A short country music history of Nashville’s Eastside
By Randy Fox
Nashville’s Music Row and Lower Broadway are well-known for their place in country music, but the hillbilly music history of Nashville covers considerably more ground than just those two locations. For fans of the golden age of hillbilly, bluegrass and rockabilly music, the neighborhoods on the northeast side of the Music City are brimming with history.
In recent years, East Nashville has become the preferred neighborhood for many of Nashville’s working-class musicians, but its pedigree as a central location to Nashville’s music community actually goes back decades. During the 1920s and 1930s, when many of the neighborhoods of East Nashville were being developed with middle-class homes, it was a popular neighborhood for just ordinary folks and some extraordinary ones too.
East High School stands in the heart of East Nashville and served as a musical cradle for four musicians who made their mark in country music. Guitarist Floyd Robinson, steel guitarist Billy Robinson, fiddle player Jerry Rivers, and bass player Bob Moore formed the Eagle Rangers in the mid-1940s while barely in their teens. Both Robinson brothers later found work backing Opry stars, as well as playing on many early recording sessions. Jerry Rivers graduated to the Drifting Cowboys, backing Hank Williams and eventually working with Ray Price, Faron Young, Ferlin Husky, Marty Robbins and many others. Bob Moore became one of the most recorded bass players in the history of popular music, laying down the rhythm for Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich, Brenda Lee, Janis Martin, and thousands of country, rockabilly, and pop recordings.
Although Bettie Page was never a musician, she surely hastened the heartbeats of many young men on the streets of East Nashville during her teenage years. An East Nashville girl born and bred, Bettie attended Hume-Fogg High School in downtown Nashville where she was voted “Most Likely to Succeed” by the graduating class of 1940. Like her fellow Hume Fogg alum, big band vocalist Dinah Shore (class of 1936), Bettie’s destiny led her away from Nashville and to bright lights, bigger cities and showbiz dazzle.
Another notable resident was Sun Records founder Sam Phillips. In January 1945, Phillips began working for Nashville radio station WLAC. He and his wife Becky settled in East Nashville for several months until Phillips accepted a position with radio station WREC in Memphis. Even though Phillips lived in Nashville for only a few months, the friendships and business connections he made in the Music City proved to be invaluable when he launched Sun Records in 1952.
Although the Grand Ole Opry began its broadcasts in 1925, it would take two decades before its full effects began to manifest themselves on the Nashville music scene. From 1936 to 1939, the Opry was broadcast from the Dixieland Tabernacle in East Nashville on Fatherland Street where the Nissan Stadium stands today. After the Opry gained national popularity in the early 1940s through broadcasts on the NBC Radio Network, singer Red Foley took over Roy Acuff’s spot as the primary host of the program in April 1946. Foley’s smooth singing voice and congenial personality pushed the Opry to a new level of popularity, cementing the program’s position as the premier country music show in the U.S.
At the same time, Jim Bulliet, a Nashville-based talent booking agent launched Bullet Records, the first Nashville-based record label. From the beginning, Bullet Records released pop, country and R&B recordings, with many of them cut in Nashville at radio station WSM’s studios. In 1947, a trio of radio engineers left WSM to launch Castle Studios, the first Nashville-based commercial recording studio. That fall, Decca Records moved their country recording sessions from Chicago to Castle, and other major labels soon followed. The growth of Nashville’s recording industry and success of Bullet Records soon inspired a flurry of small independent record labels – Tennessee, Dot, Speed and others. In just a short time, Nashville was transformed into a hillbilly music boomtown, attracting musicians from across the South.
As musicians poured into Nashville, affordable housing was a necessity. In 1945, Delia and Louis Upchurch rented a spare room in their small, stone house on Boscobel Street to two members of Pee Wee King’s band. They quickly became part of the Upchurch’s extended family, and other musicians often dropped by the house for extended jam sessions.
After “Pa” Upchurch passed away in 1947, Delia opened the rest of her house to musical tenants and by the late 1940s, “Mom” Upchurch’s boarding house was the first stop for many young singers and pickers fresh off the bus to Nashville. For $5 a week, a musician could rent half of a double bed, with the understanding that it might be sub-leased while they were out on tour. A home-cooked breakfast was 75¢, supper 85¢ and friendly advice from “Mom” was always free.
Mom Upchurch became a surrogate mother to scores of young musicians. While she had strict rules forbidding alcohol, cursing and female guests, her “boys” loved her. Record producers and artists knew that if you needed a musician for a session or tour, Mom Upchurch’s was the first place to call. Mom continued to run her boarding house until she turned 80 in 1971. Over the years, her tenants ranged from future stars and songwriters like George Morgan, Carl Smith, Faron Young, Roger Miller, Stonewall Jackson, and Hank Cochran to accomplished sidemen like Hank Garland, Grady Martin, Jimmy Day, Butterball Paige, Lightnin’ Chance, Shorty Lavender, Buddy Spicher, Dale Potter, Buddy Emmons and scores of others.
