When I think of all the music that has sprung from the American South, it truly boggles my mind. Just the music that was created or recorded in Memphis and Nashville alone is a lifetime's worth of immersion. I'm always thankful that I live in this place and have come to know some mighty fine folks who have put their hearts and minds into telling the story and doing everything they can to preserve and document the recorded and written magic of the region.
I've known Alan Stoker, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum's Recorded Sound and Moving Image curator, for a number of years. Since 1980, Stoker has been restoring and mastering music for this nonprofit organization. Stoker's not a guy who seems stuck on himself, and you'd probably have to get it from someone else that he won a Grammy Award in 2004 for his work on the Country Music Foundation's release, Night Train to Nashville: Music City Rhythm & Blues, 1945-1970.
A longtime musician (drummer), Stoker comes from a musical family: His dad was Gordon Stoker of The Jordanaires, the gospel quartet who backed Elvis Presley on numerous recordings and are also Country Music Hall of Fame inductees. “I think it's safe to say that Alan Stoker is second-generation country music royalty,” says Kyle Young, director of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. “Because a great musician raised him in a household where many other musicians visited and the late Bob Pinson mentored him, Alan brings intimate understanding and a great knowledge of all popular music to the care and interpretation of the Museum's Bob Pinson Recorded Sound Collection.”
I dropped by one afternoon to hang out with Stoker and my buddy (and one-time MTSU intern) Jeremy Rush, who is now working as the CMF's media relations coordinator. At the time, Stoker was wrapping up work on volume two of the Night Train to Nashville collection.
This whole series is of particular importance to me as there is such a pervasive perception of Nashville around the world as just being about country music. As one who grew up on R&B, blues and early rock in Memphis, it is wonderful to hear these sides. Volume Two features songs by Clyde McPhatter, Esther Phillips, Arthur Alexander, Roscoe Shelton, Ivory Joe Hunter, Joe Simon and Gay Crosse & The Good Humor Six, which, incidentally, included future jazz sax giant John Coltrane.
Stoker is currently programming a companion CD for cultural historian Martin Hawkins' A Shot in the Dark: Nashville Independent Record Labels, 1945-1955. Due to be published by CMF Press in 2006, the collection includes vintage gospel, R&B, country, pop and other music released on Nashville-based indie labels during the decade after World War II.
The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum has more than 200,000 sound recordings of country and folk music in its holdings. The collection includes Edison cylinders, 1920s electrical recordings, 1930s acetate radio transcription discs and every format up to present. As a way of preserving vintage music and making historically important music available and more accessible now and in the future, Stoker and his colleagues, partially funded by an NEA/SAT grant, work hard and fast to set up a digital archive so that generations to come can enjoy this rich heritage.
“We feel that country music — from ‘Keep on the Sunny Side’ to ‘Take This Job and Shove It,’ from ‘Fraulein’ to ‘Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning),’ from ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart' to ‘How Do You Like Me Now, and from ‘Okie From Muskogee’ to ‘Long Haired Country Boy’ — is an American art form, that its history is worthy of preservation and that its traditions, values and connections are worthy of study,” says Young.
“Alan's work is important to us and to the public. Our Bob Pinson Recorded Sound Collection is unduplicated and irreplaceable,” continues Young. “For more than a century, this lyric-intensive, storytelling music has given voice to the thoughts, feelings, challenges, triumphs and values of America's working people and a record of American history.”
Stoker spends quite a bit of time salvaging old radio transcripts. While I was there, he pulled out one that looked like it could fall apart at any moment. “Those things aren't pressings,” he notes. “They're one-of-a-kind. It's kind of an instantaneous-cut recording. One recording was made, maybe it was played once on the radio and that's it. It's very important to get that information off of its original media and put it on a much more stable medium. That's mainly what I'm doing these days.
“We're actually now starting to do high-resolution .WAV files of the transcription recordings,” he adds. “John Spencer at Bridge Media Solutions helped us set up our high-resolution digital archive. In the past, I've done everything to analog tape, because I knew it and trusted it and I knew what it would do. I might have made a CD copy as a listening source of some of the material, but I really don't trust CD for something like that, so I really think that high-resolution 24/96 .WAV files are the way we're going to go. We're also doing analog copies at the same time, which sort of scared me earlier in the year when Quantegy closed down; I went ahead and bought the last hundred cases my supplier had.”
During my visit, we got into a discussion about being aware that different labels pressed their records at slightly different speeds, sort like an early version of proprietary marketing. “Pre-war Victors were recorded at 76 rpm, so when you play them back at 78 — the standard speed — they're all too fast, while pre-war Columbia's were all at 80 rpm, so when you play them back at 78, they sound too slow.” Stoker points out that RCA and Columbia, among others, wanted music fans to play their records on their players, which were set at those odd speeds. Yes, format nonsense has always been with us.
“It's just like Sony Beta and VHS. They each got their own thing and some of them even had different-size spindle holes,” says Stoker. “If you didn't have an Acme player, you couldn't play the Acme discs. There were no standards that anybody followed. I'd like to see some correspondence in the early days of why each company had their own EQ curve and their own speed. What were they thinking? ‘We're going to be the only ones to survive and everyone's going to have to do it our way.’ That's kind of the way it is today.
“There is a recording of ‘Matchbox Blues’ where all the re-issues I'd heard of it sounded way too fast,” Stoker continues. “One day, I put it on tape and slowed the tape down till the guitar sounded right, then focused in a little bit more on the voice and I just transferred it at that speed. When you go out into the museum now, that's what you hear. It now sounds like a real human being and not some guy sucking helium.”
Stoker is also involved with the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry, a project he is very passionate about. “This is a registry that is underpublicized and I am trying to help raise awareness,” he says. “Under the terms of the National Recording Preservation Act of 2000, the Library of Congress is responsible for annually selecting recordings that are ‘culturally, historically or aesthetically significant’ and adding them to a Recording Registry, which the Library is then charged with preserving. Many of these recordings are recognized for their technical achievement, in addition to their hip factor. I am one of the board members that advises the Library of Congress on recordings that are registry-worthy, but any recordings submitted by the public are considered.” (For more on the selection process, go to www.loc.gov/nrpb.)
I could have spent all day hanging out with Stoker, listening to his stories about great artists and to the many recordings he has laying around — which he plays with the spirit of someone who hasn't lost the fire for great music. That's exactly the kind of person you want to preserve what is great in our wonderful musical culture.
Send your Nashville news toMrBlurge@mac.com.