How three Tennessee cities shaped American music, plus a playlist of songs about our state

Photo via Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division / This photo from the late 1800s shows a group portrait of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, with (from left) Minnie Tate, Greene Evans, Isaac Dickerson, Jennie Jackson, Maggie Porter, Ella Sheppard, Thomas Rutling, Benjamin Holmes and Eliza Walker. The Fisk singers were instrumental in preserving a unique American musical tradition, and their group put Nashville music on the map.
Photo via Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division / This photo from the late 1800s shows a group portrait of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, with (from left) Minnie Tate, Greene Evans, Isaac Dickerson, Jennie Jackson, Maggie Porter, Ella Sheppard, Thomas Rutling, Benjamin Holmes and Eliza Walker. The Fisk singers were instrumental in preserving a unique American musical tradition, and their group put Nashville music on the map.


From fiddles and banjos played in the hills of Appalachia to the guitar and harmonica melodies of the delta blues, music created in Tennessee has had a profound influence on American music and culture.

Many a song bears the word "Tennessee" in its lyrics or title, from familiar tunes -- "Born on a mountain top in Tennessee" or "Give me a T for Texas, give me a T for Tennessee" -- to more obscure melodies.

We'll take a look at songs about Tennessee (or that feature Tennessee or its cities prominently). Check out the list below or, to hear a playlist, go to timesfreepress.com/TNsongs

But first, let's delve into why there are so many Tennessee-centric songs in America's music lexicon.

That the word "Tennessee" is ubiquitous in American music isn't surprising. The state is the cradle of American music, experts say. The roots of popular music can be found in every pocket of the Southeast, according to the Tennessee Historical Society, but Tennessee is critical to the development and commercialization of popular music.

"As the landscape of our state changes from rugged mountain to river delta, so does our music change from high mountain twang to deep river blues," the society states on its website.

Seven genres of music -- blues, bluegrass, country, gospel, soul, rockabilly and rock 'n' roll -- trace their roots to Tennessee, says Zach Ledbetter, director of outreach for Tennessee Music Pathways, launched in 2018 by the Tennessee Department of Tourism to highlight the significance of music across the state with the goal of drawing visitors.

Hundreds of people, places and historic events in Tennessee were significant to music around the globe, Ledbetter says. "So the idea was to help tell obviously the large stories -- names like Dolly and Elvis that everyone knows -- to some of the smaller, more-unknown, lesser-told stories. When you look at all of the 95 counties across the state, almost all of them have a story to tell."

Music historians say Tennessee's place as a music powerhouse can be traced to three cities -- Nashville, seat of the country music industry; Bristol, known as the birthplace of country music; and Memphis, a city that cultivated blues, soul, rock 'n' roll and R&B.

  photo  AP Photo/Jeff Martin / A mural depicting some of the main figures from the 1927 Bristol Sessions, considered to be a milestone in the early days of country music, stands in downtown Bristol, Tenn.
 
 


The birthplace of country music

Music recorded in 1927 in Bristol, on the border of Tennessee and Virginia, featured the first recordings of Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, now considered country legends. The recordings are now known as the "Bristol Sessions," and music historians consider them the "Big Bang" of modern country music, Ledbetter says.

The Bristol Sessions "brought country music into the mainstream by sparking the broad commercialization of country music," according to the Birthplace of Country Music, a nonprofit organization that promotes Bristol's musical heritage and runs a museum and radio station. "Many of the songs and stylings of those sessions still resonate and influence the music of today."

Ledbetter points to a now-famous comment from country great Johnny Cash that the Bristol Sessions were "the single most important event in the history of country music."

In 1998, the U.S. Congress designated Bristol as the "Birthplace of Country Music."

"There is no doubt that if we hadn't had those Bristol Sessions, there'd be no rock 'n' roll," Ken Burns, who made the PBS documentary "Country Music," said in a video posted on the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development's website.

The documentary studied the evolution of country music and also examined how Nashville became the epicenter of the country music industry.

  photo  AP Photo/The Daily Times, File / In this photo released by Sun Records, Elvis Presley, left, with, from second from left, bass player Bill Black, guitarist Scotty Moore and Sun Records and Memphis Recording studio head Sam Phillips, are shown during a break from a recording session in Memphis in 1954.
 
 


The city that cultivated blues, soul, rock 'n' roll and R&B

Across the state, 502 miles from Bristol, Memphis has a distinctive music tradition rooted in gospel, jazz, blues, soul and rockabilly, all of which are "extremely significant in the history of American culture," according to the Tennessee Encyclopedia.

The city's best known landmarks are Graceland and Beale Street, both intimately associated with the city's place in American music history, the encyclopedia states.

