Ask Doc Knox:

So: Was Knoxville the True Home of Country Music?

Dear Doc Knox,

When I first came to Knoxville I heard this story, which I often repeat. I'm wondering if it's true or if it is apocryphal.

As the story goes, Knoxville and not Nashville is the historical home of country music.  The Carter family came from just to the north, Dolly Parton was raised to the south. Old Time music, a predecessor of modern country, is the cultural heritage of Appalachian mountain people, and there were radio stations that played it and a nascent music industry growing in Knoxville.

Supposedly, the recording industry moguls approached the folks who ran Knoxville at the time with a proposition to center the growing country music industry in Knoxville.  Realizing that this would mean the loss of their own control over the city, to be replaced by newcomers, the Knoxville elite declined the offer.  The moguls moved on to Nashville which was more accommodating,  the Delta blues played their part, and the rest is history.

This is a wonderful story about Knoxville, reflecting the parochialism which so often holds our little city back in spite of its natural assets and rich cultural history. I'm wondering if there is any truth to it, or if it's just sour grapes.

Micah Beck

Mr. Beck:

We don't know about any such delegation of moguls or formal entreaty to the city fathers. The subject of whether Knoxville is the rightful Home of Country Music, though, is another matter, and the answer is a resolute Maybe. But not necessarily for the reasons we most often hear recited.

When we hear this and related truisms brought up in lobby conversations, we find ourselves tongue-tied. Sometimes one knows too much to speak coherently. Dr. Knox is grateful for this opportunity to clarify the matter for the record.

It's a damnably interesting question, with a complicated answer. No story has been told in so many different versions, but we hope there's room for this one more.

We find it easiest to tell this story backwards. First, a clarification. Dolly Parton and the Carter Family were important in the popularization of country music, each in their own generation. Dolly, who's from Sevier County, began her broadcasting career in Knoxville in the late '50s and early '60s. The Carter Family, who made some of the first popular recordings of country music, were based about 100 miles to the northeast in southwest Virginia. They famously recorded in Bristol in 1927, and later lived in Texas and elsewhere, but had little association with Knoxville in their early days--though some of Maybelle's three daughters lived in Knoxville temporarily in the '40s to further their radio careers.

Other seminal country musicians like fiddler and singer Roy Acuff and guitar wizard Chet Atkins were much more intimately associated with Knoxville proper. Acuff, in particular, became arguably the first mainstream country-music star, and the genre's first persuasive avatar, hugely influential onstage, on the air, and in the back office. Acuff was born in Maynardville, but lived in Knoxville for about 20 years of his youth. An alumnus of Fountain City's Central High, he was living here as a young man when he learned to play fiddle and when he began playing for live audiences and on the radio, especially stations WNOX (founded in 1921, it was one of the South's first radio stations) and WROL, which both had studios downtown and daily or weekly live country-music shows.

Any discussion about Knoxville's country-music influence begins with Roy. But it may be ironic that this Knoxvillian was the single most influential individual in making Nashville the capital of country music.

By the mid-1930s, when Acuff was still performing primarily in Knoxville, important musicians like Pee Wee King (who was from Milwaukee) and comedian/musician Archie Campbell were moving to Knoxville just to broadcast. From about 1935 to 1960, Knoxville was a magnet for country stars. So were some other cities, including Charlotte and Atlanta, but Knoxville got more than its share. Those who moved to Knoxville mainly to appear on our radio stations included Flatt and Scruggs, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Kitty Wells, the aforementioned Carter sisters, the Louvin Brothers, and the Everly Brothers. Also some local guys, like Homer Haynes, Jethro Burns, Don Gibson and Arthur Q. Smith did their part. The East Tennessee Historical Society's "Cradle of Country Music" brochure is a fine guide to
more detail concerning Knoxville's country heyday.

But we have to remember that many Knoxville stars saw WNOX and WROL as a step up toward WSM--and that Nashville had its own thing going on. The Grand Ole Opry started in 1925, very early in radio history, and a decade before Knoxville's most famous show, the Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round. Middle Tennessee had home-grown talent of its own, notably Uncle Dave Macon, the banjo showman who's remembered as the godfather of country music, and Sam and Kirk McGee, who often played with him. Old-time fiddler Uncle Jimmy Thompson, Fiddlin' Arthur Smith, DeFord Bailey, and the string band the Gully Jumpers, were all early stars from Middle Tennessee. A little later, another Middle Tennessean named Lester Flatt made his own contributions.

Nashville had no reputation as a recording center until the 1940s. But it did have an enormous radio station, WSM, with a giant tower and a clear-channel signal that could be heard throughout the South and the Midwest. Acuff and others who made Nashville a major recording center went there first to broadcast on WSM. Financed by a major Nashville-based insurance company, WSM was an asset Nashville had that Knoxville never did--Nashville had advantages both in money and topography--and it made all the difference.

We can't prove that there was never a surreptitious offer to move Music City to Knoxville. But it's not altogether clear what the motive would have been. East Tennessee has provided Nashville with a disproportional amount of talent, to be sure, and there have likely been more native East Tennesseans on center stage at the Opry over the last 85 years than native Middle Tennesseans.

But most of Nashville's biggest stars came from other states: Johnny Cash from Arkansas, Tammy Wynette from Mississippi, Roger Miller from Oklahoma, Faron Young and Webb Pierce from Louisiana. Hank Snow was from Nova Scotia. And then there's Texas: George Jones, Tex Ritter, Jim Reeves, Ernest Tubb, Lefty Frizzell, Willie Nelson, etc. Texans outnumber East Tennesseans in the Nashville music business. There's a reason it's known as Country-Western. And Nashville's 180 miles more plausibly Western than Knoxville is.

