They were known as the musical “A Team.” When the phone rang they packed up their instruments, headed to the studio and went to work. Their names are not widely known, but their sounds are embedded into American consciousness.
The history of these anonymous musicians, producers and engineers is being documented by Travis Stimeling, an assistant professor of music history in the School of Music in the College of Creative Arts at West Virginia University. He has received a $50,400 fellowship from the National Endowment of the Humanities to chronicle the history of musicians and record production in Nashville between 1955 and 1973, known as country music’s “Nashville Sound” era.
“If you’ve ever been in a mall or grocery store in November or December, you’ve probably heard the contributions of these musicians in classic holiday songs,” said Stimeling. “My goal is to draw out the stories of the people who have shaped pop music – and our life experiences – for the past 50 to 60 years.”
The period of country music that Stimeling is studying produced some of the genre’s most celebrated recording artists, including Patsy Cline, Jim Reeves and Floyd Cramer. It also marked the establishment of a recording industry that has come to define Nashville as the leading center for the production and distribution of country music.
But the stories of the session musicians – the artists hired to play on recording sessions in the studio – have largely gone untold.
“Most of these musicians played on the most famous records of the time, but were never credited. There is no cohesive record of the knowledge that they possess,” said Stimeling. “If we fail to recognize their contributions, we miss the opportunity to understand how pop music is made.”
Stimeling, who grew up outside of Buckhannon and is director of the WVU Bluegrass Band, is a scholar of commercial country and Appalachian traditional music. He has been working on the project since 2014 when he received a fellowship from the West Virginia Humanities Council and a grant from the WVU Faculty Senate to conduct interviews and delve into a rich array of previously unexplored archival recordings.
He is also conducting musical transcription and analysis, listening to thousands of records from the time period in order to document the mechanics of how pop music was made.
He is analyzing forms and arrangements – which instruments were used, where and when – as well as how sounds were created for a recording. For instance, some records created bass sound by layering an acoustic bass with an electric bass to make the bass line sound better through car radios.
“The National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship is recognition at a national scale of the deep cultural and historical significance that music has on society and the great work that is being produced at WVU,” said Paul Kreider, dean of the College of Creative Arts. “Dr. Stimeling’s research will be the account of record as both a critical historical review and also technical documentation.”
Charlie McCoy, a Fayette County native and Grammy-award winning artist who received an honorary doctorate from West Virginia University in 2016, is one of the elite session musicians in Nashville. Over his nearly 50-year career he has played more than 10,000 sessions with usually three to four songs per session, making him one of the most prolific artists in country music history.
Harold Bradley, a 90-year-old session musician, lists his major career achievements on his resume, including being drafted by the Chicago Cubs. But he will be known as a legendary lead guitarist whose sounds can be heard on records such as “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” and “Jingle Bell Rock.”
“It is important to do this work now and to do it right,” Stimeling said. “I want to capture as much knowledge from this first generation of musicians in a way that is authentic to them and their experiences.”
The fellowship is part of the NEH’s recently announced $16.3 million in funding for 290 humanities projects.
“The humanities help us study our past, understand our present, and prepare for our future,” said NEH Chairman William D. Adams. “The National Endowment for the Humanities is proud to support projects that will benefit all Americans and remind us of our shared human experience.”
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