All of a sudden development and preservation in the City of Nashville, and specifically the mother brain of country music industry known as Music Row, has become the big hot button issue in a city struggling with rapid growth and raised attention along with the music that the city calls home. On Monday (7-28), the property at 30 Music Square West that houses the historic Studio ‘A’ at the center of the growth and preservation debate was sold to Bravo Development. Bravo’s assessment of the building is bleak, citing asbestos, bad plumbing and wiring, a leaky roof, and mold in the ducts. Though Bravo said initially it was their intention to attempt to preserve this historic studio even if the rest of the building was to be razed, they’re now saying their main intention is to resell the property as soon as possible to someone else. In fact as soon as the deal closed, 30 Music Square West was immediately up for sale again. The future of Studio ‘A’ still remains very much in question.
When Ben Folds, the renter and caretaker of Studio ‘A’ made a public outcry when he heard the building was to be sold, it started a full-fledged movement to help save many of the historic buildings on Music Row by attempting to get the city to grant a historic overlay on the district, helping to protect certain buildings and restrict development. The idea was a popular one amongst local residents, music fans, and civic leaders alike. But the idea wasn’t popular with 30 Music Square West’s previous owners—the estates of Owen Bradley and Chet Atkins. Owen Bradley’s brother, guitar player Harold Bradley, said that Chet and Owen built the building as an investment in the future of Music Row, with the intent of reselling it some day. Tighter restrictions on the building could potentially hurt its value, and the value of other buildings in the area.
It’s interesting that the primary voice of dissent in the preservation efforts of Music Row are the representatives of Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley—two Country Music Hall of Famers whose contributions to country music are towering, and also polarizing and controversial. If you were going to point to two men that set up the Music Row system that subjugated country music artists into a automated and antiseptic assembly line of making country music during the Countrypolitan or Nashville Sound era, it would be Owen and Chet. Ruled by bean counters from out-of-town, efficiency was the name of the Music Row game in the 60’s and 70’s, as well as a focus on appealing to certain demographics as opposed to letting the artists breathe through their own artistic expressions. The whole reason Studio ‘A’ was built was to have a big enough studio space to record the string instrumentation that found itself onto many of the country music recordings of the time. Chet Atkins, Owen Bradley, and their cohorts and underlings chose the songs, produced the records, and called virtually all the shots when it came to how country music was made. Forget creativity or the preservation of country music’s traditional sound, this was all about the money, and so it is only appropriate that the representatives for Owen and Chet bring the same sentiment when it comes to the preservation of Studio ‘A’.
The fight to save country music’s landmarks is nothing new. Preservationists have won some and lost some over the years. And many times the champions of country music’s historic landmarks are strange ones. Ben Folds is a pop music piano player, not a staunch country music purist. Country punks like Jason & The Scorchers, Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers, BR549, and Joe Buck and Layla were the first ones that bravely moved back into the crime-addled Lower Broadway area in the mid 90’s and revitalized one of Nashville’s most storied entertainment districts. There was once plans to bulldoze the Ryman Auditorium itself—the “Mother Church of Country Music.” It was barely saved from the wrecking ball. Can you imagine the outcry if the mere idea of razing the Ryman was broached today? The Lower Broadway area where the Ryman and the Country Music Hall of Fame sit, and Music Row a couple of miles farther west, constitute a country music holy land of sorts. And though sometimes buildings need to be bulldozed and perspective is needed in certain instances in the preservation debate, once these historic places are gone, there’s no bringing them back.
In the 80’s, 90’s, and into the 00’s, preservation was much less popular than it is today. People didn’t think twice about putting the wrecking ball to a building if it was in their way. Today people are much more careful when it comes to such matters. Preservation is very popular. But why is this popularity for preservation isolated only to country music’s historic places? Why is the same reverence and desire to preserve and restore not extended to the actual music itself—the very reason these buildings and places mean something in the first place?
Right now what is happening in country music is the equivalent of revving up an army of bulldozers on one side of Music Row, and driving across the entire district, leveling everything in their path. It can always be folly to fancy the time that you live in as never being worse. But when zooming out and looking at the big picture of country music, there has never been a period when the encroachment of other genres has been so rampant, that the move away from the roots of the music has been so rapid, and the perilous nature of how quickly this new “development” is happening has been so daunting. We are not talking about tiring arguments about taste, and modern versus traditionalism. We’re talking about the audio equivalent of the wholesale demolition of the landmarks and foundations of what makes country music, country music.
And even more alarming is the acceptance and ambivalence to this trend of rapid audio gentrification that might see country music completely lose its identity in mere months. There are no committees organizing to fight this trend like you have with Music Row preservationists. There are no mayoral candidates stumping on the idea of preserving the historic sound of country music like you have with Studio ‘A’. And what ceases to amaze is that the parallels between Nashville’s historic places coming under danger and the same happening for the music goes virtually unrecognized. In fact country music preservationists are ostensibly ostracized in the current country music climate—the whole Old Farts & Jackasses, “Country music must evolve” debate. The historic sound of country music isn’t just scoffed at, it’s insulted on a regular basis.
Of course country music must evolve, just as at times certain buildings must go if they have completely lost their functionality and the cost of preservation is not in accordance with the historic value. But there always has to be that measure, that attention and reverence paid to the past to where we don’t allow unchecked “evolution” to result in remorse of what was lost along the way.
Even from their graves, Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley’s stamp on country music remains: Out with the old and in with the new, and it’s all about the money. But country music isn’t owned by Chet, Owen, or anybody else; it is the property of the country music people. And the people of country should voice their grievances loudly about preservation, on the street and on the air. Because this is part of a healthy country music environment, and one that ultimately is about the universal desire to see the sustainability of country music well into the future.