In which I ponder the endangered Nashville species called ‘Music Row’
(originally posted on July 1; reposted July 8)
“The past went that-a-way. When faced with a totally new situation, we tend always to attach ourselves to the objects, to the flavor of the most recent past. We look at the present through a rear view mirror. We march backwards into the future.”
–Marshall McLuhan – The Medium Is The Massage
Here’s a little-known fact about me:
For several hours on weekend afternoons, I’d sit with my guitar in an alcove-like space next to the engine housing in the front of one of those tottering, wheeled behemoths as it lumbered along a serpentine course from Riverfront Park, up Broadway to Music Row and back.
My job was to recount the history of the landmarks along the route, and between the landmarks and history lessons I’d play my guitar, sing songs from the Nashville canon – and try to be heard over the roar of the diesel engine beside me.
I don’t remember much about my repertoire now but I’m pretty sure that somewhere along Music Row I’d sing Alan Jackson’s Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow (Spotify):
I made it up to music row
Lordy, don’t the wheels turn slow..
It must have been quite a sight: a by-then middle-aged Jewish kid from New York singing country songs from a perch alongside a whining diesel.
I’d had to pass an audition and some vetting to earn this lofty position, but the job only payed whatever tips I could wheedle out of the tourists as they got off the trolley. So on the floor in front of me I placed a large jar with a label that read, “Garth Brooks and them play for millions – the rest of us play for tips.”
Little did I know at the time what a prediction that was for the future of the music business.
Needless to say the jar was never very full after a shift… and I didn’t last very long at that particular ‘job.’ I guess my ambitions lay elsewhere…
* * * * *
But that’s not what I came to talk to you about today.
I came to talk to you about an event that took place in Nashville yesterday, the “Rally to Save Studio A” – location that has seen more than its fare share of epic recording sessions (Spotify playlist).
I went to the rally, and shot some photos of the event. Now that’s got me thinking about those sweaty afternoons on the trolley, because I’m reminded of something I discovered in the course of preparing for those afternoons…
A few years before I came to Nashville, I’d met John Knowles, a fingerstyle guitarist of considerable renown, a colleague/protege of Chet Atkins, and one of the three still living “Certified Guitar Players” given that distinction by Chet Atkins himself. I met John at the National Guitar Summer Workshops in 1988, and he was one of the first people I called when I considered moving here in 1993.
When I got here in 1994, John had a position at the Country Music Hall of Fame, which at the time was located in a small barn-like structure at the north end of 16th Street. John made it possible for me to spend some time in the HoF archives, researching the tales I would tell on the trolley.
In the stacks at the HoF, I learned, for example, the story of the origins of The Ryman Auditorium: It starts with an evangelical preacher named Sam Jones, who earned the respect of a certain debauched riverboat operator who revered his mother by telling the congregation that there was nothing more despairing for a mother “than to see her son consumed by ‘a life of drunken dissipation…” These words compelled Captain Tom Ryman to promise the Reverend Jones that one day he would never again preach from a tent. The otherwise wealthy and successful Captain Ryman then built Reverend Jones a fine church, the Union Tabernacle; When Captain Ryman passed away shortly after the Tabernacle’s completion, Reverend Jones renamed the joint “The Ryman Auditorium.” Fast-forward the better part of a century and The Ryman is revered today as “The Mother Church of Country Music.”
That was one of the stories I told from my perch on the trolley. And then I’d launch into Steve Goodman’s You Never Even Call Me By My Name (Spotify link) ” (“…the perfect country-and-western song…”) as the trolley proceeded up Broadway toward Music Row.
But the story that most intrigued me was the actual origin story of Music Row – how that otherwise residential neighborhood became the physical epicenter of one of America’s seminal cultural art forms.
Long story short, the post-war recording industry in Nashville traces it origins back to a New York-based producer named Paul Cohen, who would visit Nashville several times a year to make records with performers like Ernest Tubb, Red Foley and Kitty Wells for Decca Records. Cohen rented facilities for these sessions until an arranger he worked with named Owen Bradley offered to build him a more permanent studio.
