Ken Nelson

Birth: 01-19-1911 - Death: 01-06-2008 | Birthplace: Caledonia, Minnesota

Inducted: 2001

As the A&R man in charge of Capitol Records’ country division for many years, Kenneth F. Nelson played a major part in country music’s post–World War II growth. Noted as a generally artist-friendly producer, he brought a host of notable talents—including Buck Owens and Merle Haggard—to the fore, showcasing them on record with a singularly crisp production style that helped define the Bakersfield sound and West Coast country in general.

Nelson began his musical career in Chicago in a variety of capacities. He eventually applied for a job at Chicago radio station WJJD, where he wound up as music director, and, due to an avid interest in classical music, became the top announcer for broadcasts by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He involved himself with country music after the station put him in charge of its Suppertime Frolic hillbilly show, which required that he audition performers as well as schedule them for the program. Scouting talent all over the Midwest and Southeast, Nelson cemented his connection to country music.

Called to Hollywood by Capitol Records, Nelson first headed the label’s transcription department. In 1951 he took over Lee Gillette’s position as chief country A&R man when Gillette—an old friend of Nelson’s from Chicago days—moved to pop A&R. In December of that year, Nelson held a session with Hank Thompson that yielded the #1 smash “The Wild Side of Life,” a success that set the pattern for Nelson’s hit-making career at Capitol. Often working closely with Cliffie Stone, Nelson brought to Capitol and recorded the likes of Ferlin Husky, Jean Shepard, Tommy Collins, Wanda Jackson, Wynn Stewart, and Jerry Reed. Nelson, Gillette, and Stone also founded Central Songs, a publishing company that quickly grew to dominate the West Coast country songwriting industry. (The partners sold the firm to Capitol in 1969.)

In the mid-1950s Nelson was among the powerful country music figures who embraced rock & roll early on, signing Gene Vincent after discovering the singer at Nashville’s 1957 DJ Convention. By then dividing his time between Nashville and Hollywood, Nelson continued to bring name talent to Capitol’s roster and earned a reputation as one of the best producers in the business. Comfortable taking a laissez–faire approach in the studio, he was ideally suited to work with artists such as Buck Owens and Merle Haggard—those with their own strong, distinct artistic vision. Nelson continued to produce Haggard well into the 1970s, even after Nelson had stepped aside as head of Capitol’s country division. A pioneering leader in launching the Country Music Association (CMA), he remained involved in recording until his retirement in 1976. Nelson was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001. He wrote and published his autobiography, My First 90 Years Plus 3, in 2007. He died Sunday, January 6, 2008, at his home in Somis, California, just thirteen days short of his 97th birthday.

Jonny Whiteside

* Adapted from the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum’s Encyclopedia of Country Music, published by Oxford University Press.