Book Review

The Nashville Number System

By Chas Williams

You say you've always heard about the Nashville Number System but never could find somebody to show it to you? Worry no more - - your wish is fulfilled, provided you already have a fairly good grasp of music, such as being able to play an instrument passably well.

This spiral-bound book is not for the casual music fan with no instrumental knowledge. Intended to give a clear overview of the main Nashville notation system as it is being used by studio and nightclub players in Nashville, it is for the musician interested in communicating musical ideas to other musicians, or in being able to understand the messages of other musicians. In addition, it is best to be at least moderately familiar with songs from the last five to fifteen years, as many points are illustrated by reference to popular songs of recent vintage.

The use of popular songs to illustrate chart writing is also put to good advantage in the section of the book that is the most fun. Williams has included the hand-written charts of seven very familiar songs, such as "Rocky Top" and "Crazy," as written by five working Nashville session players, himself included. His other contributors are famed harmonica player Charlie McCoy, Hank, Jr. producer Barry Beckett, Nashville Now music director Lura Foster, and Grand Ole Opry guitarist Jimmy Capps, names familiar to country music fans. These charts take up half of this eighty-page volume and in some respect are the heart of the book, for it is in these charts that a player can come to believe that he/she already understands the Nashville Number system perfectly well and all that is really necessary to learn are the notational conventions and then try it out a few times. If the first attempts aren't perfect, well, then it's back to reading more of the book.

Perhaps it's not that easy, but it is fairly straightforward to anyone who can play chords on an instrument or sing do re mi fa so la ti do. Just replace the do re's with numbers and voila! Nashville Numbers. Of course, there are still the split measures and special instructions, such as a couple of different ways to notate a modulation or a push. Plus some dynamic notations, such as the diamond and the bird's eye...and it's back to the charts, because you already know how the songs sound and can probably play two or five or all of them.

The question that naturally arises is why have such a system, when most of the notational conventions are borrowed from standard musical notation? The answer lies in understanding that the system is intended first for bands playing popular songs, which are structured around repeating chord progressions. Standard musical notations of chords are visually complex and difficult to read. Additionally, a song scored using the notes and staff method usually runs to two, three or more pages, even for a relatively simple tune. The Nashville method allows the writer to condense the important essentials into a single, easily readable page or less that a session player can use to play the tune correctly the first or second time through.

This book is very clearly structured and covers a great musical distance in a very short space, but nonetheless would be of great value to any would-be Nashville-bound singer or songwriter who would like to have as many tools in place as possible before trying to crack the Emerald City. For that matter, any musician interested in communicating her / his work should take the time to look at this system, since much of it is already widely used in other parts of the country as well.

The book sells for $9.95 plus $1.50, S. & H., and may be ordered from: The Nashville Number System, 3250 Priestwoods Dr., Dept K, Nashville, TN 37214.