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How the Nashville ‘A-Team’ Shaped the Sound of Country Music

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Long before Mr. T and is his ragtag group of military cast-outs, or even before the real-life group of Vietnam soldiers who inspired them, Nashville had an “A-Team” of its own. While these “gunslingers” used instruments as their weapons, they had a very similar reputation to the other A-Teams of pop culture.

What kind of reputation, you ask? The kind of reputation that led them to play on every major record coming out of Nashville from the 1950s well into the 1970s (and some still today). Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline — you name it.

Ever heard of the “Nashville Sound”? That’s the A-Team. This eclectic group of musicians fuzed their love of all sorts of genres into their playing, which ultimately positioned country music as a blossoming pop culture phenomenon.

If it came from Nashville, it came off the hands of these 12 musicians.

They Were Good Cause They Were Different

At the time, Nashville’s A-Team didn’t really know how revolutionary they were. Because the “session musicians” in Nashville were unlike any other recording hub. Few cities had a catalog of people to call upon when an artist needed a particular flavor or sound.

But they did know how much they worked. Gordon Stoker was a member of the legendary Jordanaires. Speaking on the vast number of songs that came through the studio, Stoker told KnoxNews.com, “The only thing in your mind was to do that particular song, then go onto the next one. Then you’d walk out of the studio and not remember one song you did.”

Imagine playing on so many hit songs you actually don’t remember which ones you played.

If it came from Nashville, it came off the hands of these 12 musicians.

The desire for this particular group of musicians came from a few things. For starters, they were ready to go at any given time. Most of the A-Team had road experience but found it much more lucrative to stay in one place and play when they were needed.

The studio boom in Nashville started with Castle Studios in 1947. 10 years later, country music faced a crossroads: it was dying at the hands of rock n’ roll. RCA built a world-class studio called RCA Victor Studio B right on music row and Chet Atkins took the helm. His contemporary Owen Bradley took over for Decca Records.

The pair quickly recognized the need to invigorate country music with a lot of the popular sounds of the day. The symphonic swirls, the pronounced, crooning vocals and the rockabilly guitars that all the kids loved so much. The “Nashville Sound,” as it soon became known, was really a whole bunch of sounds lumped into one. And a lot of it came from the eclectic interests of the A-Team.

From All Over The Map

Owen Bradley turned to his brother Harold, an eager guitar player. After he began working with his brother Owen, Harold eventually became an accomplished guitarist who Guitar Player magazine called the most-recorded guitarist of all time.

One of the most influential members of the A-Team, Charlie McCoy, had a rougher road to legendary status. McCoy had several attempts at his own solo career, and he also held spots in a few ill-fated bands. One of his first experiences in town came when he auditioned for Owen Bradley to join his collection of musicians.

“I went into to Owen’s little office with a Fender Bassman amp and a big Gibson fretless wonder and I played and sang Johnny Be Good,” McCoy says. “I probably played pretty loud because that’s the way we played, then he said, ‘Well son, I think you’re pretty good, but we’re not doing that kind of music around here.'” But Bradley invited the 18-year-old McCoy to watch a Brenda Lee session featuring his brother and his brother’s friends. After that, McCoy knew exactly what he wanted to do.

Chet Atkins also heard some of McCoy’s demos and hired him to play on some of Studio B’s sessions, but Fred Foster of Monument Records really gave McCoy his first break. Foster, who believed in employing the unconventional around town, hired McCoy to play harmonica on Roy Orbison’s “Candy Man,” which sold more than a million records. McCoy’s star rose quickly.

At that point, Bradley and McCoy began working with each other on another of Foster’s “risky” artists — Dolly Parton. The A-Team soon hit its stride.

A Numbers Game

Though the A-Team played on a staggering number of hit songs from the 50s through the 70s, perhaps the biggest “numerical” contribution came in a different way.

Thanks to the vast number of tunes the A-Team played on any given day (or any given session), McCoy needed a new method to remember the forms of the songs. “Charlie was the first guy I remember introducing it to the musicians,” Harold Bradley says. “Well, I copied it from the Jordanaires,” McCoy confesses.

The “Nashville Number System” quickly became the standard for all session players mapping out song charts to their songs. It consists of using roman numerals to identify chords within a key. In other words, it greatly simplified the way musicians communicated about a song’s structure in the midst of recording so many songs.

The A-Team And The Nashville Cats

Eventually, rumors of Nashville’s A-Team spread far and wide. The prowess of the musicians attracted Bob Dylan to Nashville, where he recorded four of his most famous albums, including “Nashville Skyline.” The move effectively let the “cat” out of the bag on Nashville’s collection of session musicians.

In fact, those artists who comprised the A-Team ultimately inspired the upcoming session musicians of the 1970s to bring their own flavors as well. Whereas the A-Team melted their love of hillbilly music (country) with jazz and pop to create the Nashville Sound, the artists who played on Dylan’s works and the works of the 70s (of whom McCoy was one) blended their love of “new country” with rock and folk. The Country Music Hall of Fame retroactively called this era of studio musician the “Nashville Cats.”

The Cats and the A-Team held many similarities (including membership). But most importantly, they shaped and affected countless records from everybody including Willie Nelson and The Beatles to Bob Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel. Their scope and reach truly were prolific.

And to this day, their influence on Nashville’s recording scene can be felt by the handful of infamous studio musicians who continue to help shape country music.

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How the Nashville ‘A-Team’ Shaped the Sound of Country Music