Saluting the Saviors of Studio A

On Ot. 16, Pul McCartney made a plea to a capacity crowd of 14,498 at Bridgestone Arena. "You gotta save these old studios, man," Sir Paul said. "The history!"

Thousands roared their approval. Since summer, they'd followed the ongoing flap over 30 Music Square West, the building that housed one of Music Row's most hallowed rooms, RCA Studio A. Just weeks earlier, on sept. 28, the outcry over a Brentwood developer's plans to raze Studio A -- a space where the voices of everyone from Waylon Jennings to Dolly Parton once reverberated - had made the front page of The New York Times.

But McCartney wasn't talking about Studio A. At least not directly.

Nor was he lamenting the loss of the 135 year old Pilcher-Hamilton House, demolished as if overnight for a multimillion dollar Virgin Hotel not eh Music Row Roundabout. He wasn't specifically talking about the McGavock Street building where Elvis Presley cut "Heartbreak Hotel," razed in 2006.

Or the Hillsboro Village building that housed Bradley Studio, where Kitty Wells but "it Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" in 1952, leveled earlier this year. Or the former home of Combine Music, which fell to the wrecking ball in June.

No, more than any of Nashville's endangered or rubble-reduce studios, McCartney was mostly talking about a comparatively obscure Music Row property; SoundShop Studio. Located at 1307 Division St., formerly onward and operated by the late Buddy Killen, the studio hosted the likes of Buck Owens, Neil Young, N'Sync and be McEntire.

It's also where, in the summer of 1974, Wings cut tracks like "Junior's Farm" and "Sally G" - a song that, as legend has it, Sir Paul penned in a Printer's Alley bar. Ernie Winfrey, the farmed Nashville engineer who cut those sessions, met with McCartney the day of his Bridgestone show and mentioned the space was in danger.

But by then it was too late. In November, the studio, known in recent years as Destiny Nashville, hosted its final session. "Our facility has been sold to make room for more condos on Music Row," reads a Nov. 26 post on Destiny's Facebook page. "RIP Soundshop Recording Studios".

It's epitaph was a blink-and-you'll-miss-it real estate blurb on The Tennessean's website. The newspaper reported that Charlotte, N.. based Crescent Communities had purchased the 2.1 acre site for $8.1 million. Where the former Beatle laid down his Nashville sessions will stand Crescent Music Row - a mixed use 275-unit luxury apartment complex.

All this went completely unnoticed by the local music press and the same supporters who fanned Studio A into an international news story. Two studios with rich histories. One prompts an uprising, the other dies in silence. What made the difference?

It's simple. Nobody marshaled the troops to save SoundShop - not publicly anyway. SoundShop did not have a highly visible pop star and his management team take it up as a cause. It did not have a Music Row insider working his connections. It did not have a preservation minded philanthropist who not only stepped in with a building saving bid, but brought in two civic heavyweights who silenced any doubts about the buildings future.

But RCA Studio A did. For shoring up a vital piece of Music City's history, at a time when the financial pressure to flip our past has never been great, the Scene recognizes the people who made that happen - Ben Folds, Mike Kopp and Sharon Corbitt-House, Trey Bruce, Aubrey Preston, Mike Curb and Chuck Elcan - as our 2014 Nashvillians of the Year.

Their efforts created a flashpoint for protect what remains of Nashville's music history. And for the first time, the behind th scenes story of the nail biting deals, deadlines and last minute rallies that saved Studio A can be told.

RCA Victor Nashville Sound Studios - colloquially known as RCA Studio A - opened in 1965. The 5000 square foot facility was one of six purpose built studios in the world commissioned by RCA. It's the last that's still in use.

the studio comprises one quarter of the 20,000 square foot 30 Music Square West, the former headquarter of RCA Nashville. It was but in 1963 by Music Row founders Owen Bradley and Chet Atkins, along with Bradley's brother Harold Bradley, a Country Music Hall of Famer said to be the world's most recorded session guitarist.

At the tie, it operated in concert with the legendary RCA Studio B. The cavernous room was built big enough to record the live orchestras that Atkins used to help shape the countrypolitan sound.

Walking into Studio A today feels like traveling back in time. With its black metal chandeliers, the three story space decked out in Space Age decor is gasp-inducing. Ben Folds, the studio's tenant, for the past 12 years, compares it to a Stradivarius violin - an exquisite sonic instrument.

If the studio yielded classics like Dolly Parton's "Jolene" and "I Will Always Love You," the adjacent office space is where a difference kind of country music history was made. It's where industry icons like Atkins, Owen Bradley, his son Jerry Bradley, former RCA honcho Joe Galante and the maverick Cowboy Jack Clement wheeled , sealed and made decisions that shaped the trajectory of American music.

Today, brooding grad-country hero Jamey Johnson occupies Atkins old office, with Folds team just across the hall. On the day the Scene stops by, breakout star Kacey Musgraves is downstairs in Studio A, where she cut her Grammy-winning 2013 album Same Trailer Different Park.

