It wasn’t until the 1960s that the general public became aware of an odd facet of country music that musicians had known about for years: the presence on most of the hit recordings of a shadowy cadre of crack musicians who were being known as “studio pros” or “A-teams.” These were artists, mostly instrumentalists, who never toured or performed on the road, and who made their living strictly by playing backup on records and radio shows. By the 1960s, everybody was talking about the “Nashville sound” and the rise of the Nashville studio system. This was a method in which the record companies insisted that an artist not record with his regular road band but with a unit of studio musicians—gunslingers who were used to the pressures of recording, who could adapt to a new song on the spot, and who could nail a cut on one take. The great Nashville A-team of that era included names like Chet Atkins, saxophone player Boots Randolph, pianist Floyd Cramer, guitarist Grady Martin, and guitarist Ray Edenton. Besides playing on the hits of others, some of them did create hits of their own, such as Cramer’s “Last Date.”
But there were earlier generations of studio musicians as well, and their largely uncredited contributions had a lot to do with creating the sound of modern country music.
As early as 1928, the versatile singer and songwriter Carson Robison was serving as a studio guitarist in Victor’s New York studio, and by 1930 the fiddler Lowe Stokes was working on a retainer from the Brunswick Company to back up any singer or group that needed a little extra punch. By the 1940s, crooner Eddy Arnold’s style was being largely defined by the mellow, elegant electric steel guitar work of Little Roy Wiggins—though his name seldom appeared on the record labels. And the first really full-time A-team was put together in the late 1940s to back up Red Foley, who was then the biggest Opry star and arguably the biggest star in the business. This band, which was with Foley from 1946 to 1948, included the