Why Nashville, not Knoxville, is Country Music’s Capital

Most cities with famous musical histories, from Liverpool to Memphis to New Orleans, became known for a certain style due to artists that grew up nearby. Memphis was the blues capital of the 50s, and the birthplace of Rock n’Roll, in part because B.B. King, Muddy Waters, W.C. Handy and Elvis Presley all grew up nearby in Mississippi. Many of the leading Jazz musicians in New Orleans, like Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton, were also from there. Motown stars including Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, all of the Four Tops, and Otis Williams of the Temptations were all born or raised in Detroit.

Country music started in the Southern Appalachains, with many of its most famous stars growing up in East Tennessee. Dolly Parton’s hometown of Sevierville is just 30 miles east of Knoxville, in the opposite direction of Nashville. Early country star Roy Acuff’s home was 30 miles north of Knoxville. Another early country star, Chet Atkins, was from Luttrell, also near Knoxville, as is modern country star Kenny Chesney, who was born in Knoxville. Oak Ridge, Tennessee, home to the Oak Ridge boys, is also within 30 miles of Knoxville. If country music, which was sometimes referred to as mountain music, had a logical home, it would have been Knoxville. Nashville isn’t even near any mountains.

What Nashville lacked in local talent, it made up for in its ability to sell and distribute entertainment. Nashville’s origin as the “Music City” came before country music, and grew out of its printing and publishing business, which in turn led to a music publishing business. The educated city where New Yorker Cornelius Vanderbilt decided to endow his university developed a reputation as the “Athens of the South”, and printing bibles and sheets of music was a big part of this.

Nashville’s reputation helped it attract outsiders, not only East Tennessee musicians, but investors, most notably the National Life and Accident Company, which established WSM radio in 1925, eventually using one of the strongest transmitters in the country. Nashville’s middle Tennessee location allowed its broadcasts to be heard across a large portion of the Midwest and the South, especially at night, something that would have been more challenging from mountain-blocked Knoxville, which was also more distant to a growing fanbase further west. This would have been a big concern to an insurance company which needed to reach as many people as possible to cover its fixed costs in high power transmission equipment. WSM stood for “We Shield Millions”, and the station needed to reach millions with the insurance ads it ran during broadcasts.

With its publishing industry, central geography, and ability to attract outside capital, Nashville had advantages Knoxville couldn’t overcome, even with so many top acts originating there. And after the WSM broadcasts began, the Music City was transformed into the Capital of County Music.

Writing about urban economic history, regional economic development, and the bioeconomy. Blog at biotechonomics.com.

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