Curious Nashville: Why We're 'Music City,' According To Ken Burns

Nov 4, 2016

Nashville Public Radio listener Holden Penley sent this question to Curious Nashville:

Why is Nashville Music City? Why here and not somewhere else?

This is a deceptively big question. As we've discussed how to tackle it, we realize that the answer is neither quick nor tidy enough for us to fully do it justice here. And we recognize that there are a couple of different ways to interpret the question. How did Nashville get the nickname "Music City?" or how did Nashville become a sort of American capital for music and musicians. 

Here are some broad plot points:

Some say the phrase "Music City, USA" was first uttered by Queen Victoria when the Fisk Jubilee Singers were touring in Europe just a few years after The Civil War. That's hard to prove (and the long-time director says the story isn't true), but the Jubilee Singers certainly put Nashville on the musical map in the minds of many during that era.

Several decades later, a few things happened around the same time: Radio announcer David Cobb began using the nickname "Music City" on a far-reaching AM station called WSM. That station's live variety show, the Grand Ole Opry, became popular across the South. And Owen Bradley, who started his career working for the Opry, launched a recording and publishing operation that gave birth to "the Nashville Sound."

From there, things really took off. 

There are plenty of books about this stuff, and Nashville is full of people we could interview to tell the story in colorful detail (which would surely include stories about Dolly Parton, Porter Wagoner and Little Jimmy Dickens).

Or — we could ask Ken Burns. 

The famed documentarian from rural New Hampshire has conducted nearly one hundred interviews trying to trace the origins of country music, taking him from Bakersfield, California, to Nova Scotia, Canada.

Documentarian and historian Ken Burns is working on a 16-hour film on the history of country music.
Credit Blake Farmer

Ultimately, Burns will end up with a 16-hour film about it, and he's spending lot of time compiling material in Nashville these days. WPLN's Blake Farmer caught up with him outside of Belmont University.  

According to Burns, lots of places had radio stations similar to WSM. "Every city, particularly Chicago and Shreveport, but every city had a music station that at some point devoted itself to old time or hillbilly music or country music or country and western or whatever it is," he says. "It's just that the Grand Ole Opry became the dominant place."

As The Grand Old Opry's dominance grew, according to Burns, an early influx of songwriters set Nashville apart from other cities:

"So if you were somebody who had a tune in your head, you would want to come to Nashville and be with like-minded people. So in addition to Music City, it's also songwriting city. We only have to say 'what did Bob Dylan do in the mid-60s, when he was feeling perhaps creatively at odds?' He comes to Nashville, and something is revitalized in his music."

So, the Opry was the spark. Songwriters were the fuel. Bob Dylan was the fire that spread — or something like that.

Nashville also has a few advantages over entertainment centers like New York, LA, even Chicago. And you often hear some combination of these when you ask musicians why they came here. 

Location: An oft-repeated notion is that you can reach half of the US population within a day's drive. Short of parsing the hard numbers on this, a quick look at a map shows you that Nashville is indeed a good starting point for a tour. Within a ten hour drive, you can reach Chicago, Tampa, D.C., Dallas, New Orleans, Kansas City, Pittsburg or Tampa. 

Cost of living: Historically at least, you could have a part time job and still afford to rent a house big enough — and far enough from the neighbors — to rehearse. (It remains to be seen what effect risings rents might have on Nashville's status as an ideal place to start a band.) 

Law of attraction: Like attracts like. Musicians want to be near other musicians they know or admire. Likewise, music-related businesses tend to congregate together.

Once Nashville's recording industry took off, the city attracted record labels, music publishing companies, as well as the performance rights organizations BMI, ASCAP and SESAC.

Nashville is crawling with recording studios, too — from high-dollar professional rooms to backyard DIY setups. 

And so, musicians keep coming — and the legacy continues. 

In 1952, June Carter, Roy Acuff and other "stars of WSM's Grand Old Opry " gained wide exposure with this NBC network television appearance: