Music City Blog: Recording on Music Row

By <b>Steve Buchanan</b><br/> Executive Producer of Nashville and President, Grand Ole Opry Group Oct 25, 2012

An opportunity every songwriter who comes to Nashville fantasizes about practically falls into Scarlett and Gunnar’s laps when legendary producer and star-maker Watty White is bowled over by their impromptu debut performance at the Bluebird Café one lucky night.  He makes good on his promise to the two unknowns to demo three of their songs, and brings them into the studio to record.

Scarlett is practically hyperventilating as she takes in her surroundings and it goes downhill from there. Barely into the first verse of “If I Didn’t Know Better” she struggles, stops, starts again, stumbles, skips a line. It’s painful to watch and White mercifully puts her out of her misery by pulling the plug in the control room. Scarlett tearfully apologizes and flees; White suggests privately to Gunnar that he use another singer.

Scarlett’s untimely meltdown is caused by two things: unfamiliarity with the recording process (Headphones? Vocal booths? Weird-looking microphones?) and the significance of this particular studio. Like first-time Grand Ole Opry performers overcome with emotion in the sacred circle of wood where icons once stood,  Scarlett is undone before she even begins when she realizes she is standing in the shadows of “Joe Cocker, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, these people all really recorded right here?”  Oblivious to her insecurities, White confirms, “On this very spot.”

And he ain’t lyin’. This scene was recorded in the original RCA Victor Nashville Sound Studio, built in 1964 by Chet Atkins, the guitarist and producer credited with creating the infamous Nashville Sound.

Studio A, as it became known, was not the first Nashville studio to get the ball rolling. In the 1950’s, the 10 or so block area bordered by two parallel streets—16th and 17th Avenues—was lined with falling-down and boarded-up bungalows. The development of what became Music Row began in 1955 when brothers Owen and Harold Bradley—a producer and musician respectively—bought an old house on 16th Avenue South, tore out the first floor, built a recording studio in the basement and attached a galvanized steel Quonset hut to the back for film equipment. Eventually the metal hut was converted into a studio as well, and became the Quonset Hut, one of the most important studios in the history of Nashville recorded music. Columbia Records produced most of their star roster there, and Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” is in that hit parade.

In 1957, rival RCA Victor built Studio B on a corner of 17th Avenue North, where it recorded stars of the day like Elvis Presley, Eddy Arnold and Waylon Jennings. Dolly Parton famously drove her car into the building one afternoon when she was late for her first recording session. Clearly, our Scarlett is not the only young blond artist hit with a case of the nerves when it comes to historic places.

Studio A was constructed next door to Studio B in the three-story building that housed RCA Records Nashville division, also run by Chet Atkins.

Pop singer/songwriter/producer and Nashville resident Ben Folds purchased Studio A in 2003, intending it for his personal and professional use, and not as a business. But in the last couple of years, he has leased it to select clients, including Nashville.

The Bradley brothers sold the Quonset Hut to Columbia Records in 1962, and in 1982 it was converted to office space. In 2006, music biz philanthropist Mike Curb bought it, restored it and today it is used as a hands-on recording classroom for students in Belmont's Mike Curb College of Entertainment and Music Business. Studio B has been operated as a tourist attraction since 1977 by the County Music Hall of Fame, and was donated to the Museum in 2002. Nashville visitors can stand in the building where “Jolene,” “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” and “Gentle On My Mind “ were cut. It is also used as a recording classroom by Belmont students.

A business that began in a metal hut grew into a major Nashville industry, one that put us on the map as one of the country’s recording capitols—not just for country but every kind of music under the sun. Studios big and small are tucked into unlikely places all over the city and surrounding counties, but Nashville cast members are singing Music Row’s tune. In this episode, Juliette and Deacon record their duet “Undermine” at the stunning Starstruck Studios, part of the Reba McEntire-Narvel Blackstock empire on Music Square West. In Episode Five, we’ll offer viewers a peek into Oceanway Studios, housed in a 100-year-old Gothic stone church a few blocks away known for its unique acoustics and clients that include George Strait, Indigo Girls, Beck,  Steve Martin, Blake Shelton, Paul Simon, Lyle Lovett, Kings of Leon, Keith Urban... and Rayna James.