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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

When radio ruled the airwaves, Nashville station WSM was a broadcasting powerhouse.

(Soundbite of broadcast)

Unidentified Man #1: Radio station WSM, the home of The Grand Ole Opry down in Nashville, Tennessee presenting the Smoky Mountain Serenade, the story of our mountain folk music.

YDSTIE: WSM was started in 1925 and became a cultural force that shaped the future of Nashville, largely because of its signature program "The Grand Ole Opry." Craig Havighurst tells the story in a new book called "Air Castle of the South: WSM and the Making of Music City."

Havighurst says WSM didn't set out to be a country station. It was meant to polish Nashville's self-image as a center of high culture in the South. But then WSM's original program director, George Hay, launched the show that changed the station's course.

Mr. CRAIG HAVIGHURST (Author, "Air Castle of the South: WSM and the Making of Music City"): The Opry got started as almost an accident on a Saturday night when George Hay turned to an old fiddle player named Uncle Jimmy Thompson to fill in on a night when there was nothing else broadcast. And I don't think he was certain that he would continue to put folks like that on the air, but the mail that came in was so overwhelming and came from such a widespread swathe of the South, people saying things like we've never heard our music on a radio station like this, a big radio station, a powerful radio station, before. The show, the Opry, turned out to be popular to cancel.

YDSTIE: But in the beginning, it was basically a - one in a variety of programs that a big radio station might adopt. And WSM had all kinds of other things on the air as well, including swing music. Let's just hear a little bit of Beasley Smith and his Orchestra, that is anything but country.

(Soundbite of broadcast)

Unidentified Man #2: Mr. Smith goes to town.

YDSTIE: When was it that country really became the most powerful forces on WSM?

Mr. HAVIGHURST: That was a long, slow, gradual process. You would not have thought of WSM as a country radio station even well until the 1950s, even though the Opry had become a signature national show. It still built its programming week and if day to day business around variety shows and the other things that radio stations did in the day, incredible news coverage, live remotes.

But by the 1940s, indeed the Opry was the place you had to go to sort of prove your mettle and to be considered a top tier country artists. I think that had to do both with the professionalism of the presentation and the long term steady championing of the idea of protecting and preserving and promoting what they thought of as folk music by Edwin Craig at the top of the company that ran it.

YDSTIE: One of those that was responsible for the professional presentation of the Opry was Red Foley, who was a longtime anchor of the Opry. I think we've got some music from him right now. Let's listen to it.

(Soundbite of broadcast)

Unidentified Man: And here it is, "Chattanoogie Shoeshine Boy."

Mr. RED FOLEY (Singer): (Singing) Have you ever passed the corner of Fourth and Grand where a little ball of rhythm has a shoeshine stand. People gather around and they clap their hands. He's a great big bundle of joy. He pops the boogie woogie rag, the Chattanoogie shoeshine boy.

Mr. HAVIGHURST: In that recording, in that one song, you see a microcosm of why WSM got to be so powerful. The song was actually written in the lobby of WSM when some of the producers and songwriters were hanging around, as they were wont to do. That was a part of WSM's mystique, was that it was the headquarters in Nashville for musicians. The song was kind of cooked up as an idea when the company shoeshine guy was shining somebody's shoes and they conspired to sort of co-write this song. But really the writer who put it on paper was Fred Rose, and he and Roy Acuff in 1942 started the first publishing company in Nashville, which was a monumental event. Some people say Nashville is really fundamentally a song publishing town. That's where its greatest economic power has come from over the years.

When the Opry began, and in its early years, there really was no record industry in Nashville and lot of the musicians that were heard on WSM were primarily heard by their fans on radio stations.

(Soundbite of broadcast)

Unidentified Man #3: Mother's Best Flour brings you Hank William.

YDSTIE: Here's an example of Hank Williams playing live on WSM, on a show that's not the Opry.

(Soundbite of broadcast)

Mr. HANK WILLIAMS (Singer): (Singing) I got me a feeling called the blues since my baby said goodbye. Oh Lord, I don't know what I'll do, all I do is sit and sigh.

Mr. HAVIGHURST: If you'd waked up in a farm town in Indiana or Macon, Georgia or whatever you were around the South, you'd been very likely to turn WSM on at 6:00 a.m., 5:30 a.m., and you would have heard a string of what they would have called hillbilly singers singing live out of the studio, and that included the life of Little Jimmy Dickens and Carl Smith and Mac Wiseman and Bill Monroe and some of the absolute greats who literally had to get up predawn to get up there and do a 15-minute show primarily designed to sell a specific product. And those morning shows were the first time that WSM basically allowed country music to be on its airwaves outside of that Saturday night Grand Ole Opry segment.

YDSTIE: And country music began to spread out into the economy of Nashville as a result of some of the employees of WSM deciding, hey, why don't we make a record of these things? Jim Ballay(ph) was one of the first to set up a recording studio.

Mr. HAVIGHURST: Jim Ballay had been an announcer at WSM for about three years, but he was restless and he knew that Opry stars were going to New York and Chicago to record their records and he looked for opportunities to put out music on his own label close to home.

His greatest success turned out to not be with a country artist from WSM, but a pop artist from WSM named from Francis Craig who also led a band as a day to day matter on WSM for decades and recorded a song called "Red Rose." And on the flipside of that record was something, almost an afterthought of a recording called "Near You".

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HAVIGHURST: And that record became the biggest record, pop record, of 1947 in the United States. But this synergy - you have somebody starting a record company, other guys starting a recording studio, and then others starting the music publishing companies and other WSM alums starting touring and booking agency companies that put artists on the road, really built the infrastructure. Those are the essential pieces of a music industry.

YDSTIE: As Craig Havighurst writes in his new book, "Air Castle of the South," that industry changed and so did the radio business. WSM-AM almost became a sports talk station a few years ago, but the community and some music legends convinced management to keep the country format.

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