Ken Nelson: Shaper of post-war country music

Kenneth Nelson, talent scout and record producer: born Caledonia, Minnesota 19 January 1911; married (one daughter); died Somis, California 6 January 2008

For much of his life, Ken Nelson dreamed of emulating his heroes, George Gershwin and Jerome Kern, and becoming a songwriter. In his autobiography, My First 90 Years Plus 3, published last year, he even went as far as to write: "I never felt successful, because to me a successful person is one who has achieved the goal of his heart's desire." And yet, by any objective standard, his career in the music business had been a singularly successful one.

His work as head of country A&R at Capitol Records played a crucial role in shaping the post-war country music scene and saw him involved in the development of both the "Nashville Sound", the smooth, country-pop hybrid that in the 1950s enabled the genre to weather the rock'*'roll storm, and, somewhat paradoxically, its antithesis: the lean, California-based honky-tonk style that came to be labelled the "Bakersfield Sound".

He nurtured the careers of a number of country stars, including Hank Thompson, the Louvin Brothers, Jean Shepard, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, and as a producer gave his acts the unusual freedom to forge their own musical identity whilst in the studio. Away from the country field, it was Nelson who, in 1957, signed the volatile rocker Gene Vincent to Capitol and who, through his relationship with Brian Wilson's songwriter-father Murry, ensured that in 1962 the Beach Boys, too, found their way onto the label.

As a youngster Nelson had played banjo with a trio named the Campus Kids, before becoming a presenter of the Symphonic Hour on the radio station WAAF in Chicago. A move to the city's WJJD, where he became musical director, led to his involvement with the station's nightly country show, Suppertime Frolic, which featured an up-and-coming young guitarist called Les Paul. Following Second World War service he was invited to join Capitol Records.

By 1948 he had relocated to Hollywood and within a few years had assumed responsibility for the label's country division. Its roster would include a clutch of influential performers, including Faron Young, Tommy Collins, Wynn Stewart, Rose Maddox and, eventually, Glen Campbell.

In 1951 Nelson produced Hank Thompson's "Wild Side of Life"; the first of a series of landmark recordings that would redefine country music and that would also include Sonny James' "Young Love" and Ferlin Husky's "Gone" (both 1956). The last of these, with its innovative use of echo and its vocal contributions from both the Jordanaires and the soprano Millie Kirkham, proved a chart smash and is regularly cited as the prototypical "Nashville Sound" hit.

Having produced literally thousands of records, Ken Nelson retired from Capitol in 1976 and was belatedly inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001.

Paul Wadey

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
musicOfficial chart could be moved to accommodate Friday international release day
Sport
Wes Brown is sent-off
football
News
i100
Sport
Italy celebrate scoring their second try
six nations
Sport
Glenn Murray celebrates scoring against West Ham
footballWest Ham 1 Crystal Palace 3
Arts and Entertainment
Drake continues to tease ahead of the release of his new album
music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review