Entertainment, On A High Note

Dying for a Turntable: Vinyl Records are Thriving

Nowadays, most people, if they’ve even heard the word at all, consider the “record” to be relegated to the dusty bookshelf of history, collecting cobwebs alongside eight-tracks and BetaMax.  But you will be quite surprised to learn that the record is alive and well! As proud Nashvillians, it will behoove you to know that our fair city is playing a major role in the business of making music…the old fashioned way.

The manufacturing of a vinyl record is nothing short of remarkable.  Nashville is the home of one of the largest vinyl record manufacturers.  A proud resident of Nashville’s trendy-yet-still-gritty Chestnut Hill neighborhood, United Record Pressing has been making records since 1949.  Originally named Southern Plastics, United Record Pressing is still humming away today.  United’s Director of Marketing Jay Millar relates, United manufactures approximately “30-40,000 records a day, typically…For quite a while, we’ve been running 24 hours a day, six days a week.”   Simply put, business is booming!

Fans line up outside United Record Pressing on Chestnut, awaiting an Eric Church event.  PHOTO COURTESY OF UNITED RECORD PRESSING/JAY MILLAR

Fans line up outside United Record Pressing on Chestnut, awaiting an Eric Church event.

One of the places lucky enough to be a recipient of those records pressed right here at home is none other than local music haunt, Grimey’s. An “independent, full-service record store,” Grimey’s New & Preloved Music has been offering new and used vinyl records for sale since 1999, and co-owner Doyle Davis says that business has never been better. As Davis recounts, Grimey’s first opened with the goal to become “the real record store that Nashville didn’t have.”  Well, they’ve succeeded.  Grimey’s is now known world-wide as an authority on selling vinyl records.  As Davis himself says in proud disbelief, “People know about us everywhere! Jason Isbell ‘instragrammed’ a picture in La Guardia of a Grimey’s sticker on a pipe in the airport, and it’s really weathered.  It’s been there for years!…I’ve seen Grimey’s t-shirts on bands playing on Jimmy Kimmel Show and the Jimmy Fallon Show!”

Still not convinced that the vinyl record is alive and well and here to stay?  Consider for a moment this premise:  vinyl never disappeared at all.  It was here the whole time! What is considered a “return to vinyl” is simply a culturally popular resurgence of a musical format that never disappeared in the first place! It had just been ignored by the popular culture during the infatuation over digital music.

These gentlemen are not alone in their love of vinyl. From Johnny Cash to Jason Isbell, from Annie Lennox to Adele, from James Taylor to Taylor Swift, each and every one of these artists can be found in your local record store. Current artists are actively offering their latest albums on vinyl in addition to the standard digital formats.

Renowned local artist Herb Williams created this four-foot replica of Third Man Record's logo, made entirely of Crayola crayons.  PHOTO COURTESY OF THE RYMER GALLERY/HERB WILLIAMS

Renowned local artist Herb Williams created this four-foot replica of Third Man Record’s logo, made entirely of Crayola crayons.

One of the labels leading the pack is none other than local record label Third Man Records, fronted by artist and entrepreneur Jack White.  White, famous for his hits with the White Stripes, relocated his record company to Nashville in 2009. Third Man Records and its leading man White have become Nashville’s most recent points of pride.

White is proudly supporting his stable of artists on the Third Man Records label and offers each and every one of these albums on vinyl.  And you’ll never guess who he uses to press his records. Yep, United. In fact, it was White’s request for a large order of two-color records that propelled United to manufacturing innovation with their automated split-color press. “[White’s] innovations and ideas have pushed us to make things better for everyone. To me, the most notable one would be the split color press we have. To the best of our knowledge, it’s the only press in existence that can take from two different color sources and make a split color record without having to manually cut the pieces and put it all back together.”

It is undeniable that United has seen some impressive legends in its day.  “The first Beatles record in America was pressed in this building,” confirms Millar.  If that’s not impressive enough, hold on to your hat. “We know there’s been a signing party for a 16-year-old Hank Williams, Jr. There have been parties for the Cowsills, Smokey Robinson, the Supremes, and Wayne Newton also at 16 years of age.”

United has played host to a remarkable list of artists and performers through the decades, but it is those stories which we will never know that make United’s history so compelling. United’s role in the ‘60s and through the Civil Rights Movement is noteworthy. Upstairs at the factory is a small apartment frozen in time.  A party room, bedroom and kitchenette round out the apartment now called the Motown Suite.

“Southern Plastics’ two biggest clients were Motown and Vee Jay that had predominantly black artists and black executives, and there wasn’t a safe place to stay in Nashville at that time due to the color of their skin.  So the company created this space so that they’d have a place to stay. The company didn’t get the significance of what they were doing at the time, so there wasn’t a log book.”

Like United did in the ‘60s, the vinyl record industry is continuing to directly support the artists that use their medium. Grimey’s, for instance, has based its entire premise around the mutually beneficial relationship between the musician and the record store.  Grimey’s hosts multiple in-store concerts for their customers each week, and they have become known as a remarkable listening venue.

Grimey’s isn’t the only one in the vinyl game paying homage to the art and artists.  United has developed its own unique method to showcase artists that fully embrace the vinyl experience.  With live recording sessions at United’s “Upstairs at United” division, the record factory is making music at the very same time that music is being pressed into vinyl down below. “It really started with the idea of both doing something to pay homage to the cultural history of the space, and, at the same time, we really romanticized the idea of recording a record in one room while other people’s records were being manufactured below it. We even welcomed the ambient noise of the presses coming through the floors,” recounts Millar.

“We teamed up with the folks from ‘Welcome to 1979,’ a local all-analog recording studio, and we set it up to do live studio recordings…like Sinatra would record where they all would play together and would all play in one take. No overdubs, no ‘let’s add another guitar here,’ or what have you. Basically, they come in, they set up, they play the song, and we keep going and do as many takes until the band feels comfortable with what they’ve recorded. It’s all done right here, 100% analog.”  United’s recordings and subsequent vinyl records have seen some notable current artists, including Keane and North Mississippi Allstars.

So, we’ve seen that the vinyl industry is alive and well.  We’ve seen how important Nashville’s role in the vinyl record industry is, with our proud associations with United Record Pressing, Third Man Records and Grimey’s. But do you want to know the best part? The love of music and all things vinyl are not lost in the record industry. Grimey’s Davis explains, “It’s that community element, that human interaction.  That’s what you can’t get on the computer.”

Not only does a record store by its very nature create a sense of community, but it also brings people together that might never have had a chance to meet. In fact, that is one of Doyle Davis’ favorite parts of his job. “Joe Crook, who still has his hippie hair from the ‘60s, comes in every single Friday – he’s just that in love with music and collecting records. Then I’ve got my 20-something guys, who are really into collecting vinyl….They’ve gotten to know each other now. And these guys would’ve never met had it not been for the record store.”