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Night Train to Nashville Showcases Music City R&B Roots

Updated: Mar 2, 2023

It was the mid-1950s and, for better or worse, the “Nashville Sound” was taking shape. It didn’t seem to matter whether they were love songs, gettin’ drunk songs, murder ballads, or honky tonk shufflers, syrupy strings and smooth backing vocals were the order of the day.

This was not the case on the city’s north side. Nightclubs in the black neighborhood that would eventually be bulldozed to make way for I-40 – funny how that happened in city after city - were alive with the foot-stomping rhythms and gritty soul that sounded more Motown or Memphis than Music Row.

And they weren’t just happening in the clubs. Television shows like Night Train and The Beat, showcasing both local and national artists singing R&B, were popular, as were radio stations like WLAC.

Perhaps most notably, given what was happening elsewhere in the country, especially in the South, black musicians from the R&B scene were landing spots in otherwise white country outfits like Roy Acuff’s Grand Ol’ Opry house band. And they were regularly teaming up with A-team songwriters and session players, who saw talent rather than skin color.

Hats off to Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum for carefully and compellingly bringing that vibrant scene to life in its exhibit, “Night Train to Nashville: Music City Rhythm and Blues, 1945-1970.” The award-winning exhibit was showcased at the museum for two years almost 20 years ago. But it has recently been converted to a digital presentation and is now available online. You can (and should) experience it here.

The museum recently celebrated the second life of the exhibit with an event at the CMA Theatre, featuring conversation and music with some of the stars from that scene, as well a set from Nashville’s up-and-coming country-soul duo, The War and Treaty.

Frank Howard and the Commanders were regulars on the scene then. And Howard was on the pre-concert panel.

“We did a lot of jumping up and down and splitting,” he said with a laugh. “But we could sing too.”

Peggy Gaines Walker – she was just Peggy Gaines when she started singing in the black clubs as a teenager - remembered the night she and another underage friend snuck in, followed a short while later by “the trench coats breaking down the door.” It was the police.

“What were they there for?” museum curator Michael Gray asked.

“Well, they were probably looking for underage kids,” Gaines Walker said, drawing a laugh.

She said someone hustled her and her friend down a hall and told them to hide upstairs. That’s when they found themselves bursting into the dressing room of Aretha Franklin.

“What are you girls doing here?” Gaines Walker said, in an unmistakable imitation of the Queen of Soul. “Does your mama know you're here?”

Although Franklin scolded the girls, the experience was still a thrill.

“I tried to be her,” Gaines Walker said.

Also remembered from those days was a young guitarist, just out of the army, who cut his teeth in Nashville and soon became known for his “magic guitar.”

“That’s where I learned to play, really, Nashville,” Jimi Hendrix is quoted in one of the exhibits as saying.

Howard recalled playing with Hendrix, whom he described as a “really nice guy.” Although he and bassist friend Billy Cox plugged right into the tight rhythms the R&B music required, Howard said Hendrix was starting to wander into the more experimental phrasing that would shake the music world a few years later.

The conversation and recollections were interesting. But the highlight of the evening was the music. Anchored by the Jimmy Church and his band - a full ensemble featuring bass, guitar, drums, keyboard, and a four-piece horn section – artists from that era took the stage to sing two songs each. On the bill were Howard, Gaines Walker, Levert Allison of the Fairfield Four, and Charles "Wigg" Walker. All were clearly in their 70s or 80s, and walked slowly out on stage, some with help. But they all shook off the rust as soon as the music started, delivering performances that would have been impressive even if they were younger.

Gaines, in particular, brought the crowd to its feet when she roared into the first words of Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools.”

Equally impressive was The War and Treaty, a husband and wife duo of Michael Trotter Jr and Tanya Trotter who have emerged as a powerful new act that spans the country soul genres.

Before their first song, Michael Trotter got in the spirit of the evening, positing that R&B and Country have more in common than people think.

"It's the stories, the emotions," Trotter said. "Just the music is different, the way you swing it."

He then paid tribute to Ray Charles, who he called a hero. The War and Treaty recently moved from Michigan to Nashville, perhaps raising eyebrows among fans who saw them as more of a soul or R&B group. Charles, Trotter noted, famously went against the advice of his record company and made a country album, "The Modern Sounds of Country and Western Music."

Trotter and his wife then offered their own take on Charles' "You Don't Know Me."

If you don't know The War and Treaty yet, do yourself a favor and fix that. Check out their latest single here.

Check out our other music posts here.

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