Imagine a beautiful Sunday afternoon drive with your family in Nashville. The year is 1954. As you drive around, you make a turn to see what you can see. At the end of the row of houses lining the street is the Belmont Mansion, nearly the only thing on the road. It is a nice residential part of town, a two-lane road with cars parked on both sides.
From the late ‘30s through the early ‘50s, most of the music business took place in downtown Nashville and was dominated by the Grand Ole Opry. Through the ‘40s, there was WSM, the Ryman and the Cumberland Lodge building, among others. There was a recording studio, part of the Tulane Hotel at Eighth Avenue and Church Street, but there was not yet a “Music Row.”
That quiet residential street in a neighborhood filled with homes in 1954 had not yet formed into what we now know as one of the most influential centers of country music history.
What changes came along to turn that little street into “Music Row”?
It could be said that “Music Row” began as a result of the efforts of two brothers. Owen and Harold Bradley, both accomplished musicians in their own right, were the first to put down roots in what is now considered “Music Row.”
“In 1952, we rented a space at the Lodge Hall at Second and Lindsley,” Harold Bradley explained, “and we opened a film and recording studio.” Both session musicians in town, the Bradleys began their journey to “Music Row” through, of all things, a business deal gone south.
“The year after we had refurbished the place, the man from Third National Bank who we’d rented from came and tripled our rent from $25 to $75. We were highly insulted, so we started looking for another place, and we found one in Hillsboro Village.”
This location was not meant to last, either. After two years, their move to the future “Music Row” came as a result of a new business venture. The Bradleys played frequently for Decca Records executive Paul Cohen, who would oversee Decca’s recording sessions at Castle Studios, famous today for recording such artists as Hank Williams. Cohen himself has become an important figure in country music history, well-respected for his work producing legends Ernest Tubb and Red Foley, among many others.
“At the end of two years, Paul Cohen, who was the first record producer to come to Nashville – we had been working for him at Castle – told us Castle was closing down and that he was moving to Dallas,” said Harold.
This did not sit well with the Bradleys. “My brother said, ‘Well, why are you doing that?’” Harold said amusedly. Owen offered to build Cohen a studio if he stayed, and the two partnered with the understanding that Cohen would guarantee them 100 sessions a year.
Owen ventured into this partnership, and due in part to 16th Avenue being zoned for mixed use, the Bradleys purchased property there in 1954 with a move that many consider to be the first step toward the creation of today’s “Music Row.”
Making history was not in the forefront of anyone’s mind at that time. Making music was. In order to capitalize on what many thought might become a bustling film industry in Nashville, the Bradleys decided to purchase property that would house both music and film production.
The recording studio began in the main house on the property. “Owen knocked out the middle floor in the house, so it started out in the basement,” Harold recalled. “And it was tall, but it wasn’t very big around. There were a lot of hits cut there – I have a list of them somewhere.”
The Bradleys then turned their attention to finding a place on the property for a film studio. It was during the post-WWII boom that Quonset huts, originally military structures, were in ready supply as a source of cost-effective, sturdy structure. The Bradleys chose this way to add a film studio to their newly-purchased property at 804 16th Avenue South.
“We put the Quonset Hut in the back, and that was going to be our film studio,” Harold described. “But then somebody wanted to record in the Quonset Hut—and once they started recording in the Quonset Hut, we were recording in both of those studios.”
With grand plans to use their new structure as a film studio, hoping to catch the wave of a potential new line of business, the Bradleys ended up with one of the most legendary buildings to witness the recording of iconic country music.
“I really enjoyed playing recording sessions,” Harold Bradley said proudly. Some of his favorites were “Patsy Cline’s ‘Crazy’ and Roy Orbison’s ‘Crying’ and Elvis Presley’s ‘Indescribably Blue’ that I played the nylon string guitar and it was just a lot of me and a lot of Elvis on it.”
The hits did not stop there.
The Bradleys would also record such songs as Brenda Lee’s “I’m Sorry” and a number of songs recorded by Johnny Cash. “I played the banjo on ‘The Battle of New Orleans,’ and that was great fun,” Harold remembered. They played music for “Bill Monroe to Henry Mancini with Loretta Lynn, Conway, Brenda Lee and Elvis and Roy Orbison and all in between.”
