It's been a hot (and heated) summer on Music Row, the Nashville neighborhood that houses many of the city's recording studios and record labels. RCA Studio A, whose potential sale to a Tennessee-based development company sparked outrage from Nashville's creative community last week, has become a metaphor for the town's rich musical legacy, a symbol of the "old Nashville" threatened during a time of new development. Everyone has weighed in on the issue, from current RCA Studio A tenant Ben Folds to potential buyer Bravo Development, whose boss claims the condo-building company has no plans to demolish the studio. Yesterday, one of the studio's owners, country guitar legend Harold Bradley, joined the debate, too, penning an open letter to anyone willing to stand in the way of progress.
"What makes a place historic?" Bradley wrote. "The architecture of the Nashville sound was never brick and mortar. Certainly, there are old studio spaces that, in our imaginations, ring with sonic magic; but in truth, it's not the room; it's the music."
Bradley, now in his late 80s, knows a thing or two about coaxing great sounds out of average rooms. In the 1950s, he teamed up with his brother, producer Owen Bradley, to open the Quonset Hut, a recording studio built into the side of a $7,500 home on Music Row. Bradley became the studio's go-to guitarist, stamping his signature strum on future classics like Loretta Lynn's "Coal Miner's Daughter" and Roy Orbison's "Only the Lonely." Those songs helped shape the Nashville sound, and the Quonset Hut — whose main room consisted of a metal, half-barrel hut originally built for the U.S. Army during World War II — became one of the most important studios in country music. It was a place whose raw, rootsy vibe reflected the very essence of the genre in which it specialized.
Years later, the Bradleys teamed up with Chet Atkins to build what is now known as the RCA Building. Two studios were connected to the space, including RCA Studio A. More bands were booked, more songs were recorded and more history was made. According to Bradley's recent letter, though, the RCA Building has been on sale for 24 years, ever since RCA moved out of the space. Ben Folds, who began leasing Studio A over a decade ago, is just a temporary client, bound to the building by a 90-day lease that's been renewed over 50 times. To put it bluntly, Folds doesn't own the place; Bradley does.
"Mr. Folds, who has no ownership interest in the building, has made an impassioned plea to 'Save Studio A' as a historic landmark," Bradley wrote. "Historically, [Nashville's] Metro Council has been hesitant to grant restrictive overlays without the consent of the land owner. When a tenant, with no ownership in the property, requests restrictions to a property without the owners’ consent, he effectively hijacks the owners’ original risk and the possibility of a good return on their investment."
In other words — back off, Ben.
There's merit to both sides of the argument. Although originally built as a business, RCA Studio A has since grown into a landmark, an enduring symbol of the music that literally built Nashville into a thriving city. On the other hand, it's also a piece of property. The owner has every right to sell the building and pocket the cash, regardless of whatever history occurred inside.
"Music city isn't about a perfect room, or hanging just the right baffling," Bradley argued in the letter's final paragraph. "Turns out, the architecture of Nashville’s evolving sound is a synergy of creative energy. That’s still here, and it has nothing to do with this building."
Those statements may be true. Over at the Quonset Hut, though, bands recorded their songs under an arched metal roof, which lend some interesting sonic qualities to the room. There was even a special place at the center of the building — exactly thirteen tiles back from the control room window — where the vocalist's microphone was routinely set up. That was the place where Patsy Cline recorded "Crazy" and Roger Miller sang "King of the Road." In 2011, when country songwriter Chuck Mead recorded an album at the restored Quonset Hut, he purposely tracked his vocals in the so-called "sweet spot," looking to harness whatever sort of musical mojo exists at the dead-center of a curved room.
Do rooms like the Quonset Hut and RCA Studio actually "ring with sonic magic," or is their legacy just a puffed-up reputation that has little to do with the actual architecture of the room, and more to do with the coattails of the legends who recorded there? People are still picking their sides, and the battle on Music Row rages on.
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