Another first stop for many country musicians moving to Nashville were the trailer parks and one-room efficiency apartments on Dickerson Pike in East Nashville. Many of these bargain-priced accommodations are still there today, located near the 1950s era “meat & three,” Charlie Bob’s Restaurant that is still serving up Southern cuisine at 1330 Dickerson Pike. (Still the best Steak & Eggs in town)
As many musicians found success, they moved north from East Nashville to the neighborhood of Inglewood. Developed primarily between the late 1940s and the early 1960s, Inglewood provided a taste of suburban living with easy access to rest of the city. Many country stars purchased new homes in Inglewood during those years including Cowboy Copas, Little Jimmy Dickens, Charlie Louvin and Lester Flatt.
Opry legend Roy Acuff owned two notable houses in Inglewood. The first was a large, log home at 3614 Brush Hill Road which he lived in from 1945 to 1950. Acuff then moved to a larger house at 3940 Moss Rose Drive. Located on a high bluff over the Cumberland River overlooking where the Opryland Hotel stands today, Acuff’s large front yard was popular spot with neighborhood kids for afterschool football games.
Country star Jim Reeves lived in an antebellum mansion in Inglewood at what is now the intersection of Gallatin Pike and Briley Parkway. In a sad example of disregard for history, Reeves former home was demolished in 2005 to make way for a bank and a Home Depot. The only portion of the original estate that survives is a small log cabin in a fenced off area in front of Home Depot.
Just north of Briley Parkway, is the suburb of Madison. Once a separate municipality from Nashville, many of Madison’s neighborhoods were developed in the late 1950s and early 60s by real estate investors including Madison residents, Eddy Arnold and Col. Tom Parker (Elvis Presley’s manager). The Colonel’s former residence, a modest stone house, still stands at 1215 Gallatin Pike South.
Sitting on a medium-sized lot, Hank Snow’s former residence at 312 East Marthona Road, hardly lives up to its name, “Rainbow Ranch.” Once strewn with Snow’s eye-popping collection of railroad lights, signs and related paraphernalia, its current ordinary appearance shows no evidence of its former colorful and flashy owner.
Other country stars made Madison their home, including Kitty Wells & Johnny Wright, Earl Scruggs, the Everly Brothers, Charlie Louvin, Floyd Cramer, Bashful Brother Oswald, Charlie Rich, Jon Hartford, and Maybelle Carter. Ira Louvin’s home in Madison became the center of interest in 1963 when he was shot six times with a .22 caliber pistol by his wife. Despite his wife telling police, “If the son of a bitch don’t die, I’ll shoot him again,” Ira survived his injuries. He continued living in the house until a traffic accident claimed his life two years later.
Just west of Madison and centered on Dickerson Road is the neighborhood of Bellshire. Developed concurrently with Madison in the 1950s, several country stars lived in the neighborhood including Patsy Cline, Ernest Tubb, Carl Smith and June Carter.
Bellshire was also the home of Starday Records. When Starday’s owner Don Pierce decided to relocate to Nashville in 1958, he chose to buck the trend and set up business far from the developing “Music Row.” Purchasing property at 3557 Dickerson Pike, he built a large studio and offices for the wonderfully diverse and often kitschy Starday Records. The studio was host to a wide variety of artists from the twisted country recitations of Red Sovine, to the high lonesome bluegrass stylings of the Stanley Brothers and even the funk-powered soul of James Brown. Although the studio and offices are now abandoned and deteriorating from years of neglect, they are still an important piece of Nashville musical history. (We would fix it up in a heart beat!)
Beginning in the late 1960s and into the 70s, Nashville underwent the same type of urban flight and suburban expansion experienced by many U.S. cities. As suburban communities such as Hendersonville and Brentwood grew just outside of Davidson County, many musicians moved to larger and more expensive homes, leaving the communities of northeast Nashville behind. But the circle remains unbroken as those same neighborhoods were rediscovered by musicians in the 1990s, leading to revitalization and East Nashville’s current hip status as the neighborhood of music in the Music City.
One new record is of original 1950’s rocker Billy Harlan. Billy worked with Chet Atkins at RCA Studio B as well as at Tree publishing. He wrote songs for many including Hawkshaw Hawkins and toured playing bass with Jim Reeves. Billy gre up best friends with the Everly Brothers. Here is a photo of Bill Harlan at the Everly Brother’s Madison home.
Billy has recently been invited back to RCA Studio B by the Country Music Hall of Fame to finish his recordings that had been shelved by Chet Atkins. A double 45 vinyl set due out on Muddy Roots Music Recordings in April of 2016.
It can be purchased HERE.