The Nashville Sound, Explained

Country Music Polishes its Rough Edges.

Neon signs on Lower Broadway (Nashville) at Night
Nashville Sound. © Nina Dietzel / Getty Images

Rock 'n' roll ruled the airwaves in the 1950s and '60s. To compete in the youth market, country music executives responded by reconfiguring the genre as "adult." They smoothed out the gritty, rural sounds of the country music's past. Fiddles were out; orchestras were in. Backing choruses replaced pedal-steel guitar. The songs themselves were closer to the jazz and pop standards of Tin Pan Alley than the folk sound of early country musicians.

This new style became known as the Nashville Sound.

How the Term Was Coined

The Nashville Sound was first used in a 1958 article in the Music Reporter. The term came into broader use when, in 1960, it appeared prominently in an article on Jim Reeves in Time magazine. Interestingly, the term "Nashville Sound" was then used to describe the spontaneous magic of Nashville's recording process, where written arrangements were rarely used. It only later designated a specific era of country music's evolution (as is the case here). The term "countrypolitan" is used interchangeably.

The Artists

And what about the artists? They sung in crooner vocal styles. These are some of the most prominent country singers associated with the Nashville Sound:

Background Singers

The Nashville Sound relied heavily on background choruses. Here are some of the most famous backing groups.

Both The Jordanaires and the Anita Kerr Singers sang on hundreds of records.

  • Anita Kerr Singers
  • The Jordanaires

Session Players

Sessions players were instrumental in creating the uniform sound of country music during the Nashville Sound era. (No pun intended.) The seasoned professionals played as many as four sessions a day.

Here are some of the most well-known workhorses in Nashville during that era, and what instruments they played.

  • Buddy Harman - drummer
  • Ray Edenton - guitarist
  • Grady Martin - guitarist
  • Hank Garland - guitarist
  • Harold Bradley - guitarist
  • Bob Moore - bassist
  • Henry Strzelecki - bassist
  • Floyd Cramer - pianist
  • Hargus "Pig" Robbins - pianist
  • Pete Drake - steel guitarist

Producers

RCA executive Chet Atkins is most often credited with creating the Nashville Sound. Atkins, also a producer and virtuosic guitar player, helped drive country to the pop charts.

Also influential in the nascent style was Decca Records producer Owen Bradley, who founded Bradley Studios in Nashville, an independent recording studio where both country and rock 'n' roll artists put songs to tape. Bradley became head of Decca's Nashville Division in 1958, where he exerted a huge influence over the evolving sound of country music. As a producer, Bradley put his stamp on an impressive roster of hits by female country artists, among them Kitty Wells, Brenda Lee, Loretta Lynn, and Patsy Cline.

Decline

By the 1970s, the Nashville Sound had tapered off, thanks to so-called outlaw artists like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings who sported a tougher sound.

Still, the system that created the Nashville Sound was never really eliminated and is visible today in the current workflow that relies on a close cadre of session musicians, producers, and songwriters. As the move toward New Country in the 1990s has shown, country music has never really stopped eying the pop charts.

Nashville Sound Playlist

Want to hear the Nashville Sound in action? Click the link and have a listen on YouTube.

  1. Patsy Cline - "Crazy"
  2. Eddy Arnold - "Make the World Go Away
  3. Ferlin Husky - "Gone"
  4. Chet Atkins - "Sandman"
  5. Charlie Rich - "Behind Closed Doors"
  6. Skeeter Davis - "The End of the World"
  7. Ray Price - "For the Good Times"