Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton once recorded and the studio where Elvis laid down “Heartbreak Hotel.”
“Goodness gracious!,” he exclaims when I ask him about Nashville’s lost history. “We’ve lost so many buildings and places of significance. The interstate destroying Jefferson Street and the R&B community comes to mind. I’m not against “development” but, too often, Nashville has not realized the value of historical places and bulldozed them. Things can’t remain the same–but there should have been more awareness of the importance of Nashville’s music history until recently, when key buildings were torn down–or about to be–and Music Row needs to be saved. That goes back to the business and social elite wanting Nashville to be the ‘Athens of the South’ and not the home of country music.”
The book is a primer on the musical, economic and historical moments of the city’s lifespan broken out into easy to read synopses of decades.The book goes back in time to the days when Davy Crockett played the fiddle and students at Fisk University introduced slave songs to the world in 1871 as the Fisk Jubilee Singers. They remain active today and helped to establish decades of gospel singers that followed including the Fairfield Four.
Cusic grew up loving country music in the Sixties. He was sixteen playing in his first band and stood alongside the next youngest player who was 33. Playing a lot of older songs led him to grow in his knowledge of country music.
“The interest has evolved,” he reflects, “and may have something to do with age. But overall it was a desire to learn more about what I loved.”
That love has led Cusic to write songs for the likes of Jim Ed Brown, Ray Stevens and Bobby Bare. But Cusic is a historian at heart and hopes to finish the biography of Chet Atkins, the guitarist who WSM didn’t want to come to Nashville for fear he’d put all of the city’s session players out of business. Cusic wrote Elvis In Nashville and recounted stories with radio hosts Miller and Lauderdale about the singer who recorded in all night sessions at RCA studios. Presley kicked in a cabinet which has never been replaced because the story is told time and again.
The end of Spring is also the time of year Cusic presents the Belmont Book Award at the International Country Music Conference. Each May, Cusic stands at the podium and awards excellence in roots music journalism, something he put into motion beginning in 1998 when the International Country Music Conference moved from Meridian, Mississippi to Nashville.
“I was at Belmont University and was in a position to offer them a “home” when Meridian discontinued their support,” he recounted. “I love books and reading and country music history so it just seemed natural to come up with the idea of the Belmont Book Award.”
Cusic who serves as editor of the International Country Music Journal, presented the award last year to journalist Holly Gleason for Woman Walk The Line: How The Women In Country Music changed Our Lives. This year’s winner is A&R Pioneers: Architects of American Roots Music on Record (co-published with the Country Music Foundation Press) by Patrick Huber and Brain Ward.
Historian David McCullough once talked about the pull and the attraction of history being in our human nature. He framed it in the context of a few questions: “What makes us tick? Why do we do what we do?”
It’s something that Cusic can relate to. In addition to the Chet Atkins project that’s gone on for several years, he consulted with Ken Burns for his forthcoming PBS series on the history of country music. Cusic also wrote a musical about Minnie Pearl that’s been staged several times at Chafin’s Dinner Theater. He is now working on a musical of Nashville during the Civil War.
“I used to take every opportunity that popped up,” he told me, adding that his plate stays pretty full. “Now I’m much more selective. I’m at the point where I don’t choose projects as much as they choose me. I’ve gotten to the point where I’m able to follow my heart–and that leads me towards projects that are both meaningful to me and hopefully an audience.”