April 16, 1998, is a day etched into the memories of everyone in Nashville. It was the day that a mile-wide tornado roared over downtown and over the new football stadium, finally touching down in the heart of Nashville’s funky, evolving bohemia, East Nashville. With hundreds of home and commercial studio facilities in the metro area, the odds of a tornado hitting one are awfully high. But the one studio that the storm really hit hard was the legendary Woodland Studios, which has attracted an enviable client list including Willie Nelson, Bob Seger, Neal Diamond, Emmylou Harris, John Mellencamp, Johnny Cash, Steve Earle, Elton John, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Dusty Springfield, Alabama, Shania Twain and many, many others.
At the time of the storm, Brian Tankersley (whose credits include Shania Twain, Wynonna and Billy Dean) was at Woodland mixing tracks for Arista artist Shannon Brown. The day had been rife with tornado warnings, but when Tankersley took a break to check out the weather, he didn’t expect that he’d be looking right into one bearing down on the studio. “I stepped outside and looked up into the yawning chasm of the tornado’s mouth and yelled, ‘Run like hell!’ to everybody,” Tankersley recalls. “We were running for our lives to the storm shelter, and roofs were blowing off and power transformers were exploding around us. A telephone pole snapped off less than 20 feet from the door, less than ten seconds after we dove inside.”
When everyone got out of the storm shelter, the studio was still standing, but not without some serious damage. Evidently, two funnel clouds had crossed at the building, slightly twisting the entire structure and ripping off big chunks of the roof. “When we came back into the control room where we were mixing, the huge cinder block outside wall had split and shifted about an inch over. You could see daylight through it,” Tankersley says.
The studio, as well as the entire neighborhood, was out of power for two weeks, but that didn’t keep everyone who had been working there around that time from coming back. “We had several projects that were in the works at the time the tornado hit,” says Bob Solomon, owner of Woodland, “like Radney Foster, which is coming out now on Arista. Just after we got our power back on, they all came back and finished their projects. We didn’t have any air conditioning or heat, and we had a big rubber-like sheet that covered the part of the roof the tornado took. Luckily, it was early enough in the spring that it wasn’t that hot yet.”
In spite of everything, Woodland has been putting it all back together and is now enjoying brisk activity, thanks to the studio’s many fans. Since the storm, Robert Cray’s latest album was recorded there, as well as projects by Tim Finn and Superdrag. “I love working at Woodland,” says Niko Bolas (Neil Young), who engineered and mixed the Radney Foster and Robert Cray projects at Woodland and will be working on John Haitt’s next album there. “This is like the only place I go to in Nashville, and I started coming here almost 15 years ago. I’ve brought projects from New York here, just because of this studio. I love it.”