Paul Hemphill‘s The Nashville Sound: Bright Lights and Country Music — published in 1970 during a particularly vibrant musical era — includes this passage about the pushback against attempts to de-emphasize country’s less “polished” elements in order to increase the music’s appeal in the (more lucrative) “pop” marketplace:
It isn’t really liberalism, of course, that has brought about the recent changes in what used to be country music. Call it free enterprise. Hell, call it money. Galloping capitalism overcame country music during the Sixties, and many examples have already been given (See Singleton, Shelby S. and Owens, Alvis Edgar “Buck”). Good old country boys just flat got tired of watching Eddy Arnold and Dean Martin and Jimmy Dean and Patti Page fancying up country songs and making big money doing it, so they started doing the same thing and demanding their writers give them songs that weren’t so country — “so damned nasal, whiny and scratchy and corny,” said Jack Stapp [of Big Tree Publishing] — and then they started angling for their own network television shows.
And pop stars started going to Nashville to record. And the Nashville sidemen started getting the hang of this pseudo-country music. And the younger guys in Nashville started talking dirty about anybody who still turned out hard-country songs. And business was so good that the music industry was worth almost $100 million a year to Nashville. And somebody started calling it “Countrypolitan” music. And the nation decided that “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour,” rather than the Grand Ole Opry, was the real mirror of country music. And then the people in Nashville started becoming very concerned about their image. We got to get out of this firetrap, they said about the Grand Ole Opry House; which is roughly equivalent to demolishing the Tower of Pisa because it leans funny. Don’t say the fans ride in on buses, Opry management admonished the press, they own their own cars and they average making $10,000 a year.
Maybe country music started in places like Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, but now they don’t want to admit the place exists. Image.
Earliest commercial release that includes the term “countrypolitan“:
1967 Warner Bros. LP
The Countrypolitan Sound of Hank Thompson’s Brazos Valley Boys
Nashville’s Crystal Corporation (previously celebrated here and here) issued this undated “countrypolitan” hits collection that was probably released — based on the catalog number, as well as release dates of the tracks within — in 1969:
Two of the least “countrypolitan” instruments — fiddle and banjo
This 1971 compilation with the striking cover photo includes a dozen lesser-known songs (1966’s “Pablo Diablo” by Dick Hammonds the only one available in streaming audio).
The big city
The dictionary definition on the rear cover of this album performs a valuable public service:
Countrypolitan (adj.) = Belonging to all the world; not confined to local enjoyment; at home in any country. And so it goes with country music today. It is no longer provincial in scope, nor limited to a particular region.
This educational audio clip helps flesh out the concept in a down-home digital way:
A simple “countrypolitan” search of the Discogs database — a mere 39 items, as of February, 2021 — reveals the sad fact that this term never caught on with the public. An analysis of the music trade literature further supports this view. A “countrypolitan” scan of Billboard‘s back issues, for instance, yields only 49 “hits” (likewise, 19 for Cash Box and 18 for Record World), although a few items reveal some key historical details:
- Birmingham, Alabama’s WYDE celebrated its third anniversary as a countrypolitan radio station with broad community support, reported Cash Box in its December 21, 1968 edition, as “260 business, civic and governmental leaders” turned out for the event.
- Four months earlier, WIKI in Chester, Virginia (outside of Richmond) had changed its format from Top 40 to Countrypolitan, as noted in Cash Box‘s August 31, 1968 issue. How come? “WIKI is making the switch because listener surveys, personal interviews and response to the station’s present two and one-half hours daily country programming have indicated an overwhelming preference for C&W music.”
- Orlando’s WHOO 990 AM went “Countrypolitan” in 1968, says the Ken Burns Team. Zero to 180’s own fact-finding team has even pinned down the launch date, thanks to Billboard, who took photos of some of the 250 clients, agency executives, city officials, record company personnel, and country music artists — including Skeeter Davis and Willie Nelson — who joined Orlando’s 50,000-watt station in celebration of the new music format for Saturday night’s “Shower of Stars” on August 10, 1968.
- That same year at the National Association of Recording Merchandisers annual convention, Starday promoted its latest releases as the “Starday Countrypolitan Hot Line” [while generously dispensing gift baskets that consisted of “a pouch of stereo flavored Country Cream tobacco raised at Starday’s Five Coves Farm, corncob pipes, and a bottle of Jack Daniels Sippin’ Whiskey”], as reported in Cash Box‘s April 20, 1968 edition. One month prior, Starday’s Don Pierce had told both Cash Box (per the March 9, 1968 issue) and Record World (per the March 9, 1968 issue) that the label will be focusing efforts on the growing “modern Countrypolitan Nashville sound.”
