Commemorating Nashville's Music Heritage Anniversaries
For me, music heritage is usually a focal point on any given travel itinerary, whether it's professional or leisurely. Knowing the significance of 2017 for museums and institutions in Music City, my twin sister Sheryl and I planned a weekend spring break getaway in Nashville. We arrived in Music City on a beautiful spring day in early April. We walked Broadway and opted for a trolley. It was a Saturday, and the city was abuzz with activity, musical and otherwise, with events such as the annual Nashville Cherry Blossom Festival. The first live music to hit our ears was a cover of "Mama Tried" from the Legends Corner honky tonk. Singing, laughter and the scent of BBQ filled the air. Vanderbilt's campus was in fine form and the parks were busy with events and visitors. The Greek architecture afforded by the "Athens of the South" was even more radiant in springtime.
After giving the general cityscape some attention, including a drive by Antique Archaeology (Mike Wolfe was there that day and the queue was telling!) the purpose of our visit beckoned: celebrating music heritage! As the oldest and most significant music landmark, the Ryman Auditorium was first on our list. Known as "The Mother Church of Country Music," the Ryman celebrates its 125th anniversary this year. Our tour started with The Soul of Nashville experience (opened in June 2015). Consuming three of four walls with its many holograms, special effects, multi-dimensional film images and archival footage, it was a fun and thrilling ride through the Ryman's storied past!
The program was narrated by a hologram of Lula Naff, who referred to the auditorium as "My Ryman." Retiring in 1955, she managed the auditorium for 50 years and was by all means a pioneer in the business. Her achievements surpassed those of any man or woman at the time. She booked the "who's who" of the day in entertainment (including Houdini!) and turned a profit throughout the Great Depression. And in 1943, under her tenure, The Grand Ole Opry moved to the Ryman. Naff is referred to as the "bold woman" who "single-handedly earned Nashville its Music City status." I couldn't believe I'd never heard about her work. But then again, the annals of music history have long been written by men, about men and for men.
While the Ryman recognizes and honors Naff in the way she deserves, we still have a long way to go when it comes to giving women of her stature broader recognition beyond more localized efforts. Nonetheless, what a wonderful surprise it was to discover that the individual who built the reputation of this world famous venue was a woman. More than just a manager, she was also an entrepreneur, guardian and preservationist. Her achievements inspire me to think bigger and to go that extra "country mile" when I feel I've done enough. I hope that all who walk through those doors feel empowered by her story.
When the program concluded, staff members opened the doors to the auditorium. As our group walked into the balcony area, the sun shone through its iconic stained glass windows onto a sea of pews below. There were display cases with costumes and other artifacts. Stagehands were busy setting up the stage for a show that evening. A woman who walked in next to us gasped and said aloud as she marveled: "Oh, look. Wow. I grew up with this. The Grand Ole Opry!" Having watched a few re-runs of Hee Haw with my grandparents, I smiled when I saw Minnie Pearl's hat in a display case. Personal connections like these are at the heart of sustaining the history across generations. We have our own special inheritance that we pass along to others and it becomes a shared inheritance. Music began out of social necessity and I believe adhering to these beginnings is the key to preservation success.
Sheryl and I were on a self-guided tour and eventually made our way downstairs. When we noticed an opportunity to get our photo taken on the historic stage, we jumped at the chance! (and grabbed the guitars!) While some travelers might collect a particular souvenir from every destination like a mug, shirt or artwork, something Sheryl and I collect is the experience itself, and that includes standing on stages! From the Estates Theater in Prague, the Barbican in London and Radio City Music Hall in New York City to the Apollo Theater in Harlem and beyond, these experiences have more meaning to us than anything we could buy in a gift shop. Although, we do tend to grab an item or two in support of music heritage!
After Naff earned Nashville its Music City status and retired in 1955, RCA Studio B continued the momentum when it opened in 1957, elevating Music City to worldwide renown. The studio was our next stop! Sheryl and I made our way to the Country Music Hall of Fame (CMHOF) where our tour bus departed. It was a short ride away, and along the route our guide Ron Harman engaged us with small talk and trivia. "There's a prize at stake for this question," he said. "What was Elvis Presley's first #1 hit with RCA?" To add a degree of difficulty, he named many popular Elvis songs that weren't the answer. Everyone on the bus was baffled and all the more impressed when Sheryl raised her hand and answered correctly. "Heartbreak Hotel."
As our bus parked in front of the modest and unassuming building, my thoughts turned to its illustrious roster. With artists like Chet Atkins, Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton, Roy Orbison and the Everly Brothers, the studio flourished in pop and country, becoming known as the "Home of 1,000 Hits." Its rich recording history deems it one of the most important studios in the world. In the words of Rolling Stone, "...it played an immeasurable role in shaping the arc of old-school country music and early rock and roll." Celebrating 60 years in 2017, it remains a working studio and is a premiere destination for music fans as well as a recording classroom for students. Watch a newly released short film to learn more about Studio B and listen to some of its famous hits!
As we entered the first small room adorned with artist photos, hits and timelines, Ron shared facts, stories and excerpts of songs recorded there including "All I Have to Do is Dream" (1958) by The Everly Brothers, "Coat of Many Colors" (1971) by Dolly Parton, "Only the Lonely" (1961) by Roy Orbison and "He'll Have to Go" (1959) by Jim Reeves. As we moved along into the second room, we were met with original equipment on display and our first look at the recording space through the glass. It was an extraordinary moment.
