I Was So Much Older Then; I'm Younger Than That Now: This past March, students from the Berklee School of Music in Boston came to view the inner workings of the Nashville music machine. Seeing this town through their fresh eyes, I was reminded how resilient and attractive Nashville still is, in spite of the significant changes the business has experienced in the last 18 months.
This was Berklee's 13th annual pilgrimage to Nashville, a trip underwritten in part by Warner/Reprise Records and BMI, which, along with ASCAP and SESAC, provided the venues for the events that took place during the course of nearly a week. The first 40 students who signed up for the voyage were given seats on a bus rented by Warner; the rest-and the total number of Berklee students roaming Music Row that week was about 100-had to find their own ways down.
March 18 started with a tour of Warner/Reprise's offices on Music Row, followed by a panel representing most of the piston types in the Nashville music machine, including producer Kyle Lehning, guitarist Larry Carlton, publisher David Conrad and Grand Ole Opry director Pete Fisher. That was followed by a producers panel in which Lehning was joined by Josh Leo, Chuck Ainlay, Matt Rollings and Kyle's son Jason, who had just released his own non-country record.
The following four days were filled with a combination of panels made up of songwriters, musicians, publishers and engineers, and studio tours of several facilities, including Ocean Way (where I'm told that chief engineer Sal Greco charmed many students into considering careers as techs), Starstruck Studios, Emerald Studios (which probably needs a bus just to get everyone to its four locations these days), Soundstage, Sound Kitchen (proving that studio life does not begin and end on the Row), and County Q.
I ran into this enthusiastic group at Soundstage, where Ainlay was giving them surround mixing demonstrations on the SSL Axiom-MT he put into Backstage, the joint venture studio he opened there last year.
Ainlay's laid-back but candid style with the students was probably similar to what they encountered in other facilities and panels. He took pains to answer every technical question, but was also forthcoming with the fact that the demand for surround work was still nascent, at best, in Nashville and elsewhere. He also explained that all new avenues in audio come with another round of mundane issues. "The major record labels seem to be quietly stockpiling surround mixes, but even they're not sure what they're going to do with them," he told the group. "But what is happening is that people are beginning to expect that [engineers will] start providing them with the surround and stereo mixes for the same amount of money."
That observation drew a muted chuckle from the students who had crowded into Backstage's control room.
There was less of a response when Ainlay made an oblique allusion to the fact that another studio that was nestled within the Soundstage complex was actually owned by competing facility Emerald Recording. That comment underscored the changes that the Nashville studio community has been going through in the past two years, and served as the launch pad for some post-demo discussions with the students about how they perceived Nashville.
They were, for the most part, oblivious to the business upheaval in the city's entertainment sector. Instead, they focused on Nashville's well-deserved reputation for friendliness and the single-mindedness that gave rise to its "Music City" moniker.
But Michelle Kiely, a student from Norton, Mass., also knew that the tour presented the city's business in its very best light, and their own careers would probably require more involved maneuvers. "The panels gave us a lot of success stories, about how people had made it, but they skipped a lot of the steps in between," she added.
"The panelists painted a rosy picture," said student Mike Peters of Arlington, Mass. But that realization dampened neither his amazement at the sheer number of recording studios in Nashville, nor the fact that they are so close to each other. "You get to meet a lot of people-engineers, producers, musicians-just walking down the street to lunch. I've been to L.A., but I can't imagine another city where you have this much interaction between everyone in the business."
And in light of the acquisitions and mergers of the past two years, Greg Price, a student from Rochester, Minn., didn't know how right he got it when he observed, "It seems like everyone has a connection to everyone else."
That comment also reflected the enormous strength that Nashville maintains at its core: Members of all the interacting disciplines of the Nashville music business interface constantly. It's no less common to find the songwriter at the session than the artist, the engineer, the producer or the musicians. In fact, several students expressed an amazement that there were so many musicians at sessions, a reflection of the fact that most records are being made in a human resources vacuum, with parts overlaid anonymously on other parts.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the visit was watching the notion of alternative career paths unfold before the eyes of people who, like most budding engineers and producers, have been blinded by the science of gear. "Josh [Leo] told us that the musicians play better when there's a bunch of them playing together in the same room," said Peters. "The same seems to apply to songwriters. This trip has made me want to get into the songwriting thing as part of my career. And Nashville seems like the best place in the world for that."
Trust me, it is.
Milestones: It's with regret that we report the passing of one of Nashville's first resident recording engineers, Aaron Shelton, who died in April at the age of 89. Shelton was one of the triumvirate of former WSM radio engineers-the others were George Reynolds and Carl Jenkins-who created the Castle, the first dedicated recording facility in Nashville, in 1946.
Four years ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Shelton, who engineered many sessions for Hank Williams, while researching my book Nashville's Unwritten Rules. He recalled tales of the Castle, which was located in the now-demolished Tulane Hotel in downtown Nashville. Shelton told me that the former dining hall was divided into three sections: a recording room, a control room and a small area for the Scully acetate lathes which cut the music directly to lacquer disks. The Castle's homemade console was advanced for its day, with eight inputs for microphones-twice as many as most desks of the time. Shelton would divide the inputs up according to the configuration of the artist and bandmembers. If the sessions got too big, the Castle's engineers would book out the Ryman Auditorium three blocks away and rent time on telephone company lines to bring the signals back into the studio for mixing.
The Castle's sessions were mostly at night. With country music still a nascent commercial enterprise, many of the musicians and artists had day jobs. The studio charged $90 for the three-hour sessions, and the cost included engineers, acetates and tape.
Shelton had some fun before the studio closed in 1954. Folk singer Burl Ives would start his recording dates with a pre-session dinner and drinks at the 216 Dinner Club downstairs, then pick up a bottle of Jack Daniels for the session. "Sometimes he made it through the session, sometimes he didn't," recalled Shelton. "He'd get high and start dancing around the studio and knocking over music stands and microphones, and we'd be picking them up behind him."
Another session was interrupted once when a hotel guest forgot to turn off his bathtub faucet in a room above the studio and the Castle's grand piano was turned into a freestanding pool.
They just don't make them like that anymore.