The radio station that created Music City USA turns 87 today

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Radio stations come and go. You’ll like a station, but you’ll tune in one morning, and instead of oldies, they’ll be talking sports.  

That’s what I like about WSM-650 AM in Nashville, which began broadcasting 87 years ago today. It’s always there, playing country music.

Its nickname is “The Air Castle of the South.” At night, its 50,000-watt signal can be picked up all across the South and Midwest, and it’s online (and there’s an app for that).

WSM has a neat history. It was founded by the National Life and Accident Insurance Co. as a way to advertise its insurance policies. Its motto was “We Shield Millions.”   

On Nov. 28, 1925, it launched the “WSM Barn Dance.”  Back in those days, radio stations played a little bit of everything, and before the “Barn Dance,” WSM played operatic music.  One Saturday night in 1927, the announcer, “Judge” George Hay, introduced the “Barn Dance” by saying, “For the past hour, we have been listening to music taken largely from the grand opera, but from now on, we will present the grand ol’ opry.”  

It’s been the Grand Ole Opry ever since.  

Because of the Opry, a lot of musicians set up camp in Nashville, and because they wanted to make records close to home, the city got a bunch of recording studios, eventually, Nashville became Music City.

If you ever visit Nashville, you can visit WSM, or, at least, look through the window at the disc jockey. WSM’s studios are in the Magnolia Lobby of the massive Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center, which is named after Opryland USA, which was a theme park that Gaylord Entertainment razed in the 1990s because it thought it would make more money with a shopping mall. The executives who thought that are no longer with the company.

The only recording studio that’s open for tours is the former RCA Studio B, which is down on Music Row, an area that’s home to record labels, recording studios, video production houses and other business who serve the music industry. RCA Studio B is known as “The Home of 1,000 Hits,” and that’s no exaggeration. It’s where Elvis recorded “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” Roy Orbison recorded “Only the Lonely,” and Dolly Parton recorded “I Will Always Love You.” You should go. (The Jolie did when she passed through Nashville a couple of years ago.)

One of the things I like about Nashville is that there’s a lot going on here besides music. Nashville is known as “the Athens of the South,” because there are so many colleges and universities. It’s also the center of the nation’s for-profit healthcare industry.  

But country music is what makes Nashville unique, and without WSM, it wouldn’t be Music City USA.

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In hindsight, the song was destined to become a classic

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If you’d asked me 20 summers ago to pick a song on the radio that would become a classic, I might have said “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or “Jeremy,” because grunge was happening, and Nirvana and Pearl Jam were Important and Relevant, and those songs seemed to say something Important and Relevant about how young people feel. (“I feel stupid and contagious.”)

Or, I might have said “Tennessee,” because Arrested Development seemed Important and Relevant, too. I thought the group took rap to a new level and made it more accessible to people didn’t like rap, who didn’t even consider it music, and I thought “Tennessee” said something Important and Relevant about race. (“Walk the roads my forefathers walked/Climb the trees my forefathers hung from.”) 

Or, I might have said “Tears in Heaven,” because, while it wasn’t Important or Relevant to the times, it was about the death of Eric Clapton’s 4-year-old son, and it was heartbreaking. (“Would you know my name/If I saw you in heaven?”)

I definitely would not have picked the song that sat atop the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart 20 years ago today: “Baby Got Back,” by Sir Mix-a-Lot.

But 20 summers later, that’s the song my kids know.

My kids (ages 12 and 6) have never heard of Nirvana or Pearl Jam or Arrested Development or Eric Clapton, but they know “Baby Got Back.”

I’m not suggesting that “Baby Got Back” is better than those more serious songs. I’m just saying it’s the song that stuck, probably because it goes, “Well, I like big butts,” and, kids, who keep these things going year after year, can’t resist a song about big butts.

Thing 1, the 12-year-old, bless her heart, doesn’t really understand what the songs about, because, if she did, she wouldn’t sing it in front of her parents. Thing 2, the 6-year-old, knows some of the words and makes up the rest: “Well I like big butts, for cryin’ out loud….”

I mention this because Thing 1 is old enough now to love Top 40 radio. (Really, it’s closer to Top 5 radio, because it’s the same few songs, over and over again.)

Other than Adele’s stuff, I think the songs are terrible, and I honestly can’t tell one from the other (which is what my parents said about the music I liked back in junior high and high school), and it depresses me a little because I know how these things work. I know there’s a good chance the most obnoxious song on the radio this summer, the song that, to my grown-up ears, anyway, sounds absolutely stupid and completely disposable, may well become one of those songs that  never, ever goes away.

Nuxhall on Main Street

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Cincinnati Reds pitcher Joe Nuxhall in a 1957 ...

I was watching the Cincinnati Reds clobber the San Francisco Giants last night, and it made me think how much I miss listening to Marty and Joe.

Marty Brennaman and Joe Nuxhall called the Reds’ games on the radio when I was growing up and even after I’d grown up. Marty joined Joe in the booth in 1974, and they worked together for 30 years, until Joe retired. He passed away in 2007.

Marty and Joe talked about everything: tomato plants, movies, sometimes even the baseball game. I used to have a job where I had to drive halfway across the state and drive home at night, and in the summertime, if atmospheric conditions were right, I could tune in WLW-700 AM and listen to the Reds, not because I liked the team (although I do) because I liked listening to Marty and Joe.

Marty’s background was radio, but Joe’s was baseball, and here’s one of the coolest things about him:

He’s in the record books as the youngest player ever to appear in a major league game. He pitched two-thirds of an inning for Cincinnati in 1944, when he was 15 years old.

This was during World War II, and teams had to use players who were too young or too old for the draft or otherwise couldn’t serve. The Reds signed Joe when he was still in the 9th grade because he had an 85-mile-an-hour fastball.

Usually, he sat on the bench, but once, with the Reds losing 13-0 against the St. Louis Cardinals, the Reds’ manager, Bill McKechnie, decided to give Joe a shot.

It didn’t go well.

Joe quickly gave up 5 runs, but he did get to pitch against Stan Musial. Imagine being 15 years old today and getting to pitch in a major-league game against Albert Pujols or Alex Rodriguez. That’s what Joe Nuxhall did between his freshman and sophomore years of high school.

Joe returned to the team in 1952, and when he retired 15 years later, he became the Reds’ color commentator.

When he’d signed off, Joe would say, “This is the ol’ left hander, rounding home and heading for home.” When I’m in the car at night, I still try to find a baseball game to keep me company, but I don’t think I’ll ever hear a broadcast team that’s in the same league as Marty and Joe.