Big Government Country: An Excerpt From “Cold War Country”

The following is an excerpt of Cold War Country: How Nashville’s Music Row and the Pentagon Created the Sound of American Patriotism by Joseph M. Thompson, which is now available wherever books are sold.

Big Government Country
Connie B. Gay and the Roots of Country Music Militarization

Connie B. Gay used country music to build a media empire in the 1950s. His ascent began with a job as a radio announcer in 1946 on station WARL in Arlington, Virginia, and a hunch that listeners in the Washington, DC, suburbs might tune in for what the music business then called “hillbilly” music. He ended the 1950s as the founding president of the Country Music Association, the owner of dozens of radio stations, the producer of television shows on national networks, and a multimillionaire. Performers like Jimmy Dean, George Hamilton IV, Patsy Cline, Roy Clark, Johnny Cash, Andy Griffith, the Stoneman Family, and Grandpa Jones all received early career boosts from Gay’s web of media and concert promotions based in the capital metropolitan area. Even Grand Ole Opry stars like Eddy Arnold and Minnie Pearl traveled to Washington, DC, to appear on Gay’s radio and television programs Radio Ranch, Gay Time, and Town and Country Time. Others, including Elvis Presley, toured through Washington to play his “Hillbilly Cruise” aboard a yacht that sailed more than 2,000 concertgoers up and down the Potomac River.

Book cover for Cold War Country by Joseph M. Thompson

Gay’s biography reads like a testament to entrepreneurial drive. In 1971, the Washington Post featured a front-page profile on Gay, then fifty-six years old. The headline told how “he rose from hardscrabble farm to king of the hill,” and the writer described him as “country music’s media magician.” An accompanying photograph showed Gay, along with his second wife, an ex-model who was twenty years his junior, and their two small children. They posed on a verdant lawn in front of the family’s four-columned Colonial Revival home  i the  affluent Washington, DC, suburb of MacLean, Virginia. When Gay was pressed about how much wealth he had accrued through this magic, he coyly told the paper, “Just say it’s millions. . . . Enough to make sure it won’t run out as long as I live.”

Country music carried Gay a long way from his  humble origins. Born on a dirt farm in North Carolina in 1914, Gay struggled out of poverty to earn a college degree, worked as a New Deal agricultural adviser during the Great Depression and World War II, and learned the radio business just in time to take advantage of the United States’ postwar appetite for pop culture entertainment. He transformed country music’s artists, producers, and record labels into an industry over the course of his career, having organized the Country Music Dis Jockey Association in 1953, cofounded the Country Music Association in 1958, and helped establish the Country Music Foundation in 1964. He even provided the first $10,000 donation to build the Country Music Hall of Fame. Although he never made Nashville his full-time residence, Gay earned a reputation as a founding father of the industry that gave the Tennessee capital its nickname, Music City, USA.

The characterization of Gay as an independent and visionary entrepreneur offers a compelling story, but he owed much of his success to his close ties with the US Department of Defense. Their relationship built gradually. Beginning in the late 1940s, Gay cultivated a country music audience made up of service members, Pentagon employees, and other government workers by producing live concerts and radio programs in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area. Gay, like thousands of other natives of the rural South, as well as other regions, had moved to the capital during World War II for wartime government employment. The location of the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, meant that this influx of military personnel and defense contractors remained in and around the capital after the war. Gay recognized the potential to market country music in Arlington, sold the genre to this influx of government workers, and discovered some of the biggest stars of the twentieth century when they were still working for the Cold War defense state. 

Beginning in the late 1940s, Gay cultivated a country music audience made up of servicemembers, Pentagon employees, and other government workers by producing live concerts and radio programs in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area.

Gay formalized his connection between his country music businesses and the US military in 1951 when he booked Grandpa Jones and His Grandchildren on a tour of bases in Japan and the front lines of the Korean War. This tour generated a publicity boon for Gay’s radio station back home in Arlington, as listeners tuned in to hear his reports from the battlefront and country music’s role in the fight against communism. Gay parlayed this success into a position as an entertainment adviser for the Department of Defense, a role that he used to book country artists in the US military’s global network of Cold War installations. As the Pentagon established the indefinite presence of US soldiers in Europe, Asia, and the Caribbean, Gay made sure that those troops, essentially a captive audience of young men, heard the latest stars of country music live and in person during the 1950s.

Joseph M. Thompson is assistant professor of history at Mississippi State University.