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It’s the fastest-growing music in America. It’s a three-billion-dollar-plus industry. Cable stations devoted to it reach sixty-two million homes. And yet, says one passionate follower of country music past and present, its story is over.
November 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 7
World War II was the pivotal event in country music’s nationwide spread. Defense work drew Southerners to every corner of the United States, and Northern cities swarmed with Southern migrants looking to unwind after work. “Hillbilly Tunes Gain Popularity in Baltimore,” said a Billboard story on March 6, 1943; the songs were “especially popular in spots patronized by West Virginians, North and South Carolinians and other native Southerners who have virtually invaded the defense plants. . . .” “Hillbilly Tunes Score Big Hit in Most Detroit Jukes,” Billboard said on September 9, 1944, but there was a new wrinkle: “The insistent rhythm” of country music had “got under the skin of the Detroit ‘natives,’ and they tend to like the tunes, in moderation.”
Thousands of Southern boys entered the service, exposing Northern GIs to Bob Wills and Ernest Tubb. “I went into the merchant marine in 1943 and took my guitar with me,” said the fifties country star Ferlin Husky during a 1958 congressional hearing on the music industry. “There were lots of boys . . . who had never really heard country music before, and it was interesting to see how fast they acquired a taste for it.” In September 1945 a debate raged among GIs in Munich: Who was better, Frank Sinatra or the Grand Ole Opry’s Roy Acuff? A four-thousand-vote radio poll put Acuff ahead by six hundred.
The patriotic mood was probably responsible for Roy Acuff’s status as “King of Country Music” (the title was bestowed by baseball’s Dizzy Dean, a big hillbilly fan). A Tennessean raised on folk music and hymns, Acuff performed in a completely unironic, almost solemn style. Unlike almost every other country-music star of the thirties and forties, he eschewed cowboy clothes and never recorded a single cowboy song, cloaking himself instead in Appalachian hearth-and-home values. In 1942 his income topped two hundred thousand dollars. The story is often told that when the Japanese attacked American positions on Okinawa, they cursed the three things they thought Americans held dearest: “To hell with Roosevelt, to hell with Babe Ruth, to hell with Roy Acuff!”
The mainstream press was finally showing real curiosity about country, not just flip condescension. A 1944 Saturday Evening Post article by Maurice Zolotow, “Hillbilly Boom,” said there were twenty-five million “admirers of the lonesome Texas plaint and of the mountain melancholy. . . . When a unit, say, like Roy Acuff and his Smoky Mountain Boys is scheduled to hit a town like Albany, Ga., farmers will pour into Albany from a 200-mile radius. . . . Acuff will play to audiences of 4,000 in places where Betty Grable or Tommy Dorsey or Bob Hope would only succeed in drawing boll weevils.”
Country was big business now. In 1944 Billboard counted six hundred country radio shows in the United States with an audience of forty million. “When the box-office count is in,” said Billboard in 1943, “King Korn can top anything the exponents of jumpin’ jive have done. . . . [The] rural rhythmites go blithely along with satisfied smiles on their kissers and coins that jingle, jangle, jingle in their kicks.”
From the late-1940s on, the reins of country-music power would be held in Nashville. Blowing through in 1927, Ralph Peer had dismissed the town as a recording center. But fifteen years later “The Grand Ole Opry,” broadcast live nationally over NBC radio since 1939, was attracting a disproportionate number of stars. With so much talent Nashville was a logical place to make records, and in 1947 three WSM engineers started Castle, the city’s first recording studio. By 1950 country-music record producers no longer needed to bring their artists to New York or roam the nation with portable gear. Now they headed for Nashville.
Hank Williams—born in poverty, alcoholic since childhood, miserably married to a true Lady Macbeth—may be the only country-music artist to whom the term genius fully applies.
In 1942 Roy Acuff and the songwriter Fred Rose founded Nashville’s first music-publishing company. (By the forties, sheet music was no longer lucrative, but music publishers remained powerful; putting a songwriter under contract, they shopped his songs and channeled royalties to him.) Acuff-Rose Publications quickly became a force, and not merely in country music. In 1949 Fred Rose brokered a country song called “The Tennessee Waltz” to a Columbia Records executive in New York—none other than Mitch Miller. Hiring Patti Page to sing it, Miller made the song a number-one pop hit. It eventually sold nearly five million copies, one of America’s all-time best-selling singles. In 1951 Acuff-Rose struck again: Fred Rose steered a tune called “Cold, Cold Heart” to Mitch Miller, who thought it was perfect for young Tony Bennett. Bingo—another number-one pop hit.