The rebirth of the uke

Stay around long enough, and as the saying goes, what was once fashionable, and then unfashionable, becomes fashionable once more.

This is certainly the case with the ukulele. This humble member of the lute family came out of Hawaii, having mutated from the Portuguese machete, a four-stringed instrument that originated in Madeira and was taken to the Hawaiian Islands by Portuguese immigrants who landed there in 1879.

Jazz and country

The ukulele became big in the US in 1915, after it had been demonstrated on the Hawaiian Pavilion at the Panama Pacific International Expo in San Francisco.

The instrument was taken up by vaudeville performers and then by jazz players, before making inroads into country music with performers such as Jimmie Rodgers and Cowan Powers.

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Decline

After that the uke declined in popularity, its four strings and small body seeming rather feeble compared to the guitar sounds of rock ‘n’ roll and country music.

Further, although a good ukulele should be as well crafted as a guitar, there had been an influx of cheap models including a good many made of plastic, and the instrument suffered from an image problem.

Nervous Norvus, aka Jimmy Drake, who wrote and performed the 1956 smash Transfusion, famously played a king-sized uke, properly known as a baritone ukulele, but as Drake was a recluse who never made personal appearances, the only exposure the instrument ever had through him was on record sleeves and trade ads.

Missing

Apart from Tiny Tim, the ukulele was practically missing in action for the next 30 years.

During the 1990s the instrument made its comeback.

One of the prime movers has been the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. Here in Nashville we have the Nashville Ukulele Society, and a great number of ukulele events.

Booming

Sales of ukes are skyrocketing, and manufacturers have been falling over themselves to introduce new models. This is a good time to become a uke player, and the music shops around town naturally have just about anything you could desire. There are four main sizes: soprano, concert, tenor and baritone. Soprano, being the smallest, is probably the easiest for beginners.

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The echo sound

Although it was the Echoplex tape delay unit that defined much of the rockabilly sound throughout the 1960s, it wasn’t the first tape echo machine on the market.

 

Sound engineers had begun to experiment in the late 1940s with units that could be used in recording studios and which were portable enough to be used during live appearances.

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Breakthrough

 

It was Ray Butts who in 1953 made the breakthrough with his EchoSonic, a portable guitar amplifier that had a built-in tape echo effect.

 

Butts owned a music store in Cairo, Illinois, and started experimenting when a local guitar player named Bill Gwaltney asked him how he could replicate some of the studio sounds that Les Paul was creating.

 

Using the new plastic recording tape that had been introduced by 3M, Butts built the first EchoSonic amp, which was duly bought by Gwaltney.

Nashville

 

Butts next took himself off to Nashville, where he looked up Chet Atkins in the phone book and introduced himself. Atkins bought the second EchoSonic, using it to memorable effect on his 1954 recording of Mr Sandman.

 

Listening in on the radio to Chet Atkins was a young guitar player named Scotty Moore, who decided he wanted to achieve a similar sound.

 

Sun Studio

 

Moore was doing studio work for Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun Studio, which was equipped for a slapback echo sound, achieved with two Ampex 350 recorders.

 

Sun had been recording a young hopeful named Elvis Presley, and Moore thought the EchoSonic effect would complement the sound Phillips was achieving with Presley’s voice.

 

Moore therefore became either the third or the eighth customer for Butts’ ingenious machine, depending on which version of the story you hear.

 

Mystery Train

 

What is for sure is that Scotty used the EchoSonic on Mystery Train, and on every subsequent recording he made with Elvis, coupling it with his Gibson Super 400.

Fellow Sun artist Carl Perkins soon picked up on the sound, as did many other guitar players of the 1950s.

Butts however had neglected to patent his invention, and other manufacturers copied the design. The most successful of these was the Echoplex, which took over from EchoSonic as the 1960s dawned.

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Marty Robbins was a country star who was propelled to super-stardom in both the country and the pop charts by what must rate as one of Nashville’s most significant productions.

El Paso however very nearly never got made.

Gunfighter ballads

Robbins had scored four number one country hits before he started to pressure his label, Columbia, to record an album of gunfighter ballads.

Columbia weren’t keen: they wanted him to stay as a country and pop singer. But when in 1959 Marty recorded The Hanging Tree, a western ballad that was used on the soundtrack of a film of the same name, and it went as a single to number 15 on the country charts, they changed their mind.

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Commute

Robbins for several years had been making the commute between Nashville and his home in Phoenix, a route that took him through El Paso.

