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Air Castle of the South: WSM and the Making of Music City

Air Castle of the South: WSM and the Making of Music City

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by Craig Havighurst

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Started by the National Life and Accident Insurance Company in 1925, WSM became one of the most influential and exceptional radio stations in the history of broadcasting and country music. WSM gave Nashville the moniker “Music City USA” as well as a rich tradition of music, news, and broad-based entertainment. With the rise of country music broadcasting


Started by the National Life and Accident Insurance Company in 1925, WSM became one of the most influential and exceptional radio stations in the history of broadcasting and country music. WSM gave Nashville the moniker “Music City USA” as well as a rich tradition of music, news, and broad-based entertainment. With the rise of country music broadcasting and recording between the 1920s and ‘50s, WSM, Nashville, and country music became inseparable, stemming from WSM’s launch of the Grand Ole Opry, popular daily shows like Noontime Neighbors, and early morning artist-driven shows such as Hank Williams on Mother’s Best Flour.

Sparked by public outcry following a proposal to pull country music and the Opry from WSM-AM in 2002, Craig Havighurst scoured new and existing sources to document the station’s profound effect on the character and self-image of Nashville. Introducing the reader to colorful artists and businessmen from the station’s history, including Owen Bradley, Minnie Pearl, Jim Denny, Edwin Craig, and Dinah Shore, the volume invites the reader to reflect on the status of Nashville, radio, and country music in American culture.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"In the midst of commercial radio's struggles comes a reminder of its glory days, when stations' soaring transmitter towers seemed like monuments to the broadcasters' influence. Air Castle of the South, by Craig Havighurst, tells the story of one such station, Nashville's WSM-AM. . . . While Mr. Havighurst, a music journalist and documentarian, is most interested in the station's cultural import, Air Castle of the South also presents a fascinating case study in the rise of commercial broadcasting. . . . Mr. Havighurst has done a service in preserving the colorful and instructive history of WSM - and in reminding us that giants once lived on the radio dial."—Wall Street Journal

Air Castle of the South brings a great deal of existing and new information about WSM into a single location. Havighurst employs a very readable style in presenting the history of this radio station, and there is no doubt that WSM has fostered the dissemination of country music. This book will have tremendous appeal to both general readers and scholars interested in country music.”—James E. Akenson, cochairman, International Country Music Conference, and coeditor of Country Music Goes to War 

"This is a vital book in the canons of country music history, but it's also a delightful read because the corporate growth and technological advances are peppered with stories such as Ernest Tubb's arrest for firing a gun in the National Life lobby and Hank Williams's call from jail. Havighurst treats WSM as if it's a character as rich and important as those it made famous, and he recreates the intangible studio moments that evaporate into thin air after reaching listeners' homes."—Weekly Standard

Library Journal

The mother of all Nashville landmarks, WSM, or 650 AM, introduced country music to the world when it launched The Grand Ole Opryover its airwaves in 1927. Nashville-based writer and filmmaker Havighurst's fast-paced chronicle of the rise of the station and its contributions to Nashville's economic base and cultural identity recounts the challenges, the personalities, and the music. In 1925, the National Life and Accident Company started the station with radio guru Jack DeWitt at the technical helm and Edwin Craig as the first broadcaster. By 1930, WSM (which stands for "We Shield Millions," a slogan for National Life and Accident) was so popular that it was one of five stations that the Federal Radio Commission permitted to grow to 50,000 watts, thereby increasing its audience from Nashville to as far north as the Arctic Circle. Havighurst includes snapshots of early Opryperformers such as Uncle Dave Macon, DeFord Bailey-the only African American on the show-and Minnie Pearl, as well as performers such as Dinah Shore and Pee Wee King, who got their starts on WSM. Havighurst's superb book belongs in every library's country music collection.
—Henry L. Carrigan Jr.

Product Details

University of Illinois Press
Publication date:
Music in American Life Series
Edition description:
1st Edition
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

Air Castle of the South

WSM and the Making of Music City

University of Illinois Press

Copyright © 2007 the Board of Trustees
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-03257-8

Chapter One

On the Very Air We Breathe

Dr. Clayton E. Crosland, associate vice president of one of the Southeast's finest finishing schools, wasn't precisely sure what to say, but he did not wish to be misunderstood.

"This is Ward-Belmont, Nashville," he said, a bit too loudly, into his "microphone."