To house the new facility Bradley and his brother – session guitarist Harold Bradley – erected a quonset hut – a corrugated steel half-cylinder, like those used as barracks in the Pacific theater during WWII – adjacent to a house they owned on 16th Avenue in Nashville.
The Bradleys’ Quonset Hut Studio is where “The Nashville Sound” was born in the 1950s and 60s, and is still regarded today as “ground zero” in the origins of Music Row.
Because I’ve always been a sucker for “origin stories,” this is the sort of history I was looking for as I scoured the archives of the Hall of Fame in the summer of 1994; this is the sort of story I wanted to tell as I guided visitors around the city from my perch alongside the diesel engines of the Nashville Trolley.
After finding the story of Owen Bradley and his Quonset Hut, I was even more surprised when somebody on the Hall of Fame staff informed me that the Quonset Hut was still standing – though the original structure has been absorbed into a more modern structure that (at the time) housed Sony Music’s Nashville offices. The HoF staffer explained to me where I could find this historic relic, and I promptly headed out to see it for myself.
But, being a Jewish kid from New York with a lousy sense of direction (my people did spend 40 years wandering around in the desert, remember?), I got turned around as soon as I walked out of the old HoF barn, and couldn’t find my destination.
Fortunately, it was near the end of the work day, and there were lots of people coming out of nearby office buildings. So I stared asking, “do you know where The Quonset Hut is?”
And not a soul knew what I was talking about.
They not only did not know where the Quonset Hut was, they didn’t know what a quonset hut was (but that’s a different story altogether).
All these people, coming out of all these record companies and publishing companies, who worked in a business that had started in this neighborhood fifty years earlier… NONE of them had any idea that they were standing within a couple of blocks of the place where it all started.
Maybe that’s when I first began to entertain the notion that “Nashville is a city that honors its roots at the same time it ignores its history…”
* * * * *
Now that same vanishing history is – finally? – coming front-and-center.
It seems simultaneously odd and gratifying to see diverse elements of the city’s populace gather together yesterday to express their concern for the preservation of a newly endangered Nashville landmark, a place known mostly to industry insiders as “Studio A.”
The concern for Studio A surfaced last week when Ben Folds – yes, that Ben Folds, and the current occupant/manager of the space that one astute observer has dubbed “Nashville’s Abbey Road” – addressed an open letter to the city announcing that the historic property was about to be reduced to mere real estate – one side of a transaction that that would place the building in the inevitable path of future development. Pave paradise, put up a parking lot…
Folds’ open letter spawned a Twitter hashtag, #SaveStudioA,” which quickly morphed into a larger movement, “#SaveMusicRow,” which was the focus of a gathering of several hundred industry veterans who crowded into the cavernous Studio A yesterday morning.
All of which begs the bigger questions: Why does Music Row need “saving”? And can it be “saved”?
Or maybe the question is, “Are we now trying to “save” something which is, for all practical purposes, already quite dead?
Is there really anything we can do other than erect monuments to the great things that happened here long ago, like the headstones overlooking the cliffs of Normandy…?
* * * * *
There are two divergent forces that, together, are aggressively threatening the survival of little-known but nevertheless historically significant structures throughout Nashville.
The first is Nashville’s ascendance on the national/global stage. The past two years have seen Nashville ranked high on countless lists: fastest growing city, most desirable place to live, best place to start a business, best place to find “hot” chicken, etc. etc. There’s no question that Nashville is on the rise – you can’t drive around the city without encountering construction cranes looming over practically every corner.
The second, slightly older and perhaps more insidious phenomenon that brings Music Row to this precipice is the seeming demise of the music “industry” itself: In the past decade and half, the business of music has endured Napster (1999), downloads legal and otherwise, the proliferation of ‘home’ studios, and – ultimately – streaming subscription services that reduce the “value” of recorded music from products that can be sold for a premium to digital streams that pay only when they are listened to. The whole 20th century definition of ‘music’ – and the hallowed grounds on which it was produced, are experiencing an epochal change at best, a terminal diminution at worst.
