American biographer and historian Don Cusic didn’t start out to write or create a coffee table book. So how did such a magnificent rendering of Nashville’s music history—including the history of “The Nashville Sound” and our “Music City” moniker—come about?

“I didn’t know I was doing a coffee table book,” related Cusic. “Josh Stevens, the owner of Reedy Press, has a daughter who attended Belmont. Upon visiting her, he got the idea that it would be cool to create a book on the history of Nashville or Nashville music – and he wanted it to be called the ‘Nashville Sound.’” But who would write it? Stevens asked around, and all roads kept leading back to Cusic. Originally, Cusic turned the request down, feeling he didn’t have sufficient time to give to the project, since he was then in the midst of writing a book about Chet Atkins. However, after some meditation on the matter, he decided that taking on the new book would only complement his research for the Atkins book, so he made the call and accepted the project.

“I already had a lot of information in my head,” explained Cusic. “At that time, I’d just finished working on a project about the history of Music Row, so I had that fresh in mind, along with a lot of other information I’d learned and remembered from over the years. I had to double-check facts on dates and things like that, but a lot of it came from my own history and time in Nashville.”

Cusic moved to Nashville in 1973 and took a job with the Country Music Association (CMA), allowing him the opportunity to become familiar with a great deal of music history. Thereafter, he worked with the now-shuttered Record World Magazine, a trade magazine where he worked as a reporter, interviewing artists and others who were heavily involved in the music industry. As a reporter, he couldn’t just have surface knowledge, he had to dig deep in order to get the best story.

“Nashville Sound: An Illustrated Timeline” is available now. Photo by Jessi Maness

It was during that time he stumbled onto the many styles of music being created and recorded in Nashville – from black gospel to rockabilly, from early rhythm and blues to bluegrass and much more. This began Cusic’s journey into researching the breadth and depth of Nashville’s musical lineage. Even Elvis Presley, who was recording in Nashville and marketed as a country music artist, was actually rockabilly.

The styles of country music, from the very first sounds of Roy Acuff’s fiddle to the strings being played on the albums of Eddy Arnold and Patsy Cline, from the heavy beats of the Outlaw Movement all the way to the hip-hop-inserted vibes of today, have all had their own impact on country music. And almost every transitioning style of country music has heard the “That ain’t country!” whispers that have at times grown to a roar.

Cusic gained even greater experience in the industry as he moved from Record World Magazine to Monument Records, the one-time home of legendary greats like Roy Orbison, Kris Kristofferson, Dolly Parton and Larry Gatlin. Cusic’s decades in the music industry, working from nearly every vantage point possible, has provided him with a knowledge that is both deep and wide. “You ask how long it took to put this book together,” Cusic laughs. “I’d say a year, but you could also say 45 or 50 years of collecting the information and storing it away in my head.”

“The year” Cusic speaks of for the book’s creation was also busy, as a result of his teaching and traveling schedule, often making edits from the road. Another setback occurred when Reedy Press suffered an unfortunate warehouse fire. But the project came to fruition at last. It is truly worth the wait!

What can you expect to find in this beautiful book? Here are a few samples:

Don Cusic is a professor at Belmont University and Nashville music historian. Photo courtesy of Don Cusic

How did Music City get its name?

There has always been some question as to how Music City really got its name. Some say it was labeled when the Fisk Jubilee Singers sang before the Queen of England, and she said they sang so beautifully, they must be from a “music city.” But WSM announcer David Cobb coined the actual term “Music City, U.S.A.” during an airing of the Grand Ole Opry in 1950. If you want more, you have to get the book!

Music City trivia

At the end of World War II in 1945, Nashville didn’t have a single recording studio or record label. In 1960—just 15 years later—we were firmly established as “Music City, U.S.A.”

Fascinating stories that built our reputation as Music City 

  • The Grand Ole Opry plays a very big role. The famous radio show has been airing since 1925.
  • George Cooper, the head of the musician’s union in 1937, allowed country musicians to become members of the union and to set up and record when major labels had recording sessions. Musicians had to be a member of the union to play on those sessions, so that was a milestone.
  • Another big key was when Ernest Tubb insisted on recording in Nashville in 1947 at Castle Studios in the Tulane Hotel. He was such a big act that they had to allow it! Red Foley recorded on that same session, which further opened the doors for major labels to come in for country recordings. Nashville had been an outpost from New York and Los Angeles, but as a result of these early efforts, Nashville became known as one of the three major recording centers in the country.

People are continually discovering and re-discovering that Nashville is more than just country music. It started with the Fisk Jubilee Singers and their impact of preserving and honoring Negro spirituals. Nashville has also seen a big-band influence through noted producer Owen Bradley, who was a big fan of the genre. We’ve also had a thriving R&B scene for decades, and the contemporary Christian music genre is even bigger in Nashville than country in many ways. Simply put, Nashville is a creative center for nearly every style of music. It truly lives up to its nickname of Music City, U.S.A!

Nashville Sound: An Illustrated Timeline is available now.