The contraption wasn't entirely foreign-quite like a telephone without the ear-piece-but it was most modern. After a pause, Crosland spelled out the name of the school, as if to make sure: "W-A-R-D-B-E-L-M-O-N-T."

He continued, "We have today installed a radio sending station and will tonight broadcast the concert by Mr. Philip Gordon, the distinguished American pianist."

Crosland may have been on the air, but he was also on a stage. In the auditorium before him, a large gathering of poised young ladies in ruffles and bows, some attended by their even more put together mothers and fathers, canted forward in hushed curiosity, taking it on faith that Dr. Crosland's voice was, in fact, spiriting out through the open air and reaching somebody-up to two hundred miles away, they'd been led to understand. Center stage, beneath a grand piano, sat two more microphones. Black cables converged at stage left, where a rolltop desk held glowing vacuum tubes and black machinery, all connected to a wire that ran out into a hallway and up to the roof.

The assembler of this electrical conduit, a sixteen-year-old with a severe haircut and along jaw, stood off to the side. He was listening through hard plastic headphones plugged into a warm monitoring amplifier of his own construction. John H. DeWitt Jr., "Jack" as he was called, was well known to Crosland and the other school officials. He lived just a block away, in the shady green bower of Belmont Heights, a brow of hill capped by the wedding-cake splendor of Ward-Belmont's campus with its fountains and statues. By this evening, in the spring of 1922, he was well established as the local radio boy. The broadcasting antenna he built in his backyard was a neighborhood landmark. He rode around on a bicycle rigged with electrical gear and a spider web antenna, listening to his friends transmit from his homebuilt sending station. Jack had already visited the Ward-Belmont campus two years before, when he demonstrated his wireless telegraph to the girls of the Agora Club. He had tuned in and decoded odd, buzzing dots and dashes from as far away as the Great Lakes, which the young ladies had found "novel and unusual."

Moreover, as Dr. Crosland well knew, Jack's family meant a great deal to the school itself. His mother was Rebekah Williams Ward, whose father William was the Ward in Ward-Belmont. He had founded Ward Seminary, a finishing school that merged in 1913 with Belmont School. Hailed as one of the finest academies for Southern women, Ward-Belmont rarely trafficked in things futuristic, yet here it was making local history. WDAA, as it was called, was the third radio station licensed in Tennessee and the first in Nashville.

The recital by Mr. Gordon was enthusiastically received, and before it was over four or five messages came in through the school's telephone switchboard from people who were picking up the program clearly and with great satisfaction.

The news sent a flush of surprise and wonder through the auditorium. Invisible waves really were spreading out from the school's roof like ripples in an ethereal pond- racing north right through the walls of the sturdy homes on Sixteenth and Seventeenth Avenues and over the noisy automobile and trolley traffic of downtown. They rippled east, across Centennial Park with its mute, majestic Parthenon; west, across the Civil War battlements of Fort Negley; and south, to Franklin, Brentwood, and dozens of surrounding burgs.

The waves radiated out to and over the city's hilly perimeter and across vast acreages of the farms, verdant forests, and meandering creeks of Middle Tennessee. They crackled against the bell towers of the city's mighty universities-all-white Vanderbilt and all-black Fisk. They outran the steam locomotives that pulled passengers and freight out of the city toward Cincinnati, Louisville, St. Louis, Atlanta, and points beyond. They pierced the miasma of oily smog that roiled up out of the railroad gulch and cloaked the clock tower of Union Station. They ricocheted off the broad shingle roof of the Ryman Auditorium. They raced up and down the serpentine Cumberland River, which churned with paddle wheelers, packet boats, and cargo barges. They went unnoticed by the evangelists and anarchists who bellowed and proselytized where Broadway, the city's aortal artery, terminated at First Avenue and the river. They overpassed the shacks and flophouses of Black Bottom, the African American ghetto south of Broadway, which rang with blues music and violence. They moved at the speed of light, carrying a message of unstoppable change.

* * *

"I think my interest in radio broadcasting first came about when I heard my first voice over the air," wrote Jack DeWitt, years after he retired as president of WSM, Inc." I believe that was 1920. Dr. Frank Conrad, who was chief engineer of the Westinghouse Company, had a ham radio station in Pittsburgh, 8XK, which later became the famous KDKA." From Nashville, DeWitt could listen as Conrad talked with other broadcasting pioneers, just as radio was evolving from talk among hobbyists or "hams" to broadcasting stations aimed at the general public, of which KDKA was one of the first. Radio was a magic thing for DeWitt, a mixture of romance and science that captured him early, and he soon discovered he wasn't alone.

