Redressing the History Books: The Soul of Music City.

By E. Mark Windle, 20 August 2023.

Regarding what’s been pretty much an obsession with writing about southern soul music since I started out over ten years ago, House of Broken Hearts: The Soul of 1960s Nashville was undertaken in an attempt to resolve one nagging omission. A fair chunk of my travels has been spent scouring the Carolinas, Virginia, and Louisiana in an attempt locate, research and document the oral histories of solo recording artists and groups (initially for the book It’s Better To Cry, and then Rhythm Message). But I was always conscious that one particular southern state was well overdue attention.

Tennessee has two natural musical homes. Memphis and Nashville are separated by a couple of hundred miles – no distance at all in US terms admittedly – but both cities have unique, rich and intriguing identities. The musical heritage of Memphis has been explored so extensively that its contribution to popular music is now firmly cemented in the history books. In a literary sense, it’s actually quite comforting that such an abundance of work exists which celebrates all aspects of the Memphis tapestry, whether it be Beale Street, Sun Records, Stax, Graceland and rock ‘n’ roll, blues or jazz.

But what of Nashville? Much of that city’s soul music history has been obscured by its accolade as country music centre of the universe. The Grand Ole Opry and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum proudly stand testament to that. But for those willing to dig deeper, there is an alternative story. For decades, a thriving and successful African American community thrived along Jefferson Street and in the surrounding neighbourhoods, and with that came a vibrant black music scene. Night clubs, bars and theatres provided a focal point for the development of jazz, R&B, and ultimately soul music. The ingredients for commercial success were all in place: home grown vocal talent, theatres for live performances, charismatic DJs and promoters, entrepreneurial record store owners, independent record labels, a radio station making soul accessible to teenagers across the southern states, and TV shows which featured soul music acts. It was also a time for white recording artists and musicians to experiment with black music. A crossroads where soul met country. For a brief period at least, the future seemed bright.

Ultimately the demise of this particular aspect of Nashville’s music industry lay largely in ill-planned urban renewal. Since the 1950s, Nashville residents had been witnessing large-scale changes in the cityscape which were threatening the cohesiveness of the black community. By the late 1960s, properties had been demolished, old theatres were torn down to make way for a major six-lane interstate highway, and green spaces and industrial premises were being constructed across the city. Music Row itself was created as a result of the clearance. More than 300 families and 200 single residents, mostly African American, were displaced through these processes, yet the city housing authority had no robust financial plans or arrangements in place for alternative accommodation plans to support residents. Many were forced to leave Nashville for affordable low rent housing elsewhere and never returned. Black music was still being created here, but with talent heavily diluted the the scene never fully recovered.

From the 1980s onwards, attempts to redress the balance included Nashville musician Fred James’ roll-call for blues and soul singers to perform and record in the studio again; and the highly praised Night Train exhibition by the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum which acknowledged past contributions made by local soul and R&B singers. The CD spin-off from the exhibition was even a Grammy winner. To this day, in a little cafe just off Murfreesboro Pike, old faces from back in the day continue to reminisce and perform songs from their past to an intimate but appreciative audience.

Music City is long overdue formal recognition for its role in popularising soul music. Though a bit late in the day, that is progressively happening. The decision to locate the National Museum of African American Music in Nashville (with its grand opening in 2021) was no coincidence, and despite early concerns about how far it would go to represent the city’s local history rather than the broader national story, I’m informed that this apprehension is acknowledged and will be addressed. Meanwhile the goal of House of Broken Hearts: The Soul of 1960s Nashville is to put the spotlight once more back on to soul music’s halcyon days. You’ll find life stories in here about the likes of Jimmy Church, Frank Howard, Freddie North, Johnny Jones, Joe Simon, Jackie Beavers and many more. There’s also plenty of industry insight into the musicians, songwriters, producers, executives, media drivers and record labels of the day. Ultimately though, it’s a story which reflects the desperate need to preserve musical heritage, before those who lived through it all are no longer around to tell the tale, and “false memory” creeps in. Next time you’re passing through Nashville, be sure to call by Carol Anne’s Cafe.

Copyright 2023. E. Mark Windle is a freelance writer and biographer, working independently, as a senior writer with Story Terrace (London, UK), and as a writer for Sheridan Hill / Real Life Stories LLC (North Carolina, USA). To discuss potential projects, contact Mark via this site.

Published by E. Mark Windle

Freelance writer, biographer and soul music lover.

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