When he moved to Nashville in 1960, Bill Pursell was a classically trained pianist and composer who found his way into the studios on Music Row during the rise of the Nashville Sound. As he was working with some of country music's biggest names, including Chet Atkins and Patsy Cline, Pursell was moonlighting as classical composer and a soloist with the Nashville Symphony. Having recently retired at age 92 from teaching at Belmont University (he taught there beginning in 1980), Pursell still keeps busy composing.
Now, fellow Belmont Professor Terry Klefstad has written a book chronicling Pursell's life, career and significant contributions to Nashville's music community. Crooked River City: The Musical Life of Nashville's William Pursell is the latest pick for our Notes In The Margin series, where we share books that we think 91Classical listeners will enjoy.
Klefstad and Pursell visited the studio to discuss the book.
On the meaning of the book's title:
Terry Klefstad: "I thought I’d call it Crooked River because it's a nice metaphor for the shape of his career... Bill from early years was groomed to be a concert pianist and could have been. He had the best coaches, he went to Peabody, he did amazing things. And yet he saw nothing of, you know, going off and touring with an R&B band. So his career took all of these twists and turns, from concert artist to entertainer, and then later in Nashville to session keyboardist to producer and arranger and composer."
On how country musicians reacted to Pursell's classical chops:
Bill Pursell: "I would say mentally most of the musicians were used to expecting certain kinds of musicians to work with, maybe who came from the Opry... or who had been on the road with Hank Williams and that sort of thing... I think my first session was with Homer and Jethro. So consequently when I went into that session I thought, well, they probably want to have me do a lot of things. So I was up and down, all over the piano, and at the very end of the session Jethro looked at me and said, 'Well Bill, sure good to see you again.' I knew I’d flunked out. Because that was his polite way of saying: you just don't play our kind of music."
On why, in part, Klefstad wanted to write the book:
Terry Klefstad: "Those formative years of the Nashville Sound, Bill was right there in the studio with them. And he was playing the keyboard parts, and then later he was doing the string arrangements, and he worked with the Anita Kerrs all the time. I think it really shows that when you write history, you’re writing from what you know and who you know. And the people that have been writing the history of the Nashville Sound know Chet Atkins and Eddy Arnold, so that's what they wrote about. I don't think they've asked enough questions yet. So that's kind of the start here with our book is to open the door a bit to the Nashville Sound and say, hey, it actually started a little earlier there were more people that were instrumental in shaping the sound."
On being musically inspired by the South:
Bill Pursell: "Well, let me put it this way: why does John Grisham write all of his novels about things in the South? It is probably one of the most fruitful, if you want to use that word, places for all kinds of history, all kinds of stuff to build on."
Your Playlist for Crooked River City: The Musical Life of Nashville's William Pursell
Each Notes in the Margin pick comes with a hand-picked playlist, so you can kick back and listen while you read. "Christ Looking Over Jerusalem" from Three Biblical Scenes (1953)
In the early 1950s, Pursell studied at Eastman School of Music with composer Howard Hanson. In Klefstad's book, Pursell recalls composing this work in six hours, and that Ralph Vaughn Williams took a look at the score and offered his observations. This recording comes from a collection of work by Eastman graduates, conducted by Hanson.
"Our Winter Love" (1962)
Pursell's single "Our Winter Love" spent weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at #9. It was also one of the first recordings to use distortion, later honed with "fuzzbox" effects pedals into one of rock music's hallmark sounds.
Patsy Cline: "She's Got You" (1962)
Cline was just one of the many musicians Pursell would play with during his years as a Nashville session musician. He played organ on several tracks on her album Sentimentally Yours.
Sonata No. 2 for Piano (1985)
Pursell's sonata was a Tennessee Music Teachers Association Composer of the Year commission.
Kaleidoscope for Piano and Orchestra (1995)
By 1956, Pursell had finished nearly all the required work for his doctorate degree when left school to tour with and R&B group, the Jerry Jaye Trio, in order to earn money to support his family. He wouldn't earn his DMA in composition until 1995, with this work being part of his doctoral thesis. See it performed here by the Belmont University Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Robert Gregg.
"I'll Be Seeing You" (2015)
Pursell is currently working on arranging and recording more music with his daughter, Laura. Their first collaboration came with the 2015 album The Very Last Dance Hall Left in L.A, which includes his arrangement of the classic "I'll Be Seeing You," with Pursell playing piano and Laura singing.