Tuesday, August 8, 2023

Book Review: Night Train to Nashville

In another time and place, E. Gab Blackman and William Sousa "Sou" Bridgeforth might have been as close as brothers, but in 1950s Nashville they remained separated by the color of their skin. Gab, a visionary yet opportunistic radio executive, saw something no one else did: a vast and untapped market with the R&B scene exploding in Black clubs across the city. He defied his industry, culture, government, and even his own family to broadcast Black music to a national audience.

Sou, the popular kingpin of Black Nashville and a grandson of slaves, led this movement into the second half of the twentieth century as his New Era Club on the Black side of town exploded in the aftermath of this new radio airplay. As the popularity of Black R&B grew, integrated parties and underground concerts spread throughout the city, and this new scene faced a dangerous inflection point: Could a segregated society ever find true unity?

Taking place during one of the most tumultuous times in US history, Night Train to Nashville explores how one city, divided into two completely different and unequal communities, demonstrated the power of music to change the world.

This look at the untold story of music city will be released on September 12, 2023. Harper Horizon provided an early galley for review.

The first things that comes to mind when I hear Nashville are of country music, the Grand Ole Opry, and a high school classmate who made his career as a songwriter and performer. This book added a new facet that I had not previously considered when I think about the city and its legacy.

The author's approach on this book is different. I suspect her personal connection to it helps a lot. It opens with a list of names of those involved in the story, with a brief description of who they are and what they did, and then a timeline of events. This is not something I've encountered before up front. Then her writing approach and style is one that draws a lot of elements that one would see typically in fiction. She really emphasizes the "story" in the history. That gives the whole narrative a different feel for a nonfiction book.

It was good to see examples of the way integration and diversity were approached at the time in this particular Southern city. It shows the struggle for representation, acknowledgement and acceptance of those with different backgrounds and cultures.

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