The Bradleys’ strong connection with Decca Records continued through the years, as evidenced by the fact that Owen Bradley became the head of the label in April 1958, just four years after the brothers opened their studio on what was steadily growing into a center of music production.
How did it grow from one studio to “Music Row”?
It didn’t happen overnight, and recording studios weren’t the only things being built on the Row. The Bradleys had the first recording studio on the Row, but they were not the first music-related business.
Longtime radio veteran Jack Stapp, also a general manager at the Opry, had many friends in the industry and realized there was money to be made in music publishing.
The story goes that Fred Rose, co-founder of Acuff-Rose Music with legendary performer Roy Acuff, wrote “Chattanoogie Shoeshine Boy,” which became a No. 1 pop hit for Red Foley. But Rose did not list himself as a writer on the credits, instead listing Jack Stapp and Harry Stone, two of his fellow music business friends. When that happened, a light bulb went on for Stapp. He took the leap with friend and New York television executive Lou Cowan to begin a publishing company. “Tree Publishing” opened for business in 1951.
Other music publishing companies had a presence in the area. Cedarwood Publishing was founded in 1953 by recording artist Webb Pierce and Jim Denny, who had worked booking talent for WSM and as manager for the Opry. Cedarwood started out on Seventh Avenue downtown, but Denny wanted to move the publishing company to where the action was. So by 1956, he moved the company into a former furniture store conveniently located directly across the street from Bradley’s studios. Knowing that Owen Bradley’s studios and Decca Records had all but cornered the market on recording country artists, it was a wise choice.
In 1957, RCA set up its historical Studio B that became the recording home for hundreds of phenomenal artists, including Elvis Presley, The Everly Brothers, Don Gibson and many, many others.
“RCA had several things,” Nashville historian Don Cusic related. “Then Elvis comes along and sells a ton of records, and that allows RCA to build a studio. They didn’t build it—they leased it.”
Apparently, faith in what would grow to become Music Row had not yet convinced everyone in town. “RCA did not want to own property, because you had to pay property taxes and keep it up,” Cusic explained. “I really think at the beginning they thought it was a fad and they’d keep it for a while.”
But RCA took that step and established an office in the area. In doing so, they also brought on an individual in 1955 who would leave his own indelible mark on country music. “They hired a remarkable man named Chet Atkins—that not only was the greatest guitar player of all time but happened to be able to run the day-to-day business,” Cusic said.
“He didn’t like it, but he could do it.”
Chet Atkins became RCA’s head of country A&R in 1958, the same year that Owen Bradley was placed as head of Decca.
It wasn’t long before other music-related businesses began to relocate to the growing area. BMI moved into its own building on the Row in 1963, and ASCAP soon followed. Capitol Records took the Hubert Long building and in 1965, RCA opened their big building and Studio A to join their already-present Studio B.
THE NASHVILLE SOUND
As head of Decca Records’ Nashville division, Owen Bradley began producing music that evolved into what was called the “Nashville Sound” in the late ‘50s. It was, says Cusic, “in some respects a backlash to rock ‘n’ roll. Country records were not selling.”
Owen and Paul Cohen decided to do something about it. Owen started placing strings and background vocals into country music mixes, which created more harmonic tones. To further work toward achieving the sound he had in mind, Owen employed a regular group of musicians that came to be known as the “A-Team,” which included his brother Harold who played tic-tac bass much of the time, as well as the guitar. These “A-Team” players were the first ones called to play on almost every artist record of the day. Other historically important groups would include the Anita Kerr Quartet, which was one of the main groups of background singers on those slickly-produced records.
This new sound was intriguing and catching the ear of listeners across the country. “Owen was an absolutely amazing arranger of music,” said Jim Ed Norman, the CEO of The Curb Group. But the Nashville Sound was considered by many to be “quite frankly, an abandonment of traditional sound and instruments.”
Country music record sales had slowed and something had to be done. Necessity is the mother of invention. This battle between traditional music and new ways of experimentation, felt most keenly during the ‘50s and ‘60s through the Nashville Sound, came to repeat itself again and again through the following decades.
