Music of Tennessee

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The story of Tennessee's contribution to American music is essentially the story of three cities: Nashville, Memphis, and Bristol. While Nashville is most famous for its status as the long-time capital of country music, Bristol is recognized as the "Birthplace of Country Music". Memphis musicians have had an enormous influence on blues, early rock and roll, and soul music.

Bristol: "Birthplace of Country Music"[edit]

Bristol is best known for being the site of the first commercial recordings of country music, showcasing Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, and later a favorite venue of mountain musician Uncle Charlie Osborne. Bristol is also the birthplace of Tennessee Ernie Ford.

In 1927, Ralph Peer of Victor Records began recording local musicians in Bristol to capture the local sound of traditional 'folk' music of the region. One of these local sounds was created by the Carter Family. The Carter Family got their start on July 31, 1927, when A.P. Carter and his family journeyed from Maces Spring, Virginia, to Bristol, Tennessee, to audition for record producer Ralph Peer who was seeking new talent for the relatively embryonic recording industry. They received $50 for each song they recorded.

The U.S. Congress recognized Bristol as the "Birthplace of Country Music" in 1998 for its contributions to early country music recordings and ongoing influence.[1]

Nashville: "Music City, U.S.A."[edit]

Nashville, the most populous metropolitan area in the state, is home to the Grand Ole Opry and the Country Music Hall of Fame, and bears the nickname "Music City, U.S.A.". By the 1950s, the city's record labels dominated the genre with slick pop-country (Nashville sound). Performers reacting against the Nashville sound formed their own scenes in Lubbock, Texas and Bakersfield, California, the latter of which (Bakersfield sound) became the most popular type of country by the late 1960s, led by Merle Haggard. Nashville's predominance in county music was regained by the early 1980s, when Dwight Yoakam and other neo-traditionalists entered the charts. Today, there is still a thriving country music scene, however there are other genres developing, such as indie, rock, and metalcore.

Memphis: "Birthplace of the Blues"[edit]

Memphis' most significant musical claims to fame are as the apparent "Birthplace of the Blues" and "Birthplace of Rock and Roll". Famed African-American composer W.C. Handy is said to have written the first commercially successful blues song "St. Louis Blues" in a bar on Beale Street in 1912, and Memphis was a center of blues music for much of the 20th century (see Memphis blues). Later during the 1940s, Memphis was the home of blues guitar legend B.B. King.

In 1952, Sam Phillips started Sun Records, a seminal early rock and roll and electric blues label. Among the artists who made their first recordings on Sun were Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Ike Turner, Carl Perkins, and Charlie Rich.

Memphis Soul[edit]

In the 1960s and 1970s, the city was home to Hi and Stax Records, soul music record labels. Stax put out funky, distinctly Southern records by artists like Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, and Wilson Pickett that stood in sharp contrast to the smoother, more pop records coming out of Detroit's Motown (see Memphis soul).

Punk rock[edit]

Punk rock has had an active scenes in Tennessee, such as the scenes in Nashville, Knoxville, and Memphis's River City Hardcore scene in the 1980s and 1990s. A few hardcore punk bands gained a following, including His Hero Is Gone (Memphis), Love Is Red (Nashville, TN), Committee for Public Safety (Nashville), From Ashes Rise (Nashville), and bands like Johnny Fives, The Malignmen and STD (Knoxville).

Knoxville's punk scene began in the late 1970s with Terry Hill's Balboa, and took off around 1981-83 with the more notable early bands including the Five Twins, The Real Hostages, Candy Creme and the Wet Dream, and the hardcore bands Koro and UXB. During that era the scene was based in a series of short-lived nightclubs such as The Place, Hobos, Uncle Sams and Bundulees. Later in the 1980s several Knoxville bands such as the Judybats and Smokin' Dave and the Premo Dopes emerged to wider acclaim not limited to the local Knoxville scene. The scene again reached a peak during the mid-1990s, at that time tied closely to The Mercury Theatre, a popular all-ages venue where many Knoxville bands, such as Superdrag, got their start. After the close of the Mercury, another venue The Neptune opened for a short time under the same management. In 2006, punk began to resurface across the state. Bands Stuck Lucky and The Pigs are actively playing shows. Most bands associated with punk rock in Tennessee drew upon the state's musical heritage as an additional influence to some extent.

The early 1970s power pop band Big Star, cited as a primary influence by many grunge and alternative rock groups since, was from Memphis.


Much like punk rock, the hip-hop scene in Tennessee has been very active across the state, with some notable artists. Academy Award-winning rap group Three 6 Mafia was formed in Memphis. Other notable Memphis rappers include Project Pat, Playa Fly, the duo of Eightball & MJG, and Yo Gotti. Young Buck and All Star Cashville Prince are from Nashville. Mr. Mack, are based out of Knoxville. Holy Hip Hop group GRITS is from Nashville.[2]

Southern rock[edit]

The Charlie Daniels Band is closely associated with Tennessee's contributions to the southern rock genre, and with the Volunteer Jam, an annual rock festival first held in Nashville in 1974.

Other notable musicians include Knoxville's Jerry Riggs, Nashville's Barefoot Jerry, and the Nashville band Area Code 615. Kings of Leon were formed in Tennessee in 1999. Their early music was closely associated with this genre.

Gospel and Christian music[edit]

Tennessee's location in the Bible Belt has led to an active southern Gospel music scene with such groups as The LeFevres, as well as being the origin of some notable Christian rock bands such as Memphis's DeGarmo and Key. The country group the Oak Ridge Boys started in 1945 as the Oak Ridge Quartet, a Southern Gospel group based in Knoxville who performed for workers at the nearby Oak Ridge facilities during World War II. An African American a cappella ensemble, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, consisting of students at Fisk University in Nashville have been performing since 1871.

Old-Time music[edit]

The state of Tennessee once had a strong Old-time music tradition. In its earliest days the Grand Ole Opry featured banjo players, fiddle players, and string bands from Middle Tennessee such as Uncle Dave Macon, Fiddlin' Arthur Smith, the McGee Brothers, Humphrey Bate and his Possum Hunters, the Gully Jumpers, the Fruit Jar Drinkers, and The Crook Brothers String Band.

Classical music[edit]

Tennessee cities are home to several symphony orchestras:

Each summer, the University of the South campus in Sewanee hosts the Sewanee Summer Music Festival, including classes for some 200 advanced music students and a series of concerts by well-known guest artists. While classical music predominates, bluegrass and other musical styles also are featured.[6]


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^ Bryan Symphony Orchestra.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Symphony Orchestras, Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture, accessed December 11, 2010
  5. ^ Carolyn Krause, New ORSO conductor debuts Saturday, The Oak Ridger, October 1, 2010
  6. ^ Sewanee Summer Music Festival website, accessed December 11, 2010