Country Music Hall of Fame


Night Train to Nashville: Music City Rhythm & Blues

March 27, 2004 - December 31, 2005

Watch our introduction to Night Train To Nashville

Night Train to Nashville was a major exhibit focusing on an underreported era in Nashville's music history. Through the exhibit, accompanying publications and recordings, live performances and other public events, the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum offered Nashvillians and Music City visitors a great story about an important era in music history.

A story about a musically rich but little known chapter in the evolution of Nashville as the Music City, the exhibit examined the advent of rhythm & blues here during the first quarter-century after World War II.

The media-rich exhibition provided ample opportunity for visitors to hear the music and see clips from Night Train and The!!!!Beat, both groundbreaking television programs that featured the era’s top rhythm & blues stars and Nashville musicians.

Designed by New York-based ESI Design in collaboration with Nashville's 1220 Exhibits and the Museum staff, the exhibit was visually distinct from the Museum's core exhibit, Sing Me Back Home: A Journey Through Country Music.

Take a quick walk through the Night Train To Nashville exhibit

City Sounds: Origins of Nashville R&B

Brown’s Dinner Club and Hotel, Jefferson Street, c.  mid-1950s.

The term “rhythm & blues” or “R&B” came into common usage in the late 1940s to describe an African-American popular music that evolved primarily from prewar jazz, blues and gospel. In segregated Nashville, jazz and blues flourished in black nightclubs and theaters, while the gospel influence took hold in churches. Many who played the music learned their craft in the rigorous education programs of the city’s black high schools and colleges.

Rock the House: Nashville’s Live Music Scene

Jimi Hendrix and Billy Cox perform with the King Kasuals at the Club Del Morocco on Jefferson Street, 1962.

In Nashville, live rhythm & blues shook the floorboards at the venues that included everything from nightclub gambling joints to the otherwise staid War Memorial Auditorium. A major stop on the southern touring circuit, sometimes called the “chitlin circuit,” Nashville routinely drew the top R&B acts of the day while nurturing the city’s finest homegrown talent. Kept apart by the rigid dictates of segregation, young black and white R&B fans endeavored to share their joy in the music, even as the civil rights movement placed greater pressure on Nashville to end those laws.

“I used to work in Nashville quite a bit when I was young. I used to come in and work because that’s where I really made my $100 a week at. I didn’t make $100 nowhere but there really.”
-Little Richard

Hey John R!: Radio, Records, Rhythm & Blues

Located in downtown Nashville, Ernie’s Record Mart sold mail-order R&B records to listeners of Ernie’s Record Parade, hosted by disc jockey John “John R” Richbourg on WLAC.

“Would you play some of our music?” With those words in 1946, several Africa-American college students are said to have handed WLAC-Nashville disc jockey Gene Nobles, who was white, a stack of R&B and jazz records to play. From that night forward, WLAC’s 50,000-watt clear signal bounced across the stratosphere as the most powerful force in R&B broadcasting in America. This occurred just as Nashville began to assert itself as a major recording center, not only for country music but also for R&B on Excello Records and other labels heard on WLAC. With  the 1951 addition of @SOK, a full-time black programming station, mid-twentieth century Nashville rocked on wax and wavelength to a beat that would literally change the world.

“WLAC was all we ever listened to.”
-James Brown

All Aboard The Night Train!: Nashville’s R&B Television

Following through on its success of black radio programs, Music City produced two extraordinary syndicated R&B TV shows, Night Train and The!!!!Beat. Both featured some of Nashville’s best R&B musicians backing some of the city’s finest singers and out-of-town stars such as Otis Redding and Percy Sledge. African-Americans such as Bobby Hebb and Audrey Bryant had pioneered on Nashville television in the 1950s, but it wasn’t until Night Train hit the midnight Saturday slot in 1964 that a music series with an all-black cast brought the dance beat to living-room screens.

Night Train
Produced at WLAC-TN in Nashville, Night Train debuted in October 1964, five years before Chicago’s better-known Soul Train. Hosted by WVOL executive Noble Balckwell, Night Train boasted a house band led by musical director Bob Holmes and showcasing the fiery blues licks of guitarist Johnny Jones. Nashville talents such as Jimmy Church, the Spidells, the Hytones and the Avons  were regulars, and Jimi Hendrix appeared on Night Train while he was still just a backing guitarist.

