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Air Castle of the South

WSM and the Making of Music City

Craig Havighurst

Publication Year: 2007

Started by the National Life and Accident Insurance Company in 1925, WSM became one of the most influential and exceptional radio stations in the history of broadcasting and country music. WSM gave Nashville the moniker "Music City USA" as well as a rich tradition of music, news, and broad-based entertainment. With the rise of country music broadcasting and recording between the 1920s and '50s, WSM, Nashville, and country music became inseparable, stemming from WSM's launch of the Grand Ole Opry, popular daily shows like Noontime Neighbors, and early morning artist-driven shows such as Hank Williams on Mother's Best Flour. _x000B__x000B_Sparked by public outcry following a proposal to pull country music and the Opry from WSM-AM in 2002, Craig Havighurst scoured new and existing sources to document the station's profound effect on the character and self-image of Nashville. Introducing the reader to colorful artists and businessmen from the station's history, including Owen Bradley, Minnie Pearl, Jim Denny, Edwin Craig, and Dinah Shore, the volume invites the reader to reflect on the status of Nashville, radio, and country music in American culture._x000B_

Published by: University of Illinois Press

Series: Music in American Life

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-9


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pp. 10-11

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pp. xi-xii

This book began to take shape thanks to the kindness of Wade Jessen and Kyle Cantrell, both of whom shared time and information with me many years ago when I had nothing to offer them but questions about country music, radio, and Nashville. They offered me an overview of ...

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Introduction: The Muse of Music City

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pp. xiii-xix

On the bitter cold morning of January 8, 2002, a grassy berm at the sprawling interchange of Briley Parkway and McGavock Pike in Nashville, Tennessee, became an impromptu grandstand for protesters. More than one hundred citizens waved signs, clapped their mittens, and urged passing motorists to honk in support of traditional country music. “Keep country ...

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1 On the Very Air We Breathe

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pp. 1-17

Dr. Clayton E. Crosland, associate vice president of one of the Southeast’s finest finishing schools, wasn’t precisely sure what to say, but he did not wish to be misunderstood. ...

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2 The Ears Are Eyes

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pp. 18-40

WSM took Tuesday off and switched on again Wednesday afternoon. Opening night announcer Jack Keefe sat before a microphone in the velvet opulence of the WSM studio and described game one of the World Series, based on a steady stream of balls, strikes, hits, and outs from a news wire. A few blocks ...

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3 A Pleasing Spectacle

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pp. 41-60

The skywave, bouncing between the atmosphere and the earth, carried WSM’s 5,000-watt, clear channel signal remarkable distances. In the early 1930s, the station received letters from Honolulu, New Zealand, and Northern Ontario. Margaret Joyce, the ten-year-old daughter of a Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman ...

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4 Air Castle of the South

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pp. 61-87

Late in the fall of 1933, WSM transmitter engineer Jack Montgomery stirred himself at about ten minutes to five in the afternoon and left the white transmitter house in the meadow in Brentwood. The sun was setting early now, heralding the nightly coming of the skywave that would amplify WSM’s signal over thousands of miles. The tower soared above his head, poised as if for ...

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5 We Must Serve These People Tonight

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pp. 88-103

With two additions between 1929 and 1934, the National Life Home Office grew into a muscular, U-shaped edifice just off Nashville’s Capitol Hill. Out front, Union Street dropped down a block to the Hermitage and Andrew Jackson hotels and the grand quadrangle that was War Memorial Plaza. And ...

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6 Guts and Brass

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pp. 104-120

The night of December 15, 1939, was icy cold in Atlanta, but the thousands of people crowded on Peachtree Street scarcely noticed. They were dazzled by searchlights panning the sky and playing across the facade of the Loew’s Grand Theater, which, on this gala evening, was festooned with Confederate ...


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pp. 142-155

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7 One of Our Boys Shoots the Moon

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pp. 121-137

By 1943 troops nearly outnumbered civilians in greater Nashville, and the city was frequently overrun with soldiers in training or in transit. They filled the hotels, the bars, the theaters, and the streets. Sometimes, when space simply ran out, they slept in parks or on the steps of the post office on Broadway. Many ...

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8 It Helped Everybody in the Long Run

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pp. 138-158

Harry Stone felt betrayed. Over nearly twenty years he’d managed WSM from a part-time local station to a national powerhouse with a signature show. Just one year before he’d been named vice president and general manager of WSM. And then, without warning, old man Craig made Jack DeWitt his boss, at a ...

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9 The Balance of Power Has Shifted

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pp. 159-177

Americans lived with the idea of television, the bewitching vision of it, for decades before the TVs themselves arrived like an army of flying saucers in department stores across the nation. Even before WSM radio went on the air, popular-science magazines showed people gathered around color television ...

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10 Jack, We Got a Real Problem

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pp. 178-204

In coat and tie, surrounded by records, he sat before an open microphone and a pair of industrial-weight turntables in a small studio on the fifth floor of the National Life building on a winter’s night in 1952. Wide-eyed and wired with enthusiasm, “Smilin’” Eddie Hill sounded like nothing that had ever been broadcast from the Air Castle of the South. He was a thirty-year-old hillbilly ...

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11 A Code and a Concern

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pp. 205-223

Bob Cooper wanted the world to know that the 1960 DJ convention was on the level. The general manager of WSM radio knew that Congress was investigating record and radio ethics and that rock DJs like Alan Freed were being pilloried on a national stage. Besides outright payola (money in exchange ...

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12 The Whole Complex Is a Studio

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pp. 224-243

Jack DeWitt’s retirement and Craig’s death coincided with the most radical changes yet for National Life. Chairman Dan Brooks and president Bill Weaver had both climbed to prominence through the company’s investment division, managing the billions of dollars in accumulated reserves insurers have to carry. ...

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Epilogue: Signal Fade

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pp. 244-250

For his stewardship of the Grand Ole Opry and the growth of TNN and CMT, E. W. “Bud” Wendell was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1998, just one year after his retirement as Gaylord’s CEO. He was remembered by former employees and Opry artists as a warm, effective leader whose ...


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pp. 251-259


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pp. 261-264

Index of Song Titles

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pp. 265-266

Subject Index

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pp. 267-279

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About the Author

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pp. 316-322

CRAIG HAVIGHURST is an independent writer and producer based in Nashville. A former music critic and business writer for the Tennessean, he now reports for public radio and writes for print and television. As ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780252094347
Print-ISBN-13: 9780252032578

Page Count: 320
Publication Year: 2007

Series Title: Music in American Life

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Subject Headings

  • WSM (Radio station : Nashville, Tenn.).
  • Radio broadcasting -- Tennessee -- Nashville -- History.
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