“It became a real battle as a producer to figure out how you would keep traditional instruments part of the sound as the sound progressed. And we think of the Nashville Sound as a more sophisticated process,” Norman explained.
“But we’ve had to deal with that same theme each time the traditional sound goes away. Maybe the banjo got dropped…or you might bury the steel guitar a little bit in the arrangement. As you have a reversion back to simple, it goes back to some of that traditional – adding those traditional sounds and instruments back in.”
As the saying goes, “‘Country music is ‘three chords and the truth,’ and then as you go through the progression, it becomes ‘five chords and a little fib.’ Then it becomes ‘eight chords and an outright lie,’” chuckled Norman.
“Then there’s this reaction to it that takes it back to a more simplistic place…eventually.”
MUSIC ROW’S MUSIC HISTORY
Though Nashville’s Music Row has been considered the center of country music during its past 60 years, it may very well depend on what decade you’re talking about. It could be argued that Music Row is the center of all music genres.
In the mid ’50s, most would have considered Elvis Presley rock ‘n’ roll. He was one of the first to make rockabilly popular, but many of his hits were recorded right here in Nashville. Many have estimated that one of every two records in the country were recorded on the Row during its height.
Of course, the ‘50s were only one small part of the equation. If you ask some experts, they will talk about the decades of growth that have brought us forward 60 years, making Music Row what it is now.
While the Nashville Sound had its impact on country music and record sales for years after its early beginnings in the late ‘50s, there was also a strong traditional vein still present in Nashville. The ‘60s saw artists like Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette and others who thrived, as more traditional sounds continued to have a presence. Think of the steel guitar in Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man.”
By the ‘60s, all the major labels now had a presence in Nashville. Mercury Records had came to town in 1957 for the sole purpose of releasing country music acts. “All the labels have offices here in that period,” Cusic said. Another musical act was about to hit the national scene that would revolutionize rock ‘n’ roll music. The “major foundation is laid” for country music, Cusic said, by ‘64, when Beatlemania swept across America.
Country music was doing alright in the ‘70s, even if rock ‘n’ roll was doing better. Nashville started to feel the sting a little of the tug-of-war, when a new movement set in—and stayed. The outlaw country movement saw artists like Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson buck the system, which at that time was the Nashville Sound. Reba McEntire, signed to Mercury Records in 1975. She began a career that was recognizable for her country-accented vocals and has helped to broaden the return to a more traditional sound.
By the ‘80s, the outlaw country movement was still around, but it had been nudged over enough to make room for a return to a more pop-like sound, with songs like Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton’s hit “Islands in the Stream” and Mickey Gilley and Charly McClain’s hit “Paradise Tonight.” Once the “popfest” subsided, traditional music returned with a vengeance. Enter the mega stars of the ‘80s – Randy Travis, Alan Jackson, George Strait, Travis Tritt, Clint Black and, of course, Garth Brooks, who was signed to Capitol Records in 1989.
This decade saw the nation return its attention to country music yet again, and its popularity grew with the technology of compact discs, which saw incredible increase in sales of country albums. Traditional country music continued to hold on in the ‘90s, bringing with it artists such as Tim McGraw, Tracy Lawrence, Brad Paisley and Kenny Chesney.
And let’s not forget the females of that era—Faith Hill, Martina McBride, Jo Dee Messina, LeAnn Rimes, Terri Clark and the Dixie Chicks, to name a few. But perhaps the biggest female star of the ‘90s was a young woman named Shania Twain, who roared in on an untraditional path but bringing with her great things—like record sales. Some have described her as the “Taylor Swift of the ‘90s,” breaking many a record and achieving the label of “Queen of Country Pop.”
Still another act was to have an impact in the ‘90s. Duo Big & Rich, featuring John Rich and “Big Kenny” Alphin, hit country music and country charts like they were on fire. Their incredible harmonies, unlike any heard before, took them straight to the top. They also started a movement to help other artists succeed.
2000 – 2010
The 21st century came in with guns a blazin’. While the traditional vibe was tapped into occasionally, it was not a foundation as in the decades prior. In the early 2000s, artists like Blake Shelton, Dierks Bentley, Miranda Lambert and Billy Currington arrived, all of whom carried traditional lyrics but also more melodic melodies. Luke Bryan was also signed in 2007, likely not realizing the impact his music would have on the country music industry in years to come.
