THE READING ROOM: Book Gives ‘Nashville Cats’ Their Due
In 2015, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville mounted an exhibit titled “Dylan, Cash, and the Nashville Cats: A New Music City” that ran for almost two years. As Kyle Young, CEO of the Hall and Museum, pointed out, the exhibit was “a testament not only to the enduring legacies of Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, but also to the technical prowess and creative genius of the Nashville Cats,” a cast of session musicians who created “the Nashville Sound” across thousands of recordings.
While other groups of session musicians — the Wrecking Crew, The Funk Brothers, The Swampers — had been the focus of documentaries and books, the exhibit focused on this less celebrated group, which now gets its due in a new book. In Nashville Cats: Record Production in Music City (Oxford), musicologist Travis D. Stimeling provides a detailed portrait of these groups of musicians, many of whom, as he points out, “participated in the creation of as many as 80,000 individual recordings over the course of their careers.” Drawing on “new archival documents and oral histories,” Stimeling recovers the “histories of the session musicians who shaped the sound of popular music in the United States during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s,” focusing on the Nashville session scene.
Through the mid-’60s, “Nashville Cats” refers more or less synonymously to the Nashville A Team; after that, the term is used more loosely as new musicians come to town. The various members the Nashville A Team brought with them a high level of musicianship, Stimeling writes. During the 1950s through the 1970s, this group of musicians were some of the most active in the entire music industry, “contributing to as many as twenty or more sessions each week for, in some cases, twenty years or more.” In spite of this activity, many of the players — which included, over the years, guitarists Chet Atkins and Harold Bradley, pianist Hargus “Pig” Robbins, and drummer Jerry Carrigan — gained little name recognition for their work. Their names were often missing from credits on liner notes or album sleeves. Charlie McCoy, who played harmonica on George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” has often described the role of the session musician as the frame for the song and artist, which are the picture. Yet the high degree of musicianship these players brought to these sessions deserves more attention, and Stimeling shines the light on them in the book.
When we talk about the Nashville A Team, we sometimes think of them as a static group of players whose session work was confined to the rise of the Nashville Sound in the 1960s. As Stimeling helpfully illustrates, membership in the A Team can be thought of in generational terms. The first generation, sometimes referred to as the “original Nashville A Team,” was involved in the Nashville recording scene from its beginnings in the mid-1940s, and included guitarists Chet Atkins, Billy Byrd, and Harold Bradley, pianist Owen Bradley, drummer Farris Coursey, and bassist Joe Zinkan. These musicians and the sound they produced were responsible, according to Stimeling, for drawing country recording sessions from Chicago and Cincinnati to Nashville.
A second generation of musicians established themselves in the mid-1950s, joining some members of the first generation on legendary country recordings. Members of this generation include guitarists Grady Martin and Hank Garland, pianist Floyd Cramer, bassist Bob Moore, and drummer Buddy Harman. In the mid-1960s a third generation — including multi-instrumentalist Charlie McCoy, pianist Hargus “Pig” Robbins, guitarist Wayne Moss, bassist Henry Strzelecki, and drummer Willie Ackerman — emerged, helping to bring new musical ideas to town. By the end of the 1960s, a fourth generation of players carried their experience playing soul and rhythm and blues from Muscle Shoals and Memphis to offer their own takes on country music. Among this generation were pianist David Briggs, guitarist Reggie Young, bassist Norbert Putnam, and drummer Jerry Carrigan.
One of the key players in the second generation of the Cats was rhythm guitarist Velma Williams Smith, who played on many RCA Victor sessions in the 1950s and 1960s. Though she was a regular member of the RCA session team, her participation in it has largely been overlooked until recently, when her niece, Suzi Burgher Payne, documented her aunt’s contributions, Stimeling writes. She played with country artists including George Morgan, Carl Smith, Hank Williams, and Jim Reeves. When she walked into the studio for her first Reeves session on Sept. 4, 1958, he asked if he could help her, thinking she was a secretary. Smith told him she was his rhythm guitarist for the day, and he mumbled something like, “What has [producer Chet] Atkins gotten me into?” Smith replied that she was going to do her best to please him and that if there was anything that wasn’t “up to par with what you’d like” to tell her. They did the song in the first take, and Reeves told her, “Velma, I think we’re going to get along just fine.”
Across these generations, the Nashville A Team developed a distinctive style of playing and studio work that distinguished them from other session musicians, especially those in New York and Los Angeles. Stimeling writes:
“In New York and Los Angeles, staff arrangers, working primarily from written notation, called upon session musicians to play their scores faithfully. As a consequence, New York and Los Angeles session musicians were widely renowned for their ability to sight-read written notation and to play even the most complicated arrangements cleanly and confidently without prior rehearsal. The Nashville A Team, on the other hand, largely eschewed standard arranging practices in favor of so-called ‘head’ arrangements that were developed during the recording session itself. That is the A Team musicians arrived at a session with little to no prior knowledge of the songs that were going to be recorded that day, and they often heard the songs for the first time as the session began. In some cases, the singer or the producer played a demo, while in others, the singer played and sang the song on the spot. As the musicians listened to the first song for the four-song session, they wrote down the song’s chord changes using a shorthand known as the ‘Nashville Number System’ and began to think of interesting ways to ornament the singer’s melody. … As such, A Team musicians were valued not only for their ability to play with precision, but also for their ability to create novel sounds that could attract the attention of radio listeners and record buyers.”
In 1966, John Sebastian immortalized the high degree of musicianship that members of the Nashville A Team brought to sessions in his humorous tribute song “Nashville Cats”: “Nashville cats, play clean as country water / Nashville cats, play wild as mountain dew / Nashville cats, been playin’ since they’s babies / Nashville cats, get work before they’re two.” While Sebastian takes a lighthearted look at these players, Stimeling’s Nashville Cats provides detailed and compelling glimpses of these musicians who were a force in establishing not only the Nashville Sound but also in creating a fluid musical notation system and in helping establish Nashville’s country music recording industry.