Nashville's famous Music Row studios threatened by wrecking balls
Rapid development is changing the landscape of an area considered sacred by musicians
Nashville's Music Row is that renowned neighbourhood, spanning just a few blocks, where musicians, song writers and industry executives have produced legendary music for more than 50 years.
Made up of mostly small, boring-looking buildings and converted bungalow homes, Music Row is what put Nashville, Tenn., on the map and earned it the title of "Music City."
But walk around Music Row now and it is the sounds of jackhammers, cranes and bulldozers that are heard everywhere you turn.
New neighbours are moving in — a luxury Virgin hotel, office buildings and condominiums — and they are quickly changing an area that people in the music industry consider sacred.
"This place is like a mecca, people are coming from all over the world," says Don Cusic, a music historian and professor whose office at the Mike Curb College of Entertainment and Music Business is in one of the first buildings on Music Row. The country hit "Stand By Your Man," sung by Tammy Wynette, was written in what is currently Cusic's office.
Music Row is a draw not only for people in the industry but for tourists who want to see for themselves where hit music was made. Admission to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum downtown includes a tour of one of Music Row's most famous studios.
As for Cusic, he is relaxed now, but a few months ago he said he had "a near death experience" when word came that the nearby RCA Studio A was going to be torn down and condos built.
Studio A is in a three-story, grey brick building at 30 Music Square West and couldn't be more nondescript. But its bland outside belies its more interesting history that's been at the centre of a debate over Nashville's musical heritage.
Save Studio A campaign
RCA Studio A is where country stars like Dolly Parton, Elvis Presley, Waylon Jennings, Alan Jackson, Garth Brooks, Vince Gill, Carrie Underwood, George Jones, Willie Nelson, Shania Twain, to name a few, have made music.
For the past 12 years, it has been run by the musician Ben Folds, and when his landlords gave him notice last June, he spread the word and kicked off a "Save Studio A" movement.
A number of historically significant buildings on Music Row had already been razed and Folds rightly feared Studio A was next in line for a wrecking ball.
"Music City was built on the foundation of ideas, and of music. What will the Nashville of tomorrow look like if we continue to tear out the heart of the Music Row that made us who we are as a city?" he wrote in an open letter on Facebook.
The letter, urging the developer to "stand in silence between the grand walls of RCA Studio A and feel the history and the echoes of the Nashville that changed the world," went viral. It was picked up by local then national media, and sparked months of debate and drama.
The building was owned by the estates of Chet Atkins and brothers Owen and Harold Bradley, legends in Nashville who are credited with founding Music Row and "the Nashville Sound." They had been trying to sell the building for years.
When Trey Bruce, a local producer and musician, heard about the potential sale of Studio A he sprang into action. He'd been going to Studio A since he was a kid, accompanying his father, who penned the classic Mammas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys. He felt it had to be saved.
Bruce helped form the Music Industry Coalition to give a voice to those wanting to be stewards of Studio A and Music Row in general.
The community was galvanized, but it was also conflicted. Relationships in the tight-knit music community were tested.
New sense of community
Some were sympathetic to the building owners — it's their property, they should be able to cash in on their investment right?
But, there was also so much history in that building. Famous music was made in its studio and crucial deals and decisions forged in its offices. If it, and other valued buildings vanish off the map, what happens to Nashville's identity?
"Studio A can't disappear and us call ourselves Music City," Bruce recalled thinking.
The sale went through, though, and plans were unveiled for a five-storey condo development. Folds and the other tenants were given eviction notices, and the developer applied for a demolition permit. It wasn't looking good for Studio A.
Then in mid-September, the developer, Tim Reynolds, said he'd be willing to give up the property. A glimmer of hope, but saving Studio A would come with a hefty price tag: $5.6 million and a cheque written by Sept. 30.
With the clock winding down and supporters in a panic, a local music philanthropist named Aubrey Preston stepped up at the last hour and saved the A.
Preston then partnered with Mike Curb, who already owned three other historic studios and Chuck Elcan, a prominent health-care executive. The trio is committed to keeping Studio A intact.
"The day we called all those people to save Studio A, we changed the face of our city," said Bruce. "I think we made history, and we changed our awareness over what kind of town we live in."
Condos and studios can co-exist
The battle over Studio A also inspired a sense of community that John Dotson, a former industry insider and now real estate agent, said had been missing.
He helped start a new neighbourhood association which, together with the Music Industry Coalition, is advocating for smart planning. They are not anti-condo, they just want careful thought put into what stays and what goes on Music Row.
Dotson said he's passionate about maintaining the history of the district and doing so in an authentic way. "If we don't find a way to plan for healthy growth, in 10 years, people that have the money and wherewithal will come in, tear things like Studio A down, build where they want to build, and all that will be left of Music Row will be a neon sign — and that's neither authentic nor of substance," he said.
Pat McMakin, the operations manager at Ocean Way studio, said Nashville's growth is inevitable and Music Row's got the prime real estate close to downtown and near the newly gentrified neighbourhood known as The Gulch.
"Let's figure out how to get our arms around this and determine what our future is, instead of becoming a victim of our future," he says.
Studio A became a symbol of the tension that a city like Nashville goes through when it tries to balance its historic past with future growth and modernization.
Trey Bruce described it as a painful and nerve wracking, but one that was well worth it.
"It's going to make our city better," he said. "We'll be glad in 20 years when we look back and some of these buildings that would have been gone are still there."