Sunday, August 28, 2011

Ghosts of Nashville's Recording Studios, Part 2

By Randy McNutt

The ghosts of Nashville's recording studios grow in number, but not all ghosts are created equal. Some live on through their hits while others already are forgotten.
     So let's continue our tour around Music City, where we'll explore two famous studios founded by "Cowboy" Jack Clement, the Sun Records legend who in the 1970s became a financially successful  Nashville producer. He possibly founded more studios than any other independent of his era.
     His studios spawned new ones, creating some great music and training grounds for talented audio engineers who continue to practice their craft to this day.
     And now, follow me into music history--and into the . . .

Jack Clement Recording Studios, 1969-1980s


Jack Clement, the legendary writer-producer who worked at Sun Records in Memphis in the 1950s, opened his own studio in Nashville in late 1969, at 3102 Belmont Avenue, not far from the happenings of Music Row.
     In 1974, Larry Butler and partner Al Mifflin bought the studio, retaining the name. It was during the Butler-Mifflin years that the studio became known as a huge hit-making machine. During the first six months of 1979, for example, about 11 percent of the Top 100 country singles listed in the major trade magazines were recorded at Clement Recording. At the time, about 150 studios were operating in Nashville, so Clement had a significant share of the business. Also that year, nine singles recorded there during the first 10 months hit No. 1.
     Many of the studio's hits were made by various producers and companies, but Butler, a long-time musician, soon became one of Nashville's hottest producers of the period.
     (Meanwhile, the Cowboy continued to be busy. He opened five studios, although some of them were privately operated.)
     Back at 3102 Belmont, the big names of the 1970s were walking through the door: Kenny Rogers, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, Don Williams, Andy Williams, Don McLean, the Amazing Rhythm Aces, and Carrie Lucas, who cut a disco hit called "Dance With You." Soon after Butler bought the studio, he brought Rogers in and produced a string of singles that included "The Gambler" and "The Coward of the County." Mac Davis came in to record "It's Hard to be Humble."
     Prior to Butler's arrival, hits had been plentiful at Clement. Ray Stevens recorded "Everything Is Beautiful," Gene Watson cut "Paper Rosie," and Donna Fargo did "The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A."
     The Clement Studio A measured 35x45 feet, with a 22-foot ceiling; Studio B, 25x45 feet with a 16-foot ceiling. In 1979, the complex featured a a Studer A-80 with 16- and 24-track capability, plus a Studer A-80 and a Studer B-67, both two-track recorders. The mixing console was a Harrison 32-32. If you wanted to record there, you paid $125 per hour for 16-track time and $165 per hour for 24-track time.
     Through the 1980s, the studio continued to operate. Eventually, it evolved into Clement's Sound Emporium.
     But that's another story.

Jack's Tracks, 1974-, c. 2010


The studio as it appeared in 1999.
Below, Allen Reynolds at the board.
(Randy McNutt)

