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Panel Discussion: Studio and Screen: Behind the Scenes with the Nashville Edition

Apr 27, 2013

April 27, 2013
Charley Pride kept encouraging Wendy Suits Johnson-whom he called “Buster”-to sing in a higher key. A member of the vocal group Nashville Edition, Johnson eventually raised her vocals an entire octave while blending with her singing partners on Pride’s recording of “My Eyes Can Only See as Far as You.” On the recording, Johnson’s beautiful high pitch comes through clearly, adding an additional element of beauty and drama to the track, which went to #1 in 1976.

Johnson recalled the story during a program at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum celebrating the history of the Nashville Edition, one of the Nashville studio system’s leading harmony groups from the 1960s to the 1990s. She joined fellow Nashville Edition members “Cowboy” Joe Babcock, Dolores Dinning Edgin, Ricki Page, and Hurshel Wiginton in tracing the group’s history, complemented with photos, recordings, and videos from the museum’s Frist Library and Archives.

As program host John Rumble explained, the Nashville Edition estimate that they participated in more than 12,000 recording sessions, the majority of them with country music stars, including Lynn Anderson, Eddy Arnold, Bobby Bare, Tom T. Hall, Freddie Hart, Waylon Jennings, George Jones and Tammy Wynette, Barbara Mandrell, Ronnie Milsap, Dolly Parton, Marty Robbins, Tanya Tucker, Dottie West, Hank Williams Jr., and many others. The group also backed pop and rock acts, including Ann-Margret, Bobby Goldsboro, Henry Mancini, Elvis Presley, Nancy Sinatra, and Bobby Vinton. The group was recognized by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences with the Super Pickers award in 1975, 1977, and 1978. The Nashville Edition also performed on the popular TV program Hee Haw from the show’s inception in 1968 to the early 1990s.

The group came together from diverse backgrounds. Babcock, a Nebraska native, first traveled to Nashville at the invitation of the Glaser Brothers, to sing harmony on the road with Marty Robbins. He also wrote the country hit “I Washed My Hands in Muddy Water.” Edgin, from Oklahoma, had replaced her older sister Lou as a member of pop vocal group the Dinning Sisters. She later joined Mercury recording artists the LaDell Sisters and sang harmony behind her brother Mark Dinning on his #1 pop hit, “Teen Angel.”

Page was born outside of Oklahoma City and grew up in California, where she began her performing career after moving from Fresno to Hollywood. She wrote songs and recorded pop singles as a solo act and with the Georgettes and the Page Sisters (with her sister Sonya). She also sang harmony behind Eddie Cochran, Bobby Darin, Jackie DeShannon, and several productions by Phil Spector, including the Blossoms, Darlene Love, and the Righteous Brothers.

Johnson was born in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and grew up in West Memphis, Arkansas. She first performed in the Marshallettes, a gospel trio based in Memphis, and later sang jingles. When Page retired from the Nashville Edition in 1974, Johnson won the job as her replacement. Wiginton was born in Hamilton, Alabama, and started out in gospel music. He performed harmony on recordings in Muscle Shoals, Alabama (including the Percy Sledge hit “When a Man Loves a Woman”), and Memphis before moving to Nashville in the 1960s.

The group first took work in Nashville as the Town & Country Singers, but a trademark issue forced them to change the name to Nashville Edition. Among their early Nashville recordings was working with Dottie West on her signature hit, “Country Sunshine,” which serves as the title of a Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum exhibit on West on display at the museum.

Group members warmly recalled working with West, mentioning her lack of artifice and her wonderful home cooking. “I remember when I walked into the studio to record ‘Country Sunshine,’” recalled Edgin. “I said, ‘Hi Dottie.’ And she said, ‘I’ve had a facelift.’ That’s just how she was with everyone.” Added Wiginton, “She was a very sweet woman.”

Like many long-running studio pros, the Nashville Edition gained a reputation for working quickly and figuring out their parts on the spot. “I want to brag on the group a bit, because they all had great ideas in the studio,” Babcock said. “Hurshel was very creative, he was known as ‘Commercial Hurshel.’ I wrote out all of our charts, but everybody in the group contributed to the arrangements.” Babcock also praised Wiginton for “having what I think was the best bass voice in town.”

Babcock also explained why the Nashville Edition usually chose not to sing in vibrato, even if the lead vocalist did. “We liked to keep the voices pretty much like a horn section, because you blend better,” he said. “In harmony, if you sing with a vibrato, it destroys the blend. We tried to keep it beautiful, mellow, and sustained. We had a natural blend that sounded like a family.”

-Michael McCall

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