Music City Bowl: What’s in a name?

by D.G. Martin

Okay, it is not the biggest bowl game. But the UNC-Chapel Hill football team and its fans can be proud of making it through a tough season and landing a game against the University of Tennessee. Where did the Music City Bowl name come from? We know that Nashville is a center for country music, but it has not always been that way.

There is a clue to how it all got started in North Carolina writer Lee Smith’s 1992 novel The Devil’s Dream, a tale about a country music family. Its leading character remembered the first time her mountain neighbors heard the magic of radio, walking at night up to a high bald where someone hooked up a radio to a car generator. They spread out blankets under a starry sky and “[B]efore long the radio come on sure enough, all the way from Nashville, Tennessee, and you could hear them talking and singing real loud just like they was here. I couldn’t get over it”¦. We sat up there on the mountain and listened to WSM until the Grand Old Opry went off the air after midnight. It ended evry [sic] time with the Judge saying: That’s all for now, friends/ because the tall pines pine? And the bumblebees bumble all around./ The grasshopper hops/ and the eavesdropper drops/ while gently the old cow slips away./ This is George D. Hay saying So long.”

In his book Air Castle of the South: WSM and the Making of Music City, another North Carolina connected writer, Craig Havighurst, explains in detail how Nashville got the Music City name.

WSM started as a sideline of Nashville’s National Life and Accident Insurance Company in 1925. The radio station’s proponents at the insurance company argued that listeners would appreciate the programming and give an opening for its sales agents in the station’s coverage area. It worked. When radio was new, the live entertainment and information that it brought into homes was a much-appreciated miracle.

The company adopted the slogan “We Shield Millions” to go with WSM. (Similarly, Durham Life adopted the slogan “We Protect the Family” to go with its station, WPTF.)

Thanks to good luck, friends in high places and persistent lobbying, WSM got “high power” authority and a “clear channel” designation that meant that its signal reached hundreds, even thousands, of miles from Nashville.

At first, its programming was varied and almost entirely live. It quickly shifted towards country music in response to audience preferences and the availability of many talented country and folk musicians and groups. One of those live programs became the “Grand Old Opry,” undoubtedly the longest running live variety radio show in the country.

The radio station, the Opry and affiliated businesses became profit centers for the insurance company until it was sold a few years ago. Like magnets, WSM and the Opry drew talented performers, songwriters, producers, publishing houses, agents, recording studios and related businesses to Nashville, making it a real music town.

But where did the Music City name come from? According to Havighurst, it was almost an accident. In 1950, a WSM announcer, David Cobb, ad-libbed a change in his introduction to a program the station was feeding NBC’s network. Cobb remembered, “[F]or no good reason, I changed my introduction a bit. I don’t know where it came from: “From Music City USA, Nashville, Tennessee, the National Broadcasting Company brings you the Red Foley Show!” The new name caught on quickly. In a few months there was a recorded song with the lyrics, “They used to call it Nashville, but I’m here to say/ that now they call it ‘Music City USA.'” And it’s been Music City ever since.

DG Martin hosts UNC-TV’s “North Carolina Bookwatch.” Encore programs from the first half of the season are airing Sundays at 5 p.m. For more information or to view prior programs visit the webpage at ncbookwatch. This week’s (Sunday, Dec 19) guest is Larry Tise, author of Conquering The Sky: The Secret Flights Of The Wright Brothers At Kitty Hawk.