Country music has many origin stories. One of them occurred on or around June 19, 1923, when Fiddlin’ John Carson was tapped to record music at a pop-up studio at 152 Nassau Street in Atlanta for Okeh Music. His hit recording marked the first deliberate effort to market country music for a country audience.
“The sales here in Atlanta and throughout the South just start to explode. People were buying these records like crazy because they’d never heard their musicians that they’re used to on record,” Lance Ledbetter, founder of Atlanta-based Dust-to-Digital, a company that finds, preserves and sells lost music from the American South, tells Debbie Elliott at NPR.
Now, NPR reports, that little brick building where that first country hit was recorded before the genre even had a name is in danger of being demolished to make way for a high-rise timeshare and, ironically, an outlet of the Jimmy Buffett-inspired Margaritaville restaurant chain.
According to a timeline by Historic Atlanta, Okeh’s use of the 152 Nassau Street was the only notable moment in the building’s history. The recording company set up its portable studio in what was then a vacant buildig in June of 1923. The next year, a producer of educational and industrial films took over the site. After that it became the offices of a steam heat manufacturer, contractor offices, a restaurant and Gone With the Wind memorabilia museum. It was a law office in its most recent incarnation.
While city planners tried to get landmark status for 152 Nassau, they were unsuccessful. Currently, advocates of the building are circulating a Change.org petition to stop its destruction. In an email statement to NPR, the developer, Strand Capital Group of North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, said it is “considering ways to respectfully acknowledge that Okeh Music recorded an early country music song there.”
It’s no surprise country music’s first hit came out of Atlanta. Steve Goodson of the University of West Georgia writes that in 1922, WSB, the first radio station in the South, began broadcasting from there and required a steady stream of entertainers to fill the air. Artists of all kinds, from hillbilly string bands to African-American musicians came into the studios, reaching a national audience of 2 million people. The city's size and accessibility also drew in record producers from up North. All of that combined to make Atlanta the “Nashville of its day.”
That’s why talent scout and producer Ralph Peer of Okeh Music decided to hunt for new sounds there. According to sociologist Richard A. Peterson’s book Creating Country Music, Peer was known for his innovative “specialty records,” made for ethnic, national and religiously distinct groups. In addition to Carson, Peer recorded major talents including blues singer Lucille Bogan and the jazz orchestra Warner’s Seven Aces while in Atlanta.
“Atlanta marked Okeh’s initial out-of-town expedition and the first day of any major company to record traditional artists of either race in the South,” folklorist Archie Green says on Historic Atlanta’s website about those Nassau Street sessions. “There was no way for the local press, at that time, to assess the session’s eventual significance.”
Carson’s hit recording was his take on “The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane.” A minstrel song, it romanticized the antebellum South and the institution of slavery. The lyrics bemoan “the disintegration of a once-thriving southern plantation after the Civil War,” reports history professor Patrick Huber. The choice wasn't a surprising one for Carson, a white, working class Georgia mountain fiddler, who harbored deeply racist and anti-Semitic sentiments throughout his life, according to Don Schanche, Jr. at the Associated Press. Notably, before his big hit, his song “Little Mary Phagan” stoked mob violence against a Jewish Atlanta factory superintendent who was lynched in 1915. He was also a regular at Ku Klux Klan rallies.
“The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane” ultimately sold an estimated 500,000 copies, showing the momentum of the yet-to-be-named genre of country music. Its brisk sales made other record companies take notice, helping the recording industry realize the commercial viability of country records. “This isn’t just dumb rednecks or dumb hillbillies or whatever they want to think it is. This is music that’s important and people love it,” Ledbetter tells NPR. “And Fiddlin' John Carson in 1923, when he made that recording, it opened the doors on what country music was to become.”
Atlanta’s position as a musical capital didn’t stick. WSB became an NBC affiliate in 1927, writes Goodson, relying on national broadcasts and moving away from banjo picking and other “rustic” sounds in its local programming. The music scene in the city collapsed. That same year, Peer moved a little ways north to Bristol, Tennessee, where over two weeks he recorded 19 local musicians, including Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, in a rented warehouse. Those sessions are now known as country music’s “Big Bang,” a moment that overshadows Atlanta’s earlier contribution to the genre.