Liking the sound of the name, he thought it would make a good song title. It remained just a thought for a couple of years until, in 1958, with his wife Marizona at the wheel of their turquoise Cadillac and Marty in the back seat with his guitar, the inspiration came to him and he could barely write the words down fast enough.

Epic

Back in Studio 2 at Bradley Studios in Nashville on April 7, 1959, producer Don Law found himself confronting a 14-verse epic.

Grady Martin played lead guitar, using a 1952 BigsbyDoubleneck to create a delicate TexMex sound that interweaves with Marty’s subdued voice relating the tale of the hot headed gunfighter.

Jack Pruett strummed rhythm guitar, Bob Moore played stand-up bass, and Jim Glaser and Bobby Sykes supplied the harmony vocals.

Edit

When it was recorded, the track ran for 4 minutes and 38 seconds: too long, Columbia thought, for a single, as the DJs wouldn’t play it.

Somehow they managed to edit the track down to 2.58, but Marty persuaded them to put the full-length track on the B-side.

In the event, most DJs chose to play the full version. El Paso was the first number one single of the 1960s, and it ushered in the era of longer recordings.

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Not many piano players have a statue dedicated to them, so the statue of Owen Bradley at Owen Bradley Park in Nashville is a significant landmark both in the city and its music.

Bradley, who was born in Westmore-land, Tennessee, had started out as a piano player but morphed into a music arranger and songwriter, taking a job with Decca Records in the late 1940s and becoming vice president of the label’s Nashville division in 1958.

Owen Bradley and the Quonset hut

Image change

His timing was impeccable. Nashville was attempting to shake off the folksy image of country music and develop a more pop-oriented sound. There was however little in the way of recording studios, and no A-Team.

One of the few recording facilities was Bradley’s own studio. Together with his brother Harold, a guitarist, he had in 1954 bought an old rooming house at 804 16th Avenue South, and built a studio in the basement.

Handpicked players

Outgrowing that, they added a military-issue Quonset hut to the back of the house, and turned it into a studio.

This was where the Nashville Sound began to coalesce, with Bradley’s crew of hand-picked musicians backing emerging artists and creating some of the biggest national and international hits of the day.

Shape changing

Not only did the Quonset hut change the shape of Nashville music, it changed the shape of Nashville, becoming center of the area now known as Music Row.

In 1962 the brothers sold the property to Columbia Records and bought a farm outside Nashville, where they built what was to become the equally legendary studio known as Bradley’s Barn.

The Quonset hut was used until 1982, when it was converted into office space until, in 2006, philanthropist Mike Curb bought the structure and had it restored.

Students

Today, the hut serves as recording classroom for Belmont University, where bemused students get to see how valves and tubes helped to create magic.

Owen Bradley and the Quonset hut

As for Owen Bradley, he is not that far away, sitting in bronze at a bronze piano, and keeping a watchful eye open.

Recording Heartbreak Hotel

One of the sessions that really put Nashville on the map as a recording center was Heartbreak Hotel, cut during Elvis Presley’s first session for RCA Victor after he had left Sun.

There were very few recording facilities in Nashville at that time, and RCA didn’t have their own studio there.

Recording Heartbreak Hotel

Methodists

Elvis arrived on January 10, 1956, two days after his 21st birthday, at a building at 1525 McGavock Street, where RCA was renting studio space from the owners, the Methodist Church’s Television, Radio and Film Commission.

Elvis had picked up the demo for Heartbreak Hotel at the Country Music Disc Jockey Convention in Nashville in November of the previous year, and he arrived at the studio without any authorisation from his new label to cut the track, who consequently had little idea how to record it.

Potboiler

The first track he recorded that day was I Got A Woman, a reasonable potboiler but not a single.

Second track in was Heartbreak Hotel.

Along with his regular band of Scotty Moore, Bill Black and DJ Fontana, Elvis was joined by RCA players Chet Atkins on guitar and Floyd Cramer on piano.

Slapback

Producer Steve Sholes wanted to recreate the slapback sound that Sam Phillips had achieved for Elvis at Sun, but he didn’t know how Sam had done it. Sam had in fact used two tape recorders with a slight time delay.

The acoustics at 1525 McGavock were not great. There was a curved ceiling that created low frequency problems for the bass notes, and curtains had to be hung to help deaden the room.

Echo

To achieve the clear-cut sound of Heartbreak Hotel, the engineers used wall-like baffles to prevent the sound from one instrument bleeding into another.

Finally, to isolate Elvis’s voiceand create the echo, engineer Bob Farris set up a speaker at one end of a long hallway and a microphone at the other end, recording the echo live.