Starting in the 1860s, traveling musicians performed on Beale Street, which became a mecca for Black Americans from all over the South, according to the Historic Memphis website.

"In the early 1900s Beale was still filled with shops, restaurants and clubs, but now, many of them were owned by African-Americans. The setting was complete for creating a unique new sound in music," the website states.

Names like W.C. Handy, B.B. King, McKinley Morganfield (AKA Muddy Waters) and Big Joe Williams shaped the distinctive Memphis blues sound in the last century.

This Memphis sound later shaped the early rockabilly style adopted by Elvis Presley, according to the encyclopedia. These artists all recorded at the now legendary Sun Records studio, a few blocks from Beale Street, under the guidance of producer Sam Phillips, who is credited with discovering Elvis when the "King of Rock 'n' Roll" was still a teenager.

Sun Studio is often referred to as "the Birthplace of rock 'n' roll." Besides Elvis, it drew other 1950s musicians who ended up legends, including B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash.

At Sun Studios, "you have a kind of amazing gumbo where a lot of things come together," Burns said in the video. "Something happened here in which the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts."

  photo  AP Photo/John Duricka / Country singer Maybelle Carter, center, is flanked by Johnny Cash, right, and the Rev. Jimmy Snow on March 20, 1974 at the last Grand Ole Opry performance in Ryman Auditorium at Nashville, Tennessee. Standing at far right are country music stars Hank Snow and June Carter Cash.
 
 


The epicenter of the country music industry

Nashville is a city built on music from the beginning, according to the website of the Ryman Auditorium, which was home to the most iconic stage in country music. "Its musical roots trace back to the late 1700s when Nashville's earliest settlers celebrated with fiddle tunes upon arriving on the shores of the Cumberland River," the site states.

In the late 1800s, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, students at Nashville's Fisk University, helped put Nashville on the music map.

The Fisk singers -- all but two were former slaves and many were still in their teens -- sang "slave songs and were instrumental in preserving the unique American musical tradition known today as Negro spirituals," states the website of the singers, who still perform as an a cappella ensemble.

The Fisk singers toured the country, raising Nashville's profile.

The late 1800s saw the opening of Ryman Auditorium, originally a church called the Union Gospel Tabernacle. From 1943 to 1974, the auditorium hosted the Grand Ole Opry.

"This move launched country music directly into living rooms across America each week, and the popularity of the genre quickly grew," the auditorium's website states. "A performance by Earl Scruggs with Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys in December 1945 birthed the genre of bluegrass music and introduced it to a large audience for the first time."

Over the years, the Ryman hosted country music icons such as Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, George Jones, Charley Pride and Dolly Parton and is still known as "the mother church of country music."

Big names wanted to play the Opry and record labels and recording studios followed the artists to Nashville.

The area along 16th and 17th avenues became known as Music Row. In 1957, RCA Studio B opened there. The studio was credited for nurturing the "Nashville Sound," a style characterized by background vocals and strings that helped establish Nashville as an international recording center, according to the Country Music Hall of Fame Museum.

Elvis recorded 260 songs in RCA Studio B, including his first No. 1 hit, "Heartbreak Hotel," in 1956.

Donald R. Cusic, the Curb Professor of Music Industry History at Belmont University, says the reason Nashville ended up a top music town -- rivaling New York City and Los Angeles -- is because the creative culture of songwriters and musicians was supported by a strong business side with record companies and talented engineers and producers.

"Nashville has staying power because we have a business infrastructure," he says. "One of the keys in Tennessee becoming a recording center was the studios and that we had really good ones in Memphis and Nashville. That was key."

Today, Belmont and Middle Tennessee University have specialized programs that train students to work on the business side of the music industry.

Cusic says Tennessee's location was also a reason for its rise in the music industry.

"When you're dealing with traveling acts making appearances, it's close to a bunch of states," he says. "And then on the radio, like with the Grand Ole Opry, it was located at a strategic place that it could reach almost the entire country."

The state's music heritage spans all three grand divisions.

  photo  Photo via Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division / Chattanooga’s Bessie Smith, the “Empress of the Blues,” is seen in 1936.
 
 


Chattanooga's 'Big Nine'

Chattanooga has a far smaller role but still shares in the state's musical heritage. It's the home of Bessie Smith, known as the "Empress of the Blues." As a child in the early 1900s, she busked on street corners for spare change. As a teenager, she left Chattanooga with a traveling minstrel and vaudeville show as a dancer and singer, according to the Bessie Smith Cultural Center. While she's best known for the blues, she also performed country blues, vaudeville and jazz.

