With All The Talk About Saving Music Row, We Ask: What Is Music Row Anymore?

The fight over historic Studio A is far from over. Last week, owner Harold Bradley bluntly told Metro Council the office building that houses the recording studio is outdated and not worth preserving.

Of course, the cry to “Save Studio A” quickly expanded into “Save Music Row,” but what does that mean, exactly?  With condos moving in and big labels headed downtown, with recording being done in Berry Hill, East Nashville and people’s home studios, what is Music Row now?

Houses converted to song publishers and record labels have long been the norm for Music Row. But increasingly, those businesses have neighbors from other industries; in this case, the US Tennis Association and the Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities Associations. Credit: Nina Cardona/WPLN

Houses converted to song publishers and record labels have long been the norm for Music Row. But increasingly, those businesses have neighbors from other industries; in this case, the US Tennis Association and the Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities Associations. Credit: Nina Cardona/WPLN

Signs Of Change

Drive down 16th and 17th avenues and you’ll still pass dozens of old, converted bungalows and cottages converted to studios and offices. Signs in the yards announce lots of music publishing houses, artist management agencies and independent record labels. But there are signs for lawyers, architects, eye doctors and hair salons, too –not to mention the “for sale” signs.

Producer and songwriter Jerry Michael has been working around the neighborhood since the late ’70s. He says he’s seen Music Row go through cycles: offices close, rent goes up, but new labels keep on finding a way to move in.

In the past, relatively affordable property values helped that process along. Owen and Harold Bradley paid just $7,500 for the boarding house they turned into the first Music Row studio back in the early 1950s. But now a similarly-sized old four-square is listed for $1.2 million.

When asked if there’s a danger of music offices being priced out, Michael nods and says that’s true to a certain extent, but that “great songs will always get a way through.” He seems confident the music industry is here to stay, even if it doesn’t dominate the neighborhood anymore — and even if the place just doesn’t feel like it used to.

“There was such a vibe that went on down here years ago that a lot of people have missed,” Michael says. But his nostalgia only goes so far. “The music business changes, you have to go right with it. It’s just a part of the business.”

Where The Guitar Still Gets Passed Around

At least some of the “Save Music Row” effort seems to be about trying to recapture that vibe. It’s an ephemeral thing with roots in a time when session players walked together from gig to gig, when folks who competed on the country charts regularly knocked back drinks together. So where better to see if there’s any of the old camraderie left than in last bar standing on Music Row?

Esther Rolls is a regular at Bobby’s Idle Hour, which she calls “one of the places that it actually happens.”

She’s got stories about big stars dropping by even now to grab a cold one. Those are strictly off the record (“Not if you’re recording,” she says as she waves away the microphone), but the autographs and photos plastered on the walls and support columns seem to bear out her claims. Rolls isn’t a musician, yet she says most of the other regulars are songwriters who play their guitars around the bar. There’s even an extra guitar hanging on the wall for anyone who doesn’t have their own handy.

Billy Ohlmeyer Credit: Nina Cardona/WPLN

Billy Ohlmeyer Credit: Nina Cardona/WPLN

Billy Ohlmeyer says that’s “the heart of Nashville”: sitting around, drinking a few beers, sharing the newest songs. According to Billy “O,” the Idle Hour is the only place in town where it still exists, so, “when that’s gone, that’s it.”

A few seats over, Esther’s husband, John, chimes in, remembering how people used to walk the streets with cassettes, walking right into publisher’s offices to try and pitch a song. He says that doesn’t happen anymore, that the offices won’t let a guy in the front door anymore.

“Music Row, it’s not gonna — it barely exists now,” Ohlmeyer says. “It’s on the endangered list, kind of like the bald eagle. Even the bald eagle’s not on the endangered list anymore, and look what’s happening here.”

He seems more resigned than sad, even as he uses the bar guitar to play a wistful song.

Screen door and a squeaky hinge

Clothes on the line drying in the wind

Smell of apple pie fresh from the oven … 

The More Things Change…

But here’s the thing: Bobby’s Idle Hour is still around, even though developers razed its original building nearly a decade ago. The owners moved down the street, made a new place feel just as smoky and lived-in as the first, and the song-swapping resumed.

And today, about a block down the street, a fresh-faced songwriter named Nicolette Hayford emerges from a publisher’s office with a hopeful look on her face.

She says the dream of everybody coming to Nashville is the same as it ever was: “to have a place to go on Music Row, whether to write or just to try to find somebody to champion you, believe in you. That’s what all these little buildings represent.”

In the past few weeks, a group of label chiefs and producers have banded together, saying they want to be the ones that champion and believe in Music Row. But whatever form that ends up taking, it probably won’t restore the exact kind of community that was here 60, 40 or even 20 years ago.

Music Row has been been in flux for decades, any way you look at it. Fiddle tunes made way for steel guitars. An Army Surplus storage building became a legendary studio — then an office, and now a studio again. Labels have merged and split and merged again.

Maybe the real tradition of Music Row is constant change. If that’s the case, tradition is alive and well.

Another kind of sign common on Music Row are banners trumpeting sales milestones and awards for songs and musicians. Credit: Nina Cardona/WPLN

Another kind of sign common on Music Row are banners trumpeting sales milestones and awards for songs and musicians. Credit: Nina Cardona/WPLN

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