2010 to present
Even though the music business is ever-changing and technology is taking over, there are those who still want to help build something good and long lasting. Many of today’s recording artists are pulling together, touring together and building lasting friendships in an effort to “keep it all going” and to build on the spirit of camaraderie that has always been part of the music industry—and of Music Row.
More than that, they are learning their way around the Internet. They are learning to live and work with downloading, streaming, social media and other consumer-friendly ways to get their music out there.
Can our music businesses, labels and entities on the Row still be valid resources and longtime champions of the music business? When, as longtime recording star Ray Stevens says, “the Internet is squashing the record labels”?
As impactful as the digital age has been on Music Row’s music businesses, record labels can still mean the difference in one’s level of success. They are still a great aid in marketing and promotions for the artist – it is just done differently now. And the labels themselves are learning to just “roll with it” when it comes to internet streaming and downloading. They are working to be more creative in seeking income streams, and so far, they are doing pretty well by taking that initiative.
MUSIC ROW TODAY
Reflecting on the past 60 years of growth and and on the music that’s been made on Music Row, we’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg. Nonetheless, it is proof that Music Row has been a great friend to many an artist and songwriter. That seems unlikely to change any time soon. There are still labels on Music Row that are holding their own – even thriving – due at least in part to the creativity of their latest artists and producers.
Harold Bradley states with a note of concern, “In my era, I watched Muscle Shoals go down, I saw Motown go down…but Nashville is still rockin’ n rollin.’ And I think it’s because we’re all just making this stuff up. No one hands us a piece of music and says ‘play this note for note.’ We all get together in a room and create the music or song that ends up on the radio. And I think as long as we can keep doing that, we’ll be okay.”
But the reality is…Music Row is changing.
THE CONTROVERSY OF PRESERVATION
Not long ago, developers began to look with interest at Music Row, thinking it a prime area for development. This issue of “development versus preservation” is a very sensitive one.
Much of today’s business revolves around real estate transactions, due to the exponential growth we are experiencing as a city. Progress is always a necessity, even if it causes growing pains.
One of the growing pains of progress on the Row has been how to preserve key establishments, studios and the like while still allowing progress and fairness to property owners who’d like to sell their properties to anxious developers.
HOW TO PRESERVE
Mike Curb, founder of independent record label Curb Records, is one of a small group of people who’ve been trying to help preservation efforts on Music Row. Due in part to his efforts and this small band of others, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has now named parts of Music Row as a “National Treasure.”
“There comes a time when the moment is right to preserve something,” Curb says. “I think sometimes maybe the fact that I moved here from another state, I was so in awe of these studios, maybe I was a little more anxious to get them preserved.
“With preserving the history, I think we’ve done a fabulous job. We’ve preserved the original home of Columbia Records…the original home of RCA Records…the original home of Decca Records, which were the three labels that controlled Music Row when it started.
“I wish that Columbia and RCA and Decca and the historic labels—Capitol,” Curb continued. “I wish they were still…on Music Row.” While the absence of those historic companies is still felt by those still on the Row, there has been progress made on the preservation side. Historic RCA Studio B has long been under the wing of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, and the Quonset Hut Studio was made part of the Curb family in 2006. Recent efforts to save historic RCA Studio A were successful when Curb and a handful of other committed preservationists saved it from commercial development. These buildings are safe, and the historical music they’ve made can be preserved within their walls.
HAPPY 60th ANNIVERSARY, MUSIC ROW!
What would Music Row say if it could speak?
“I think Music Row would be proud to still be Music Row. We’re going to celebrate our 60th year this year on Music Row. The Quonset Hut was 1955 and this is 2015, so I think Music Row would be proud of being here for 60 years and of the fact that it’s been made a historical area,” Curb says proudly.
Jim Ed Norman was very poetic with his thoughts:
“Unlike the exile’s mother, in whose favored hand a beacon shined,
My symbol plays a siren’s song from outstretched limbs entwined,
With joyous rhythm and handmade rhyme, a joyful noise when hearts align.
Bring me your creative loving souls to find, this hallowed ground still