Chattanooga's Ninth Street -- now M.L. King Boulevard -- at one time had a music scene that rivaled Beale Street and drew music greats like Fats Domino and Nat King Cole. In its heyday, Ninth Street was known as "The Big Nine" and featured clubs with names like the Stardust Lounge, Lower Kelly's and Little Deuce, which buzzed with jazz and blues.

More songs are written, recorded and played live in Tennessee than anywhere else in the world, according to the Tennessee Music Pathways.

"You're here and you know you're in the presence of something special," Burns said in the Pathways video about Tennessee music. "Tennessee is a laboratory ... it's always been a place where we've permitted experimentation."

  photo  Doug Mills/The New York Times / Taylor Swift, who started out as a country music performer, drops references to Tennessee and her adopted hometown of Nashville in her songs.
 
 

Here's a list of favorite songs about Tennessee. Some of them even mention Chattanooga. Listen to a playlist of these songs and others at timesfreepress.com/TNsongs.


"Dixieland Delight"

This 1983 hit is by the band Alabama but it is, in fact, about Tennessee. Nevertheless, the song is played at University of Alabama football games. Vols fans snubbed Tide fans by blaring the song after Tennessee's winning field goal against Alabama on Oct. 15. It was the Vols' first victory against the Crimson Tide since 2006.

"Worked hard all week, got a little jingle

On a Tennessee Saturday night"


"Tennessee Mountain Home"

The cover of the album featuring this Dolly Parton classic, released in 1973, features the house in which Parton's family lived during the late 1940s and early 1950s. She uses wistful, idealized language to describe Tennessee.

"In my Tennessee mountain home

Life is as peaceful as a baby's sigh

In my Tennessee mountain home

Crickets sing in the fields near by"


"I Drove Her Out of My Mind"

This Johnny Cash song, posthumously released in 2014, is not one of the legendary singer's best known. It features Lookout Mountain, albeit in a dark way. Cash sings about driving a woman off Lookout Mountain in a Cadillac.

"She'll see all seven states

As we drive to the pearly gates

Tonight when I drive her

Out of my mind

All the papers will read 'Lovers leap

Again off Lookout Mountain'"


"T.V.A"

Folk duo the everybodyfields sang in this 2004 song about TVA taking land for dams.

"I was told I was too young to understand

But I can remember just like yesterday,

Watching daddy's head sink deep down in his hands"


"Tennessee River Runs Low"

The Secret Sisters of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, sing in haunting harmonies in this 2017 song about the portion of the Tennessee River that runs through Alabama.

"If I were born to be a river

If a river is all I'd be

I'd tell the giver of all of the rivers"


"Graceland"

Paul Simon sings about a trip to Tennessee with his son after a divorce in this 1986 classic, which features vocals by The Everly Brothers.

"I'm going to Graceland, Graceland

Memphis, Tennessee

I'm going to Graceland

Poor boys and pilgrims with families

And we are going to Graceland"


"Sundown in Nashville"

Marty Stuart croons of the many songwriters trying to make it big in Music City, which he refers to as "a country boy's Hollywood" in this 2003 song.

"But it's lonely at sundown in Nashville

That's when beaten souls start to weep

Each evening at sundown in Nashville

They sweep broken dreams off the street"


"Visit me in Music City"

Bobby Bare Jr. seems to poke a bit of fun at Nashville in this 2004 song.

"Record deals fly in and out like happy bumblebees

The cops carry capos in case you wanna change your key

In Nashville Tennessee

So come and visit me in Music City

We'll drink all night and write songs no one will sing

In pickup bars the country stars play Japanese guitars

Come and visit me in Nashville Tennessee"


"The Death of Jimmie Martin"

Folk singer and songwriter Tom Russell has harsh words about the Nashville music industry in this 2007 song about bluegrass great Jimmie Martin.

"You scorned Hank Williams, you shunned Jimmy Martin,

Boys who sang with tongues of fire

So god's gonna burn down your Grand Ole Opry

Hear the screams of the hypocrites and liars"


"Tim McGraw"

Even pop powerhouse Taylor Swift, who started out as a country music performer, drops references to Tennessee and her adopted hometown of Nashville in her songs.

"Invisible Strings" mentions Centennial Park, and in "London Boy," she refers to herself as being "like a Tennessee Stella McCartney."

A song from Swift's first album, titled "Tim McGraw," gives a nod to the music of the Nashville-based country superstar.

"But when you think Tim McGraw

I hope you think my favorite song

The one we danced to all night long ...

When you think Tim McGraw

I hope you think of me"


"Tennessee"

Carl Perkins brags about Tennessee and its music in this song, released in 1957. He even boasts about the fact that the first atomic bomb was built in Tennessee.