Nashville may have had more of an issue with elitism than Knoxville did. We doubt Roy was invited to many Belle Meade soirees in his early days. Some old-family Vanderbilt Nashvillians--Dr. Knox has known more than a few--were disgruntled about all the picking and grinning, and found ways to live in denial of what hayseed horrors had befallen their genteel city of antebellum mansions, that citadel once exalted as The Athens of the South.

Certainly many Knoxville business leaders didn't care for country music, either. The semi-posh Andrew Johnson Hotel did evict the iconic Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round, ca. 1936, ostensibly because its fans were too rowdy and jamming the elevators. And it's frustrating to historians that Knoxville reporters didn't write more about nascent country music than they did, and that Knoxville librarians didn't collect more about it. Old files marked "Music" before 1950 or so are filled mostly with news of visiting classical performers. (It's an interesting coincidence that the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra was founded the same year as the Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round.)

But some Knoxville business leaders did a great deal to further country music. One who comes to mind, of course, is millionaire grocer Cas Walker, who was, like it or not, and many didn't, one of the most powerful men in Knoxville in the middle part of the century. The barely educated Sevier County native loved country music and promoted it heavily, as is well known, and became one of country's national impresarios. He's especially known for the boost he gave to bluegrass when it was little known.

In fact, both the Knoxville radio stations influential in the development of country were purely commercial ventures supported for decades by Knoxville businessmen who saw value in country music, at least for its bottom-line potential.

Some other businessmen made specific contributions that are a little more surprising; Knoxville business's pre-Cas efforts may have been key to the whole industry. Furniture tycoon James Sterchi (1867-1932) ran Sterchi Brothers Furniture, which as it was building its big headquarters on Gay Street, was claiming to be the biggest furniture company in the world, with more than 60 stores. One high-tech piece of furniture they were pushing in the early 1920s was the phonograph. Phonograph recordings had been available for years, but they tended to emphasize opera stars, sentimental ballads, religious hymns, and marching tunes.

Sterchi tried to expand the phonograph by promoting working people's music. By 1924, Sterchi agents like Gus Nennstiel, who had connections with national recording companies, were sending Tennessee folk musicians to the nearest good recording studios, which were in New York.

Hence Knoxville's Sterchi Brothers Furniture was sending Nashville's Uncle Dave Macon to New York to make early country music recordings. (What is it the youngsters say: How weird is that? And one of the records he and Sam McGee made in New York was "Knoxville Blues.") Other Knoxville-area acts like George Reneau, Charlie Oaks, and Mac and Bob made early recordings in New York, too. Oaks had been making a living as a street musician in Knoxville for decades, and is sometimes remembered as the first professional country musician. The late Charles K. Wolfe's capsule history, Tennessee Strings, a good primer to the subject of the complicated development of country music, gives Sterchi its due.

The first Sterchi-sponsored New York sessions, by the way, were three or four years earlier than the famous sessions at Bristol, which some claim as the birth of country music. What happened in Bristol were some fine groundbreaking recordings by now-legendary performers. Knoxville had its own day in the sun as a recording center when major record producer Brunswick-Vocalion came and camped out in downtown's St. James Hotel for several months in 1929 and 1930. The St. James sessions, some of which are available to listen to on the Internet--see't successful, perhaps partly due to their timing, straddling the stock-market crash. But some of those who recorded in Knoxville during that period were Nashville-area stars, including Macon. History is great for providing surprise inversions.

The story we hear about Knoxville letting opportunities slip through our fingers just may be a multiply twisted version of the St. James Hotel story. The recording studio was open unusually long for a field recording venture, but it was never intended to be permanent.

We can emphasize radio and recordings, but it's impossible to say, of course, where and when country music was born. The simplest answer is that country music is from the country, but even that's a half-truth. Cities amplify influences, and it's likely that most of country's development happened on streets as opposed to cornfields. The banjo, for example, likely came into country music via vaudeville theaters. Cities were where the audiences were, too. Many folks first encountered country on the street, in medicine shows, at dances, etc., in Knoxville and other towns. And here's another twist.

The earliest public performance of country music before an actual seated audience that we've ever been able to find was in Knoxville, in the old Staub's Opera House, in May, 1883. It seems to have been an unauthorized performance by impertinent old-time fiddlers at an annual opera festival. At a time when opera was trendy and youthful, some old-timers revolted and threw a fiddling show on the same stage still echoing with the sounds of French and Italian opera. Though reported as if it were a droll novelty, it caught on. Fiddling contests became a late-19th-century Knoxville tradition, and an influence historians still cite.

So, in short, it's complicated.

Yorn truly,

Uncle Z. Heraclitus Knox, MD, MGR

Come one, come all! Dr. Knox answers your questions regarding the history of the Knoxville metropolis. Send all your queries, big or small, to editorATmetropulseDOTcom.

Comments » 2

  • July 29, 2010
  • 1:17 PM
lost sea records writes:

Awesome article.

Not to split hairs though, but "country and western" music actually implies two different genres of music that were exclusive to one another.

Western music was a form of folk music commonly associated with cowboy music and things associated with the west.

The two genre names were fused by marketers as interest in "western" music declined.

  • July 29, 2010
  • 1:18 PM
lost sea records writes:

Awesome article.

Not to split hairs though, but "country and western" music actually implies two different genres of music that were exclusive to one another.

Western music was a form of folk music commonly associated with cowboy music and things associated with the west.

The two genre names were fused by marketers as interest in "western" music declined.

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Come one, come all! Dr. Knox answers your questions regarding the history of the Knoxville metropolis.