The roots of American music grew here

If you haven’t been watching the documentary series Country Music on PBS, you’re missing a great show.
Documentary maker Ken Burns has produced award-winning films about many subjects including the Vietnam War, baseball, and the West, and is responsible for this awesome eight-part series, which you can also see at
Country Music is worth watching even if you don’t like the genre. Growing up here it was impossible not to know about country music, and it’s fascinating to hear the stories behind the songs and the musicians.
The series also focuses on the origins of country music and the way it grew out of “a beautiful sort of boiling American music pot,” as one person described it in the first episode. Immigrants brought the first ingredients here and one of the earliest results (which later became a building block for country and rock ’n’ roll) was Southern Gospel.
If you live here, I hope you’ve heard of Southern Gospel music. Congress has proclaimed that Lawrenceburg is its birthplace, and the man who helped develop and promote it, its Father. James D. Vaughan didn’t invent Southern Gospel’s “shape-note” system, but built an empire with it.
The system used a different shape to represent each of the seven tones on the scale (Do, Re, Mi, Fa . . .) so anyone could be taught to carry the tune of a song. “Most people couldn’t read music, so singing schools were organized to teach them a basic system called shape note,” Country Music reported. “Songbook publishers dispatched traveling quartets to demonstrate how to add harmony to the songs, and then sell their products.”
The series doesn’t mention Vaughan by name, but those quotes are a perfect description of one part of his business plan. At one point he had 20 quartets on the road who performed, taught, and sold his songbooks. At his headquarters on the Lawrenceburg Square, Vaughan ultimately published 105 songbooks, each with about 100 songs that he and others wrote.
The Vaughan School of Music was established as an annual event to train music instructors in the “Vaughan Method.” Students from across the U.S. traveled to Lawrenceburg for vocal and instrumental music instruction and its success turned the school into a full-time venture.
The company also published a nationally-distributed monthly subscription newsletter, The Vaughan Family Visitor, which gave readers spiritual advice and news about Vaughan songbooks and quartet appearances. Vaughan was also the first in Tennessee to produce phonograph records, which helped spread the music even further.
Vaughan also established the state’s first commercially licensed radio station, WOAN, and broadcast recorded and live music from his Lawrenceburg studio to 35 states and parts of Canada. The station predated WSM, which started broadcasting The Grand Ole Opry in 1925.
Thanks to Vaughan, we are one of 30 stops on the “Americana Music Triangle,” a route that includes the places associated with the development of nine “uniquely American genres” – Blues, Jazz, Country, Rock, Rhythm & Blues/Soul, Gospel, Southern Gospel, Cajun/Zydeco and Bluegrass.
You can learn more about Vaughan at the museum dedicated to his work, located on the third floor of Lawrenceburg’s Vaughan Municipal Building on the Square. You can enjoy Southern Gospel at the annual James D. Vaughan Quartet Festival, or hear any number of gospel groups performing it locally. Lawrence County’s Leoma Music Company still publishes one songbook a year, and it uses the shape-note system.
My point? Community pride. Watching Country Music makes me realize again what a pivotal role Vaughan played in the genesis of American music and how fortunate we are that he chose Lawrenceburg as the seat of his media empire. If you think nothing important will ever happen here, keep in mind that it already has.



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