"Let's give old Tennessee credit for music

As they play it up in Nashville everyday

Let's give old Tennessee credit for music

As they play it in that old hillbilly way"


"Somewhere North of Nashville"

Even The Boss, proud Jersey boy Bruce Springsteen, has a song about Tennessee on the 2019 album, "Western Stars."

"I made the rounds

But I didn't last long

Now I'm out on this highway

With a bone-cold chill

Somewhere north of Nashville"


"Tennessee Orange"

In this 2022 song, Megan Moroney sings about a call to her mama with news she doesn't want her daddy to know because "he'll blow a fuse." She tells about meeting a man she likes, lists his positive attributes and then breaks the bad news.

"In Georgia, they call it a sin

And I still want the Dawgs to win

But I'm wearing Tennessee orange for him"

She confesses she's learning the words to "Rocky Top" and asks her mama to forgive her.


"Tennessee Waltz"

This song was first released in 1948 and became a multimillion seller when Patti Page recorded it in 1950. It's been recorded many times over -- check out the lovely version by Eva Cassidy -- and the University of Tennessee Pride of the Southland Band performs the song at the end of each home game at Neyland Stadium.

"I remember the night and the Tennessee Waltz

Now I know just how much I have lost

Yes, I lost my little darling on the night they were playing

The beautiful Tennessee Waltz"


"Tennessee"

Waylon Jennings sings about a big city that depresses him and wishing to be back in the Volunteer State is his 1966 song.

"Tennessee, oh what I'd give to be back there

Once again with all the old friends

Who were so kind to me oh Tennessee

I was happy as could be"


"Tennessee Blues"

Steve Earle sings about leaving Nashville in this 2007 song.

"Sunset in my mirror, pedal on the floor

Bound for New York City and I won't be back no more

Won't be back no more, boys won't see me around

Goodbye guitar town"


"Tennessee Song"

Margo Price, on the other hand, yearns to get back to Tennessee in this 2016 song.

"The future ain't what it used to be

Let's go back to Tennessee

Mountain high and valley low

Let's build down where the waters flow"


"Tennessee Bound"

Old Crow Medicine Show's 2014 song also expresses excitement about returning to Tennessee.

"You may call me a rover I have rambled around

But I'll quit my roaming when I get to Nashville town

You may call me a liar or a hard-headed fool

But I'm burning into Memphis on a flop-eared mule

I'm Tennessee bound bound bound

Bound bound bound

Good Lord, I'm Tennessee bound"


"Tennessee Stud"

This song about a horse has been recorded by many big names -- Doc Watson, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams Jr., the Osborne Brothers, among others. The traditional Irish folk band, The Chieftans, recorded it for the 2002 album "Down the Old Plank Road: The Nashville Sessions."

"Along about eighteen and twenty-five

I left Tennessee very much alive

I never woulda got through the Arkansas mud

If I hadn't been a-ridin' on the Tennessee stud"


"Murder On Music Row"

Alan Jackson and George Strait lament the death of traditional country music in this 2000 song.

"For the steel guitars no longer cry and fiddles barely play,

But drums and rock 'n' roll guitars are mixed up in your face

Old Hank wouldn't have a chance on today's radio

Since they committed murder down on music row"


"Memphis, Tennessee"

In this catchy song from 1963, Chuck Berry sings about missing a call from a 6-year-old.

"Long distance information, give me Memphis, Tennessee

Help me find the party trying to get in touch with me

She could not leave her number, but I know who placed the call

'Cause my uncle took the message, and he wrote it on the wall"


"Walking in Memphis"

Marc Cohn sings of gospel, catfish, Elvis and W.C. Handy in the moody 1991 classic.

"Put on my blue suede shoes

And I boarded the plane

Touched down in the land of the Delta Blues

In the middle of the pouring rain"


"Tennessee"

This 1992 Grammy-winning song by Arrested Development is about loss.

"Go back, from whence you came (Home)

My family tree, my family name (Home)

For some strange reason it had to be (Home)

He guided me to Tennessee (Home)"


"Tennessee Whiskey"

This song was first recorded by David Allan Coe in 1981, but the 2015 Chris Stapleton version won an Academy of Country Music Award for Song of the Year. Stapleton sang it with Justin Timberlake at the 2015 CMA Awards, which drove its popularity.

"You're as smooth as Tennessee whiskey

You're as sweet as strawberry wine"


For more information about Tennessee music or to find an online planning guide that connects visitors to the state's rich musical heritage, visit tnmusicpathways.com. The pathways stretches across all 95 counties and features hundreds of landmarks from the seven genres of music that call Tennessee home. The guide also can be found at the state's visitors centers.

The Tennessee Music Pathways podcast can be downloaded at at tnmusicpathways.com or podcast providers.

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