Nashville, Tennessee: Country Music’s Capital City

Essential Question

What made Nashville an important place for people from the rural South in the 1950s and 1960s?

Overview

This lesson explores the musical legacy of Nashville, Tennessee, Country music’s capital city. As early as the 1800s, Nashville emerged as a center for music, whether because of the Fisk Jubilee Singers or the city’s growing interests in music publishing. But it was with the first broadcast of the Grand Ole Opry radio show in 1925 that Nashville began to flourish as the home of what would come to be called “Country music.” Listeners from all over the rural South heard the music they loved over the radios in their living rooms. What they thought of as their own local culture had become something greater. The musicians among them dreamed of traveling to Nashville to perform on the Opry, which for them was the pinnacle of musical achievement.

The name “Grand Ole Opry” was used first by radio host George Hay as a play on the term “Grand Opera,” (a very formal, European tradition), and was a way of declaring that Country music was for many Americans what opera was for Europeans of the wealthy classes. For Hay and the people of the South, this meant Country music and lyrics truly represented where they came from and who they were.

Perhaps the most important thing for Country musicians was to tell stories about their lives and their backgrounds, stories to which their fellow Southerners could relate. These stories, sung and set to lyrics, were about real and sometimes fictional people, places, and events. Sometimes serious, sometimes humorous, Country songs represented every aspect of Southern life. To rural populations, hearing these musical tales over the radio fostered a connectedness to each other and the places they lived, as well as to the distant voices heard on the radio.

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Objectives

Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • The importance of Nashville’s geographic centrality as a key factor behind its cultural significance
    • The significance of radio in connecting rural audiences to the broader American experience
    • The impact of the Grand Ole Opry as a radio show and performance venue
    • The power of storytelling in Country music, and how the practice ties to American tradition
    • Nashville’s history as a center of music production
  2. Be able to (skills):
    • Understand how technology connects communities
    • Explain the significance of place as it relates to streams of American music
    • Analyze different types of storytelling and narrative elements
    • Analyze song lyrics from a literary perspective