Bill McElhiney

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Bill McElhiney
McElhiney in 1954
McElhiney in 1954
Background information
Birth nameWilliam Krohmer McElhiney
BornMay 20, 1915
New Orleans
DiedFebruary 9, 2002
Diamondhead, Mississippi
Occupation(s)Trumpeter, band-leader, arranger, musical director

William Krohmer McElhiney (May 20, 1915 – February 9, 2002) was an American musical arranger, trumpeter, band leader, and musical director who was based in Nashville, Tennessee. As a performer, his most notable contribution was the signature trumpet parts on Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire". He was one of the most prominent musical arrangers in Nashville during the 1960s and 1970s, doing arrangements for Brenda Lee ("I'm Sorry"), Patsy Cline, Roy Orbison, Danny Davis, Marty Robbins, and Dolly Parton. He was honored as Best Arranger of the Year at the 1972 Billboard Country Music Awards. He also served as musical director at Nashville's WSM-AM radio.

Early years[edit]

McElhiney was originally from New Orleans. He got his start touring with big-band swing bands in the 1930s.[1] By the mid-1950s, McElhiney had relocated to Nashville where he was a member of WSM's staff orchestra and the leader of an all-star band of modern jazz musicians.[2][3][4]

Trumpeter and band leader[edit]

He worked Nashville as a trumpeter and band-leader in the 1950s and 1960s.

He was a trumpeter in the orchestra assembled by Owen Bradley to create the Nashville sound on Jim Reeves' recordings. Reeves' biographer noted that, unlike many session musicians, McElhiney and the others could read music and helped contribute to the Reeves' sound: "The sound they achieved was wonderful."[5]

Perhaps the most familiar piece of music McElhiney contributed to was "Ring of Fire" by Johnny Cash. McElhiney teamed with Karl Garvin to provide the signature trumpets so prominent in the recording.[6] Cash was reportedly inspired to add horns to "Ring of Fire" after hearing Bob Moore's 1962 instrumental hit "Mexico" which featured a similar trumpet performance by McElhiney and Garvin.[7]

"Bill McElhiney and his Orchestra" released an album in 1963 (MGM 4135) entitled New Sound in Bluegrass! Bluegrass Banjo with Strings. The Nashville Banner wrote: "The banjo with its backdrop of strings is an innovation in this field of bluegrass, and one that will certainly become as popular as its creator."[8] The album teamed McElhiney with bluegrass banjo artist Bob Johnson. McElhiney and his Orchestra followed up with a second album later in 1963 titled Instrumental Golden Giants.

Arranger and musical director[edit]

As McElhiney's reputation grew, he was called on to arrange recordings for many of Nashville's top recording artists and for pop artists visiting Nashville. His works as an arranger include the following:

  • McElhiney's early work as an arranger was with Brenda Lee, including the arrangements for her No. 1 hit "I'm Sorry" (1960) and her No. 3 hit "All Alone Am I" (1962). One book asserted that McElhiney's arrangements for Lee "made him rich."[9]
  • In 1961, Owen Bradley called on McElhiney to create sophisticated string arrangements for Patsy Cline.[10]
  • In 1962, he arranged pop singer Joni James' country music album, Joni James Country Style.[11]
  • When pop singer Connie Francis came to Nashville in 1963, McElhiney prepared the arrangements for her recording sessions at the Bradley Studio.[12] He also conducted the orchestra at the Francis sessions.[13]
  • In 1963, 1964, and 1966, he did the arrangements for Hank Williams Jr.'s early recordings. He also did arrangements for Williams' 1969 recordings under the name Luke the Drifter Jr.[14]
  • He was also the arranger for Danny Davis and his "Nashville Brass". The Nashville Brass won the "instrumental group of the year" award from the Country Music Association for three consecutive years from 1970 to 1972. McElhiney was given the honor of accepting the award on the group's behalf in 1970 and 1971, and Davis brought him on stage again in 1972 to share in the honor.[17][18]

In the late 1960s, he assumed a position previously held by Owen Bradley, the prominent role as the musical director for Nashville's legendary WSM-AM radio, home of The Grand Ole Opry.[20][21]

At the 1972 Billboard Country Music Awards, he was honored as the Best Arranger of the Year.[22]

In 1988, he was credited with arrangements on k.d. lang's album Shadowland.

He worked with other major talents, including Ray Charles, Floyd Cramer, Marty Robbins, and Perry Como.

Later years[edit]

McElhiney suffered from Alzheimer's disease in his later years. He died in 2002 at age 86 in Diamondhead, Mississippi.[23][24]


  1. ^ Jocelyn R. Neal (2009). The Songs of Jimmie Rodgers: A Legacy in Country Music. Indiana University Press. p. 85. ISBN 978-0253220820.
  2. ^ "Flip on Your Earphones -- Come Out to Jazz Hassle". The Tennessean. July 13, 1954. p. 1 – via
  3. ^ "Jazz Kings Polish Weapons for Battle". The Tennessean. July 12, 1955. p. 3 – via
  4. ^ "It's Mean, Man -- Cats Get Park Jazz Hassle Tonight". The Tennessean. July 14, 1955. p. 1 – via
  5. ^ Larry Jordan (2011). Jim Reeves: His Untold Story. Jim Reeves: His Untold Story. p. 233. ISBN 978-0615524306.
  6. ^ Grant Alden, Peter Blackstock, ed. (2005). The Best of No Depression: Writing about American Music. University of Texas Press. p. 114. ISBN 0292709897.
  7. ^ Robert Hilburn (2013). Johnny Cash: The Life. Hachette+ORM. ISBN 978-0316248693.
  8. ^ Pinckney Keel (August 5, 1963). "Disc Data". The Nashville Banner. p. 5 – via
  9. ^ Jesse Clifton Burt, Bob Ferguson (1970). So You Want to be in Music!. Abington Press. p. 144. ISBN 0687390001.
  10. ^ Ellis Nassour (2008). Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline. Chicago Review Press. ISBN 978-1569764428.
  11. ^ "Review". Billboard. December 22, 1962. p. 18.("Arrangements for the album are by Bill McElhiney.")
  12. ^ "Platter Planners". The Nashville Banner. September 17, 1962. p. 4 – via
  13. ^ Michel Ruppli, Ed Novitsky, ed. (1998). The MGM Labels: A Discography, Volume 3. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 115. ISBN 0313300526.
  14. ^ The MGM Labels: A Discography, Volume 3, pp. 127, 143, 217, 469-70, and 515.
  15. ^ John Kruth (2013). Rhapsody in Black: The Life and Music of Roy Orbison. Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 978-1480354937.
  16. ^ The MGM Labels: A Discography, Volume 3, p. 482.
  17. ^ "Nashville Brass In Vegas Return". Billboard. November 21, 1970. p. 43.
  18. ^ "Loretta Lynn Breaks Down Male Performer Barrier". Billboard. October 28, 1972. p. 33.
  19. ^ Nancy Cardwell (2011). The Words and Music of Dolly Parton: Getting to Know Country's "Iron Butterfly". ABC-CLIO. p. 160. ISBN 978-0313378034.
  20. ^ "Dinah Shore Gets Nashville Swing: Cuts 1st Sessions". Billboard. December 7, 1968. p. 28.
  21. ^ "WSM Alumni Enrich Music Field". Billboard. April 15, 1972. p. 41.
  22. ^ "Billboard Country Award". Billboard. March 11, 1972. p. 50.
  23. ^ "William K. McElhiney". Sun Herald. February 11, 2002. p. 5 – via
  24. ^ "William McElhiney". Sun Herald. February 16, 2002. p. 7 – via