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4:13 am
Sat December 14, 2013

What Makes Tennessee's Music So Very Special?

Originally published on Tue December 17, 2013 11:31 pm

From blues to funk, to country and rock, Tennessee is the place that's given voice to the likes of Bessie Smith, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Elvis Presley, Isaac Hayes, Chet Atkins, and many, many more. This winter, the quarterly magazine Oxford American has devoted its annual "Southern Music Issue" to the music of the Volunteer State.

"It was just a matter of time before we tackled Tennessee, and we thought it was the right time," says Roger Hodge, the magazine's editor. "It's, in some ways, the big one. It's where all of American music comes together."

Rick Clark, the music editor of Oxford American, compiled a two-CD sampler to be packaged with the magazine, along with copious liner notes. The tracklist contains a few usual suspects and a lot of surprises. There's a stunning track by The Prisonaires, a doo-wop group that formed while the members were serving time in a state penitentiary. "My Tennessee Mountain Home" might have been the natural choice for Dolly Parton; instead, her contribution is a cover of "Travelin' Prayer," penned by the decidedly un-Southern Billy Joel.

"Part of the narrative that we were developing for this music issue was the journey, the coming home to Tennessee," Rick Clark explains. "You know, 'That's How I Got to Memphis,' 'The Long Way Home,' 'Travelin' Prayer.' Also, the idea that is really celebrated in Nashville is, a great song is a great song. And Dolly Parton is the kind of person, in my book, who just spots those great songs — she's a great songwriter, but she also knows how to inhabit anything she wants to tackle."

Roger Hodge and Rick Clark spoke with NPR's Scott Simon about assembling the Tennessee music issue, which also includes an autobiographical essay by Rosanne Cash and an account of the daring Memphis radio station that, in the late 1940s, became the first to be programmed exclusively for African-Americans. Hear more of their conversation at the audio link.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Now, a quick sampler of music from one special state:

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing) You got a gal, you love her Sunday, then you get another for Monday...

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing) Ain't nobody's business but my own...

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #3: (Singing) You wear overalls, big old broke-eyed shoes and you need a...

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #4: (Singing) ...this boy's got it bad...

CARL PERKINS: (Singing) Have to give old Tennessee credit for music, as they play it in that old hillbilly way...

SIMON: I guess that last line gave it away, huh? From blues to funk, to country and rock, Tennessee is the place that's given voice to the likes of Bessie Smith, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Elvis Presley, Isaac Hayes, Chet Atkins and many more - and I mean, many more. The winter issue of Oxford American's Southern Music - issue is devoted to the music of Tennessee. And we're joined now by the magazine's editor, Roger Hodge, in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

ROGER HODGE: My pleasure.

SIMON: And Oxford American's music editor, Rick Clark, joins us from Nashville. Thank you, Mr. Clark.

RICK CLARK: Absolutely.

SIMON: Mr. Hodge, as editor of this classy magazine, the Oxford American, why did you decide to focus the Southern music issue on Tennessee?

HODGE: Well, it was just a matter of time before tackled Tennessee. And we thought it was the right time. It's, in some ways, the big one. It's where all of American music comes together.

SIMON: Rick Clark, this magazine comes with a two-CD set of songs. As music editor, you've written blurbs about all of the tracks. And I got to tell you, there's some people who are going to pick up the CD, the magazine for that matter, and think, oh, of course, Elvis - you've got to have "Hound Dog," - "Ring of Fire," Johnny Cash. We'll get to Dolly later. But these songs are perhaps less well-known. Why is that?

CLARK: You know, it was more important for us to capture a storyline and material that we felt revealed certain sides of artists that most people don't really think of that we feel like show them in an excellent light. And so, that's what we did.

SIMON: Let's not delay. Let's play one. We've made our own selection of your selection. Let's begin.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUST WALKIN' IN THE RAIN")

THE PRISONAIRES: (Singing) Just walking in the rain, getting soaking wet, taught you in my heart by trying to forget. Just walking in the rain...

