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

By Craig Havighurst

University of Illinois Press, 279 pages, $29.95 hardcover

Reviewed by Rev. Keith A. Gordon, November 2007

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The news hit the streets of Nashville in late 2001 that radio station WSM-AM was going to change from its traditional country music format to a mundane news-talk direction.

As a result, a week into the new year, hundreds of people showed up at the station's studios near the Gaylord Opryland Resort and the Grand Ole Opry House, not so much to protest the change of formats, but rather to offer support for the staff and recognition of the station's hallowed history.

Station ownership would discard the format change, and today WSM 650-AM still spins its mix of old and new country music across the airwaves.

Craig Havighurst, in "Air Castle Of The South" - subtitled "WSM and the making of Music City" - takes a look at the roots of the radio station that has been an integral part of the fabric of Nashville for more than 80 years.

When Havighurst calls WSM the "most influential and exceptional radio station in the history of country music," he's not just waxing poetic.

Underwritten by National Life Insurance of Nashville, WSM first went on the air in October 1925 as one of the first stations in the south, broadcasting live performances of contemporary pop, classical and gospel music and local sports. The station soon became part of the growing NBS radio network and would subsequently offer more distinctive musical fare live from New York City as well as national sports programs.

WSM's long-term influence on the evolution of country music cannot be overstated, beginning with the Grand Ole Opry. Shortly after the station went on the air, they lured radio personality George D. Hay from WLS in Chicago, where Hay had launched the National Barn Dance featuring what was known then as "old timey" music.

Hay tried to recreate his success with a barn dance-styled program at WSM, which evolved in 1927 into the Grand Ole Opry, featuring a diverse mix of talent - from the first star of the Opry, harmonica wizard DeFord Bailey and hillbilly humorist "Uncle" Dave Macon to, later, Roy Acuff and the "Father of Bluegrass," Bill Monroe.

The show soon became as much of an institution as WSM itself, benefiting from WSM's 50,000 watt clear-channel signal that carries across much of the U.S.

The list of accomplishments that came from WSM's collection of talent through the years is staggering. The Grand Ole Opry, of course, helped expose nationwide audiences to such country music legends as Ernest Tubb, Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn and Porter Wagoner.

WSM later formed an artist's bureau that steered the careers of young Opry members, booking shows and obtaining commercial endorsements.

Visionary WSM employees, from executives and engineers to musicians and on-air personalities, worked on the side to create the infrastructure of modern country music, from song publishing companies and recording studios to record labels and, later, TV shows and cable networks.

WSM personality David Cobb even coined the phrase "Music City USA" to describe Nashville and its growing country music industry.

That WSM should command such loyalty from its listeners is not surprising, given its role in the Nashville community and the company's support of country music that has always extended beyond the station's playlist.

Havighurst tells the WSM story with a free-flowing prose style that is interesting and never dull, accounting for WSM's successes as well as the company's flaws and missteps.

More so, Havighurst rightly focuses on the persons and personalities that built the station and its legacy, including National Life executive Edwin Craig, who consistently supported the station (and country music) through the years; engineering wizard Jack DeWitt, who helped put the signal on the airwaves; WSM and Opry executives like Harry Stone and Jim Denny; and the wealth of on-air talent that made the station popular.

This is an amazing story of an American institution, and Havighurst's well-researched and comprehensively documented "Air Castle Of The South" is a balanced biography of this important and influential radio station.