- A year earlier, Cash Box had noted in its October 28, 1967 “Country Roundup” column that “the need to change the name of country music has already been recognized by a great many individuals in the business, particularly those in radio — the area which is perhaps closest in recognizing public tastes.” Furthermore, “phrases such as ‘Countrypolitan Music’ and [thanks to DC television host, Connie B. Gay] ‘Town & Country Music’ have been springing up with more and more regularity, pointing the way to more modern identification of this particular field.”
- 1967 would also bear witness to Memphis’s “Chet Atkins Festival of Music” — hosted by ‘The Countrypolitan Gentlemen’ at radio’s WMQM — with live musical entertainment provided by Boots Randolph, Floyd Cramer, and Mr. Guitar himself, Cash Box reported in its May 13, 1967 issue.
- One of the earlier references to country music’s commercially-oriented “uptown” strain appeared in this news item from Cash Box‘s January 8, 1966 issue:
New York Building Strong C&W Audience
NEW YORK — Yes, Virginia there is country music in New York, and from all early indications, it’s here to stay for quite a while.
Continuing in the successful trend that began a short while back, WJRZ-Newark defied the time-honored theory that sophisticated urbanites, securely entrenched in the concrete-and-steel homestead of New York, automatically rejected the nasal, twangy hillbilly sound as inferior musical product. On Sept. 15, contrary to the odds, the New Jersey station took a gamble and switched to country programming. Aiming at the toughest and largest of urban bastions, the station presented a dignified, “countrypolitan” format that shattered the association of country music with corncob pipes and Hatfield-McCoy-type characterizations. The response that followed was far beyond the station’s expectations. Flooded switch-boards and overworked mailroom personnel became the order of the day at the outlet.
- One year later, WJRZ made the news again in Cash Box‘s January 7, 1967 issue when the station’s “Avenue of Tears” countrypolitan show host, Bob Lockwood, appeared on The Joe Franklin Show (one of television’s longest-running programs).
- This ad from the May 12, 1969 issue of Broadcasting spells out the demographics of the Grand Rapids-area countrypolitan listening audience — note the ways in which the messaging drives home the “counterintuitive” notion that country music fans can be young, urban, and flush with spending money. WJEF’s similar-themed ad from the previous year shows a family with three children unloading picnic supplies from a station wagon (while the ad from the year prior shows a young couple who are said to be, in the parlance of the times, “turned-on“).
- Cincinnati’s WUBE – noted Record World in their September 30, 1969 issue – took the big countrypolitan plunge, making it the city’s only 24-hour country music station.
- “Stringer Clamps Down on the Use of Countrypolitan” screamed the title in Billboard‘s September 6, 1969 edition — a report on Lou Stringer’s cease-and-desist order to radio stations.
This likely explains why the term is under-represented in the music history in favor of similar verbiage, such as “modern country” and “the Nashville Sound.” Stringer claims to have copyrighted “countrypolitan” in 1966, says Billboard, who pointedly assert that radio station owner, Country Music Association director and philanthropist, Connie B. Gay “has owned the copyright to the name ‘Town and Country,’ but has allowed widespread use of the same.” Stringer is also the publisher behind “tabloid” newsletter/radio tip sheet, The Countrypolitan, whose launch was noted in Billboard‘s April 22, 1967 issue.
Earliest Appearance of the Term “Countrypolitan”?
Billboard ad – November 2, 1963
Nope — need to go back at least ten years:
Broadcasting ad – January 19, 1953
[This ad can be seen as early as November 1952]
* * * * *
The Journal of Country Music, an organ of the Country Music Foundation (published from 1971 through 2007), produced a special report in 1989 entitled “The Unseen Hand: How Producers Shape the Country Sound” that includes a few paragraphs about Chet Atkins‘ critical role in edging country music toward a more tuneful, pop path:
A rising class of session players was there to give the producers the sound, which was based on the relaxed jamming Atkins and friends had developed improvising together at the Carousel Club in Printer’s Alley. The traditional country elements came from the basic instrumentation—fretted instruments, plus piano most of the time and also the drums that had been commonplace since the emergence of western swing and honky-tonk. The beat was softer, looser—if rockabilly was to take over as rural dance music, country would become primarily listening music, even easy listening music, radio music. The new elements included violin sections and vocal choruses that owed more to pop music, along with some echo (a technique learned from rockabilly) on the lead voice.
