For a Tennessean listening to the performance of folk music in Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, or England, it only takes a squint of the eye and ear to feel the presence of something intrinsically familiar in the music. The Celtic fiddle, guitar, string bass and occasional flute and hand percussion give constant hints to the pedigree of the music native to Tennessee. As ballads and stories are told through song, a listener from Tennessee experiences something of a cultural déjà vu—the impression of familiarity. It was this feeling of familiarity as well as my own musical upbringing in Kentucky, West Virginia and Tennessee that led to the writing of Nashville Music Before Country.
Nashville Music Before Country is my second project in a planned series of three. The first project was Memphis Music Before the Blues (Arcadia Publishing, 2007), which follows the same thread of nineteenth century events that led to the era when W. C. Handy arrived on Beale Street. Following the current Nashville publication, the next project will be Knoxville Music Before Bluegrass, which will complete my initial exploration of what made Tennessee the extraordinary musical state that it has become.
The ballad and song tradition that migrated with families such as my own into Tennessee was as natural as the transposition of their verbal language and customs. The thousands of songs that flooded into the valleys of the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers came from the lips of generations of folk performers of Southern Appalachia. These immigrants made accommodations in the new areas of Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee to new sources of food, new variations in geography and new types of climate. Adaptations were not limited, however, to physical survival and sustenance but also included new subjects and circumstances for preexisting ballads and stories. The British ballad Wexford Girl, for example, was reworked to become the Tennessee version The Knoxville Girl.