To demonstrate the recording process, Ron showed us footage from a session (1963) with Jim Reeves for "Blue Canadian Rockies," giving a nod to the Canadian visitors in our group. Watch. As the film rolled, I looked over my shoulder to imagine their presence, full of passion and precision. Breathtaking. As a trumpet player, I loved the use of harmony on the instrument. I also appreciated seeing Velma Williams Smith in action on rhythm guitar. Unlike Lula Naff, I'd actually heard of Smith, but barely. She was the only female on the "A Team" of studio musicians at Studio B. Smith is another example of a virtually unknown, yet very accomplished woman in the early history of music production and the recording arts.
As we walked onto the legendary recording floor, I took note of its famous tile and the blue "x" marking the vocal "sweet spot." There was so much to absorb in that room. The Steinway piano, movable walls used to dampen the sound, vintage guitar amps and other instruments. This is where the magic happened, where "The Nashville Sound" was born. We were instructed to take photos first and then be seated for the remainder of the tour. Ron invited the group to take photos at the piano, and he didn't have to mention it twice!
Ron continued his narrative with a combination of stories, trivia questions and song excerpts. It was amazing to hear the music played in the very space where it was created. I enjoyed hearing the famous slip note style of "Last Date" (1961) by Floyd Cramer as we were seated next to the Steinway he played so often. Then the vocals of Dolly Parton rang out with "I Will Always Love You" (1973). The hits and the stories that accompanied them were seemingly endless.
Ron was very passionate and knowledgeable about the studio's history and artists, but seemed to have a special affinity for Elvis. After all, he recorded over 200 songs at Studio B! It was fun to hear an excerpt of my favorite Elvis song, "It's Now or Never" (1960) where it was recorded. Towards the end of the tour, Ron shared a story about "Are You Lonesome Tonight" (1960). Elvis recorded the song at 4am in complete darkness (He asked Chet Atkins to turn off the lights). At the end, his head accidentally hit the microphone because he couldn't see it. This became the master for the single, so if you listen carefully, you can hear a light tap. After telling the story, Ron turned out the lights and we listened to the song. Effecting authenticity!
What can I say? RCA Studio B is a musically sacred place. It preserves the tangibility of that recording era: its architecture, equipment and instruments. But equally important is its preservation of the integrity of recorded sound and the art of music-making. Recording engineers at Studio B captured performances. Singers and musicians read down a chart together in the same room. If there was a mistake, you played it again. Today, engineers use technology to manipulate sound to the point that they create or manufacture (instead of capture) performances, which in my opinion, is superficial and inferior to the standard achieved in those early days.
When our bus returned to CMHOF, we had a chat with Ron about Studio B and our work for The Everly Brothers Childhood Home Foundation in Shenandoah. We were supposed to meet the Studio Manager Justin Croft, but he was busy taking a group of students into a recording session as we were leaving, so Ron passed along our message and we followed up later. Ron invited us to join a Facebook page that he'd created as an homage to the Steinway piano at Studio B. It's a good resource for those interested in learning more about this historical instrument!
After parting ways, we visited the CMHOF. Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, there was so much to see and so many new exhibits! I'm a minimalist when it comes to using tech in museums and historical spaces. Devices can hinder experience, so I mainly stayed off-grid to absorb the sights and sounds. I did take a few photos though, including those of the Hall of Fame Rotunda, The Everly Brothers display and the famous "gold" Cadillac owned by Elvis. Ron tipped us off to look for the six replica 24 karat gold records on the interior roof! After our visit, we ventured to the gift shop. I purchased a Studio B t-shirt and key chain and Sheryl purchased a t-shirt and a few books. The tag said it all: "Your purchase supports the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum's mission and is essential in helping us preserve, protect and honor the traditions of country music."
We cruised down Music Row and walked past many of the landmarks in other parts of the city, including the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, home of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra (NSO). It was lovely to sit in the Community Plaza and enjoy the atmosphere with its many passersby, its G-Clef shaped bicycle racks and posters advertising a Mozart matinee concert.
There was also a beautiful bronze sculpture known as "The Recording Angel." Standing 14 feet tall, her presence seemed to herald a celebration of the NSO's 70th anniversary, marking a decade at the center. I adore the statue's aesthetic and inscription that recognizes the many genres that co-exist in this town. It's "Music City," not "Country Music City." It speaks to my own passion and professional focus on both classical and popular music: "The Nashville Symphony expresses its most sincere gratitude to the citizens of Nashville for their love of all forms of music and for making the Schermerhorn Symphony Center a reality."
Sheryl and I enjoyed a lovely dinner at the Ryman's Cafe Lula, named after Lula Naff, of course! We had so many wonderful moments in our shared connection to the history that weekend. Nashville offers a unique musical culture with great creative energy that's palpable everywhere. While we celebrated its music heritage anniversaries, we also recognized its casualties. As Music City's population booms and the cityscape continues to develop, historical buildings remain under serious threat. "Music Row" is often referred to as "Condo Row" for a reason. It's unthinkable, but Historic RCA Studio A was almost demolished in 2014 before it was saved in the eleventh hour. The price of "progress" is great, but the weight of history is even greater. With the dedicated stewardship of organizations like Historic Nashville and the public outpouring of passion and advocacy from fans and the music community, I'm hopeful that Music City will remain Music City!
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