Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash recorded together here. Beatles Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and George Harrison also recorded in Nashville, as did Neil Young, Leonard Cohen and Eric Clapton. Today’s chart toppers, like The Black Keys, Jack White and Alabama Shakes, are familiar faces in local studios. The common denominator is Nashville’s exalted status as the epicenter of high-quality recordings. These recordings are made possible by talented session musicians working in technologically advanced studios, as displayed dramatically in the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum’s new exhibition, “Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats: A New Music City,” chronicling the impact of iconic songs born just blocks away.
Nashville, dubbed Music City, embraces popular culture through an industry of composers, musicians and skilled technicians. Business vernacular is also the language of music: syncopation, dissonance, analog, digital, rhythm and harmony. The legendary Grand Ole Opry first aired in the magnificent Ryman Auditorium, forming an ever-evolving symbiotic relationship between musicians, promoters and producers who continue to join forces in local studios.
Stories of Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash walking into Sam Phillips’ Sun Studio in Memphis to cut a record fueled the American dream. And while country’s roots are firmly planted in Nashville, the city’s music heritage has always been diverse. Music City’s first million-dollar hit wasn’t by Hank Williams or any other country artist, for that matter—it was the popular standard “Near You,” written and recorded by Francis Craig at a time when jazz, gospel, and rhythm and blues flourished.
Nashville is chock-full of mom-and-pop recording studios, but it’s on Music Row that you’ll find the city’s most iconic and successful studios, which occupy an assemblage of century-old buildings and reconfigured churches. The rich mixture of publishing houses, record labels, promoters, booking agents, lawyers, artists, managers and omnipresent studios form a crossroads where the history of American music intersects with the sounds of the future.
Music Row likely began with The Quonset Hut, Nashville’s first mega recording studio and brainchild of sibling music legends Owen and Harold Bradley. “The Hut” is credited for giving birth to The Nashville Sound, according to Music Row-based promoter Reggie Churchwell, who characterizes the signature composition by “the addition of string ensembles, lush choral backing and often less twang.” He adds, “You know it when you hear it.”
The list of stars whose songs were recorded at The Hut include Patsy Cline and Bob Wills, rockers Buddy Holly and Gene Vincent plus Bob Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel. “It was widely believed that the road to the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame passed through The Quonset Hut,” Churchwell maintains.
The wrecking ball sometimes hovers ominously over Music Row, a symbol of the competing forces between forward-looking growth and determined preservation. Nashville is making the case that these ambitions can comfortably and profitably coexist. While the recording industry is the dominant cultural core, it has experienced growing pains. This downtown dynamic requires an understanding of RCA Studios A and B.
The RCA Building on Music Square West housed corporate offices and Studio A with capacity for a full orchestra. Guitar legend and recording industry powerhouse Chet Atkins headed RCA Nashville in its glory days, managing the record label, Studio A and the smaller, adjacent Studio B.
With Atkins at the helm, these studios transformed American popular music. Elvis Presley signed with RCA and recorded an astonishing 200-plus songs here. According to Churchwell, “Well over 1,000 hits came from these studios.” Today, Historic RCA Studio B is a visitor favorite at the Country Music Hall of Fame and a Belmont University training center.
Studio A, considered prime property for developers, was for sale until recently. As plans for Studio A’s purchase emerged—including the possibility of a development in an unrelated industry—so did concern for Music Row’s future. Thanks to the vision of philanthropist and leading preservationist Aubrey Preston, Studio A was saved. Preston pledged to use the space to honor Nashville’s legacy with a center dedicated to music software development and music therapy research.
The Hut’s success spawned other recording studios. Scotty Moore, Elvis’ first lead guitarist, was instrumental in opening Music City Recorders. Artists like Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson began their recording careers at this studio, now called Studio 19 Nashville. Beatles drummer Ringo Starr recorded his “Beaucoup of Blues” album here, joining a long list of prestigious alums like bluegrass performer Alison Krauss.
Country Music Hall of Famer and actress Reba McEntire became a Music Row neighbor in 1996 with the opening of her Starstruck Studios. Heralded as an architectural and design wonder, Starstruck is a state-of-the-art recording and broadcast facility providing everything from instruments and session musicians to a fully mastered recording. Mirroring McEntire’s warm and hospitable reputation, the studio also has a full kitchen.
A hugely successful singer and bandleader, Zac Brown acquired Masterlink Recording Studio and renamed it Southern Ground, thus preserving the historic facility in the famed area. Dolly Parton, Kris Kristofferson, Joe Simon and many others recorded their first songs in this revered studio, once owned by Al Jolson Jr.
While not on Music Row, Sound Emporium Studios holds an eminent place in American popular music. Originated by “Cowboy” Jack Clement, who was instrumental in launching the likes of Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis into stardom, Sound Emporium’s versatile, three-studio setup can produce major recordings and movie soundtracks like those by Bob Dylan, Robert Plant and Willie Nelson, and the Academy-Award nominated soundtrack for “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
Located in the heart of Music Row, Ocean Way Nashville Recording Studios is owned by Belmont University. Considered one of the world’s finest recording facilities, its client roster reads like a who’s who of the music world spanning a wide range of genres. Housed in a 100-year-old Gothic revival greystone church, Ocean Way has earned acclaim for its exceptional acoustics perfectly tuned for recording music.
Like a tour of the Ryman Auditorium, visiting Nashville’s iconic recording studios completes the Music City experience. Try visiting the aforementioned studios between recording sessions, and catch a tour of Historic RCA Studio B, offered hourly between 10:30 am-2:30 pm departing from the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
A cool Southern city, Nashville is the hub of America’s recording business. The legacy of these studios is the common ground where talented people from diverse backgrounds come together harmoniously, moving past divisions and taking audiences to a higher life through the magic of music.