Entertainment, On A High Note

Photographer J. Carlee Adams: Seeking illumination in a changing city


Nashville residents who actually uttered their first cries inside Davidson County are becoming nearly as endangered as beloved Music City landmarks like the classically neon-adorned Donelson Bowl, where locals have been bemoaning their gutter balls and missed spares since the days when Coca-Cola was only available in bottles.

Says third-generation Nashvillian and eighth-generation Tennesseean Jamie Adams, “When you meet people [here], they’re from Chicago, Miami . . . somewhere. And then, ‘Where are you from?’ and, ‘Well, I’m a native Nashvillian.’ And they’re like, ‘I’ve never met one!’

Jamie—better known as J. Carlee Adams, the name that graces her widely published photographs—specializes in shots of historic Nashville, which seems to be growing larger . . . or would that be smaller? . . . all the time.

“As a kid, we used to go to the L&C Tower, which was the tallest building in town,” Adams recalls. “They had an observation deck there where you could look around the city. In fact, I have some photographs I took probably back in the late ’70s, maybe early ’80s, from there, and it’s interesting to look at the landscape back then.”

A view from the observation deck of the Nashville skyline’s signature L&C Tower in 1985-86. The yellow arrow on the left points to the former location of Mid-Tenn Rubber Stamp Company, a business then run by the photographer’s parents where Bridgestone Arena sits today. PHOTO BY J. CARLEE ADAMS

Having watched so many changes take place, Adams continues to put her focus on photographing her hometown and its vicinity. One of five professionals whose work comprises the photo-loaded 2010 book “Nashville: Yesterday and Today,” Adams displays her abundant wares at nashvillestockphotos.com. She’s also assembled a 2017 calendar featuring her photos of notable neon signage from various locations in and outside Nashville.

Adams’ affection for her home state’s geographic fingerprints is lifelong, but her current interest in neon is relatively new. “I had originally started out [photographing] fading signs on buildings, which is called a ‘ghost’ sign, and they were on my website,” explains Adams. “I had a lady call me and ask if I had any neon [images] from Nashville.” At that point, about four years ago, she began to specifically keep a lookout for neon, photographing around 100 examples as she traveled the area.

Like many others with area roots, Adams has decades-old memories of the Elliston Place Soda Shop, trips to the Smoky Mountains and sweet treats from Becker’s Bakery. Shots of those locations are among the images that appear in Adams’ 2017 Classic Neon Calendar. She has especially fond memories of The Peanut Shop in downtown Nashville’s Arcade, which is only one of four still-operating shops from the original 2,000-strong Planters Peanut retail chain that went the way of the Dodo bird in 1960.

“My mom and dad had a business here in town called Mid-Tenn Rubber Stamp Company,” begins Adams. “And their business was down on 6th Avenue South, where the Bridgestone is now. So, in the summertime I would go down there and we would walk uptown and go to The Peanut Shop there in the Arcade, which is one of the reasons The Peanut Shop is on the calendar.”

Similarly, her family’s semi-annual trips to Gatlinburg inspired the artist to include signs from the region’s longtime motels, some of the last bastions of great neon. As a kid, she admired the fairy-embellished blue-and-pink blinker for the ’50s-retro Pink Motel, just across the Tennessee line in Cherokee, North Carolina Ditto for the El Camino, located near a Cherokee casino, and its marquee’s comically optimistic claim that “winners stay here.”

The neon sign for The Donelson Bowl, the only still-operating bowling alley of the three that were built in Donelson, Madison and Inglewood in the 1950s. PHOTO BY J. CARLEE ADAMS

She’s equally smitten with the locally iconic Drake Motel on Murfreesboro Road, similarly delighting in its sign’s perhaps outdated invitation to “stay where the stars stay.” Still, the Drake has been featured in enough music videos and films in recent years to give it some legitimate tourist cachet, and the distinctive, fluorescent-lit blue-and-white sign beckoning to its visitors is the pièce de résistance. Adams is quick to credit the Drake’s management for investing in the upkeep of its glowing marker. “Neon is not cheap for them to maintain,” she notes.

Pondering the history of the radiant advertising medium, Adams muses, “Think about the Drake Motel and Elliston Place Soda Shop. For years, that was the way things were advertised. If you’re driving down the road and you’re hungry, if it was flashing it really caught your attention. And bowling alleys, as far as I can remember, they’ve always had some level of neon.”

Donelson Bowl, the only still-operating bowling alley of three similar Nashville-area structures built by Crescent Amusement in the ’50s, is the striking landmark that adorns the front cover (and the February page) of Adams’ 2017 calendar.

She’s been advised by some local retailers that, thanks to the ubiquitous smartphone, calendars themselves are ironically an item seemingly following in the footsteps of other fading facets of history. Nonetheless, Adams is committed to the mission of preserving evidence of pre-explosion Music City.

“For me, it’s my history. I’m a visual artist. And every town has some level of its own uniqueness. People say, ‘Well, Nashville’s going to become another Atlanta.’ And I don’t want Nashville to look like another Atlanta. That makes me sad,” says Adams, “because we’re losing our flavor. You go out and you look now around town, and you see signs that are for a restaurant or a gas station, and it’s a backlit sign. What’s appealing about a backlit sign?―because,” she observes, “you’re seeing so many of them. But I think when you stop and take notice of neon, it’s a whole different thing.”

“Ghost signs,” like this Mayfield’s Ice Cream wall advertisement in Harriman, Tenn., first attracted Jamie (J. Carlee) Adams to collect area history with her trusty camera. PHOTO BY J. CARLEE ADAMS

She reports that “people who have bought [the calendar] have had really good feedback: ‘I remember going here’; ‘I ate at the Soda Shop’ . . . ‘I loved the neon.'”

So remember, this is your city, people of Nashville, whether you’ve been here five years or more than 50. Not everyone will have the pleasure of reliving happy childhood memories when stopping for salty roasted nuggets at The Peanut Shop or sipping an Elliston Place malt. But, thanks to J. Carlee Adams, anyone can appreciate the richly illuminated history of Nashville and vicinity―and, at the same time, start the new year off with a glow.

Adams’ 2017 calendar is available for $14.99 at nashvillestockphotos.com as well as at the Legends Gift Shop on Lower Broad and Chef’s Market and Takeaway in Goodlettsville.

1 Comment

  1. Michael

    aaaaahhhh…..so sad….moved here in 1968……80% of the songwriters are also gone ….many non-visible changes and losses.

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