The Air Castle of the South


Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.


The first thing I do every morning when I get to work is turn on my computer, click on and listen all day to the air castle of the South, WSM 650 AM. Every night before I go to bed, I tune my radio to 650 AM and the sounds of the Eddie Stubbs, the dean of country music and one hell of a fiddler who’s played with Kitty Wells and others, and let his evening show out me to sleep. Here in Chicago, the sweet sounds of Martina McBride, Loretta and Tammy, and the gruff wisdom of George Jones, Porter Wagoner, and Jim Ed Brown wash over the airwaves and into my life thanks to the 50,000 watts clear channel station that helped turned Nashville into Music City USA. As I write this, I’m streaming WSM and listening to that beautiful crystal-throated songbird, Suzy Bogguss sing her old and new songs.

When I was growing up, of course, I would have called you crazy if you suggested I listen to country music. My parents listened mostly to Ray Conniff, Herb Alpert, and Mitch Miller and His Singers, which sounded false to my ears, bent as they were to the strains of Black Sabbath, Rod Stewart, Ten Years After, and Uriah Heep (see, even then I was getting my literature in many ways), among others. I had no interest in listening to the whiny strains of Hank Williams or George Jones.
All that must have begun to change a little when I started listening to Gram Parsons, Jackson Brown, The Eagles, Linda Ronstdat, The Grateful Dead, Neil Young, The Band, and Bob Dylan. When I took up my axe in various bands in college and beyond, I played mostly what has become known as “country rock.” By the time I was in seminary, I was listening regularly to Emmylou Harris, Crystal Gayle, and Waylon and Willie and playing their songs when I performed. I listened to WSM some in seminary, mostly late at night when the airwaves were clear enough to bring the station into my room.
Over the past ten years or more, WSM has been a constant companion. I try to get to Nashville a couple of times a year for business, and I always head out to the Opry for a great show, over to Tootsie’s for a drink and some raucous music and hope for a glimpse of a star or two, and to Pancake Pantry for the best breakfast in the South, at least.
I was excited, then, when I stopped by the University of Illinois booth at BEA and saw an ARC (advance reading copy) called Air Castle of the South: WSM and the Making of Music City by Nashville-based journalist Craig Havighurst. Illinois has always done great music books; they have a wonderfully long list of books about blues, bluegrass, country, and rock. They published Neil Rosenberg’s definitive history of bluegrass, Bluegrass: A History, and they’ve just released a splendid biography of Faron Young, Live Fast, Love Hard: The Faron Young Story, by Diane Diekman.
I immediately asked for a copy and spent several glorious days on my morning and afternoon commute reading this splendid book. In this fast-paced chronicle of the rise of WSM and its integral contributions to the building of Nashville’s economic base and its cultural identity, Havighurst splendidly recounts the challenges, the personalities, and the music that made WSM what it is today. In 1925, the National Life and Accident Company started the station with radio guru Jack DeWitt at the technical helm and Edwin Craig as the station’s first broadcaster. By 1930, WSM (which stands for “We Shield Millions,” a slogan for National Life and Accident) was so popular that it was one of five stations the Federal Radio Commission permitted to grow to 50,000 watts, thereby increasing its audience from Nashville to as far north as the Arctic Circle. Havighurst includes snapshots of early Opry performers such as Uncle Dave Macon, Deford Bailey, the only African-American on the show, and Minnie Pearl, as well as performers such as Dinah Shore, Snooky Lanson, and Pee Wee King, who got their starts on WSM. The radio station weathered a crisis in 2002 when its then-owner, Gaylord Entertainment, tried to change its format from country music to sports and talk. Protests from fans from around the country convinced Gaylord of its mistake and WSM remains today the heart and soul of Music City USA.
While Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, Music Row, Ernest Tubbs’ Record Shop, The Country Music Hall of Fame are all venerable Nashville country music institutions, all of these places some of which exist more for the benefit of tourists than for the music industry, owe their very existence to the mother of all Nashville landmarks, WSM, or 650 AM, which introduced country music to the world when it launched the Grand Ole Opry over its airwaves in 1927.
If you can’t make it Nashville to visit the studios of WSM out at Opryland, or you can’t pick WSM up on your radio, Havighurst’s wonderfully lyrical book is the next best thing to being there.

Henry Carrigan dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll star with a life of coast-to-coast tours and wild parties with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell among others. But books intervened, and instead he went to Emory University to major in Religion and Literature. Later, teaching humanities in college, he took up writing about books—this time to avoid reading students’ papers. Henry soon became Library Journal's religion columnist, then religion book editor for Publishers Weekly. While working as editor-in-chief for Northwestern University Press and editing classic books for Paraclete Press, he still continues to write for LJ and PW, as well as the Washington Post Book World, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Charlotte Observer, ForeWord magazine—and now, BiblioBuffet. And he still enjoys playing his guitar. Henry can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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