Chuck Mead, former lead man for the neo-hillbilly band BR549, got a surprise when he was talking to his friend and former producer, Michael Janas about his plans for recording an album of classic country songs. As Mead says, “He said ‘Well, why don’t you come over the Quonset Hut and do it. And I said, ‘It’s open again?’”
For a classic country lover like Mead it’s easy to understand why he was excited. The Quonset Hut is one of the most legendary studios in the history of American music. Hit after hit was recorded in the studio from 1956 to 1982, by artists as diverse as Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, Brenda Lee, George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Roger Miller, Simon & Garfunkel, The Byrds, Elvis Costello and many others.
Music Row Pioneers
In 1954, Owen and Harold Bradley opened the first recording studio on what would become Nashville’s Music Row. The next year, the brothers decided to expand their facility. As Michael Janas, producer and Belmont University Director of Recording Facilities says, “They bought a surplus Quonset Hut. And they had it built for about fifteen thousand bucks. (It) was originally going to be a film studio. But they also discovered during that time how much they liked the sound of it. And so eventually they got busy enough that they started booking it out as a recording studio.”
Quonset huts, arched metal buildings that resemble half of a barrel, were used by the army in World War II, but they were certainly never intended to become recording studios. The Bradleys, however, discovered that the curved ceiling and walls gave the building special qualities. Owen and Harold Bradley operated the studio until 1962 when they sold it to Columbia Records.
The label continues to use the studio, even as an office building was built around it, engulfing the building and hiding it from the outside world.
Sweet Spots and Ghosts
In 1982 the studio was shut down and converted to office space, but even with desks and cubicles the special sonic properties remained. As Chuck Mead discovered when he visited the building about ten years ago. “You could still stand in this spot, and it sounded different than anywhere else in the room,” Mead says. “And the people that worked in here were kind of spooked by it. As well they should be. ‘Cause we’re dealing with ghosts.”
In 2009 the Quonset Hut was purchased by the Mike Curb Foundation and restored for use by Belmont University. Despite changes, that special mark – in the center of the building, thirteen tiles back from the control room window – has remained. As Chuck Mead says, “Here’s the magic spot. This is where the vocalist stood. This is where I got to stand and sing, and it’s the same place where Patsy Cline stood and sang ‘Crazy’ and Roger Miller stood and sang ‘King of the Road.’ Ray Price stood right here. This is the sweet spot of the room.”
Back to the Hut
Mead’s Back at the Quonset Hut, is a tribute to classic country songs, the musicians that played them, and the way they were often recorded – live, in the studio with very few overdubs. As Mead says, “Humans sitting around making music and someone capturing the performance –we were after being able to tell the story in its entirety, without putting it together like a film, which is okay too. I’m just saying that was the way we decided to do this record, but make it sound as modern as we possibly could.”
When Mead brought in special guests for the first recording session, producer Janas took the opportunity to introduce 36 of his Belmont students to the “old style” of recording. “We brought in Old Crow Medicine Show,” Janas says, “And some of the students had heard of them, and they were kind of excited.” The band set up in a circle, without wearing headphones, an arrangement that mystified the students. “I crammed (the students) all into the control room,” Janas says, “and then all of sudden it was like, ‘Oh wow, listen to that sound!’”
But the most special guests that joined Mead were surviving members of Nashville’s A-Team, studio musicians whose versatility and creative input were some of the most important ingredients in those classic recordings. Their presence made the sessions very special for Mead, as he says, “I’m seeing Harold Bradley, and Pig Robbins, and Bob Moore over there – and Buddy Spicher. And I’m thinking, ‘Oh wow, it’s 1962.’ – which was a real gas for me.”
Mead soon discovered that the experience had an even deeper meaning to him. As he says, “It became very evident that it really was more than just my next record. It was this place’s record. It was an extraordinary experience, and one of the reasons I moved to Nashville was to do stuff like this. That’s being a hillbilly singer in Nashville”
Back at the Quonset Hut is a reflection of great music from a special time. The players and the place may have been the same, but from heartbreak ballads to honky tonk stompers and from string band romps to rockabilly, the true “Nashville Sound” was never just one style.