George Hamilton IV, a 50-year veteran of the Grand Ole Opry, gazed out across the faces of 200 students who had gathered for Vanderbilt’s History of Country Music course this fall. Now in its third year, the class has proven to be one of the university’s most popular electives, thanks to its instructor, well-known music journalist and singer-songwriter Peter Cooper.
Cooper, who recently released his fourth CD, Master Sessions, has a genuine reverence for country music history, and he’s clearly found a kindred spirit in Hamilton, who has lived the tradition Cooper admires. Hamilton opened his guest appearance at the class by singing “Immigrant Eyes,” a song by Americana legend Guy Clark, and argued that the music itself—like the characters in Clark’s song—is an immigrant.
“The cradle of our music was the folk tradition of the British Isles,” Hamilton explained. “That same music spent its childhood in the Appalachians, brought there from the old country, and then came of age right here in Nashville.”
Hamilton himself became part of that tradition in 1956. At the age of 19, he recorded a teen ballad called “A Rose and a Baby Ruth,” and when the song became a million-seller, he found himself on tour with such rockabilly legends as Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers. He also toured with African American performers, including Chuck Berry, who helped him understand the common roots of black and white music.
“In 1959,” Hamilton told the Vanderbilt class, “I was on a flight to Australia to be part of a package tour, and I heard a country song coming from the first-class cabin, a song by the Louvin Brothers. I went to check it out, and there was the great Chuck Berry, playing country music on a little speaker.
“I said, ‘Mr. Berry, I’m surprised to see you like country music.’ He said, ‘The difference between you and me, white boy, is that when I go to the Grand Ole Opry, they make me listen in the alley.’”
Hamilton said it was then that he began to think more seriously about divisions in society, and how music could serve as a bridge, both here and abroad. In the 1960s he began to record country versions of folk songs by Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, introducing country fans to a younger generation of artists. And in 1974 he embarked on a U.S. State Department tour of the Soviet Union, the first country singer to make such a trip.
He remembered how a group of Moscow students applauded his songs and then offered to sing him one of their own. At a time of Cold War tensions, Hamilton said they began to sing “Down by the Riverside,” with their own adaptation of the words: “Gonna lay down our atom bombs, down by the riverside.”
“It was a powerful moment,” Hamilton concluded, “a reminder of the best that music can be.”