In the 1920s and 1930s, it was Atlanta, not Nashville, that was the premier center for country music recording. Atlanta had the advantage of becoming the epicenter of country music in the early 1920s, but was later overtaken by Nashville and this city today bears the title Music City USA for its connection to country music.
Dr. Steve Goodson spoke about it in a Chattahoochee Valley Historical Society (CVHS) virtual Sunday afternoon program. A native of Montgomery, Alabama, Goodson is a longtime history professor at Western Georgia University and an authority on the history of country music in the Deep South. Goodson previously gave a virtual presentation to CVHS members about the life of Hank Williams, one of Montgomery’s most famous sons.
Atlanta was the first to become the capital of country music in the early 1920s, Goodson explained.
Atlanta was widely known as a modern, progressive city where artists from opera singers to blues artists to early country fiddlers found a receptive audience who listened to radio station WSB, the Deep South’s first mega station. . At night, its broadcasts could be heard in all 48 states of the continental United States. This attracted an early Missouri record producer named Ralph Preer. He has recorded African American artists and country music performers on the Okeh label. He produced 78 rpm records in a recording studio located at 152 Nassau Street in downtown Atlanta.
At the time, the radios broadcast everything live.
They filled unlimited airtime with all kinds of different acts. Some were very good and some were the kind of performances that didn’t come back a second time. One of the most popular acts was a man named Fiddlin’ John Carson. He was from Blue Ridge, Georgia, and played a fiddle that had been brought to that country by his Irish ancestors. Listeners loved his violin playing, singing, and especially his on-air personality. He quickly became in demand for WSB.
In June 1923, Carson went to the Nassau Street recording studio to put on a 78 Okeh record known as “The Little Old Log Cabin on the Lane”. It was a song that dated back to the 1800s and was reminiscent of a happy life in simpler times. People loved it, and the record became the first million-selling hit in country music history.
People also liked the flip side. It was named “The old hen cackled as the rooster began to crow”. Carson made all kinds of bird sounds on the record, and listeners loved it.
“Atlanta was the recording center for country music in the 1920s,” Goodson said. “Other big labels have come there to record, and people like Jimmie Rogers, the Carter family and Bill Monroe have recorded there.”
Nashville became home to the South’s second mega-station in 1925 when it went on the air.
Edwin Wilson Craig of the Nashville-based National Life & Accident Insurance Company started WSM in 1925. The call letters stand for We Shield Millions. This was not just to get across what National Life was doing, but also to make the case that the station served the interests of ordinary people – factory workers and farmers, not just wealthy elites. Within the first two months of airing, the station launched a show that is still popular today, the Grand Ole Opry. It was so well received that fans flocked to the station to see the live performances in person. The Grand Ole Opry performed in front of a live audience is a tradition that continues today.
People liked WSM, Goodson said, because they felt respected and didn’t look down on the way other media did it.
“Nashville, not Atlanta, has become Music City USA for country music fans,” Goodson said.
This first recording studio on Nassau Street in Atlanta has an interesting story in itself. Nassau Street was built in 1912 and by 1923 was full of commercial offices. It was in one of these offices that Okeh Records brought portable recording equipment. Blankets have been placed over the windows to improve acoustics. Compared to the recording studios in Atlanta today, it was primitive, but some classic recordings were made there.
Fiddle music had been popular in Atlanta for some time. Fiddlers like John Carson performed to large crowds in the same auditoriums where famous opera singers and symphonies had performed to discerning audiences. What was then known as hillbilly music brought together textile workers from places like Cabbagetown and wealthy people from northern Atlanta and helped make the city a diverse and welcoming place.
When recorded in the summer of 1923, Fiddlin’ John Carson’s “The Little Old Cabin at the End of the Lane” was not an instant hit. Critics did not like the acoustics. Record promoter Polk Brockman thought he was taking a risk when he released 500 copies. They sold out so fast in Atlanta alone that he managed to make 10,000 more, and they sold out fast. He went on to sell over a million records.
More than the popularity of a single record, Fiddlin’ John Carson and Okey Records helped create a new genre of music in the United States. the farm to urban transplants.
Fiddlin’ John sold a lot of records, but he was the first to admit that his live radio performances were what made him popular. Live programs and entertainment would remain the staple of radio until the mid-1940s, when recordings began to dominate airtime.
Although a major Civil War objective for the North, Atlanta was not a place of appreciable size. It had less than 10,000 inhabitants in 1860. But this is where the railways crossed, and this is what has always made it important. Interstate highways and airlines connect to it today.
Atlanta began to prosper after the war.
“He grew incredibly fast,” Goodson said. “By 1880 the population had grown to 37,000 and over 200,000 by 1920.”
Starting from the Georgia Capitol, if you draw a circle about 50 miles in each direction, there are five million people living inside that circle today.
By the 1880s, Henry Grady of the Atlanta Constitution was nationally known as a supporter of the New South. Atlanta was called the gateway to the south and was widely considered a place of great diversity and acceptance.
“Atlanta was a place of optimism and steady growth,” Goodson said.
Other cities in the South took a dim view of this. Charleston newspapers loved snapping photos of Atlanta, calling it “too Nordic, too cosmopolitan, and untraditional.”
Atlanta of the late 1800s was a place of African-American scholarship and business.
“It’s interesting to research Atlanta’s history to see its parallels and contrasts,” Goodson said. “You can see that in the music.”
There were social elites who wanted to promote the city as a bastion of fine music. In the early 1900s, famous opera stars Enrico Caruso and Geraldine Farrar performed there, accompanied by the Dresden Symphony Orchestra. On this same stage, however, a fiddle convention could take place next week.
“Atlanta wanted to do what was best, what was cutting edge,” Goodson said.
The city hosted a highly acclaimed Great Southern Music Festival in 1909 and the following year began hosting New York Metropolitan Company shows, which continued well into the 1970s.
The Nassau Street site where the Okeh Records studio was located is the site of a 21-story Magaritaville hotel and restaurant. In an attempt to save the building, an effort was made to determine its exact location. There were several abandoned buildings that could have been.
“He was identified from a newspaper ad that listed him at 152 Nassau Street,” Goodson said.
Goodson was able to view the building before it was torn down in November 2019.
A historical marker will be erected to mark the location.
When a fight to save the building was underway, Goodson was interviewed by CNN and PBS about its importance.
After being a recording studio, the building at 152 Nassau Street has served a variety of purposes over the years. Various companies were established there and various law firms had offices there. At one time it was a Gone with the Wind museum.
“I remember visiting this museum on a trip to Atlanta,” Goodson said. “Like the building and the museum, it’s all gone with the wind now, but American popular music and country music have swept the world.”
In a question and answer session following the presentation, CVHS member Dr. Mac Holderfield praised Goodson for his speech.
“The 1920s were an extraordinary time for cultural development in the United States,” he said. “People were brought together by recorded music. They liked to listen to songs and sing along.
Goodson noted that newspapers of the time were quick to divide these tendencies.
“They could see that fiddle conventions appealed to a wide cross section of the population, not just working-class southerners,” he said.
Goodson noted a connection between Alabama and the building that was demolished at 152 Nassau Street.
“The bricks were made in Alabama,” he said.