Entertainment, Magazine

Dying for a Turntable: Vinyl Records are Thriving

Booker T record playing on the turntable, pressed by United. / Photo courtesy of United Record Pressing/Photographer Jay Millar

Booker T record playing on the turntable, pressed by United. / Photo courtesy of United Record Pressing/Photographer Jay Millar

Booker T record playing on the turntable, pressed by United. / Photo courtesy of United Record Pressing/Photographer Jay Millar

“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! Admittedly, digital music is still the Goliath to the record’s David, but the vinyl record and its revered place in the music industry is one that deserves our attention. 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 has been the home of one of the largest vinyl record manufacturers for lo, these many decades. 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 Jack 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.” Do the math, people! This record business isn’t a simple cottage industry, catering to a few nostalgic folks. United is churning out the music for all to enjoy. Hundreds upon thousands of records are boxed, packed and shipped via tractor-trailer to places near and far. Simply put, business is booming!

With both world-wide appeal and a home-spun vibe, Grimey's is one of Nashville's most beloved sources of vinyl records. / Photo by Bill Hobbs.

With both world-wide appeal and a home-spun vibe, Grimey’s is one of Nashville’s most beloved sources of vinyl records. / Photo by Bill Hobbs.

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. Grimey’s recently expanded at their 8th Ave location, adroitly naming the new digs “Grimey’s Too.” It now houses all the used CDs and vinyl records, along with two other beloved and tangible items – books and coffee. 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!” Indeed, Grimey’s has been getting – pardon the pun – impressive press these days. You may have even seen them featured, along with United, in a story on NBC Nightly News this past March. But despite fame and celebrity, Grimey’s is still in touch with its roots as, quite simply, a local record store. “If you’re looking for music, you should call the record store first! We know what we’re doing,” states Doyle matter-of-factly. “This is important to us. This is all we do. I am selling music. This is my only product. We’re not going to run out!”

This Booker T album is emerging from the press. / Photo courtesy of United Record Pressing/Photographer Jay Millar

This Booker T album is emerging from the press. / Photo courtesy of United Record Pressing/Photographer Jay Millar

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. To that I say, “Digital schmitigal!” As United’s Jay Millar put it so well, “digital is perfect for music in the background, and vinyl is perfect for music in the foreground – when you really want to sit down and enjoy.” Davis agrees with that point. Vinyl is listening with intent. “When you’re sitting on the couch in front of the stereo, you’ve got the record to play and hold in your hand. And, you know, that’s a really robust experience for people who love music and love art…It’s a magical format,” gushes Davis. “I think the sound quality is better, but it’s not even about that. When you’ve got your files playing and your playlist going, at some point you’re not even paying attention, really. With the record, it continues to engage you. It’s a wonderful thing.”

This Pokey LaFarge album is raw, biscuit form, is about to be pressed. / Photo courtesy of United Record Pressing/Photographer Jay Millar

This Pokey LaFarge album is raw, biscuit form, is about to be pressed. / Photo courtesy of United Record Pressing/Photographer Jay Millar

These gentlemen are not alone in their love of vinyl. The wide variety of artists who offer their music on the vinyl record format is quite surprising! 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. Both new and used, vinyl is the premium sound of choice. Current artists are actively offering their latest albums on vinyl in addition to the standard digital formats. It is also becoming quite popular to have older albums reissued and released to today’s generations of vinyl lovers.

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 his former duo the White Stripes such as “Seven Nation Army” and for his recent successes with his band Dead Weather, relocated his record company to Nashville in 2009. Part record label, part recording studio and all parts cool, Third Man Records and its leading man White have become Nashville’s most recent points of pride.

 The Pokey LaFarge album is now pressed and is being dispensed from the press. / Photo courtesy of United Record Pressing/Photographer Jay Millar


The Pokey LaFarge album is now pressed and is being dispensed from the press. / Photo courtesy of United Record Pressing/Photographer Jay Millar

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. Who, you might ask? Yep, United. “With very rare exception…we’ve pressed everything. It’s been a wonderful relationship since he came to town and brought his business here,” says Millar of White and Third Man Records. “It was a happenstance moment that we discovered one another, and he’s such a creative individual – always pushing our envelope and asking ‘What can we do?’ and “Is this something possible?’”