DeWitt was born February 20, 1906, to a Vanderbilt-educated lawyer, some six years into his practice. Household passions included history and music. They had an Edison cylinder phonograph and later a gramophone record player, along with are cord collection that reflected the era's bestsellers-Enrico Caruso, Antonio Scotti, and John McCormack. These tenors had voices that could cut through the limited fidelity of the early 78-rpm records, and they stirred in Jack a lifelong love of opera. "I really don't see how anyone can live properly and comfortably without some music around part of the time," DeWitt wrote years later. Although he was very much expected to make something of himself, he felt no pressure to follow his father into law. "I would have been no good as a lawyer," he said. "I was interested in radio from the beginning, and my mother and father helped me."

Jack wanted to know how things worked, especially things electrical. At age seven, he fixed the doorbell of a neighbor, who wrote him a check for a dollar. When he was twelve, Jack earned a Boy Scout merit badge for wireless telegraphy, constructing his first crystal receiver with a wire coiled around the family rolling pin. (The cook had to roll out biscuit dough with a syrup bottle for a time.) By 1921, DeWitt was transmitting in Morse code over a homebuilt transmitter, reaching people in Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Illinois. He confirmed the reach of his set as part of a trial conducted by the American Radio Relay League, which dispatched a man to Scotland to see how many U.S. stations he could pick up. There, in the records of the test, were DeWitt's call letters, 5FV. In the Dewitt backyard, Jack and a friend built a tower that he recalled being sixty or seventy feet high. It supported a wire antenna strung to a pole on the roof of the house, and it worked until the day a mule being used to dig a swimming pool in the yard next door tripped over one of the guy wires and sent the whole thing crashing to the ground. Easily rebuilt, it served for many months as DeWitt's chief antenna, while he delved further into transmitters that could send voices through a microphone. He taught himself higher-order mathematics and electrical engineering. He kept notes of his contacts in Tennessee and well beyond. He made friends over the wireless and then had them over for long nights of sending and receiving. Mrs. DeWitt would call upstairs in the morning to ask how many for breakfast.

DeWitt and his friends were part of a national movement, fueled by "the genius of the American boy," as then Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover famously put it. All over the nation, wrote Erik Barnouw, "amateur-made transmitters were suddenly leaving garages, attics, and chicken coops, and some of them were turning up on the roofs of newspapers, department stores, hotels, factories." KDKA's debut in late 1920 broadcast election returns, ushering in the era of instant news. In the middle of 1921, the nation marveled at blow-by-blow coverage of a Jack Dempsey fight from Jersey City. In 1922, WEAF, a New York station owned and operated by RCA, broadcast the first commercially sponsored show, a pitch for apartments from real estate brokers in Queens.

Soon the air overflowed with signals. When DeWitt became chairman of the electrical committee of the local radio club, he participated in contentious meetings about who could broadcast at what hours. "Civil war almost broke out in Nashville with the advent of the early commercial radio sets," wrote one early magazine profiler of DeWitt. "An enthusiast would have his earphones clamped on listening to the latest jazz or an obscure newscast when his ears would be assaulted by the powerful dot and dash signals of the local short wave operators." Cities began implementing weekly "quiet nights" when local stations had to remain off so enthusiasts could receive distant stations with less interference. Yet interference was part of the price of listening in.

As fast as the air filled with broadcasts, it filled with utopian predictions. Radio Broadcast magazine speculated that "elected representatives will not be able to evade their responsibilities to those who put them in office" and that a "people's University of the Air will have a greater student body than all of our universities put together." When opening one of the many new college-based stations that sparked on during the fall of 1922, North Carolina statesman and future newspaper publisher Josephus Daniels predicted that with radio, "nobody now fears that a Japanese fleet could deal an unexpected blow to our Pacific possessions.... Radio makes surprises impossible." Naive but optimistic, pundits portrayed radio to Nashvillians as a new wonder of the world. "What a day for dreamers!" declared syndicated columnist William Ellis in the Banner. "The radiophone has outrun prophesy; already we see that it holds possibilities of transforming almost the entire organization of human life upon this planet.... The whole earth is made one neighborhood."