Jack's Tracks opened in the mid-1970s at 1308 16th Avenue South on Music Row. Originally, the building was a large brick house, built in the 1890s. As the Row expanded over the years, the house became commercial property. Jack Clement, a successful Nashville producer, operated a commercial art and photography studio there until he decided to turn the house into a studio.
     The building also housed his JMI Records, which opened in 1971. 
     Producer-songwriter Allen Reynolds remembers how Jack's Tracks came to be: "I had come up from Memphis to write for Jack," he said, "and a bunch of writers pestered him to open a demo studio."
     Clement agreed.
     Reynolds liked what he heard. In fact, he loved it. So he became Clement's partner in the studio. In 1976, Reynolds bought Clement's share, and he continued to operate the studio until his retirement in 2010.
     Immediately Reynolds began to turn out hit singles and albums by Don Williams, Kathy Mattea, Crystal Gayle, and Garth Brooks--all produced by Reynolds. In 1978, Ampex Corp.'s magnetic tape division gave its Golden Reel award to Reynolds; his engineer, Garth Fundis; and Gayle, for making We Must Believe in Magic. The project was mastered on Ampex tape.
     The last time I visited Jack's Tracks (it was always known by that name), I found no sign to identify the studio. When I knocked on the door, Reynolds answered and invited me in for a tour. The Memphis native showed me the recording console and we sat down and discussed the changing record business, songwriting, and producing. He said he learned his way around the studio by watching Clement, who learned his way by turning out hits for Sam Phillips at Sun Records in Memphis in the late 1950s. Reynolds said Phillips was also his early engineering hero. "When he [Phillips] stopped at Jack's Tracks years ago, he said he liked it better than Jack's other studios," Reynolds told me that day. "The place has a certain homey feel to it that I've grown to appreciate. I was going to sell it once, but then I decided to hang onto it. It's not open to the public anymore. It's my private workshop."
     In his place he recorded Gayle's hit "Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue," "Ready For the Times to Get Better," and "Talking In Your Sleep." Brooks cut his hit "The Dance" there.     
     In a front room, a bag of golf clubs sat in one corner. Recording awards and photos hung on the walls. The heavy wooden front door remained locked. Access to the control room was through the former parlor, where recording artists relaxed while listening to playbacks. "We didn't plan it that way. It just happened," Reynold said.
     The control room was on the small side--about twelve feet long. It led into the studio, which was also rather small by modern standards. Dark commercial carpeting covered the floor; brown soundproofing material covered the walls. Wooden folding chairs sat around for musicians. Special booths were used for drums and vocals. In this unassuming place, Reynolds created Garth Brooks' projects, including the album that sold 10 million copies. In the 1980s, Reynolds used a 24-track Sony recorder and a Quad Eight (installed in 1980) console to replace an older Quad Eight. Although the studio went digital in its final decade or so, Reynolds still enjoyed hearing sounds made on tape. "I feel it brings a warmth and richness to recording," he told me. "The board I use is old, but it's sweet."
     So was Jack's Tracks.

     These studios and many others are featured in Randy McNutt's Too Hot to Handle: An Illustrated History of American Recording Studios of hte Twentieth Century, available through

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Ghosts of Nashville's Recording Studios, Part 1

By Randy McNutt

If you’re searching for record business ghosts, Nashville is a good place to roam. Buildings that once bustled with recording studios, record company offices, and publishing companies are around nearly every corner. All you need to get started is an address and some background.

     On my “ghost” tours, everything is game. I am looking for hits and history. Old studios fascinate me most, however, and there have been plenty of them in Nashville since the 1950s. Over the last several decades a number of the more high-profile studios have closed, despite their notoriety, success, and popularity at the time of their closing. When I think of them, I can’t help but feel a sense of loss, for many of the older studios were great places to record. (Their hits speak for themselves. They are from the tape era's golden days.)

     Here are a few of the more interesting ghosts that I discovered in Nashville town:

Woodland Sound, 1968-2001

In 1968 audio engineer Glenn Snoddy opened Woodland Sound Studios at 1011 Woodland Street, which was not on Music Row. But that didn’t matter. Music Row people came to Woodland because its sound was so good. By 1971 Snoddy was using tape recorders with one, two, four, eight, and 16 tracks; a few years later he upgraded with two 24-track Studer recorders. By 2000 new owner Robert Solomon added to the complex two recording studios (with Neve consoles) and a mastering room. By then, he was still attracting big-name clients. I recall what the place was like long ago. I mixed a single there in 1975, and the echo sounded terrific. Immediately Woodland became one of my favorite studios. I recall seeing it again in 1998, two months after a vicious tornado had ripped through downtown Nashville. The building’s exterior had sustained some damage, but inside business went on as usual. Unfortunately, Solomon closed Woodland in 2001, after some issues with the building’s owner, but the studio’s legacy remains in its hits. A few of them include “Honey” by Bobby Goldboro; “Knock Three Times,” Billy “Crash” Craddock; “Tennessee Birdwalk,” Jack Blanchard and Misty Morgan; and A-1-A, the Jimmy Buffett album that featured “A Pirate Looks At Forty.”
     Woodland Sound was a winner. I won’t forget it.

