Before World War II, Nashville was really just another hick town. What made it the center of power in the country music world wasn’t the musicians, or even the much-vaunted Grand Ole Opry radio show, which didn’t broadcast nationwide until 1939. No, what made Music City the place you had to go if you were gonna make it big was the creation of a monolithic music publishing industry. Nashville became the hillbilly equivalent of what New York was to book publishing, or LA to the movies. Leading the pack was Opry star Roy Acuff and his partner Fred Rose, whose Acuff-Rose publishing house became the dominant force on Music Row. Record labels and mighty stars all bowed to their power — if they wanted you to record a certain song, then boom! that was your next single. Rose’s son Wesley also dabbled in starmaking, creating the independent Hickory Records label in 1954 as a way to showcase talent he thought the bigger labels might have missed.
Most of the Hickory recordings have been out of print for decades, but with the vaults recently opened, country fans have a lot to be thankful for. Bluegrassers will go gaga over a stellar collection of material by the McCormick Brothers — top-flight, mile-a-minute, drag-racing superpickers whose 1950s recordings are as good as mountain music gets. These tunes have been out of circulation for ages, but with this one little CD, the string-band pantheon will have to open up some elbow room next to Bill, Ralph, Lester, and Earl.
Like the McCormicks, Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper were on Hickory’s mid-’50s roster, a pre-WWII husband-and-wife team that stayed hillbilly when the rest of Nashville went pop. Their unapologetically rough, rural intonations were a throwback to the barn dance antics of the 1930s — back when the Opry was just a little twinkle on the radio dial. Cooper and Lee had a few hits in the ’50s, but as far as the countrypolitan crowd was concerned, they were strictly backwoods second-stringers. Hickory plugged along through the late ’70s, though as power rapidly concentrated around the major labels, the hits were fewer and farther between. The Hickory Records Story is a nice sampler of what the label had to offer in the ’60s and early ’70s — charming last-ditch efforts by fading stars such as Don Gibson and Bill Carlisle, along with some surprisingly effective mainstream pop and countrified one-hit wonders. With Nashville today an ocean of prefab pretty boys and Barbied-out Britney lookalikes, it’s nice to look back at the days when Music City still had a few loose, twangy screws flying around.