* * *

Ward-Belmont's WDAA "broadcast on an irregular basis" for about six months, DeWitt recounted later." When some prominent speaker or artist appeared at the school, a microphone was placed in front of him and the proceedings could be heard over a fairly wide area around Nashville." The school's voice teacher, Gaetano de Luca, took pleasure in playing Caruso records over the air from his Victrola. It was a modest legacy to be sure, but with stations coming and going like lightning bugs on a summer's evening, it wasn't long before further opportunities presented themselves, including one with a young man whom Jack would know, not always cordially, for decades.

His name was Harry Stone, a polished and ambitious man in his early twenties who had recently moved with his family from North Carolina, where his father had owned a Coca-Cola bottling plant. In Nashville, Harry and his younger brother David worked in their father's machine shop, but they were drawn to entertainment. Where as David branched out with jobs in local theater companies, Harry began to forge a career in radio in a town virtually without radio by teaming up with the right people and by launching his own stations. He approached Jack about starting a radio station for a men's organization called the American Business Club.

Jack obtained a license for the call letters WABV, giving him permission to convert his ham radio rig into a full-service broadcaster. His ever-supportive parents bore most of the costs of Nashville's second radio station. Mrs. DeWitt sold her Dominicker hens and let Jack convert the family chicken coop into a transmitter house. The boys nudged furniture aside and set up microphones in the drawing room. A family diary noted the first broadcast on December 7, 1923. Mack Rowe, owner of a phonograph shop, played violin, accompanied by a friend on the DeWitt's upright piano. They played contemporary popular songs ("My Sweetie Went Away," "End of a Perfect Day," and "My Buddy") and light opera numbers from Cavalleria Rusticana. Jack's friend from radio overnights, George Reynolds, acted as assistant engineer. And Jack's brother Ward stepped up as announcer for the broadcasts. Before long, Stone recruited two of the town's young orchestra leaders-Francis Craig and Beasley Smith-to set up their groups in the cramped quarters. A prize of $5 for the furthest reception of the 50-watt station was claimed by a listener in Pennsylvania.

Jack DeWitt, George Reynolds, Harry Stone, Francis Craig, and Beasley Smith would soon form the core of a far more professional and permanent radio station. But there would be a few more stops along the way for DeWitt. He was approached by one W. A. Marks, who, like many others then and since, was inspired to spread the word of God over the air. Marks, a member of the Business Men's Sunday School Class at the First Baptist Church in downtown Nashville, secured volunteers from his class and put up $1,500 to launch a station, which Jack built. It debuted with a Sunday morning service on April 6, 1924. Its call letters stood for the Baptists' penchant for evangelizing: WCBQ-"We Can't Be Quiet."

That spring DeWitt graduated with honors from Duncan School and set out on his first worldly adventure. He applied to the United Fruit Company for a job as second radio operator on a ship. He was assigned to the S.S. Ellis out of Tela, Honduras, a cargo boat with a Norwegian crew, which mainly hauled bananas from Central America to New Orleans. On his maiden voyage, which lasted just two or three weeks, the eighteen-year-old witnessed his rum-buzzed commanders slipping upstairs with Jamaican prostitutes, turned down a proposition from a woman who wanted to give Jack a pet monkey in exchange for sex, and became violently seasick after eating green bananas on the trip home. "I decided sea was not for me," he wrote later.

When he entered Vanderbilt that fall, DeWitt wasn't ready to set aside his passion for radio to apply himself to courses in trigonometry, French, and history. There was no electrical engineering for freshmen, and what there was looked irrelevant-civil engineering, street car electrical systems, and other tedium. He continued to build radios and improve the ones he'd built, and in his second term, he was suspended for academic indolence. He completed some make-up courses in the summer, but after a floundering fall in his sophomore year, he dropped out.

From father DeWitt's point of view, there was only one, depressing recourse: Jack would have to enroll at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, 180 miles east. It would be a minor embarrassment to the family, but perhaps no worse than Jack's leaving school altogether. "It was almost expected for local boys growing up in Nashville in the early part of the twentieth century to go to Vanderbilt," says Jack's nephew Ward DeWitt Jr., a Vanderbilt alumnus, whose grandfather and great-uncle also attended the school. "There was a great chasm between Vanderbilt and the U of T in those days. I remember my daddy saying, 'Son we don't just dislike the University of Tennessee. We hate 'em.' It was a big thing."