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. Traditionally, if one would want half one color, the other half another color, you’d have to make two different biscuits – which are the raw form of the vinyl – cut them in half and put the pieces back together and put them back in the press for every record…He wanted a very large amount, and to make that happen in a reasonable amount of time, we fabricated a couple of presses to make it do the split color in an automated fashion. 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.”

The Pokey LaFarge album closeup shows the label fully affixed without adhesive. / Photo courtesy of United Record Pressing/Photographer Jay Millar

The Pokey LaFarge album closeup shows the label fully affixed without adhesive. / Photo courtesy of United Record Pressing/Photographer Jay Millar

While United is breaking ground with its cutting-edge manufacturing innovations, it also has a remarkable foothold in our history – both musically and culturally. 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 turbulent ‘60s and through the Civil Rights Movement is remarkably 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, and its furnishings are the original, vintage ‘60s era décor. Millar describes it well. “I think some of the most interesting are probably the secret, the sort of ‘if these walls could talk’ sorts of things…Very little documentation [was kept] of what has happened here.

Labels are applied using only heat during the pressing process. / Photo courtesy of United Record Pressing/Photographer Jay Millar

Labels are applied using only heat during the pressing process. / Photo courtesy of United Record Pressing/Photographer Jay Millar

“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…They were most focused on doing their jobs the best they could – keeping their customers happy and meeting deadlines, and they never stopped to think that these were things that would fill so many people with shock and awe decades later.”

Renowned local artist Herb Williams created this four-foot replica of Third Man Records’ 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 Records’ logo, made entirely of Crayola crayons. / Photo courtesy of the Rymer Gallery/Herb Williams

Like United did in the ‘60s, the vinyl record industry is continuing to directly support the artists that use their medium. Both in manufacturing and sales, the vinyl record industry has not lost its love of the music. 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, showcasing an impressive array of both homegrown and internationally renowned artists in the store. “[Supporting the artists] was very much by design,” relates Davis. “Part of that is me, loving to see bands playing in record stores. I think ‘in-stores’ are just about the coolest thing there is in the world…. It’s a low barrier of access to see some great music, and we have fans now that have seen so many bands play here that blew them away, that now they’ll just come to see whoever’s playing.”

A newspaper clipping shows the original name of United at its current location. / Photo courtesy of United Record Pressing

A newspaper clipping shows the original name of United at its current location. / Photo courtesy of United Record Pressing

Davis admits that his love of the music is also bolstered by the undeniable benefit it brings to Grimey’s. “You go into a record store, and a band plays for free, so there’s no risk whatsoever. If you don’t like it, just turn around and walk out. But, hey! You’re in a record store, so maybe you just at least buy a new record to take home with you!” Not a bad marketing plan, if I do say so myself. “We actually got Paramore to play. At the time they played, they had the #1 album in the entire country. We’ve had Metallica play over here, the Black Keys, you name it. If I get the list out, it goes on for miles.”

One of Grimey's most popular attractions is their frequent in-store performances, like this March 2013 performance by The Mavericks, with frontman Raul Malo. / Photo by Bill Hobbs.

One of Grimey’s most popular attractions is their frequent in-store performances, like this March 2013 performance by The Mavericks, with frontman Raul Malo. / Photo by Bill Hobbs.

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…They go through the sound board and direct to quarter-inch reel-to-reel tape, and from that, we cut the lacquers and make the record. 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. For those audiophiles looking for the most premium of all premium sounds, this is the way to go. “It’s true analog sound. Even when it comes from a digital source, vinyl sounds great. But if you want perfection, you want all analog.”

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, to name but a few. We’ve seen the vinyl record is considered the pinnacle of a quality listening and tangible musical experience. 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 waxes poetic about the remarkable family that has grown amongst the vinyl industry. “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. “I’ve got this older dude, Joe Crook, who still has his hippie hair from the ‘60s. [He’s] one of my grizzled old veterans who’ve been doing it their whole lives and they’re never gonna give it up. He 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. Joe’s buddies with them! They’ve hooked up, and they go to lunch, and we all went to a show recently. Right up front, there’s Joe and Sean, one of my 20-something guys. And these guys would’ve never met had it not been for the record store. I just think that’s so cool.”