RCA occupied Studio A and the offices in 30 Music Square West for 25 years, vacating the space in 1990. The Atkins and Bradley families have spent the years since trying to sell the building. In an open letter issued last summer, Harold Bradley, at 89 the only surviving founder, said it was built "as an inducement to keep (RCA) in Nashville" and a next egg.

"One day we might not have anything," Harold recalls his brother saying, "but if we buy this property and build this office building, we can at least have something sell."

As the building remained on the market, producer Warren Peterson took over the studio in the 90's, running it as javelina Recording Studios. George Jones and Tammy Wynette, Garth Brooks, Alan jackson and The Chieftains cut tracks there during the Javelina era. Shania Twain did overdubs for her multi-platinum 1995 breakthrough album The Woman in Me at Javelina. The studio's next tenant, fresh in 2002 from his solo debut Rockin' the Suburbs, was Ben Folds.

At first he used the space he called "Ben's Studio" to record his own material. But in 2009 he opened up to outside sessions under the name Grand Victor Sound. Through its doors have passed Tony Bennett, The Beach Boys, Blind Boys of Alabama, Miranda Lambert, Lyle Lovett, Pretty Lights, Willie Nelson, Lionel Richie, Carrie Underwood and Lee Ann Womack, to name a few. The studio has remained much in demand.

"We were booked 208 dates this year," say Sharon Corbett-House, who manages Folds and his studio with Mike Kopp, "and what wasn't being used commercially, ben was using."

"I an't get in there to pick up, like, an old pair of glasses or something I've got upstairs because there's always someone recording in it," Fold tells the Scene via phone, speaking from a tour stop in Australia.

Nevertheless, as property values on Music Row skyrocketed, Folds & Co., saw the writing on the poly-cylindrical walls. They'd been renting the space for 12 years from the Bradley and Atkins estates on an auto-renewing 90-day lease. They knew it was only a matter of time before the one-acre lot's value surpassed that of the 51 year old building. Their lease situation put them in a vulnerable position - especially as old Music Row studios shuttered around them.

"We know that the value of recording studio is not what it used to be," say Folds. "But the problem is that if you knock identity completely out from underneath the city, and you take what is the music industry and it goes elsewhere, I'd like to see how many people want condominiums in Nashville anymore."

"I've been on the Row for 30 years," Corbett-House says, "and I've never seen it happen this fast. We've gone through so many violations and changes, but what has happened in the last six months to a year on Music Row - its like the Wild West."

But the gunfight was just beginning.

On what would have been Chet Atkins 90th birthday - June 20, 2014 - landlords gave Folds and other 30 Music Square West tenants news that was more surprise than shock. After nearly a quarter century on the market, the building had a prospective buyer. The lone bidder was Tim Reynolds, a Brentwood based commercial land developer.

Reynolds Bravo development, LLC wasn't in the business of buying old buildings to refurbish them, or renting out studios to rock stars. Nevertheless, Folds - who has a condo in The Gulch's high-rise Icon and admits "it's awesome" - decided he'd try and persuade Reynolds, and Nashville developers in general, to keep Music City's musical heritage in mind as they built a new Nashville skyline.

With the sale set to close June 30 - the 13th anniversary of Chet Atkins death - Folds posted an impassioned 1,450 word "Dear Nashville" open-letter plea June 24 on his Facebook page. He asked Reynolds "to take a moment 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."

Folds gave readers a crash course in the studio's vast history and its role in what's made Music City attractive to so many new Nashvillians. At the same time, he made a case for why he'd "like to remain the tenant and caretaker of this amazing studio space."

"I don't know what impact my words here will have on anything," Folds wrote. "But I felt the need to share, and to encourage others who also care about preserving our music heritage to speak up as well".

The Scene posted Folds letter the Tuesday the singer Facebooked it. By Friday it had racked up more than 92,000 views. The hashtag #SaveStudioA started trending. Word spread faster via Folds' Facebook and Twitter, where rock god Dave Growl was among the first to retweet.

"I didn't expect everyone to read the long letter," Folds recalls, "but I kind of did expect the response, because my experience out traveling all the time is that people are really concerned about their history being torn down without any thought....People see Nashville as a little bit of a treasure, and the idea that a tipping point may be passing, and the same thing may be happening in Nashville that's happening in their neighborhood."

Two people began watching the unrest with interest. One was Ti Reynolds. By the tie the Scene reached him, three days after the letter, he'd started getting threatening alls from irate strangers. After first cling comment, in general puzzlement, he called back hours later with a statement telling hashtaggers exactly what they wanted to hear.

"We're glad to (say) that if Bravo Development consummates its sale, it is our full intention to preserve and incorporate the studio into our design," Reynolds told the Scene. Not only that, he continued, preservation "was always part of the plan." If he couldn't use the existing structure, he said, "I would certainly withdraw my contract, because it has always been our intention to incorporate (Studio A) somehow in our design."


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