The fabled Music Row in Nashville forms a rectangle between Sixteenth and Seventeenth Avenues South and Division and Grand Streets. While tourists may be surprised to find that its outward appearance resembles a neighborhood punctuated by a few corporate office buildings, this tree-lined stretch is the heartbeat of Nashville’s music infrastructure. Major labels, publishing firms, booking agencies, and recording studios all call this area home as they generate musical products heard around the world.
Prior to the 1950s, Nashville built a reputation as an entertainment center through the success of WSM’s Grand Ole Opry program. Begun in 1925, this radio show regularly drew thousands of listeners and dominated the barn-dance radio format. The Ryman Auditorium became country music’s shrine as fans flocked to Nashville every weekend to see the program. Under the leadership and guidance of George D. Hay, Uncle Dave Macon, and Roy Acuff, the Grand Ole Opry generated professional standards and protocols its performers used to sustain their careers. Acuff was also instrumental in the growth of the publishing business in Nashville through his partnership with Fred Rose. By 1939, NBC picked up the Opry for national distribution, helping to establish Nashville’s image as a leader in country music. This, in turn, also attracted musicians, producers, A&R men, and publishers to Nashville, and the music industry grew apace.
After World War II, various radio stations established studios throughout the city to record and broadcast advertisements. In 1946, Castle Recording Studios began recording major-label artists in addition to their regular commercial spots. Soon thereafter, labels such as Capitol, RCA Victor, and Decca moved to Nashville to capitalize on the growing music industry. Owen and Harold Bradley opened a studio in a Quonset Hut on Sixteenth Avenue South, becoming the first business on Music Row in 1954. Publishing firms such as Hill and Range and Cedarwood Music also moved to Music Row during this period. The reasonable real estate prices and close proximity to the burgeoning music industry drew these associated businesses to the area. In 1957, RCA built an office and recording facility on Music Row known as Studio B and played host to Elvis Presley, Eddy Arnold, and the Everly Brothers, among many others. Steve Sholes selected Chet Atkins to run this studio and eventually RCA’s country division, thus representing a significant step in the creation of a commercially successful Nashville Sound.
The development of Music Row extended the commercial reach and popularity of country music. What was once music largely informed by the barn-dance ethos of the Grand Ole Opry eventually morphed into a commercial industry. Music Row studios, led by the example of producers Chet Atkins and Don Law, crafted a product that appealed to a mass audience. String arrangements, soaring background vocals, and the use of various studio techniques all contributed to a recognizable Nashville Sound. A new studio culture emerged that provided session musicians with a familiar environment to apply their professional talents. This list included Floyd Cramer, Hank Garland, the Anita Kerr Singers, the Jordanaires, and Hargus “Pig” Robbins. Many of these early session players appeared on a long list of recordings, further establishing a commercially distinctive sound.
In the late 1950s, the industry needed a mechanism to compete with rock-n-roll and to promote the interests of country music. The Country Music Association (CMA) was thus created to enhance access to radio and television markets. As a trade organization, the CMA applied professional marketing techniques to galvanize support and to display commercial potential. The effort proved successful. Country radio now boasts over 2,300 stations throughout the United States, and CMA membership extends into over thirty countries. In 1961, the CMA created the Country Music Hall of Fame to honor those in the business. The Hall of Fame plaques were housed in the Country Music Foundation’s Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum on Music Row from 1967 until 2000. The CMA has maintained an office on Music Row in various locations since the early 1960s. In 2001, the Hall of Fame and Museum moved to 222 Fifth Avenue South in Nashville.
Through tremendous growth and change, Music Row continues to represent the focal point of country music. Even as Nashville opens its doors to a wider musical landscape, the ever-shifting country music industry finds a home in this deceptively quiet neighborhood.
Dan Daley, Nashville’s Unwritten Rules (1998);
Bill C. Malone, Country Music USA (1968);
Joli Jensen, The Nashville Sound: Authenticity, Commercialization, and Country Music (1998).