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

Activities

Motivational Activity

  1. Display U.S. Map with Nashville Highlighted. Ask Students: What do you know about Nashville, Tennessee? (Write students’ answers on the board. Some students may mention music.)
  2. Ask students: Does the music associated with Nashville more often reflect rural or urban themes? How do you think Nashville’s location affects that?
  3. Display the Nashville Highway Map and ask: What do you notice about the highways on this map that might have made Nashville an obvious destination for travelers?

Procedure

  1. Display photos of rural & urban Tennessee, and ask students:
    • Can you describe some of the differences between the two photos?
    • How might the daily activities of the children in each photo have been different, based on where they lived?

  2. Display photos of families around radios, circa 1940s and 50s, and ask students:
    • How do you think radio might have affected the lives of people living in rural areas before the development of highways and televisions in the 1950s? (Before highways were built in the mid–late 1950s, radio was a way people in rural areas stayed connected to their southern neighbors, as well as to near and distant cities.)
    • Why might hearing news and music on the radio be more important for families living in rural areas? (Students might mention that cities are more crowded, and that people in Nashville and other cities have greater access to news and culture. They might be able to hear music live, rather than on the radio, since that’s where musicians lived and made music.
  3. Play Clip 1, Sonic Highways – Dolly Parton and Grand Ole Opry, in which Dolly Parton discusses the importance of Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry during her childhood. Distribute Handout 1: Dolly Parton, which shows photos from Dolly Parton’s childhood. Ask your students:
    • Why do you think performing at the Grand Ole Opry was so important to Dolly Parton as a little girl?
    • What was Dave Grohl insinuating when he analogized Nashville to the “Emerald City?” (Help students understand the Wizard of Oz connection–traveling from a rural place to a “magical” city, just like Dorothy in the movie.)
    • Is there a near or distant place you want to visit or perhaps live, based on things you’ve seen on television or the internet, or heard about from a friend or relative? (Call on students to explain their answers. Ask students to compare their experiences to Parton’s.)
  4. Ask students: Before radio, television and the internet, how do you think families might have spent their leisure time? (Answers might include: playing games, reading, making art or music, and telling stories.)Then play Clip 2,Sonic Highways – Storytelling in Country Songs, where various artists discuss how important storytelling is in Country songs. Distribute Handout 2: Components of Narratives.
  5. Now, break students into small groups and have each student discuss one song that s/he relates to lyrically as well as musically. Process:
    • Discuss the elements that are involved with narratives
    • Ask students: What makes a story successful?
    • Have students write down the name of the song and the artist who wrote and/or performs it
    • Have students describe in 1-2 sentences what the song is about and what kind of narrative it is. (Students can describe narrative types, such as “first person” or “third person,” as well as describe the narrative’s characters, setting, plot, etc.)
    • Have students take turns describing their favorite song to the other members of their group, explaining why the song is meaningful to them
    • Ask a representative from each group to summarize why their favorite songs were successful
  6. The musicians discuss the concept of “empathy” in songwriting. Ask students: What does “empathy” mean? (Empathy is defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”) Ask students:
    • Is “empathy” important for a song’s success? Is a song more effective if the songwriter writes about something they’ve actually experienced? How might you write a song with empathy if you haven’t experienced what you’re writing about? (Discuss as a class, asking students to use their chosen song in their argument. Write some responses on the board.)
  7. Distribute Handout 3: “Joshua” Lyrics. Play a video or audio recording of Dolly Parton’s “Joshua.” Ask students:
    • What parts of the song make this a story about a rural town? About a southern town? (Students might reference the “little old shack,” the dog in the yard, or even Parton’s southern accent.)
    • What parts of the song indicate the characters’ backgrounds? (Students might answer that living in a “shack” as well as by the railroad track are indicative of poverty. They might mention that both characters were alone/without family.)
    • How would you describe the narrator? What is her perspective? (She tells the story from a first-person perspective. Students might answer that she is bold, brave, friendly, caring.)
    • How would you describe the conflict and resolution in this story? (The narrator hears about a “mean guy” who lives alone by the railroad tracks, and decides to see for herself. The conflict might be that the descriptions of Joshua are false; he isn’t mean, he’s just quiet and lives alone. The resolution is the friendship they form and the happy ending.)
    • In the song, the narrator tells us that she is an orphan, but Dolly Parton was raised by her parents with her eleven siblings. Although Parton invented these characters, what parts of her background do you think she called upon when creating this story? (Students might answer that she was also poor. They might mention that she’s an empathetic person, and that she too would be kind to a lonely stranger if she were in this situation. You can speculate that perhaps Parton was interested in an orphan/loner’s perspective, since it’s likely she was rarely alone while growing up. She also grew up in a poor rural town, and maybe she knew someone just like Joshua.)
  8. Play Clip 3,Sonic Highways – Tony Joe White and “Polk Salad Annie,” which looks at the popular Tony Joe White song and how it resonated with such other Southern musicians as Elvis Presley and Dolly Parton.
  9. Distribute Handout 4: “Polk Salad Annie.” (If there is time, play a performance of Tony Joe White performing the entire song.) Ask students:
    • How does “Polk Salad Annie” tell a story about “place?” (Poke salad is from the South, and many poor people ate it because it was free.)
    • Do you think White’s singing style and delivery of the song affect its meaning and/or our interpretation of it? (He begins by speaking the story, and overall his delivery is more like speech than singing.)
    • Why do you think someone would write a song about food? How might food represent a place? (Certain foods grow only in a specific place or region. People of shared cultural backgrounds often live near each other, so food can represent a region. For example, if you see a lot of Italian restaurants, you know you’re in an Italian neighborhood.)
    • What else does the song describe besides food? (The song describes Annie’s personality and family.)
    • Why do you think people in the rural South respond to this song? (Polk salad is a food many people eat in the rural South, and people might know someone just like Annie.)
    • Ask students: Can you think of a food that represents where you come from, or where your parents come from? Write responses on the board.

