Every day thousands drive down I-65 past Concord Road where one of the longest-standing radio towers in the country is located. Most of these travelers have no idea that the 800+ foot tower is a piece of living history. This tower was instrumental in making Nashville the Home of Country Music. On March 5, 2011, the WSM-AM radio tower was added to the National Registry of Historic Places. In our continuing series celebrating Brentwood’s 50th anniversary, we are sharing the history of the WSM Tower.
While the tower went into operation in 1932, the story of the tower goes back to the mid-1920s. Radio was in its infancy and stations were initially started by large companies, such as Sears, Roebuck and Company. Sear’s Chicago-based station was WLS, which stood for “World’s Largest Store.” In Memphis, the Commercial Appeal newspaper began WMC in 1923.
This phenomenon caught the interest of Edwin Craig, son of the Chairman of National Life and Accident Insurance Company. He knew that the company could not afford to buy advertising in every little town where they had representatives, But, he had the vision of starting a radio station that would reach beyond their Nashville headquarters. According to a quote by the company’s historian Powell Stamper, in the book Air Caste of the South, Craig said the station would, “extend the company identity, service the community, influence public relations, and support the company’s ‘fieldmen’ in their relations with both prospects and policyholders.”
WSM was born on the fifth floor of the National Life and Accident Insurance building on the corner of Seventh and Union in downtown Nashville on October 5, 1925.
Country Music Hits a Note with Listeners
The first broadcasts were of local talent, including Uncle Jimmy Thompson, who is credited with being the first act to hit the airwaves, and “Judge” George D. Hay, who was already a prestigious announcer. Hay would soon create the show that solidifies WSM-AM’s place in history.
It didn’t take too long for the station to find its voice. Initially begun as WSM Barn Dance, the Grand Ole Opry was born on November 28, 1925. It was made a hit due to the showmanship of local vaudeville acts like Uncle Dave Macon, the Dixie Dew Drop, who knew how to entertain an audience.
The station caught on, and in 1931 Edwin Craig, with the help of old friend Jack DeWitt (who had been involved with WSM in the early days, but who moved to New Jersey to work for Bell Telephone Laboratories), began making plans for a clear channel tower of 50,000 watts. This would allow listeners to hear the station from as far away as the eastern seaboard of the United Sates, and as far north as Canada. There were even letters from folks as far away as Europe who wrote into the stations about loving the Nashville sound.
DeWitt chose a Blaw-Knox tower with a diamond shape that stood 878 feet high and was suspended by eight cables. It was, at the time of installation, the tallest radio tower in the country. Near its base stands a Colonial Renaissance style broadcasting station designed by Russell Heart.
Making Nashville the Home of Country Music
Because of the extensive reach of the tower, country music artists from near and far came to Nashville with the hope of playing live on WSM-AM 650. They knew they would be heard by more people, and have the chance of hitting it big. Especially if they could play at night on the Grand Ole Opry, when the broadcast reached even further.
Producers, songwriters, engineers, and music companies began moving to Nashville as more and more artists rooted here. Because of the far-reaching airwaves of WSM-AM, Nashville was becoming the home of country music. The business continued to grow between the 1940s and 1960s.
On a Strange Note
While country music took off in the 1940s, one of the most popular broadcasts during the 1930s was the passing of L&N Railroad’s “crack passenger train” every day at 5:07 pm. Those who tuned in could hear the amplified sound of the whistleblowing and the chugging of the great wheels as they passed through the outskirts of Nashville.
Local Origins, Big Names
In the early days, two of the biggest stars launched by WSM-AM were Dinah Shore and Snooky Lanson. Shore, from Winchester, Tennessee, was a famous singer, actress, and television personality in the 1940s and 1950s. Lanson, from Memphis, made a name for himself taking over from Frank Sinatra on a popular TV show called “Your Hit Parade.”
Changes in the 1980s
Country music began to change in the 1980s, as did the entertainment industry. In 1981, American General bought National Life, and had no interest in its non-insurance related businesses. They sold Opryland, the Opryland Hotel, the Grand Ole Opry, and WSM to Gaylord Entertainment Company. Gaylord, not understanding the history of the station, and following trends of the time, was going to turn it into an all talk station. There was such an outcry, that the traditional format was saved. As a matter of fact, in 1980, WSM-AM went 24-hour country for the first time.
Monument to Country Music
A lot of changes have occurred since the 1980s, but the WSM-AM tower is such a part of the history of country music in Nashville, that the design is incorporated into the Country Music Hall of Fame building that was erected in 2001. The tower is also a National Engineering Landmark.
Day and night, under stormy skies or sunny ones, the WSM-AM tower stands tall over Brentwood as a monument to a past that has made the city what it is today. And still sending country sounds out into the world.