Everyone at RCA hated Heartbreak Hotel. But it sold in millions.

In a supreme act of vandalism, the studio at 1525 McGavock was pulled down in 2006 and is now a parking lot.

Recording Heartbreak Hotel

Harmonicas and the real McCoy

Roy Orbison really hit it big with Crying, reaching number two on the national charts, but on the flip side was a song that was in sharp contrast to the Big O’s bolero style, a bluesy track that also made it up the charts, eventually hitting number 25.

 

What really set Candy Man apart was its wailing harmonica sound, novel at that time in the pop charts, for it was slightly before Bruce Channel’s Hey Baby, and the prolific use of the harmonica by the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and other British beat groups.

Harmonicas and the real McCoy

 

Hohner

 

The harmonica has its origins in the free reed instruments of East Asia. The instrument as we know it first appeared in Vienna in the 1820s, from where it made its way to Germany.

 

Matthias Hohner, a clockmaker in Trossingen was the first person to mass-produce the harmonica, in the 1850s, and he started shipping them to the German communities in the United States.

 

Popularity

 

The easy portability of what was often called the mouth organ led to its popularity amongst soldiers during the Civil War, and pioneers on the western frontier.

 

During the first half of the 20th century, the harmonica migrated into the African American communities, and thereby into blues music.

 

Session musician

 

A session musician named Charlie McCoy provided the harmonica sound for Candy Man.

Charlie, who had been born in West Virginia and raised in Miami, was a guitarist, drummer, trumpet player and singer, in addition to being a harmonica player.

He had arrived in Nashville in 1960, at the age of 18, and set about looking for work as a session musician, initially taking anything he could find in a music scene that was only just coming together.

Breakthrough

Chet Atkins heard one of his demo tapes and in the middle of 1961 hired him to play harmonica on an Ann-Margaret song, I Just Don’t Understand.

Fred Foster of Monument Records liked the way the bluesy sound contrasted with her voice, and hired Charlie for Candy Man.

After that, the harmonica formed part of the soundtrack of the Sixties and the Seventies.

As for Charlie McCoy, he’s still going strong and a few years ago was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Harmonicas and the real McCoy

Historians of music like to debate on which was the first record that heralded the Nashville Sound.

Some hold out for Jim Reeves’ Four Walls, recorded in February 1957. Chet Atkins, who was certainly in a position to know, backed his own production of Don Gibson’s Oh Lonesome Me, which was recorded later the same year.

Ferlin Husky

There is however considerable support for a slightly earlier recording, Ferlin Husky’sGone, which was recorded in November 1956.

This wasn’t the first time Husky had recorded Gone.

Using the stage name Terry Preston, in the belief that his own name was non-commercial, he had a number of country-style hits at the beginning of the 1950s.

The first of the Nashville Sound

Bombed

He first recorded Gone, written by Smokey Rogers, in 1952. With a plaintive, melodic vocal and a subdued pedal steel guitar accompaniment by Speedy West, it had an undeniable country feel, but the record bombed.

Shortly after, at the urging of LA-based Capitol producer Ken Nelson, Husky reverted to his real name and they felt it might be time to revisit Gone, but this time Husky wanted to give it more of a pop presentation.

Expense

The recording took place in Nashville, at Owen Bradley’s studio.

Nelson, according to a later account by Husky, took fright at the number of people who were crowding into the studio.  Along with a large number of musicians, including Grady Martin on vibraphone, there were the Jordanaires and the soprano Millie Kirkham.

With each musician and singer on union rates, Nelson was seeing the dollar signs flickering up alarmingly quickly.

Husky used a more forceful approach with the vocal this time, and a primitive echo chamber effect was added.

Success

The result was a love song that was also perfect for slow dancing, and Gone hit the top of the country charts early in 1957, crossing over to the pop charts where it reached number four.

This kind of success was what Nashville was waiting for, and Gone certainly has a credible claim to have started the Sound.

The first of the Nashville Sound

On Earl Scruggs’s 80th birthday, in 2004, he was described by country star Porter Wagoner as the best player of the five-string banjo there ever was. “And the best there ever will be,” Wagoner added.

Bluegrass

The banjo of course is one of the formative instruments in country music, and is especially identified with bluegrass.

Scruggs became most associated with a three-finger style of fingerpicking that has become known as Scruggs Style.

This is played with picks on the thumb, index and middle fingers. The ring finger and the pinkie are braced against the head of the instrument.