In fact, everything was meant to emphasize that vocal; where “hot picking” had once been a virtue in a country band, now the musicians, except for the occasional soloist, were there primarily to provide what could be termed a “cushion” on which the producer could rest the lead voice. In the studio, those jazzy jams were formalized and compressed into two-and three-minute songs.
For guitarist Atkins, a self-styled “country gentleman” with a taste for classical music, and pianist [Owen] Bradley, a society bandleader, this sound was a natural enough step in the evolution of the music. In interviews, Atkins has always claimed he became a producer/A&R man more by accident than by design, but that explanation sounds awfully ingenuous when you listen to the first record he cut, Don Gibson’s “Oh Lonesome Me” b/w “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” done only days after Chet took over at RCA. These two sides sound little like Gibson’s prior work; especially in their use of violins, they clearly didn’t come out of nowhere, either. They are the product of much thinking and experimenting—much conceptualizing, if you will.
RCA’s Connie Smith
America’s Top Countri-Politan Singer
In general, Atkins created the fatter sound of his records by using more instrumentation, his biggest successes coming with Jim Reeves and Eddy Arnold. Bradley favored more voices to get a similarly lush effect, peaking with the torchy Patsy Cline. But Bradley was also the first to insist that the Nashville Sound wasn’t really a sound so much as a way of doing things. However formalized the final result may have been, the musician and producer usually reached it through trial and error, working out their parts in the studio with the use of a notation system that required numbers instead of notes because few of them read music. Since this all had to be done quickly to keep studio costs down, and because artists were on the road so much of the time (that’s where the real money was), a very small group of men who working together efficiently would up cutting most sessions.
Thus, the producer system marked the beginning of assembly-line music in Nashville; it also created the need for professional songwriters (country artists, being folk-based, had until then usually taken material for traditional sources or written their own along with the professional sideman. As this system evolved even further (thanks mainly to overdubbing), the artist became increasingly but one cog—the voice—in his own record; in the most extreme cases, he was even presented with a finished track of a song he’d never heard before, his or her job being simply to add the vocal to the other elements already assembled by the producer.
The sound peaked with Billy Sherrill of Columbia/Epic. Sherrill made his first big splash with David Houston singing “Almost Persuaded” in 1966, but he’s most identified with Tammy Wynette hits like “Stand By Your Man” and “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” in the late sixties, as well as seventies sides by George Jones and the duets George and Tammy sang together.
“Blues Stay Away From Me” by The Willis Brothers
Written by Alton Delmore, Rabon Delmore, Henry Glover & Wayne Raney
.Included on Best of The Willis Brothers although never issued as a single release
Essay: Extra Credit
“Modern Country Radio — Friend or Foe?” by Paul W. Soelberg
Billboard — October 17, 1970
Great piece, Chris. Thanks for sharing an almost-forgotten piece of music history. In retrospect, the so-called countrypolitan movement dropped in between the more traditional country sound of the early 1960s and our modern country. I became interested in country because of countrypolitan. As a kid I loved “The End of the World” by Skeeter Davis and “Detroit City” and “Shame On Me” by Bobby Bare. They are now considered early countrypolitan records, with strings. Chet Atkins, RCA’s Nashville A&R chief, brought all this together, smoothing out the more down-home sounds. He took some major criticism for it, but it attracted young kids like me who listened to Top 40. But he went further than changing the instrumentation. He also knew how to find good songs that appealed to a larger audience, who might not go for honky-tonk and drinking songs. There was room for all kinds of country then on the radio, both on Top 40 and country stations. Music was not so homogenized. Later, when I was in college, I hung around a country station where a friend of mine worked as a DJ. There I discovered Ray Price. What lush records he made with Cam Mullins back in the ’70s. Based on my exposure to countrypolitian, I began to listen to the more “traditional” (of the time) country records, ones I would not have even considered before. I’m talking about the more commercial radio-friendly records and labels. Those indies–I call them radio labels like Royal American and others released through Nationwide Sound Distributors–helped keep that sound alive on country radio throughout the ’70s and into the early ’80s. Some of those singers were terrific but they couldn’t get label deals any longer. I found some of them and recorded them. Then I went wild and looked for them all over, relatively unknown singers and songwriters named Nancy Nelson, Ron Sweet, Bill Watkins, and others. For me it all began because of countrypolitian. Thanks, Chet!