SIMON: Boy, that's beautiful. That's a Sun Records recording from the early '50s - not Elvis, not Jerry Lee, not Johnny - the Prisonaires. Now, that wasn't just a stage name. They were in the Tennessee state pen. What do we hear here, Roger Hodge?

HODGE: Well, as you said, this was a band that came out of prison. It reminds us of the incredible diversity of music that came out of Memphis. And you have every kind of music as being not just coming out of there but the actual genres are being formed and stamped there at Sun and at Stax and at all these legendary studios. And this is just a beautiful, beautiful song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUST WALKIN' IN THE RAIN")

THE PRISONAIRES: (Singing) Somehow I can't forget.

SIMON: Y'all - as we don't say in Illinois, but I do when I'm around you - are not going to get out of this interview without mentioning Dolly Parton. Now, I would have chosen "My Tennessee Mountain Home." What do I know? You chose a song written by a guy from Long Island. Let's listen to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRAVELING PRAYER")

DOLLY PARTON: (Singing) Hey, Lord, would you look out for him tonight, for he is far away from me. Hey, Lord, would you look out for him tonight, make sure that he's gonna be all right, that thing's gonna be all right with me.

CLARK: Part of the narratives that we were developing for this music issue was the journey, the coming home to Tennessee. You know, "That's How I Got to Memphis," Roseanne Cash, "Long Way from Home," "Traveling Prayer." And, you know, also the idea that is really celebrated in Nashville, is a great song, is a great song. And Dolly Parton is the kind of person, in my book, who just spots those great songs. She's a great songwriter but she also knows how to inhabit anything she wants to tackle.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRAVELING PRAYER")

PARTON: (Singing) Hey, Lord, would you look out for him tonight, make sure that he's gonna be all right until he's home and here with me, here with me.

HODGE: She does an amazing job on this song. I mean, and if you listen to the band, there's not a weak second on that performance. It's pretty astonishing.

SIMON: Two words now: Chet Atkins.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHINATOWN, MY CHINATOWN")

SIMON: This is "Chinatown, My Chinatown." Roger Hodge, did Tennessee change our understanding of what a guitar can communicate?

HODGE: I think it did. Certainly Chet Atkins did. He shows up all throughout the issue in little bits and pieces. People are constantly referring to him. And he was responsible for creating that kind of Nashville sound that we all know.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHINATOWN, MY CHINATOWN")

SIMON: I read an article by WDIA, the radio station in your magazine, by Christine Cooper, Spindle. She was its program director in the late '40s. They switched formats, became - nowadays we would say - the first urban radio station in America in the late '40s. You would say black radio station. Radio really played a role in Tennessee music moving out into the greater world, didn't it?

HODGE: Yes, it did. And this is an amazing story. This is the moment when a radio station decided to appeal to an audience that was completely ignored and it had a tremendous impact. The significance of WDIA becoming the black spot on the dial, as they called it, was it just can't be overstated. And Christine was there. She was part of that decision process and she was terrified, and they were all terrified. They were afraid they'd be firebombed.

CLARK: One thing I wanted to say also, if I may, is before the corporatization of media-like radio stations, TV stations, chain record stores, all of that took place in the late-'70s. One of the things that helped Tennessee music get out to the world in a meaningful way was this kind of regionalistic confluence of record retail and small, entrepreneurial kind of radio stations and studio owners who worked together to get the music out.

I know like in Memphis, Hi Records, Sun Records, they all worked very tightly with Pop Tunes and other record stores and the local radio stations - Dewey Philips, those DJs - to get - create a channel for the music to really get out there into the world. If it wasn't for those people, we might not even be sitting here talking about it.

SIMON: Roger Hodge and Rick Clark, from the Oxford American. Their winter issue on the music of Tennessee is available now. Gentlemen, thanks so much for being with us.

CLARK: Pleasure.

HODGE: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TENNESSEE")

PERKINS: (Singing) Let's give old Tennessee credit for music, as they play it up in Nashville every day. Let's give old Tennessee credit for music, as they play it...

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.