While the recording of country music is said to have begun when Fiddlin’ John Carson laid down his version of “Little Old Log Cabin Down The Lane” for the Okeh label in 1923, the genre achieved mass-market appeal with the emergence of Nashville as the capital of country music. The public had associated the city with the genre since the first broadcast of the Grand Ole Opry in 1927, but publishers and record labels did not begin to open offices there in significant numbers until the late 1940s. The music industry itself only began to recognize the vitality of country music but a few years before. Billboard started to trace the presence of the genre on jukeboxes in 1944, established their country chart in 1948 and tracked radio airplay a year later in 1949.
BMI has played an active role in country music’s ascendance in the public arena since it opened doors in 1940. Several of the major firms to engage in the field - Peer International, Acuff-Rose and Hill and Range - were early affiliates. A sign of how successful BMI’s efforts to assist in the growth of country music were is illustrated by the fact that by 1974, BMI licensed 77 percent of the songs on the Top 10 of Billboard’s various country charts.
Waltzing Onto The Pop Charts
One of the first signs of country’s powerful appeal was the chart-breaking song “Tennessee Waltz.” Written by Pee Wee King and Redd Stewart in 1947, it crossed over to the pop arena when Patti Page recorded it in 1950 and sold more than 3 million copies. The BMI-affiliated King and Stewart were not the only country writers who achieved success both in their own field and the pop world. Hank Williams, considered by many country music’s greatest songwriter, saw his works covered by Tony Bennett (“Cold Cold Heart”) and Jo Stafford (“Jambalaya”) in addition to his own list of substantial hits. Those achievements include some of the classics of the genre, like “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “Honky-Tonkin’” and “You Win Again.” Williams was a BMI songwriter as is his equally successful son, Hank Williams Jr., who would record a string of hits that include “All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight.”
Early on, BMI took an active role in the Nashville music community, holding its first public event in that city in 1951. In 1953, BMI began its annual Country Awards for the songwriters and publishers of the most performed works of the year. A branch office was initiated in Nashville in 1958, which was run by Frances W. Preston, a young country music radio station staffer who would later become President and CEO of BMI.
In 1962, BMI built a major office complex on Music Row in the heart of the industry’s array of publishing offices and recording studios. The range of major songwriters during this period who became members of BMI is impressive. They include Harlan Howard (“I Fall To Pieces,” “Busted” and “Heartaches By The Number”), Don Gibson (“I Can’t Stop Loving You” and “Oh Lonesome Me”) and Curly Putman (“Green, Green Grass of Home” and “He Stopped Loving Her Today”).
Country Loves Outlaws
As the audience who had sought out rock and roll began more and more to gravitate toward country, the body of songwriters associated with the “Outlaw” movement climbed up the record charts. Willie Nelson, long known for such classics as “Hello Walls” and “Crazy,” became a national icon in the process. The movement led to the creation of country nightclubs and national obsession with line dancing that was popularized in the 1980 film Urban Cowboy. The massive growth in country’s popularity is also illustrated by the fact that between 1970 and 1980, the number of BMI Nashville writers rose by 273 percent and the number of BMI publishers by 275 percent.
Country Greets the Millennium
Over the last decade, the growth in popularity of country music has increased exponentially as country albums have routinely appeared in the Billboard Top 10. Some of the most successful artists of the period are BMI songwriters, including Miranda Lambert, Jason Aldean, Blake Shelton, Alabama, Eric Church, Carrie Underwood, Kenny Chesney, Luke Bryan, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Shania Twain, Vince Gill, Brooks & Dunn and Toby Keith.
BMI’s expanded presence in the Nashville music community was further illustrated by the expansion of its offices in 1997. Moreover, the dominant presence of BMI in the country field is illustrated by the fact that over the last decade, 68 percent of the annual Country Music Association Awards and 62 percent of the Academy of Country Music Awards have been received by BMI songwriters. An astonishing 84 percent of the members of the Country Music Association Hall of Fame are affiliated with BMI, including the late Conway Twitty, Dolly Parton, Brenda Lee, Harlan Howard and BMI’s late President and CEO Frances W. Preston.