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As Nashville booms, iconic Studio B hangs on to music history

A vintage phocaptures exterior RCA Studio B exterior. | Phocourtesy Country Music Hall Fame Museum

A vintage photo captures the exterior of the RCA Studio B exterior. | Photo courtesy of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

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Historic RCA Studio B remains one of the world’s most important and successful recording studios. More than 35,000 songs were recorded there, including more than 1,000 American hits, 40 million-selling singles, and more than 200 Elvis Presley songs.

Guided tours of the studio on Nashville’s Music Row depart daily from the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, and are sold only in conjunction with museum admission ($17-$35) from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tickets are available at the museum’s box office or online. Roundtrip transportation is included. Seats are limited. Visit www.countrymusichallof

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Updated: January 31, 2013 6:22AM

NASHVILLE. Tenn. — Music City is getting as big as a Dolly Parton smile.

And it is blossoming through dramatic nips and tucks.

I’ve been going to Nashville since the early 1980s when I stayed at the old Shoney’s Inn by the Conway Twitty gift shop and George Jones car museum. That area is now a nightlife district with trendy bars. A new $623 million downtown convention center is being built adjacent to the new Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. It will be the size of three football fields and is the most expensive publicly-financed complex in Tennessee history. (The National Rifle Association is slated to bring 50,000 visitors to this new Music City Center in the spring of 2015).

Just a couple weeks ago I couldn’t find downtown street parking in the middle of a weekday just to run into Ernest Tubb’s Record Shop to pick up Red Simpson trucking music.

What I saw in Nashville (pop. 626,680) reminded me of the late 1990s growth spurt in Austin, Tex. The 1980 population of Nashville was 455,651, according to the Nashville Convention & Visitors Bureau. These days you have to work it to find an “A” game tour of vintage Nashville.

Historic RCA Studio B will do the trick.

Studio B, Roy Acuff Place at 17th Avenue South (Music Row, just mile and a half west of downtown) is one of the most important recording studios in the world. More than 35,000 songs were recorded there, resulting in hits for Parton, Roy Orbison, the Everly Brothers and others. Elvis Presley recorded at least 250 songs in the magical Studio B, which opened in November, 1957 as RCA Studios, under the auspices of producer-guitarist Chet Atkins and RCA operating honcho Steve Sholes. (When RCA built a larger studio next door in 1964, that became known as Studio A.)

Studio B closed in 1977, and in 1992 was donated to the Country Music Hall of Fame. The studio is now operated by the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and Belmont University’s Mike Curb College of Entertainment and Music Business program. Earlier this year the studio was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Daily tours of Studio B are offered by the Country Music Hall of Fame. I jumped in the tour line because Bobby Bare recorded his new country-folk album “Darker Than Light” in Studio B. The studio is rarely put into play for big-name recording sessions; it’s used daily by Belmont University students. I’m a big Bare fan. He recorded his biggest 1960s hits like “Detroit City” (later covered by Tom Jones), and “Shame on Me” in Studio B.

All studio tours depart from the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, and tickets are only sold in conjunction with museum admission. I missed the tour bus. Before the tour group arrived, I was hanging around the studio front door like some sorry song pitcher. I was lucky enough to bump into Studio B manager Luke Gilfeather, who worked on Bare’s album.

Gilfeather, 43, explained how the magical spirit prevails in Studio B.

“They used off-the-shelf materials,” he said. “I’ve done research, and RCA was saving money when they picked the acoustic tiles. Something does go on here outside of it being self-fulfilling. Early on Don Gibson started turning hits. Over 1,000 Top Ten hits came out of here. This became a place in Nashville to cut hits. It is a musical room. It seems to do ‘quiet’ well. When you do ‘quiet’ in here there is tremendous depth to the sound, in that everything tends to sound big.

“When they were playing in here without headphones, everybody had to play quiet anyway. The vocalist would be standing in the [northeast] corner [a lucky spot for Orbison, Jim Reeves, Dottie West]. [Nashville session bassist] Bob Moore told me Elvis did a lot of his stuff right here [in the middle of the room near the piano]. Bob would be right next to him. But Roy Orbison’s voice was so soft, everybody had to play very quietly. They had to isolate him in the corner so instruments wouldn’t get in his microphone. They started using a coat rack before eventually building the [pegboard and rug] baffles you see today. Marty Stuart recorded his ‘Ghost Train’ sessions here two years ago and one of the things he said was the quiet tunes they played had tremendous space around their instruments. Background singers would stand near the (south) alley.”

Don’t forget to ask your tour guide about the tiny indentation on exterior wall facing the south alley. That’s where Parton smashed her car into the wall in September, 1967, after rushing to Studio B for her first recording session in the iconic space.

Presley also believed in iconic good luck charms. He recorded late Sunday night and into the early Monday morning, some say to get away from executive producer Atkins. The King set the Studio B mood with red lighting for rock ‘n’ roll and blue lights for gospel and blues-influenced material.

The tour points out homespun tricks deployed in Studio B, such as the 1967 Jim Ed Brown smash “Pop a Top.” Producers wanted to begin the song with the in-your-face sound of a pull-tab being opened on a can of beer. Someone was going to fetch a six pack of beer, but the Studio B staff figured it would be too warm to drink after the session. Instead, they used Dr. Pepper.

All the Studio B sessions were done live with musicians playing a the same time. Studio B is vintage analog (x’s were taped on the floor to denote “sweet spots”), in stark contrast to the all-digital recording world of today. Gilfeather has used fabric as a metaphor for the sound: Digital is nylon, analog is velvet. And velvet always feels nicer.

Sessions like Bare’s are living history at Studio B.

“When we started cutting Bare we had him as far away from the control room he could be,” Gilfeather recalled. “He said he felt like he was riding in the back of the pick up when everybody else up in front. So we stuck him in the middle of the room. We tried to use the traditional spots when Studio B was in its’its hey day. He came back a couple years ago to play with My Morning Jacket. They did a Shel Silverstein tune (Bare’s hit “Lullabyes, Legends and Lies” for the 2010 Silverstein tribute album “Twistable, Turnable Man”.)

Gilfeather sat down on a piano bench adjacent to the studio’s original 1942 Steinway. It may be the most historic piano in America. It was brought in when Studio B opened. Floyd Cramer’s cigarette butts were found throughout the piano before it was restored. The Country Music Hall of Fame gathered the butts and they are now part of the museum’s archives.

“Floyd Cramer always played with his back to everybody,” Gilfeather said.

Cramer was Nashville’s premiere piano player in the 1960s. It is his piano you hear on the period hits of Patsy Cline, Presley and others. Gilfeather nodded to the piano and said, “Floyd Cramer’s (1960 solo hit) ‘Last Date’ was cut on that. That was the piano for all the hits in here. I’ve been lucky to hear a lot from a lot of people who were here. I ask the guys when they come in if much has changed. They said it feels the same. The biggest change is this glass [so tour groups can look in the studio] wasn’t here. They call this ‘The House that Chet [Atkins] Build.’ It was his idea that RCA should have a presence for recording here, and this was really the first purpose-built studio in Nashville. [RCA excutive] William Miltenburg drew up the plans for this building on a dinner napkin.”

Their plans evolved into a moveable feast of popular American music.

FROM THE SUN-TIMES MUSIC ARCHIVES: Read my 1998 interview with Chet Atkins at . He died in 2001 at the age of 77.

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