Banjo picking Scruggs style

Fast and lively

The strings are picked rapidly in repetitive rolls usually containing a series of staccato notes, and the sound is fast and lively.

When Scruggs joined Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys late in 1945 he caused something of a sensation, and other players were soon copying the banjo licks he employed.

Lester Flatt

Another player in Monroe’s line-up was a guitarist and mandolin player named Lester Flatt, and in 1948 Flatt and Scruggs went out on their own and formed the Foggy Mountain Boys.

The result was some of the most popular and distinctive bluegrass music ever made.

Hillbillies

This was helped when Flatt and Scruggs recorded the theme music for The Beverly Hillbillies, a hit TV series that began in 1962.

Jerry Scoggins sang on the TV soundtrack, but when the theme was released as a single, Flatt, an accomplished vocalist, sang the lead vocal instead.

Earl Scruggs didn’t exactly invent Scruggs Style, and in fact he cites Snuffy Jenkins, an early proponent of three-finger banjo picking, as being an important influence.

Virtuoso

But as a charismatic and virtuoso player who came along at the right time, the three-finger style will forever be associated with Scruggs, who lived a further eight years after his 80th birthday.

His funeral was held at the Ryman Auditorium, former home of the Grand Ole Opry, and he is buried at Spring Hill Cemetery in Nashville.

Banjo picking Scruggs style

There is an amusing story attached to one of the first players of the electric steel guitar, Alvino Rey.

This was back in the days when the instrument was at its experimental stage, at the end of the 1920s. Rey had practiced with the orchestra and everyone had been satisfied with the sound of the instrument.

Electric ower

On the night of the performance, as the orchestra struck up, the lights were turned down. Sadly for Rey, the lights were a detail he had forgotten. And he had plugged his amp into the lighting circuit.

These days lap steel guitars and pedal steel guitars are part of country music, an easily identifiable component of the Nashville Sound.

The pedal steel guitar

Two styles

There is quite a difference between these two types of instrument.

The lap steel usually has six strings and is tuned to either standard guitar tuning or an open chord, while the pedal steel has between 10 and 14 strings per neck and two or even three necks, each tuned differently.

Up to eight tuning pedals and another eight knee pedals are used to alter the pitch of the strings, and playing this instrument is necessarily complex.

Virtuoso

For this reason the pedal steel guitar player is highly valued in Nashville, as the virtuoso will add a high, lonesome sound to a recording.

The early instrument Rey was playing was a lap steel guitar. The pedal steel instrument had grown out of the lap steel, and the 1940s had seen many innovations.

It was the early 1950s that first saw the pedal steel guitar on hit records. The first was “Slowly”, a number one recorded by Webb Pierce and using a double-neck eight-string, two-pedal Bigsby guitar.

Bigsby

There was a resulting huge demand from musicians, bandleaders and the public for the pedal steel guitar, and Bigsby, who worked out of his garage, couldn’t make enough.

Other guitar makers rushed to fill the gap: Fender, Sho-Bud, Wright Custom and Emmons were amongst those who brought out instruments at this time that quickly found their way into the new recording studios of Nashville.

The pedal steel guitar

The Nashville Number System

Natural-born musicians, singers and songwriters do not necessarily have a sound grip of music theory. What they do comes from the heart, and being confronted with a studio setup can be intimidating.

Neil Matthews understood this. He was born in Nashville in 1929, served with the US Army during the Korean War, and after his discharge he achieved fame as a member of the Jordanaires.

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Chords as numbers

With Nashville becoming an important recording center in the late 1950s, and with the Jordanaires backing so many players and singers, Neil devised a system of transcribing music by writing out the chords as numbers rather than by using chord names.

Music by fingers

Known as the Nashville Number System, this allows anyone with only a basic knowledge of music theory to follow chord structures, even when improvised, for the chord changes can be communicated mid-song simply by someone holding up the requisite number of fingers.

The score is written out as a series of numbers, with the key written at the top of the chart. The numbers do not change if the singer or the music shifts into another key, they simply become relative to the new root note.

Universal

The beauty is that the system is universal. It is now understood and used way beyond Nashville, and frees up musicians and songwriters to concentrate on the creative work, rather than struggle with music theory.

Neil Matthews did not actually invent the system, for it is based on the Roman numeral system to represent chords. Subsequent to Neil’s work, Charlie McCoy has further developed the system.

Online tutorials

There are now several books available, along with online tutorials that will teach you how to play the Nashville Number System. It looks complicated when viewed for the first time, but with a little practice most musicians can begin to think in numbers rather than chords.

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