I’ve started reading Craig Havinghurst’s Air Castle of the South: WSM and the Making of Music City in the past couple of days. In short, it’s subject matter is exactly what it sounds like - the origins of the city we’ve come to know as “Music City, USA,” which emanated from the airwaves of 650 AM WSM in 1925. Obviously, present day Music City is a far cry from how things were 93 years ago, but it is fascinating (in my opinion) to see the key roles settings like Belmont (then Ward-Belmont), War Memorial, and the like had in the 1920s. It’s entertaining to imagine a makeshift 70-foot tall radio tower in Jack DeWitt’s Belmont/Hillsboro backyard.
While picturing these locales as scant versions of themselves, home to gerryrigged radio towers and recording apparatuses, the people themselves are harder to imagine. Sure, a Google Image search is bound to bring up some faded portrait of DeWitt, Casper Kuhn, DeFord Bailey, and the earliest WSM stars, but there’s no way of capturing or even conceptualizing mannerisms and peculiarities of 1920s vaudevillians turned voice actors, or the people in crisp suits moonlighting as on-air hillbillies.
Luckily, in modern day Music City, we have acts like Bill & The Belles stopping through (by way of Johnson City, the true epicenter of Hillbilly Music) every once and a while to help bridge the gap between intangible idiosyncrasies and vintage radio. That’s not to say Bill & The Belles are some sort of pre-WWII era nostalgia act - it’s probably best to describe them as a modern (and in the purest sense) Americana group that pays considerable homage to the acts of radio’s Golden Age - but rather, a fine representation of what might have emerged from the radio waves of yesteryear.
But at the 5 Spot, on a Tuesday night in 2018.
It’s not every Tuesday the 5 Spot is graced with such tunes that would best be described as “delightful” and “bouyant,” all the while being good, to boot. Bill and the Belles maintain the special charm from the earliest of radio Barn Dance days, with songs titled “Finger Pointin’ Mama,” “Work Don’t Bother Me,” as well as newer tunes like “Wedding Bell Chimes,” from the band’s upcoming debut record Dreamsongs, etc. Admittedly, it is amusing to take in a set from a group like Bill and the Belles, especially over on the East Side.
Through and through, Bill and the Belles’ set was a wholehearted and unabashed, borderline love letter to the fine musical stylings of the radio Golden Age, but unique unto itself. Equal parts traditional folk, vaudevillian and meta-modern aughts entertainment, Bill and Belles put on a show that is sure to stand the test of time, much like the acts that preceded them, and perhaps the ones to follow. Here’s to having them back in town real soon, at Americanafest 2018.