“It was a period if the sixties, you had demonstrations going on in Nashville, but Night Train offered a good....entertainment vehicle. We had very good artists, and of course it highlighted the local artists who were very talented, and a lot of hard work went into it because we would practice at various community centers in Nashville. The Nashville Housing Authority allowed us to used the community centers where we would practice.”
-Night Train host Noble Blackwell

A little over a year after Night Train, the color TV extravaganza, The!!!!Beat made its similarly formatted debut on nationally syndicated television. Hosted by WLAC-radio’s Hoss Allen, the shoe had been conceived by the same business enterprise that backed country music’s Porter Wagoner Show. Like Night Train, The !!!!Beat featured Nashville-based musicians, with the addition of guitarist-bandleader Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. It was actually taped at WFAA-Dallas to take advantage of the Texas station’s then-rare color capabilities.

Reconsider Me: The Country Connection

Jimmy Sweeney (center) at a Nashville recording session with Hank "Sugarfoot" Garland, Floyd "Lightnin" Chance, Boudleaux Bryant, and Floyd Cramer. c. 1958

Beginning in the 1920s, many record companies divided their blues and country recordings into separate “race” and “hillbilly” series. In reality, theses musics shared many themes and instruments, and blues and country musicians historically learned much from one another’s styles and songs. Such musical exchange between blacks and whites carried through to stages and studios of postwar Nashville. As put by Nashville native Bobby Hebb, who graced the stages of both the Bijou Theater and the Grand Ole Opry, “It was very important that one understood more than one culture of music.

Everlasting Love: R&B’s Legacy and Lament

A native of Franklin, Tennessee, Robert Knight scored an R&B/pop crossover hit in 1967 with the original Nashville recorded version of “Everlasting Love.”

By the late 1960s, R&B had changed America in profound ways. Black artists routinely topped the pop charts, while white musicians raised on R&B dominated the record industry. To many these changes reflected the triumph of the integrationist ideas of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But others viewed the absorption of black-originated styles into white music as one more form of racial in justice. Debate continues to this day.

In Nashville, urban change took its toll in the black entertainment districts too, leaving behind interstate highways and musicians with ever fewer jobs. Yet the music moved forward. James Brown forged a sound of the future with “Sex Machine” and other hits recorded in Nashville studios, while Peggy Scott and JoJo Benson’s “Soul Shake” spawned an early experiment in music video. In 1967, Robert Knight recorded the original “Everlasting Love,” a song whose lasting impact attests to the enduring power of Nashville rhythm and blues.

“Take especially good care of yourself and be good to your neighbor!”
-Noble Blackwell

Grammy Winning Night Train to Nashville Album

This landmark exhibit spawned the 2 disc set, Night Train to Nashville: Music City Rhythm & Blues, 1945–1970, illustrating the quality, breadth, and impact of R&B that emerged in the post-World War II years from a city more famous for country music. Culled from more than twenty record labels, tracks range from fascinating rarities to major hits and uproarious commercials. The appeal of this collection should not be limited to aficionados, as virtually every track crackles with energy, verve, and raw soul, from the rollicking opener (Cecil Gant’s “Nashville Jumps”) right on through to the inspiring closer (Robert Knight’s “Everlasting Love”). The collection was honored with a Grammy for Best Historical Album and received glowing reviews from Rolling Stone, National Public Radio, CBS’s Sunday Morning, and numerous other media outlets. 

Order Night Train to Nashville: Music City Rhythm & Blues, 1945–1970 from our Museum Store.

Watch Music City Roots Night Train To Nashville 10th Anniversary Concert

2014 marks the 10th anniversary of this important exhibit.  Watch a special concert as Music City Roots presents a Night Train to Nashville 10th Anniversary concert from July 30, 2014 

Among the artists scheduled to perform at the show are Levert Allison, the Jimmy Church Band, Clifford Curry, Mac Gayden, Frank Howard, Marion James, Robert Knight, the McCrary Sisters, the Valentines and the Charles Walker Band.

