- Faborfrom the forthcoming novel Nashville Chrome
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The mid-1950s in popular music resembled the Wild West. New sounds, new styles, and new business models collided with a teenage audience that had unprecedented buying power. As those forces converged, popular music entered about a half-decade of uncharted territory where shady businessmen exploited ambitious but naïve musicians while the throbbing pulse of rock ’n’ roll destabilized the traditions of both pop and country music.
Of all the genres, country music in particular emerged from World War II as a booming segment of the music industry with a strong national presence. With its southern working-class identity, country had thrived when a large population who grew up on the music took it with them into the armed services, and there spread it to fellow soldiers and, soon thereafter, their families back home. In the 1950s political forces seeking to shore up patriotic fervor in the wake of perceived Communist threats readily adopted the music as a wholesome, intrinsically American part of popular culture, which increased its audience yet again. But in spite of the genre’s growth, country music was still Hank Williams and honky tonk, bluegrass and barn dances, western swing and wistful nostalgia. Then came Elvis.
In 1954, Elvis Presley introduced the world to rockabilly on a small, independent label called Sun Records, run by Sam Phillips in Memphis, Tennessee. Presley’s pounding backbeats and tantalizing gyrations sent the music business scrambling to harness this new force. Within half a decade, the shock waves of that musical development had challenged and inspired the country music industry to establish the Country Music Association (cma), forge plans for a Hall of Fame, and saturate the airwaves with a new, cosmopolitan, crossover style—the Nashville Sound. By the early 1960s, country music had reinvented itself as a sophisticated new genre that found pop stars rushing to Nashville to join the country music bandwagon.
Yet it was a turbulent journey that led the country music business from homegrown honky tonk to a glitzy industry, and this flux created a wealth of opportunities for independent record labels and managers, both scrupulous and unscrupulous. Where the big record companies were slow to pick up on the new trends and out of touch with local music scenes, small labels quickly filled the gaps. These small labels were on the front lines of popular music, experimenting with radical musical styles and attempting to satisfy the frenzy for new music. If and when one of their records broke big, the small label would usually negotiate with one of the major record companies to handle the distribution. And if an artist showed real potential on the national scene, a major label would buy out that artist’s contract (as rca did with Presley). Thus, the small, independent labels had nothing to lose and everything to gain in these gambles, and how well the artists fared depended [End Page 7] entirely on the scruples of the producers and the savvy of the artists in negotiating those first contracts.
The same story appeared over and over again: a young artist, excited by that first contract, signed away too many rights for too long and too little money to a producer, who then exploited that artist through grueling appearance schedules, doctored balance sheets, restrictive musical selections, and countless other maneuvers. Much has been written, for instance, about how Patsy Cline signed with 4Star Records, run by Bill McCall in California, and how that first contract was so stifling that her career almost stopped before it started. When that contract finally expired in 1960, Decca Records immediately snatched her up (and then the hits began to flow), but historians have held McCall accountable for many...