Air Castle of the South: WSM and the Making of Music City
Nearly every book-length country history or biography of any Grand Ole Opry-related performer includes obligatory background about WSM and the Opry’s history, usually recounting the Saturday night when George D. Hay spontaneously christened the station’s popular weekly old time music program the “Grand Ole Opry.” Add to that the “Midnite Jamboree” and Ralph Emery, and it’s easy to assume WSM was country 24/7. But as Craig Havighurst’s corporate history of WSM demonstrates, such an assumption would be incorrect.
When commercial radio became viable in the 1920s, a number of corporations saw it as a means of enhancing their image. WSM’s owners, Nashville’s National Life and Accident Insurance Company felt that broadcasting could sell more policies. But without the group of extraordinary individuals who as young men gave the station life, enhancing its growth and expansion as they rose through the ranks, it’s unlikely any of this would have happened.
Edwin Craig, the son of National Life’s Chairman and the original prime mover behind WSM, remained its biggest fan long after he assumed the top position at National Life. Engineering genius Jack Dewitt, a future WSM president, kept the technical side cutting-edge. Harry Stone and Irving Waugh, who began as announcers, left their own marks as executives, while program director Jack Stapp created first-rate non-country programming. Hay, plagued by intermittent mental problems, withdrew from management to become the Opry’s host and spiritual leader.
There was serious competition from other early barn dance radio shows, most notably the WLS “National Barn Dance,” but shrewd marketing by Craig and the others eventually made the Opry pre-eminent. In the 1940s, many country recording sessions took place in Chicago, New York and Cincinnati, until WSM engineers opened Castle Studios as a sideline business to their day jobs. Country Music Week, built around the CMA Awards, began as WSM’s annual “Disc Jockey Convention.” National Life believed so strongly in cable’s future that they sold WSM-TV to finance cable’s Nashville Network (TNN).
WSM also aimed its 50,000 watts of clear channel at non-country listeners with “Sunday Down South”, a syndicated weekly variety show. The station featured singers Dinah Shore and Snooky Lanson before they became national stars, along with dance bands led by Francis Craig, Beasley Smith and Owen Bradley, the iconic Decca country producer who used that experience to create the Nashville Sound.
By 1982, National Life and WSM faced futures involving acquisition, dismantling and displacement. American General purchased National Life, selling the Opry, TNN and WSM-AM to Gaylord Entertainment. Today TNN is SpikeTV. WSM-AM still broadcasts country over its original, distinctive transmission tower, but only because fan outcry forced Gaylord to abandon a planned change to sports talk. The Opry’s future is less certain.
Havighurst provides impressive detail, though at times his prose veers into a stiff, textbookish formality at odds with the colorful characters and situations he chronicles. He occasionally fumbles musical facts, calling Buck Owens’ #1 single “Together Again” a “minor hit” and crediting Webb Pierce’s hit “Slowly” with “the first pedal steel guitar solos,” as if Speedy West’s earlier work never existed. His concluding reflections on the Opry’s long-term future are interesting, though one wonders if reinventing it as a down-south knockoff of the less authentic “Prairie Home Companion” is any future at all.
Those reservations aside, Havighurst has created a fascinating and compelling work, shedding significant new light on how Nashville, “The Athens of the South,” evolved into Music City USA. That moniker, like “Grand Ole Opry,” was also coined spontaneously on the air — by WSM disc jockey David Cobb.