The “Nashville Sound” Begins

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On September 15, 1956, fifty years ago last week, Elvis Presley’s “Dont’ Be Cruel” hit number one on Billboard’s “The Top 100″ chart. The same week, it also landed atop the “Most Played C&W in Jukeboxes” chart. In coming weeks, “Don’t Be Cruel” and its flip, “Hound Dog,” topped Billboard’s “Most Played by C&W Jockey’s” chart and its “C&W Best Sellers in Stores” chart. As I argue in the essay below (originally published in Heartaches by the Number: Country Music’s 500 Greatest Singles), Presley’s record sparked the beginning of the era we now call The Nashville Sound.

DON’T BE CRUEL, Elvis Presley
Produced by Steve Sholes; Written by Otis Blackwell
RCA-Victor 47-6604  1956  #1 country (ten weeks); #1 R&B (six weeks); #1 pop (eleven weeks)

Tell me if you’ve heard this one: With Elvis Presley and the other rockabillies invading its turf, the country music industry created the sweeter, more pop-influenced Nashville Sound in a three-pronged attack designed to broaden its pop audience, to secure its more mature country audience, and to beat back the young heathens.  That is, the Nashville Sound was a reaction to Elvis.  This tale has been repeated as gospel for four decades now, but it doesn’t tell the whole truth.  Though he should certainly be credited for forcing the repositioning that the country music industry underwent in the late fifties, Elvis wasn’t just a catalyst for the stylistic creations of other people.  Fact is, Elvis was one of the Nashville Sound’s chief architects, as important to the style’s development as any other single figure, perhaps most important.

Although it refers to a means of production (not to mention an era, and a mystique) as much as to an actual sound, and though it was created accretively over many years rather than in one epiphinal flash, the Nashville Sound is generally dated from 1957 or ’58. Country historian Rich Kienzle says that “Gone,” a Ferlin Husky hit recorded in November 1956, “may well have pointed the way to the Nashville Sound.”  Writer Colin Escott proclaims Jim Reeves’ “Four Walls,” recorded February, 1957, to be the “first ‘Nashville Sound’ record.”  And Chet Atkins, the RCA-based producer and guitarist most often credited with being the Sound’s primary artistic brainchild, pointed to his production of Don Gibson’s “Oh Lonesome Me” late that same year.

The country boy from Memphis beat them all.  Elvis’s initial RCA recordings had been attempts to recreate the slap-back sound Sam Phillips pioneered at Sun Studios.  By the time Elvis entered a New York studio on July 2, 1956, though, he was already charting new paths.  First he put down “Hound Dog,” as explosive a rock & roll cut as has ever been recorded (albeit one that took him in a direction he would rarely pursue again).  Next he turned to “Don’t Be Cruel.”   The result was something that included all of the defining characteristics of the Nashville Sound.  The spare instrumentation and restrained playing that left lots of open spaces; the at-ease yet crisply defined production with just a touch of echo; the singer’s voice (and the bass) way out front in the mix; the backing bop-bop-bop vocals by the Jordanaires; the “head” arrangements devised on the spot by the musicians; and, of course, no fiddle and no pedal steel.  Just as importantly, “Don’t Be Cruel” had the unmistakably warm, relaxed feel of the Nashville Sound.  It was all there, and the result was a new kind of rock & roll, a new kind of pop, and the beginnings of what would be a new kind of country music.

RCA A&R director Steve Sholes was behind the glass for all these sessions.  But what was different about the recording process for “Hound Dog”/”Don’t Be Cruel” was that, for the first time, Elvis was the one in charge.  He made the final song selections, choosing “Don’t Be Cruel” right there in the studio from the acetate demos provided by publishing house Hill and Range. He worked out the basic arrangement on the piano.  He had Scotty Moore all but lay out on guitar and told drummer D.J. Fontana to slow the tempo.  He sang like an angel.  And he insisted they keep at it until they got it all just right.  The result, 28 takes later, was a record that sounds perfectly effortless.

A two-sided single with “Hound Dog,” “Don’t Be Cruel” topped the country charts for over two months, heralding the arrival of what would soon be called the Nashville Sound. Elvis didn’t create that sound all by his lonesome any more than he invented rock & roll by himself.  Certainly, Atkins (who had been behind the board on some of Elvis’s earlier RCA sessions and played guitar on his first); pianist Floyd Cramer (who had backed Presley at the Hayride, played on Elvis’s very first RCA date and later became an Elvis studio fixture); Don Robertson (who created the slip-note piano style Cramer made famous and wrote many of Presley’s countriest early sixties offerings); guitarist Hank Garland (who would become another Elvis studio staple); and the Jordanaires (who would quickly became synonymous with both the Nashville Sound and Elvis Presley) all played significant roles.  As did producers Owen Bradley, Ken Nelson and Don Law, and any number of others musicians and engineers.  But Elvis was the key.  Listening closely to Presley’s 1956 RCA sessions makes it clear that what Chet Atkins and the rest were about to do was not to take country music pop, but to countrify “Don’t Be Cruel.”

One Response to “The “Nashville Sound” Begins”

  1. Spencer Marquart Says:

    Fantastic essay David! I must admit, I don’t own the “Heartaches” book. I don’t know why it’s eluded me for so long. I’m heading over to amazon right now to order a copy.
    It’s blogs like your’s and a few others (Shot of Rhythm), that make the internet worthwhile! Oh yeah, amazon’s pretty cool too!
    Take care,
    Spence

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