The world knows Nashville because of people like Alan Jackson and Taylor Swift. Nashville knows itself because of people like Michael Gray.
He’s a curator at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum who’s helped us put this week’s special show together. We’re celebrating the tenth anniversary of a truly revelatory and game-changing exhibit called Night Train To Nashville: Music City Rhythm & Blues, 1945-1970. It occupied a huge portion of the museum for well over a year, spawning numerous events, performances and even career revivals. The exhibit’s CD companion anthology won the Grammy Award for best historic compilation. This was all in large part Michael Gray’s brainchild, but you’d only know it from his expertise on the subject and his enthusiasm for it – certainly not his attitude about it.
The story (of the exhibit, not the music) began when Gray landed a job at Phonoluxe record store on Nolensville Road soon after arriving in Nashville at 18 years old. His passion was soul music, and one day he was spinning a record in the store by the great Arthur Alexander, then his new fave. Shop owner Mike Smyth told him that the disc had been recorded in Nashville, which was a revelation. “He started schooling me,” Gray says, “pulling out 45s and 78s that were made in Nashville.”
But what really sent him down the rabbit hole was a folklore oral history project he was assigned at MTSU by the late great music scholar Charles K. Wolfe. Thanks to knowledge gleaned at the record store, Michael was encouraged to look up Ted Jarrett, songwriter and producer on Gene Allison’s 1958 national hit “You Can Make It If You Try” and many others. So he did, out of the phone book. Jarrett was living quietly and largely unheralded when Gray began interviewing him. “I went to his office on Main St. in East Nashville. And it opened up a world to me. All the names he mentioned to me I followed up. I was hooked.”
To make a long story short, Gray eventually landed on the staff of the CMHOF and found himself in a position to work with fellow soul/R&B devotee and historian Dan Cooper to develop the exhibit that became Night Train. It organized the story of an incredible post-war boom when 50,000 watt WLAC reached the nation with overnight DJ shows playing black artists when almost nobody else would. It celebrated the independent record labels like Excello, Dot and Champion. The legacy of Jefferson Street’s busy nightspots and clubs was resurrected, including the tutelage of Jimi Hendrix. The music of nearly forgotten Nashville artists like Christine Kittrell, Cecil Gant, Earl Gaines, Ruth Brown and Bobby Hebb rang out again across the South and the nation – thanks to the Hall of Fame’s bold decision to put a huge exhibit about black music in a brand new museum dedicated to country.
As the tenth anniversary approached, our own ministress of vibe and artist relations Laurie Gregory, who directed many Night Train events in her long prior tenure at the Hall of Fame, suggested that MCR salute the exhibit and the artistry that spawned it. She worked hard with Michael Gray to make it happen, and it’s going to be an extravaganza. There are too many names and voices to describe in detail. But you can follow our web site’s links to full bios.
Perhaps our most esteemed group is the mighty and legendary Fairfield Four, a legacy group with direct lineage back to its origins in the 1920s. Their gorgeous contributions to the soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou? helped introduce them to a new generation. They have a direct link to the McCrary Sisters, in that long-time FF member Sam McCrary gave birth and inspiration to daughters Ann, Regina, Alfreda and Deborah. This amazing quartet of sibling voices has appeared on our show numerous times, and we just love them. The sisters’ various contributions to our musical canon include work with Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Buddy Miller and others.
We’ll kick off our night with some songs by The Valentines, a quartet with origins in the mid 1960s that reunited after 25 years because of the excitement surrounding the Night Train exhibit. Frank Howard, the group’s lead singer and a star in his own right, will take a featured vocal as well. They’ll be joined on stage by Mac Gayden, a major player in Nashville music history and the writer of “Everlasting Love” as well as songs cut by many of our night’s guests. Charles “Wig” Walker made an all-too brief appearance at Roots on one of our Guitar Night shows and simply melted my face with perfect blues singing. As a lead singer in a popular band in the 60s he shared bills with Jackie Wilson, James Brown and Etta James. He’ll do a full set with the amazing band he performs with these days.
Our final segment will be a round of guest singers sitting in with The Jimmy Church Band. The Nashville native worked for Johnny Otis and the King Casuals before setting up his own popular touring band out of Music City in the 70s. The guest singers will include Marion James, Nashville’s “Queen of the Blues” who’s had a stunning career, including a stint in the 60s with a band that included Jimi Hendrix and Billy Cox. In an interview with the Nashville Scene not too long ago she said retirement “isn’t something I’ve even considered.” Levert Allison is brother of the late Gene Allison and a singer who was produced by Ted Jarrett. Also on this final segment: Maggie Lewis, Audrey Bryant, Clifford Curry and Robert Knight. The latter had the first hit version of “Everlasting Love,” and we can bet you’ll hear that one with Mac Gayden himself on guitar.
Michael Gray (whom I’ll interview during the show along with the boss who let it all happen Kyle Young) says that the most satisfying thing about Night Train was the way it revived the musical lives of the surviving artists who were featured in the exhibit. Validated and celebrated, some returned to performing and others got a lift. Sax player Hank Crawford got an honorary degree from Tennessee State University. Bobby Hebb got to play the Grand Ole Opry for the first time in decades, and got the night’s only standing ovation. “We were advocates for people who had not been fully recognized for their achievements,” Gray said. He could have said the best part was winning a Grammy Award. But he didn’t.