Magazine article The Spectator

Television: James Walton

Magazine article The Spectator

Television: James Walton

Article excerpt

Twenty minutes into BBC4's The Heart of Country (Friday), there was a clip of Chet Atkins, country music's star producer of the 1960s, being asked to define 'the Nashville sound'. Atkins reached into his pocket, pulled out some coins and rattled them in his hands. 'That's the Nashville sound,' he said with a slightly rueful smile. 'Money.'

By this stage, mind you, the revelation of Nashville's commercialism didn't come as an enormous surprise. After all, WSM, the radio station that started the whole thing with its live shows from the Grand Ole Opry, was the broadcasting arm of the National Life and Accident Insurance Company. It also took a stern line on any songs whose depictions of southern life didn't match Nashville's self-image as place of blameless propriety. In 1952, for example, WSM banned 'It Wasn't God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels' by Kitty Wells -- memorably described by one contributor as the first woman in country music 'who stood up and said, "You're a jerk, and here's why."' (Many more would, of course, follow.)

For a while, this commitment to wholesomeness seemed a rare commercial mistake, as the younger audience headed off to rock'n'roll. Nashville, though, soon hit back by replacing fiddles with lush strings, turning singers into crooners and flogging its product to suburban adults. (One exceptionally gruesome clip featured Willie Nelson in the early 1960s crooning away in a nice white cardie.) As Eddy Arnold, one of the biggest stars of the day, put it, 'I didn't care if it was real country music. I just wanted to sell records.'

The turning point came when the impeccably hip Bob Dylan recorded Blonde on Blonde in Nashville, and started duetting with Johnny Cash. At a stroke, country turned unexpectedly cool, and the likes of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings found themselves playing to the kind of countercultural types straight out of the Nashville city fathers' nightmares. But if country music was now a fashion accessory for urban folks, what would happen once the fashion changed?

The answer is that in the 1980s Nashville went into freefall. It didn't recover until Garth Books came along to become the biggest country star of them all, with his combination of rock-star posturing (in a cowboy hat) and old-school values. 'It's a gift from God,' Garth told us, 'and he didn't put any restrictions on it. …

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