                                          1998: Woodland after the tornado.
                                                Note damage to the facade.

Fred Foster Sound, 1964-1969


Fred Foster Sound Studios, 315 Seventh Avenue North, operated from 1964 to 1969, when the building was torn down to make way for an insurance office. At the time, Foster was the owner of Monument Records, the independent label that operated out of Nashville. Foster Sound was based on the top floor of the Cumberland Building, more commonly known as the Masonic Lodge. Foster’s place is sometimes confused with his other studio, Monument Recording, which operated in the Music Row area in the 1970s, after Foster Sound had closed. Fred Foster acquired his first studio from entrepreneur Sam Phillips, who had bought it in 1961 from Billy Sherill and Bill Cooner. Sherill stayed on as engineer and Phillips renamed the place the Sam Phillips Recording Service of Nashville. (This is the same Sherill who would become a producer at Columbia Nashville.) Three years later, Phillips sold it because he couldn’t devote enough attention to it while operating Sun Records and his other business holdings. Foster knew the studio would be a good acquisition.  "It was one of the best studios in town,” he once told me. “It was flexible for doing custom work as well as our [Monument’s] own.” He hired Bill Porter as engineer and later Mort Thomason and young apprentice Brent Maher. The studio’s three-track Ampex recorder was top-of-the-line for the early 1960s. The many hits cut at Foster Sound/Phillips studio included “Single Girl” by Sandy Posey; “Right Or Wrong” and “One Kiss For Old Time’s Sake,” Ronnie Dove; “What’d I Say,” Jerry Lee Lewis; “Mohair Sam,” Charlie Rich; “Hey, Paula,” Paul and Paula; “Down At Papa Joe’s,” the Dixie Belles; “GTO,” Ronnie and the Daytonas; and “Yakety Sax,” Boots Randolph.
     Too bad that I couldn’t see the building, for Fred Foster Sound was a magical recording studio—a place where great sounds and long-lasting music flourished.

Young ’Un Sound, 1969-1988

Session guitarist Chip Young founded Young ’Un Sound Studio in the late 1960s as his personal studio in Mufreesboro, Tenn., and later, as business increased, as a second, conventional studio at 114 17th Avenue South in Nashville. Nowadays, Young ’Un is remembered mainly for the home studio, which Young operated in a small log cabin on his farm, about 30 miles east of Nashville. Starting with a new 16-track Ampex recorder, one of Nashville’s earliest, Young recorded many clients—Delbert McClinton and Kris Kristofferson were among the cabin’s visitors—who sought the studio’s clean sound as well as Young’s reputation as a fine musician. The cabin studio was small—about 15 by 20 feet, including the control room. The walls and ceiling were made of logs, and the wood floor was covered with carpet. To ease space constraints, Young added a screened porch on which he could place the string players. He once told writer Richard Buskin that crickets can be heard on Buffett’s Havanna Daydreamin’ because they were chirping so loudly when the album’s strings were recorded. Young’s chief engineer was Glenn Rievf, but Young engineered many of the sessions himself. One of them was Billy Swan’s “I Can Help,” a bluesy pop hit from 1974. Young co-produced it with Swan at the cabin studio, using Young’s custom-built tube console. Despite the hits and the interest in his studio, Young didn’t get rich from owning it. It took too much of his time and money, so he closed his business in 1988. The building on Music Row later became Masterlink Studios.
     Sadly, the sounds of Young ’Un are no more.

These studios and many others are featured in 
Too Hot to Handle: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of American Recording Studios of the 20th Century, available through for $25.

Woodland rate card, 1978