Nashville’s nickname, "Music City USA," was coined at WSM-AM. The longest running and arguably most popular country music show in the history of the world,
The Grand Ole Opry, was born there, under the name "WSM Barn Dance." Hundreds of hopeful singers and pickers from all over the country flocked to WSM, hoping to get airtime--and some stars were made as a result.
Begun in 1925 by Edwin Craig
(who was “swept up by the national mania for broadcasting”), WSM was owned and sponsored by National Life Insurance; WSM stood for “We Shield Millions.” The station adopted an all-country music format from the beginning;
The Grand Ole Opry was the star in its crown, attracting a live audience that came from just about everywhere. The venues changed several times to accommodate the crowds that brought the applause and the laughs that brought the listeners to their radios every Saturday night. Patsy Cline, Roy Acuff, The Carter Family, Minnie Pearl, and Uncle Dave Macon were among the early pantheon of performers. The
Opry/WSM alliance became so much a part of the Nashville image that most people recognized that the city was, in reality, two cities. One was the hillbilly haven, referred to as
"The Country Music Capital of the World," that brought in bucks that helped the city expand in girth and importance.
The other was the low-key intellectual aerie centered around Vanderbilt University.
Rarely would the twain meet.
Craig Havighurst is a music journalist (The Wall Street Journal, NPR) who has gone backstage to chronicle the long history of the station
and the changes of management, momentum, and focus. “Nashville and WSM shaped each other profoundly,” he opines, regarding the story of “the air castle of the South” as an almost personal biography not only of the station but of the small city of Nashville that rather reluctantly garnered world fame by accepting the hillbilly label.
WSM didn’t always get it right. It held back from heavily promoting Elvis Presley, who received a rather chilly reception at his performance in 1954 on the
Opry, because of what would later be seen as a “rapprochement of black and white” musical styles. In 1998, Presley would gain space in the Country Music Hall of Fame. But if they sometimes missed a big fish, WSM triumphed by the steady, long-haul, small and homely image typified by such characters as John McDonald, who toiled for more than 25 years as the agricultural D-jay on a show modestly named “Noontime Neighbors.” It was noted that “the farmers believed in him.” Another nonmusical regular was newsman Bill Williams, who would tell, rather than read, the news, making it sound far more convincing than a canned presentation. In 2002, the station almost made a major mistake, threatening to drop its country programming.
Fans (using that new-fangled device, the Internet) got up a petition, other media sources decried the possible change, and WSM relented.
Having started small, and limited by the medium of radio itself, WSM, like other radio outlets, has a hazy destiny. There are hopes that it can be subsidized in some way, perhaps museum-ized, as befits its former fame and unique status in the legendary rise of Music City.