Jack fared no better at UT. "I became interested in a broadcasting station which was owned by a local telephone company and spent my time at it rather than in studying," he recalled. And yet he had been studying, not only radios and how they worked but how to design them, how to improve them, and how to communicate in the hieroglyphics of electrical circuit diagrams. He came home for the summer of 1925, through with college forever-at least as a student. But he wasn't idle. Another local project attracted him. An insurance company-a big one with lots of money-was assembling what would be Nashville's most powerful radio station. He found his way there through a friendship with a man who had sought out his radio expertise some years earlier, a businessman with a peculiar dream-Edwin Craig.

* * *

Edwin Wilson Craig spent his early years in a prosperous, comfortable home in the countryside community of Pulaski, Tennessee, about seventy-five miles south of Nashville. As a boy he was dressed in satin Buster Brown outfits and taken to boating parties. At boarding school, he knew a future surgeon general of the United States. At Vanderbilt, his fraternity brothers included Prentice Cooper, a future governor. Edwin could have gone any number of directions, but he wanted to join the family business, the National Life and Accident Insurance Company, and though his obituaries said he graduated, he left Vanderbilt early to do so. He was, in fact, the son of the company's senior founder, but nobody could say Edwin didn't work his way up the ladder. He "walked the debit," the same door-to-door circuit of sales and account management made every day by the other two thousand National Life agents. In small towns all across the South, on dirt streets, in mud, cold, and miserable heat, properly dressed "Shield Men" fanned out in a highly regimented, year-in-year-out campaign. By his midtwenties, Craig was an exemplary Shield Man, so named for the National Life blue shield logo, and he seemed destined for leadership, over sales and probably much more.

When Edwin was born in 1893, his father, Cornelius Abernathy Craig, ran a drug store in a partnership with his older brother Edward and another brother who practiced law. Edward had been successful in banking and business in Giles County, Tennessee. That same year, 1893, Governor Peter Turney invited Edward to Nashville to become treasurer of the state. Brother Cornelius followed, liquidating his holdings in the drug store and moving his family to Nashville to climb up a rung. Soon he was working for Edward as deputy commissioner of insurance and gaining experience which he parlayed into the acquisition, at a 1901 auction, of a young and shaky company called National Sick and Accident Association. The following year, Craig and his partners changed the name to the more upbeat National Life and Accident Insurance Company.

The new business forged a bond that would last for decades among its five foundational families. Asked how they related to one another initially, Ridley Wills II, grandson of a founder, described the group with a Bible Belt-dweller's frame of reference. "Dr. Fort was a Baptist from Robertson County who had married a sophisticated woman from Boston," he said. "Runcie Clements [president of National Sick and Accident when it was sold] was a Roman Catholic. The Craigs were members of the West End United Methodist Church. The Wills were Presbyterians. The Tynes were Catholics too. So it was a wonderful mix. And they all got along beautifully-respected each other. It's interesting to me how well they got along with those different backgrounds. But all of them were from small towns."

Cornelius, by virtue of his leadership in the origins and organization of the company, was president and later chairman of National Life between 1902 and 1943. A bookish man with sandy hair parted severely in the middle and round, horn-rimmed glasses, C.A. was known improbably as "Neely" by his colleagues and family. As upright a businessman as one could hope to meet and a self-styled business philosopher, C. A. made his presence known with solemn, didactic letters to his field sales force, issued regularly for decades through The Shield newsletter. One early version of his guide for agents noted characteristicallythat"moralexcellenceandbusinesshonestyarenotthefruits of regulation. They are inborn and of higher source but more to be desired than the most rigid adherence to fixed statues."


Excerpted from Air Castle of the South by CRAIG HAVIGHURST Copyright © 2007 by the Board of Trustees. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Craig Havighurst is a Nashville-based writer, editor, and producer whose company String Theory Media specializes in music documentaries. His short "WSM Snapshot" for Nashville Public Television won a regional Emmy Award in 2001. A former staff music writer for The Tennessean in Nashville, he is also an independent journalist whose music correspondence has appeared on NPR and in Billboard, The Wall Street Journal, Country Music Magazine, and Entertainment Weekly.

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Air Castle of the South: WSM and the Making of Music City 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
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