Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
Some of the best moments of our jam-packed four days in Nashville last September came near the end of the trip, after the Radio Show was over and we were free to spend some time away from the show.
We don’t usually feature non-broadcast studios here, but when a colleague approached us on the show floor and asked if we wanted to tag along on a visit to one of Nashville’s most famous recording studios, we weren’t about to say no.
That’s how we ended up in front of an anonymous-looking office building on Music Square East, the modern facade that houses Belmont University’s music education program – and that wraps around two of the most legendary spaces in Nashville music.
Back in the late 1950s, this was Music Row’s very first recording studio, the iconic “Quonset Hut” where performers such as Patsy Cline and Brenda Lee recorded their biggest hits. It was originally Owen and Harold Bradley’s “Bradley’s Film and Recording Studios,” and there was originally an old house in front of the house where that modern brick structure now stands.
In the 1960s, the Quonset Hut was joined by a next-door neighbor, the equally legendary CBS Records Studio A, the Nashville home for, among other things, Bob Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde” and “Nashville Skyline” albums.
By the 1980s, these spaces had fallen out of regular recording use as CBS Records changed hands to Sony. The studios were closed down, the equipment was sold off and offices were built inside these sacred spaces – but they were saved from total destruction by Mike Curb, the record executive who’s been a prolific funder of Music City’s historic restoration. A longtime benefactor of Belmont, Curb bought the facility in 2006, had it renovated, and today these rooms are used as a training ground for the next generation of recording engineers, who get to learn their skills amidst some of the best musical ghosts you can imagine.
The electronic guts of the old studios, alas, went away after CBS did – but Studio A now boasts another piece of recording history in its rebuilt control room, the API console that was originally installed back in 1972 in Wally Heider’s famous Mobile Unit 2. “The Last Waltz”? That was recorded through this board, which is now being used to teach the fine art of analog audio engineering to a new generation of students.
Look carefully behind the building and you can still see a bit of the roof of the original Quonset Hut structure, and if you’re lucky enough to be able to arrange a tour, you might even be able to get up on the roof and see more of the old hut up close.
(And if you can’t get in here, there are regular public tours offered from the Country Music Hall of Fame downtown that go to another legendary studio around the corner, RCA’s Studio B. That’s where Elvis cut his Nashville tracks, and it’s another beneficiary of Curb’s largesse over the years.)
Only the most dedicated Nashville historian is likely to find a way to the little white building next door to the Quonset Hut, because WNAH (1360) isn’t listed in any of the tourist brochures.
That’s a shame, because the little AM station down on the right side of the hallway here is a wonderful slice of radio history.
The Irwin family put this station on the air in 1949 and has owned it ever since, keeping it chugging along with leased-time religion and talk, and in all that time they’ve only changed what really needed changing.
The current studios at 44 Music Square East have been in place since 1978, but some of the equipment here came from the two previous studios, including the original Hermitage Hotel studios from 1949.
Computerized automation? Sure, that’s here – but it still feeds into what must be one of the oldest boards that’s still on the air anywhere in America.
If you’re leasing time on WNAH, you don’t even step into this control room – you go next door from the lobby, into a compact windowless talk studio. It all feels the way any halfway sentimental radio historian wants a radio station to feel, and we’re tickled to see it still in operation two decades into the 21st century.
We didn’t get a tour of the WNAH transmitter site, but it’s easily visible off the side of I-24 on the north side of Nashville, so we present a shot out the window while we were on our way up to the TV towers we showed you last week.
First, though, how about a tour of the Grand Ole Opry? The current incarnation of the Opryhouse dates to the 1970s, when the country music institution left its longtime home downtown at the Ryman Auditorium.
The new theater was part of a complex that has, at various times, included the mammoth Opryland Hotel on one side, and an amusement park that has been replaced by an outlet mall on the other.
Backstage at the Opry, there’s a warren of dressing rooms along the friendly hallways, many of them decorated with memorabilia honoring specific stars of the Opry over the decades. Look past the history and there’s plenty of today’s technology, with lots of networking behind the scenes to handle modern communications needs.
There’s a surprisingly big TV studio here; it was dark when we visited, but it’s been used over the years for everything from “Hee Haw” to game shows that aired on the old TNN and on CMT.
From here, we round the corner to find ourselves stage left on the familiar Opry stage, fully rebuilt and gleaming after that nasty flood a few years back that left the stage under water and closed all of Opryland for months.
The wooden circle at the center of the stage is, of course, a piece of the original Ryman stage, brought here to keep the proverbial circle unbroken and saved from the floodwaters to be reinstalled here when it reopened. Take the public tour of the Opryhouse and you, too, can stand right here and imagine you’re Minnie Pearl or Johnny Cash or whichever Opry star floats your particular musical boat.
Upstairs, the control rooms for the Opry broadcasts have a million-dollar view of the stage, handling audio for the WSM and satellite radio broadcast as well as video for the TV simulcast.
So where’s WSM now?
We’ll visit the legend – offices, studio and the amazing transmitter site – in next week’s Site of the Week. See you here then!
Thanks to Belmont University’s Mike Porter, Jason Cooper and WNAH’s Hoyt Carter for the tours!
And don’t miss a big batch of Nashville IDs next Wednesday, over at our sister site, TopHour.com!
Next week: Nashville’s WSM