So far on our Unsung Heroes series, we’ve had musicians, producers, instruments and even record labels. Now it’s time to turn our attention to one of the iconic buildings of Nashville and its importance to the genre of Americana.
1611 Roy Acuff Place, Nashville is, to be honest, not the most striking building you’re ever going to see. Even dressed up as it is these days, being something of a place of pilgrimage for Country and Americana fans, it still resembles a brick bunker more than anything else. But this address is the location of the recording studio that became known as the “Home of a Thousand Hits” – RCA Studio B.
Originally built in 1957 by Nashville businessman and Real Estate developer Dan Maddox, as soon as the building was completed RCA took out a long lease on the one and two-story block structure and started installing their recording equipment. The company already had recording studios in New York, Chicago and Hollywood and they were now the first major record label to establish a studio in Nashville. They invested heavily, an indication of the company’s interest in the region and belief in the music that was emerging locally. The neighbourhood where the studio had been established would become widely known as Music Row and it was this studio that became the home of the so-called “Nashville Sound”, under the direction of musician and producer, Chet Atkins, who directed operations at the studio from its opening through to 1973. Obviously, the studio didn’t start life as Studio B but simply as the RCA Studios in Nashville. Following the early success of recordings from the studio, Atkins had a second studio commissioned in 1965, based on the production ideas of himself, fellow producer Owen Bradley and session musician Harold Bradley. It was this studio that would take over and develop the “Nashville Sound”, being better designed to incorporate the lush string arrangements and “countrypolitan” stylings of Atkins’ vision. As this newer studio became Studio A, so the original studios became known as Studio B; but it’s Studio B that is, by far, the more iconic studio from an Americana perspective. This is where Elvis Presley first recorded after he left Sam Phillips’ Sun Records, and he is known to have recorded over two hundred songs in this studio. Other notable Americana musicians who have passed through its fabled doors include The Everly Brothers, Dolly Parton, Roy Orbison, Porter Wagoner, Chet Atkins himself, The Jordanaires, John D. Loudermilk, Gillian Welch – the list is an extensive one, with over 60 major country-influenced artists recording there during its history, and it hasn’t just been country and Americana artists that have recorded at Studio B, though they do make up the vast majority of the roster. Both Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings recorded for RCA and used the studio, and the iconic ‘Wanted: The Outlaws’ album was compiled, and some of the tracks recorded, there launching the Outlaw Country movement that would, eventually, give rise to artists such as Kris Kristofferson, Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle.
The Studio wasn’t always the great success it is recognised as now. Early recordings were marred by problems related to the building’s acoustics. These were solved by Chief Engineer Bill Porter, who had replaced original engineer Bob Ferris in 1959. Porter installed what became known as “Porter’s Pyramids”, triangles of fibreglass hung from the ceiling at various heights to cut room resonance. From that point on it churned out hits on a regular basis until RCA ceased recording in the building in 1977. At that point, it was first made available to the Country Music Hall of Fame as a tour attraction and was, in 1992, donated to the Museum by the estate of Don and Margaret Maddox.
These days, Studio B has a new lease of life as a cultural attraction for visitors as well as being a learning facility for students interested in audio technology and the science of recording. It’s also still working as a studio, with various special projects making the most of the studio’s enviable analogue recording set up – projects like the forthcoming ‘Leftover Feelings’ album from John Hiatt & The Jerry Douglas Band (released May 21st). The entire album was recorded at the studio, as was the video for first single ‘All the Lilacs in Ohio’; so, if you’d like to see what the inside of the studio looks like check out the video clip at the end of this article.
Should you find yourself in Nashville sometime, once such things are possible again, I would urge you to book yourself a tour of RCA Studio B (and you do need to book, via The Country Music Hall of Fame, it’s a very popular tour). I was lucky enough to do it some years back and it is a fascinating location to visit. The main studio room is not that big by studio standards, just 13m x 8.3m x 4m (42.5 x 27 x 13 feet in old money) but it has a real presence about it and you can feel the weight of all the great music that has been made there.
There are few recording studios that are as iconic as RCA Studio B – it really is up there with the likes of Abbey Road, Muscle Shoals, Motown, Chess and a handful of others that have been instrumental in bringing some of the best-recorded music to a diverse audience. Another Unsung Hero of Americana.