Summary Activity:

Play Clip 4, Sonic Highways – Empathy in Country Songs. In the clip, Steve Earle discusses the songwriter’s responsibility to convey personal experiences in songs that listeners can relate to and Tony Joe White recalls hearing Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” and feeling an immediate connection to the song’s subject. Ask students:

  • What does “empathy” mean? (Empathy is defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”)
  • Why do you think “empathy” might be important for a song’s success? Why do you think a song might be more effective if the songwriter writes about something they’ve actually experienced? Discuss as a class, asking students to use their chosen song in their argument. Write some responses on the board.

Have students return to their small groups. Ask each group to collaborate and write a story in the form of a song lyric or poem that helps the listener/audience get a sense of a specific place. Students can refer to Handout 2 to remind them of the narrative elements. Students use simple verse-chorus form, like “Joshua” or “Polk Salad Annie,” and they should think about writing an empathetic song.

The lyrics/poem can be about:

  • A single event
  • A recurring event
  • A special activity
  • An emotional experience
  • A song about where you come from

Extension Activity:

Play only the first four verses as well as the first chorus of Dolly Parton’s “Joshua” earlier in the lesson, then have students complete the final verses in small groups before showing them Parton’s. Or, have them write different endings than Parton’s. Have them compare their story endings with hers.

Standards

Common Core State Standards

  • College and Career Readiness Reading Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 for Literature and Informational Text.
  • Reading 8: Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.
  • College and Career Readiness Writing Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 in English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects.
  • Writing 1: Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
  • Writing 2: Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.
  • Writing 3: Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.
  • Writing 10: Write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection, and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of tasks, purposes, and audiences.
  • College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening for Grades 6-12.
  • Speaking and Listening 2: Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

Social Studies – National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)

  • Theme 1: Culture
  • Theme 3: People, Places, and Environments
  • Theme 4: Individual Development and Identity
  • Theme 5: Individuals, Groups, and Institutions

National Standards for Music Education

Core Music Standard: Responding

  • Select: Choose music appropriate for a specific purpose or context.
  • Analyze: Analyze how the structure and context of varied musical works inform the response.
  • Interpret: Support interpretations of musical works that reflect creators’ and/or performers’ expressive intent.
  • Evaluate: Support evaluations of musical works and performances based on analysis, interpretation, and established criteria.

Core Music Standard: Connecting

  • Connecting 11: Relate musical ideas and works to varied contexts and daily life to deepen understanding.