Much Love for Radio: Digging Into Craig Havighurst’s Book about Nashville’s WSM Radio
Back when I was commuting every day, along the 50 miles that stretch between Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and Harrisburg, my morning drives began at 5:30 a.m. First thing I did when I hit the highway was turn on the radio to WSM 650 AM in Nashville.
During the summer, I might hear 15 minutes of Haril Hensley’s show, “The Early Bird Gets the Bluegrass,” before his voice lost the battle to static and I had to flip the channel to a local country gospel AM station. In the winter, though, that 50,000-watt clear channel station delivered Hensley’s voice to me as if I were listening to WSM while driving through the heart of Music City itself. Not only was I able to hear Haril sign off, but even before I reached my office in Harrisburg, Bill Cody – and his then-sidekick Jennifer Herron – had taken over the turntables, delivering his often laugh-a-minute patter while spinning classic and soon-to-be-classic country music. In the evenings, depending on the time of year, Keith Bilbrey (back then he was the afternoon guy) would carry me home. I knew more about the traffic on I-40 in Nashville than on 283 in Pennsylvania.
At night, I tuned in again to hear Eddie Stubbs spin – on vinyl – Kitty Wells, Hank Williams, the Chuck Wagon Gang, the Osbornes, and Marty Stuart, a frequent guest on Stubbs’ show. Back then, and even now, a highlight of a trip to Nashville was to hop in the car at the airport and tune the dial to WSM. I listened every chance I could.
Nashville natives could tell the stories of growing up with their ears filled with the programs flowing from the station. Many of those stories might include the times that WSM played various formats every hour during the day. For me, that radio station was all about country music. I’m sure my colleagues – and family when they were with me – rolled their eyes and thought, “Do we have to listen to this?”
To this day, the first thing I do every morning when I get to work is turn on my computer, click on wsmonline.com, and listen to the “Coffee, Country, and Cody” show on the air castle of the South. I catch up on my “major” country entertainment news with Jimmy Carter, listen to Charlie Mattos and Bill Cody trade good-natured barbs, hear Bill and Charlie interview artists who are established and those just starting out, and I hear songs from Suzy Bogguss and Patty Loveless, Del McCoury and Vince Gill. Many nights, I tune into Eddie Stubbs to hear him spin songs from the deep catalog of country music, rattle off the Springer Mountain Farms chicken jingle, and engage his guests in sprawling and intimate interviews. Now and then, Stubbs will have such a special conversation with a guest that, as he says, it’s been an anointed evening.
When I was growing up, of course, I would have called you crazy if you suggested I might want to listen to country music. Though I was born in North Carolina and grew up in the South (South Carolina, Florida, Georgia), I never thought to listen to country music. This may be, in part, because my parents didn’t listen much to music on the radio, that I recall. If they had folks over to the house, they listened mostly to Ray Conniff, Herb Alpert, and Mitch Miller and His Singers. Eventually, that music started to sound false to my ears, which had been bent to the strains of rock and roll: Paul Revere and the Raiders, Elvis Presley, the Isley Brothers, and then Black Sabbath, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Ten Years After, and a little group from down the road in Macon, Georgia, called The Allman Brothers. Back then, I had no interest in listening to what, to me, were the whiny strains of Hank Williams or George Jones.
All that began to change when I started listening to Gram Parsons, Jackson Browne, the Eagles, Linda Ronstdat, the Grateful Dead, Neil Young, The Band, and Bob Dylan. When I took up my axe in various bands in college and beyond, I played mostly what has since become known as “country rock.” By the time I was in seminary, I was listening regularly to Emmylou Harris, Crystal Gayle, and Waylon and Willie, and playing their songs when I performed. I listened to WSM a little bit back in those days, mostly late at night when the airwaves were clear enough to bring the station into my room. Once I found the station, I sought it out more and more.
I tell you all this to illustrate that WSM is an institution in Nashville, and Craig Havighurst’s Air Castle of the South: WSM and the Making of Music City (Illinois) deserves to be better known. Indeed, the volume belongs in every country music fan’s library.
In this fast-paced chronicle of the rise of WSM and its integral contributions to the building of Nashville’s economic base and its cultural identity, Havighurst splendidly recounts the challenges, the personalities, and the music that made WSM what it is today.
In 1925, the National Life and Accident Company started the station with radio guru Jack DeWitt at the technical helm and Edwin Craig as the station’s first broadcaster. By 1930, WSM (which stands for “We Shield Millions,” a slogan for National Life and Accident) was so popular that it was one of five stations that the Federal Radio Commission permitted to grow to 50,000 watts, thereby increasing its audience from Nashville to as far north as the Arctic Circle. Havighurst includes snapshots of early Opry performers such as Uncle Dave Macon, Deford Bailey – the only African-American artist on the show – and Minnie Pearl, as well as performers such as Dinah Shore, Snooky Lanson, and Pee Wee King, who got their starts on WSM.
The radio station weathered a crisis in 2002 when its then-owner, Gaylord Entertainment, tried to change its format from country music to sports and talk. Protests from fans from around the country convinced Gaylord of its mistake and WSM remains today the heart and soul of Music City USA. The section of Havighurst’s book that discusses that is alone worth the price of admission, and Eddie Stubbs once shared with me the difficulties and darkness of those days around WSM.
While Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, Music Row, Ernest Tubb Record Shop, and the Country Music Hall of Fame are all venerable Nashville country music institutions –some of which exist more for the benefit of tourists than for the music industry – all of these places owe their very existence to the mother of all Nashville landmarks: WSM.
Havighurst captures so beautifully the symbiotic relationship of the music and the DJs who bring it into our lives over the airwaves. We who love WSM tune in not just because we want to listen to Bill Monroe or the Louvin Brothers or Patsy Cline, but also because we feel as if Bill Cody, Charlie Mattos, Marcia Campbell, Mike Terry, and Eddie Stubbs are our friends, keeping us company with their stories as we’re traveling dark roads home from the third shift, or looking into the sun coming up on a morning drive.
With the advent of online streaming, everyone can listen into WSM – though I still prefer listening on the radio when the signal weaves its way through all those static particles, which means mostly winter nights and early mornings. If you can’t make it to Nashville to visit the studios of WSM out at Opryland, or if you can’t pick WSM up on your radio, Havighurst’s wonderfully lyrical book is the next best thing to being there.