Nashville and the country music industry’s continued progressions toward more significant racial and social equity received a considerable permanent boost via May 20’s renaming of the corner of 14th Avenue S and Horton Avenue to DeFord Bailey Avenue, honoring African-American harmonica player, original Grand Ole Opry star and Country Music Hall of Famer DeFord Bailey.
The dedication and ceremony occurred at noon at the North end of the William Edmondson Homesite Park, which borders Horton Avenue.
Dignitaries present for the event included the following:
- Rev. Dr. John R. Faison, Sr. Senior Pastor, Watson Grove Baptist Church
- Paul Kingsbury, Senior Director of Editorial and Interpretation, Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum
- Sharon Hurt, Nashville Metro Council, At Large representative
- Mark Schlicher, Vice President, Founding Board Member, Friends of the William Edmondson Homesite Park & Gardens
- David C. Morton, author “DeFord Bailey, A Black Star in Early Country Music”
- Dan Rogers, VP and Executive Producer, Grand Ole Opry
- Brenda Haywood, Deputy Mayor, Nashville
- DeFord Bailey family members Carlos DeFord Bailey, Christine Bailey Craig, Dezoral Bailey Thomas, Shemika Wiley and Herchel Bailey
Metro Council At-Large representative Hurt, also running for Nashville’s mayoral seat, noted in Thursday’s Mayoral debate that she wanted to see “black excellence” more prominently displayed in Nashville’s future.
This event, attended by multiple generations of Music City’s African-American community, highlighted Hurt’s desires.
On March 7, 2023, Metro Council approved an ordinance to rename Horton Avenue for Bailey, a Smith County, Tennessee native whose performances of “Pan American Blues,” in which his harmonica replicated the sound of a rolling locomotive, propelled him to national and global country music renown in the era following the genre’s birth, at the onset of the Grand Ole Opry’s nearly century-old history.
Bailey was the first Black performer to appear on the Opry (he played 49 of 52 possible dates in 1928 alone), but in 1941 because of a royalties disagreement between Broadcast Music Inc. and the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, he was fired by Opry broadcasters WSM Radio.
That led to him stopping making his living as an entertainer. Instead, he turned to shining shoes for three decades in the Edgehill neighborhood he resided (at a location highlighted with a historical marker on 12th Avenue S and Edgehill Avenue, only a ten-minute stroll away from the street now rededicated in his name) until he died in 1982.
Bailey didn’t return to the Opry stage as a performer until 33 years after his ouster, at the opening of the program’s current home off Briley Parkway in 1974.
Bailey was a 2005 inductee into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
District 17 Councilmember Colby Sledge was the primary sponsor of the street renaming bill. Co-sponsors included Brett Withers, Russ Pulley, Emily Benedict, Sharon Hurt, Jeff Syracuse, Kyonzte Toombs, Delishia Porterfield, and Joy Styles.
Five generations of Bailey’s family were present for the event. Bailey arrived in Nashville with his foster father, Clark Odom, in 1908. The past 115 years of the Bailey family’s legacy were celebrated during the festivities, in which numerous members were visibly overcome by what the harmonica player’s great-granddaughter Shemeika Wiley referred to as “generations [of the family] smiling down from heaven” at the event.
Following the dedication ceremony, Bailey’s grandsons, Carlos DeFord Bailey and Herchel Bailey, joined by the band the Rockin’ Bones, played two brief sets. Among the songs performed was a Carlos DeFord Bailey original, “Music City Shoeshine Man,” a song paying homage to his grandfather’s life that he also played on the Grand Ole Opry in Feb. 2023.
Moreover, in regards to updated information about DeFord Bailey’s life and times, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s Paul Kingsbury used his time behind the podium at the festivities to announce the reissuing of David C. Morton and Charles K. Wolfe’s 1991 biography “DeFord Bailey: A Black Star in Early Country Music.
The updated and expanded edition now includes a new foreword by singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Dom Flemons, founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, plus 45 illustrations and Bailey’s complete recording session discography.
Beginning June 13, the reissued edition will be distributed nationwide in bookstores and online outlets through a partnership with the University of Illinois Press.
For more information visit https://www.countrymusichalloffame.org/learn/teacher-resource-portal/social-studies/discover-deford-bailey.