Knoxville is an unpretentious, pretty city of almost 200,000 nestled in the Appalachian mountains of East Tennessee. It is 40 miles from the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, the nation’s most visited park. East Tennessee is full of mountain people, Germans, English and Scots-Irish who live in the hills around Knoxville. Its fame comes from its unique mountain culture. Knoxville is one of the central metropolitan areas of Southern Appalachia.
Origins of Country Music
East Tennessee is famous for its fundamentalist culture. Alvin York, who won the Congressional Medal of Honor in World War I after enlisting as a conscientious objector, is from Bible-belt Fentress County in East Tennessee. East Tennessee is also the home of the 1925 Monkey Trial in the small town of Dayton where the theory of evolution was debated. These folksy curiosities reflect this unique spot on the map.
Most of East Tennessee supported the Union in the Civil War. Lincoln made an unfulfilled promise to send troops to liberate it from the rest of the state. So anxious was Lincoln to unify the country after the Civil War and to show that East Tennessee had been loyal to the Union, he picked Senator Andrew Johnson, from nearby Greeneville, Tennessee, to be his second Vice President. At one time a prominent Knoxville hotel was called the Andrew Johnson. It was from that hotel that country music legend Hank Williams was carried, unconscious, to his car, possibly already dead, after a visit to Knoxville on New Year’s Eve in 1952.
What East Tennessee has in abundance in its rural hills and hollers is hillbilly culture and country music. So, it seems natural that Knoxville claims to be the cradle of country music. It’s the biggest city in the region and one with the radio stations where country music has been broadcast for many years.
The main thoroughfare of Knoxville is Gay Street, named after the same-named street in Baltimore. By walking down this street a few blocks one can see where country music is rooted
History of Knoxville and Country Music
Before 1921 there was very little recorded country music in America. In Knoxville, at the foot of Gay Street near the Knoxville railroad station, was a furniture store. Sterchi Brothers played a role in the early development of country music by sponsoring regional musicians and local radio programs in hopes of boosting phonograph sales at its stores. The Sterchi Brothers believed in the marketing potential of East Tennessee folk musicians. Working as an agent for Vocalion Records in New York, Sterchi Brothers paid to send early country musicians such as George Reneau, Charley Oaks, Lester McFarland and Bob Gardner to New York to make their first recordings and country music was rooted.
Some of the songs they recorded were “Little Brown Jug”, “On Top of Old Smoky”, “Turkey in the Straw” and “I’m Glad My Wife’s In Europe”. ‘’Women’s Suffrage”, said to be composed and sung by George Reneau, was among the songs recorded in that first session. The lyrics were as follows:
“Now ever since the world began
The women have tried to rule the men,
She made man commit the first offence,
She’s been after him ever since;
God made the world and he rested then,
Then he made man and he rested again,
Then he made a woman at man’s expense,
And God and man have never rested since.”
After they returned from New York, announcers on WNOX began playing these records on the air. The studio was just up Gay Street from Sterchi’s Furniture. A few blocks further up Gay Street and central to the origins of country music was WNOX, Knoxville’s first radio station. It provided jobs as studio players to some of country music’s early musicians and it broadcast their music. Prior to this, these county musicians had tried to scrape together a living by selling handwritten copies of their music lyrics. They would meet the incoming trains in the Knoxville Train Depot and offer their music for a penny for each song.
A little further along Gay Street is the Tennessee Theater, the site of the first performance of Roy Acuff in 1932, another first for Knoxville. He also performed in medicine shows and talent shows around Knoxville. Acuff later went to Nashville, auditioned for The Grand Ole Opry, and eventually became the show’s number one star.
Across the street was the Capitol Building, home of WROL radio that was the principal competitor of WNOX. This building is no longer standing, having been torn down and replaced by a parking lot. It was from here that Ernest Jennings Ford, a local disc jockey, broadcast the news of the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor. The disc jockey, later, as a singer, went on the record “16 Tons” as “Tennessee” Ernie Ford.
Near WROL is the 100 block of Gay Street, where in the 1930s there was a large ethnic and black population. This section of town is credited with being one of the reasons for the banjo’s use in country music. The banjo was used prior to this time, but credit is given to the area regardless. The banjo is an African instrument, traditionally played by the inhabitants of this neighborhood.
Chester Burton ”Chet” Atkins was born in the East Tennessee town of Luttrell and came to Knoxville to get his start, performing as a studio musician at WNOX. He eventually became known as “Mr. Guitar” and in addition to being a performer became a record producer and executive in the music business.
He performed with a couple of musicians called Homer and Jethro, also Knoxvillians, who became famous for their satirical versions of popular song. Atkins was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1973. Homer and Jethro were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001.
WROL was also the first broadcast home of Roy Acuff, who later became known as “The King of Country Music”, another music legend. Acuff is often credited with moving the genre from its early string band and “hoedown” style to the star singer-based format that helped make it internationally successful.
The opposite end of Gay Street from the Visitor Center, just above the train depot is the site of WIVK another, later country music station opened in 1953, where as a child of 7, Dolly Patron began performing on her uncle Bill Owens’ program. By the time she was 10, Dolly was a regular on WIVK. She made her debut on Nashville’s “The Grand Ole Opry” at the age of 13. Dolly made her first non-commercial recording at WIVK. She has gone on to become one of the country’s most successful country singers and songwriters.
Just a few blocks away, The Everly Brothers made their first radio appearance on WROL. The Everly Brothers lived in Knoxville at the time. However, this was not a happy situation for they got into a dispute with the station’s management and were fired. They were then invited to Nashville and made their first record there and the rest is music history.
Today in Knoxville
Knoxville’s position at the geographical center of Southern Appalachia makes it a natural draw and focal point for Appalachia’s seemingly unlimited supply of musicians. There’s even a small park dedicated to country music on Gay Street, where there are plaques with lists of names of the famous who have come through Knoxville.
At the other end of Gay Street is a music venue for today’s beginning musicians. Lunch at the city’s Visitor’s Center features WDVX 89.9 FM a noontime live radio program called “The Blue Plate Special” The program features live music before a live audience. Performers make music before a wall of blue plates with photos of other acts on them. Blue plates indeed!Just off Gay Street is Market Square where there are shops and a performance venue called The Square Room where there is a stage for today’s national and local performers.
Knoxville’s claim to being the birthplace of country music is disputed. Other Tennessee towns also lay claim to this honor so the truth may not be clear. However, Knoxville has very sound reason to stake its claim.
You can take a walking tour of the cradle of country music by contacting the East Tennessee Historical Society. It is also on Gay Street at number 601 in Knoxville.
East Tennessee Historical Society
601 Gay Street
Guest contributor, Richard Basch, is a writer/photographer based in Washington, DC. He has been a professional photographer and video producer in Washington, DC and Los Angeles, CA. He has taught the Smithsonian Institution, Brown University, Rhode Island School of Design and Chapman University. He has been published in “The Baltimore Sun”, “The Arizona Star”, NPR’s “Savvy Traveler”, “Modern Maturity”, www.internationalliving.com’s “Mexico Insider”, www.52perfectdays.com and other publications His website is www.richardbasch.com