In Michael Kosser’s essential new book, “How Nashville Became Music City USA” (Hal Leonard; $22.95), a rich recounting of the creative geniuses behind musical geniuses such as Johnny Cash, Tammy Wynette, Waylon Jennings, Patsy Cline, George Jones and Charlie Rich, there’s a palpable sadness for the passing of an incredibly fertile time and place in American cultural history.
As Kosser, speaking on the phone from his Nashville home, simply pinpoints the brilliance of Nashville circa 1950s-70s, “If you had any idea, you could just do it.”
The author of 17 books on the music business and other subjects, as well as an accomplished country songwriter himself, Kosser has been in Nashville since the early ’70s, and he’s watched the changes that big money wrought on what was a small-town melting pot of iconoclasts, dreamers and legendary talents.
“You hear it over and over from folks inside the business,” Kosser says, “that when the center of the music industry moved from New York to Los Angeles in the ’70s, the music guys in L.A. decided that pop music was their domain, and Nashville never again shared the pop marketplace the same way.”
Kosser cites the 1950s careers of Brenda Lee and the Everly Brothers and rock classics like Elvis’ “Heartbreak Hotel” as “proof that Nashville was a key source for hit pop music, not just country.”
Kosser’s interviews with key Music Row producers like Billy Sherrill, Bob Johnston, Allen Reynolds, Jerry Bradley and Jimmy Bowen shine a light on the making of classic records by the aforementioned artists as well as others like Bob Dylan, who cut what many consider to be the greatest rock album of all time, “Blonde on Blonde,” in Nashville with a wrecking crew of country’s finest session players.
“Music City” is accompanied by a CD with finished tracks and priceless song demos, such as songwriter Bobby Braddock’s version of his George Jones classic “He Stopped Lovin’ Her Today.”
Kosser succinctly assesses the contributions of the producers and songwriters such as Braddock and Bob McDill, Harlan Howard, Sonny Throckmorton, Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, et al. “The artists are the brand names, but the real movers and shakers were the people behind the scenes.”
He sums up his take on Nashville then and now by noting: “The best thing about Nashville in that era was that you didn’t make a lot of money, but things didn’t cost a lot. So everyone took chances, and great originals like Johnny Cash happened. Today, if you sign the wrong guy it could cost you your job.
“The studio musicians today are great, and the songwriters are great. The level of craftsmanship is high as it’s ever been, but the level of inspiration is not. There’s a tendency to write too much just for the market, and it tramples on the creativity.”
He also blames country radio, noting, “There are many who say country was always too intimidated by what radio decided to play, but it’s just gotten worse and worse on that front.
“I don’t have a problem with what’s being played today,” says Kosser sardonically, “but I have a big problem with what’s not being played.”