Suggested Listening

Night Train to Nashville: Music City Rhythm & Blues 1945-1970

Compiled by the staff of the Country music Hall of Fame and Museum, this two-CD collection coincides with the museum’s exhibition and serves as an introduction to Nashville’s post-war R&B scene. More than thirty acts and twenty record labels are represented, with tracks ranging from major hits to fascinating rarities. Thirty-two-page booklet included.

Johnny Adams
Absolutely the Best
(Fuel 2000 3020612452)

Arthur Alexander
The Greatest (U.K.)
(Ace CDCHD922)

Gene Allison
You Can Make It If You Try
(Collectables Col-CD-7242)

Gene Allison & Roscoe Shelton
You Can Make It If You Try (Holland)
(Black Magic BM 9204)
No overlap with disc above

Morgan Babb
Keep Faith: Reverend
Dr. Morgan Babb Collection
(Nashboro Nash4006-2)

Johnny Bragg
Just Walkin’ in the Rain: The Johnny Bragg Story
(Relentless M2R21999)

Clifford Curry
She Shot a Hole in My Soul
(Collectable Col-CD-5540)

Rockin’ the Joint
(Collectable Col-CD2713)

The Fairfield Four
The Bells Are Tolling (U.K.)
(Ace CDCHM771)

Earl Gaines
Lovin’ Blues: The Starday-King Years, 1967-1973 (U.K.)
(West Side WESSA802)

Cecil Grant
Best of 1944-1948 (Japan)
(P-Vine 5471)

Arthur Gunter
Baby Let’s Play House: The Best of Arthur Gunter
(Excello / AVI 3011)

Bobby Hebb
Sunny (Japan)
(Vivid Sound VSCD-736)

Herbert & Rufus Hunter
The Sound of a Crying Man (Holland)
(Black Magic BM 9202)

Etta James
Etta James Rocks the House
(Chess / MCA CHD-9184)

Robert Knight
Everlasting Love
(Collectables Col-CD-6841)

Esther Phillips
The Country Side of Esther Philips / Set Me Free
(Collectables Col-CD-6841)

The Radio Four
There’s Gonna Be Joy (U.K.)
(Ace 448)

Peggy Scott & JoJo Benson
Lover’s Holiday: The Very Best of Peggy Scott & JoJo Benson
(Collectables Col-CD-6021)

Roscoe Shelton
Roscoe Shelton Sings
(Excello / AVI 3007)

Joe Simon
Monument of Soul (U.K.)
(RPM RPMSh222)

The Skylarks
The Best of the Skylarks
(Nashboro / AVI Nash4005)

Joe Tex
Greatest Hits
(7-N / Buddah / BMG 66748-77006-2)

Joe Tex
Live & Lively / Soul Country: Dial Series 3 (U.K.)
(RPM 237)

Freddie Waters
Singing a New Song (Holland)
(Black Magic BM9201)

Various Artist Compilations
A Shot in the Dark: Nashville Jumps: Blues and Rhythm on Nashville’s Independent Labels 1945-1955 (Germany)
(Bear Family BCD 15864HL)
Eight-disk set with 274-page book and deluxe packaging

Across the Tracks: Nashville R&B and Rock ‘n’ Roll (U.K.)
(Ace CDCHC672)

Ernie’s Record Mary (U.K.)
(Ace CDCHD684)

The Excello Story, Volume 1: 1952-1955
(Hip-O 40149)

The Excello Story, Volume 2: 1955-1957
(Hip-O 40150)

The Excello Story, Volume 3: 1957-1961
(Hip-O 40156)

Excello Vocal Groups
(Excello / AVI 3013)

Krooning: Southern Doo Wop, Volume 2 (U.K.)
(Ace CDCHD629)

Music City Soul (U.K.)
(Kent CDKEND157)

Raid on Cedar Street:
The Nashville Blues Treasues (Japan)
(P-Vine PCD 5678/9)

Southern Rhythm ‘n’ Rock:
The Best of Excello Records, Volume 2
(Rhino R270897)

