Tennessee may be more famous for its music than for anything else. The blues was born on Beale Street; the Grand Ole Opry popularized old-time mountain music; and the Fisk Jubilee singers of Nashville introduced African-American spirituals to the world. Rock ’n’ roll traces its roots to Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and the city of Memphis.
The blues became popular in cities from New Orleans to St. Louis at the turn of the 20th century. But thanks in large part to composer and performer W. C. Handy, the musical form will be forever associated with Memphis and Beale Street. Early blues greats like Walter “Furry” Lewis, Booker T. Washington “Bukka” White, “Little Laura” Dukes, and Ma Rainey started in Memphis.
Sun Records in the 1950s recorded some of the first commercial blues records, but the label is most famous for discovering Elvis Presley. Stax Records created a new sound, soul, in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Country music was born in Bristol, Tennessee, where the earliest recordings of Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family were made in the 1920s. In the decades that followed, Nashville became the capital of country music, beginning thanks to radio station WSM and dozens of rural musicians who trekked to town to play on the radio. America was hungry for a type of music to call its own, and country music was it. First called “hillbilly music,” country was popularized by barn-dance radio shows, including the Grand Ole Opry. Over the years, country music mellowed out, adopting the Nashville Sound that softened its edges and made it palatable to a wider audience. Today, the city is second only to New York as a center for recorded music, and many country music stars still live in and around the city.
© Susanna Henighan Potter from Moon Tennessee, 5th Edition