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Downtown Nashville has been a backbone of the nation’s music industry for more than six decades, giving the nation stars such as Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton. But the increasing demand for new apartments and office buildings is threatening its historic music spaces. Jeffrey Brown reports on the city’s struggle to find a balance between preserving history and making room for the future.
Nashville often likes to refer to itself as Music City. And given its history and heritage, that seems just right.
But as real estate development explodes in one of the nation's fastest growing cities, some of the very studios, locations and neighborhoods that were so important to country music, and the industry as a whole, are now threatened.
Jeffrey Brown reports. It's part of his ongoing series on Culture at Risk.
Inside an unassuming house on Nashville's 16th Avenue South, guitarist Philip Shouse is laying down a track at the recording studio House of David. Meanwhile, just up the road, the punk rock group Paramore is recording percussion in RCA Studio A for the group's forthcoming album.
It's just another day on Music Row, the collection of recording studios, publishing houses and offices two miles southwest of downtown Nashville and its famous honky-tonks, and the place collectively responsible for an important part of the nation's music industry.
TAYLOR YORK, Paramore:
From, like, the early days even to present, there's been such an amazing group of people that have recorded here, you know, and when you walk into a room, you really can feel an energy and an inspiration.
It all began in the 1950s, with Owen and Harold Bradley, brothers who opened a recording studio in a converted home in this part of town.
Other studios, like Capitol, Decca, and RCA Victor followed, and in 1957, RCA victor's Nashville division, headed by Chet Atkins, opened Studio B, where Elvis Presley would record many of his most famous hits.
A few years later, in 1963, Studio A was built next door. And between the two, the likes of Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Dolly Parton, and many more recorded hit records.
With the studios came the musicians, the publishers, the lawyers and others, a clustering that created a music industry.
CAROLYN BRACKETT, National Trust for Historic Preservation: All of those are still here. And so you still have that sense of community.
Carolyn Brackett is a Nashville native with the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
It's something that we have maybe taken for granted, because you can walk by these buildings or drive by a lot of them and not realize that this incredible music was made in that old house or in this small building.
And so a lot of the work that we have done in the last couple of years has been to document the history of Music Row all the way up to the present, what's happening here today.
What's happening here today is that this history is being threatened by the rising demand for housing and office space in what is one of the nation's fastest growing cities and hottest markets.
SHARON CORBITT-HOUSE, Partner, All Good Factory:
There is a culture that we have been very fortunate to have on Music Row, and it's been squeezed.
Sharon Corbitt-House, known as Music Row Mama up and down these streets, has been managing talent and producers at RCA Studio A for years.
Two years ago, one of her clients, Ben Folds, learned the building was being sold and that he was being evicted. Folds wrote an open letter to Nashville's community that went viral. And at the 11th hour, as the building was about to be sold to a new developer who would tear it down, developer and philanthropist Aubrey Preston stepped in to save it.
AUBREY PRESTON, Developer/Philanthropist:
I believe in Music City. It would be the equivalent of, in Egypt, them allowing one of their three pyramids or something to be torn down. I believe it would just — it's just an impossibility that this building would be torn down.
The new producer in residence at Studio A is Dave Cobb, responsible for albums from Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton, who took home last year's Grammy for best country album, "Traveller," recorded at Studio A.
DAVE COBB, Producer in Residence, Studio A: Oh, yes, you feel the walls. I mean, you kind of know what was recorded there, and when you're actually in the space and you realize that, you know, that's where Waylon Jennings recorded "Daddy Walk the Line" and that's where Dolly Parton did "Jolene," and you're actually in the same space, it takes on a whole new, you know, emotion.
And those records, I adore. And I feel like, when I make records, I chase those sounds.
This studio has been saved, but many others are gone.
Carolyn Brackett took us to a new development called Crescent Music Row, the former site of Sound Shop Studio, where Paul McCartney recorded with Wings in the 1970s.
Most of them are high-rises. And what's happening as they push further into Music Row is that we're losing a lot of the historic buildings that were studios, were music offices, publishers were located.
Also compounding the studios' problems, the music business isn't what it used to be, and many recording studios don't earn what they used to because of the rise of more affordable software and equipment.
DAVID BRIGGS, Owner, House of David: I have been offered, you know, a $1.7 million for any building I have every week.
David Briggs is the owner of the House of David studios.
And you say?
Because I want these to stay. The first thing they will do is tear them down and build — especially if you — I have three lots together. They could build a pretty nice skyscraper here.
Briggs himself is a Nashville institution, a session player, producer and music publisher who's worked with Elvis and a host of other stars.
There used to be 80 studios here within three or four blocks. Now I doubt if there's 20.
The House of David was just added to the National Register of Historic Places, joining three other studios on Music Row. They're among 200 buildings documented by the National Trust that are connected to the rise of country music, as well as the music industry as a whole.
The city's Metropolitan Planning Commission and stakeholders are now working to finalize a plan to recognize historic buildings, with backing from the National Park Service.
I think it's really important that we're leaving it better than we found it. We have got to make sure that we're taking care of the creative community, people who came here to be creatives, and do it the way we have always done it, which is support one another.
It's a difficult balancing act between celebrating the past and making room for the future.
From Music Row in Nashville, I'm Jeffrey Brown for the "PBS NewsHour."
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