Southern Rhythms (U.K.)
(Ace CDCHD662)
Uptown, Down South: A-Bet & Excello’s Soul Sound
(Excello / AVI 30130)

Wail Daddy! Nashville Jump Blues (U.K.)
(Ace CDCHD653)

Suggested Reading

Jarrett, Ted and Ruth White.
You Can Make It If You Try:
The Ted Jarrett Story of R&B in Nashville
Nashville: Country Music Foundation Press, 2004
As a songwriter, musician, producer, label chief, artist manager, talent scout and deejay, Nashville entrepreneur Ted Jarrett has been a key figure on Music City’s R&B scene since the 1950s. Jarrett’s inspirational autobiography provides a fascination and instructive look at one man’s drive to succeed in the world of music. It also offers insight into the interaction of white and black musical cultures in Nashville.

Hawkins, Martin
A Shot in the Dark: Nashville Independent Record Labels, 1945-1955
Music historian Martin Hawkins takes an in-depth look at the formative years of Nashville’s music industry, 1945-1955, when the city’s independent pop, country, gospel and R&B record labels played a large role in transforming Nashville into “Music City USA.” The book documents the vital years after WWII that saw the rise of Nashville as a viable recording center, when the town was as much a hotbed for R&B as it was country, and independent labels such as Bullet and Excello recorded the best of both.

Barlow, William
Voice Over: The Making of Black Radio
Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998

Branch, Taylor
Parting the Waters: American in the King Years 1954-1963
New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988

Broome, PJ (Paul), and Clay Tucker
The other Music City: The Dance bands and Jazz Musicians of Nashville 1920 to 1970
Nashville, self-published, 1990

Brown, James and Bruce Tucker
James Brown: The Godfather of Soul
New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1986
(Reprinted by Thunder’s Mouth Press, New York, 1997)

Brown, Ruth and Andrew Yule
Miss Rhythm: The Autobiography of Ruth Brown: Rhythm and Blues Legend
New York: Donald I. Fine Books, 1996

Cason, Buzz
Living the Rock ‘n’ Roll Dream: The Adventures of Buzz Canson
Milwaukee: Hal Leonard Publishing, 2004

Doyle, Don H
Nashville Since the 1920s
Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1985

Egerton, John
Speak Now against the Day: The Generation before the civil rights movement in the South
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995

Guralnick, Peter
Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southerners Dream for Freedom
New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1986

Halberstam, David
The Children
New York: Random House, 1998

Hoskyns, Barney
Say It One Time for the Brokenhearted: Country Soul in the American South
London: Bloomsbury Paperbacks, 1987

Ikard, Robert W
Near You: Francis Craig, Dean of Southern Maestros
Franklin, Tennessee: Hillsboro Press, 1999

James, Etta and David Ritz
Rage to Survive
New York: Villard Books, 1995

Killen, Buddy and Tom Carter
By the Seat of My Pants: My Life in Country Music
New York : Simon & Schuster, 1993

King, B.B. and David Ritz
Blues All around Me: The Autobiography of B.B. King
New York: Avon, 1996

Shapiro, Harry and Caesar Glebbeek
Jimi Hendrix: Electric Gypsy
New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990

Shaw, Arnold
Honkers and Shouters: The Golden Years of Rhythm and Blues
New York: Collier Books, 1978
(Reprinted by Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, 1986)

Smith, Wes
The Pied Pipers of Rock ‘n’ Roll: Radio Deejays of the 50s and 60s
Marietta, Georgia: Longstreet Press, 1986

Smith, W.O.
Sideman: The Long Gig of W.O. Smith: A Memoir
Nashville: Rutledge Hill Press, 1991

Ward, Andrew
Dark Midnight When I Rise: The Story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers
New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2000

Ward, Brian
Just My Soul Responding: Rhythm and Blues, Black, Consciousness and Race Relations
Berkely: University of California Press, 1998

Warner, Jay
Just Walkin’ In the Rain
Los Angeles: Renaissance Books, 2001

White, Charles
The Life and Times of Little Richard
New York: Harmony Books, a division of Crown Publishers, 1984

Younger, Richard
Get a Shot of Rhytm & Blues: The Arthur Alexander Story
Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2000