It is those two opposing forces: the rapid expansion of the Nashville cityscape and the ever accelerating implosion of the “music industry” that has placed “Music Row” itself on the bubble.
And so it was hard to attend yesterday’s gathering without observing the contradictions that it represented.
In retrospect, yesterday’s event reminds me of the occasion in 1999 when I stuck my head through a door into a gathering of tech-and-entertainment industry professionals called The Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI). At the time I characterized that chance encounter as “a gathering of the dinosaurs to talk about the asteroid.”
By a similar token, yesterday’s “rally” strikes me now as a collective catharsis, a communal lamentation for the loss of a cultural construction that has run its course and is now on the endangered species list.
When I wandered around Music Row that summer afternoon twenty years ago, looking for the sarcophagus of The Quonset Hut, nobody knew what I was talking about. It’s encouraging to think that people now are taking notice of the legacy of their environs.
And yet, the rally yesterday strikes me as the fulfillment of McLuhan’s prophecy that begins this screed: Yesterday, the music industry got together and looked at itself through a rear view mirror.
A concerted effort might be able to #SaveMusicRow, but you won’t save the industry that it represents. Because, even if we manage to #SaveStudioA, Music Row has not been what it used to be for a long time; Like the sculpture in the traffic circle at the top of the neighborhood, 16th and 17th Avenues are a monument to an epicenter that has since dispersed throughout the city, the nation, and the world.
The role of music generally as a cultural force is shifting. It is just not the industrial, product-driven business model that peaked in the 1980s – but we continue to think of it through that prism and lament its passing.
As I’ve been trying to say for years now, the role of music is shifting from primarily something that somebody else does for us and delivers through media to something that we do for ourselves. At the very least, the scale is changing, as more and more great music reaches ever smaller and more decentralized audiences.
It’s still difficult to see through our rear-view-mirrors, but on a fundamental level the cultural role of music is evolving into something more akin to the oral traditions that preceded the era of recordings. It will not be a return entirely to that previous era, but the hybrid that will emerge will be – is already – a far cry from the industry that was built on the foundation of facilities like Studio A.
Please don’t misunderstand me: None of this is intended to suggest for a moment that Studio A should not be preserved for future generations. Remember, I’m the guy who cherishes ancient ruins.
And Studio A is hallowed ground, but like Gettysburg or Shiloh, it is also a cemetery. Great things happened here… let us erect a monument to them so that they will not be forgotten – even as we continue to use that monument in a manner befitting its former glory.
Maybe the building that houses Studio A can be absorbed into something new and more profitable, just as Owen Bradley’s Quonset Hut was absorbed into the Sony Music Building where it now stands. Of course, Sony no longer owns that building. The industrial shrinkage dictated by new technology has long since sent Sony and other big companies of its ilk into retreat. Now the building is owned by Mike Curb, who donated it to Belmont University which operates the facility as an educational facility for its music industry program.
The developer whose pending acquisition sparked this controversy has indicated his willingness to investigate similar possibilities, so the cause is hardly lost at this point. But nobody can force an unprofitable business to keep its doors open.
If the new owner/developer concludes that preservation is impractical, perhaps he will back out of the deal. Maybe then Mike Curb can buy it, like he has many other historic locations in the area; Maybe the Country Music Hall of Fame can buy Studio A and turn it into a sister to its smaller-but-more-famous attraction, RCA Studio B. Or maybe it’s Scott Borchetta’s turn to step up and show some interest in the area. Lord knows he and Taylor Swift etal have made probably more money in the past decade than anybody even remotely associated with Music Row.
Maybe it’s their turn to step up and… build a functioning monument.
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by Paul Schatzkin
July 1, 2014