WSM Radio Tower - Nashville, TN
© Jim Herrington
Known as “The Air Castle of the South”, radio station WSM, AM 650, is inseparable from the history of country music and from the history of radio itself. The station’s call letters come from “We Shield Millions”, the slogan of National Life and Accident Insurance Co., founders of the station. From the lofty pinnacle of this tower, located eight miles south of Nashville, WSM has broadcast the Grand Ole Opry live every weekend since 1932 using 50,000 watts of clear channel power to reach most of the eastern half of the US and up into Canada. At 878 feet, this tower was the tallest antenna in North America at the time of it’s construction. The Opry broadcasts were a must listen for scores of young, fledgling musicians… Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Ray Charles, to name a few, were all influenced and inspired by the Opry transmissions and to perform on the Opry stage itself in downtown Nashville was proof positive that you had arrived. Every day from 1933 to 1945 the sound of a live train whistle could be heard on WSM at around 5pm. The Pan American passenger train, speeding from Cincinatti to New Orleans, passed by the tower daily and an engineer at the transmitter would turn on a microphone that hung from the tower just in time to broadcast the sound over the radio. Pan American passengers who happened to be sitting in the observation car at that moment could hear their own train whistle emanating from a wood cabinet radio tuned to the station.
The whistle theme inspired many songs including “Pan American” by Hank Williams.
“She leaves Cincinatti
heading down that Dixie line,
When she passes that Nashville tower
you can hear that whistle whine…”
In the late ’90s I drove out to the WSM antenna and I made three exposures of it on 4x5 film. Years later I constructed this piece comprised of three 16 x 20 prints which I toned in coffee then mounted on a stretched canvas which was primed and also toned. I chanced upon a box of decades-old typing paper and tapped out the above story on my 1940’s Remington Noiseless typewriter. Once everything was collaged and applied to the canvas I sealed and encased it all under a rich, warm, translucent layer of encaustic - heated pharmaceutical bees wax, a somewhat precarious endeavor best undertaken while under mild sedation. Finished with a dark wood trim and sold immediately this was the only photo I got of it before it went out the door.