Jack White's Third Man Records tells the world: Your Music City is not dead 

The House that Jack Built

The House that Jack Built
Jack White in front of Third Man Records

Jo McCaughey

Jack White in front of Third Man Records

It's an October night in Music City, a Friday, in a gritty industrial no-man's-land between downtown and The Gulch. Two years ago, nobody but street people and strip-club habitués would have been found down here after dark. Tonight, though, outside a black brick building beside the railroad tracks, a line of eager music fans wraps around the block.

The occasion is the Next Big Nashville festival. It's an annual plea for the music world to see Nashville as it sees itself — a buzzing hive for everything from jazz to gospel to classical, but especially a rock scene that's been primed for two decades to pop. It's barely 9 p.m., but for most in the serpentine queue, hopes of making it inside the mysterious building with the Tesla tower on top are futile. Already the room is at capacity.

Midway though a raucous set, local garage-punk quartet Heavy Cream bash away before a frenzied crowd of any and all ages. Bathed in blue, the band can be seen above the undulating human underbrush, all pumping fists and airborne elixirs. The excitement, the energy — they're palpable. Is this really Nashville?

Indeed, if the major-label hitmen and local paparazzi shut outside could peek within the curved blue walls, they'd see a city they might not recognize. In here, Music City is ahead of the musical curve, not chasing it. Here, buzzed-about acts travel hundreds, even thousands of miles to play, instead of driving past en route to other tour dates.

In a dark corner, taking in this view from the shadows, is a man clad head-to-toe in black. He is international rock superstar, guitar god and Nashville transplant Jack White, and this epicenter of cool, Third Man Records, is his house.

In it, no detail appears without purpose, as if art-directed to a photo-shoot T. And every artifact, from the photo booth in the corner, to the logo behind the stage, to the red sparkle-wrapped drum-kit with peppermint painted skins — familiar to anyone who's ever seen a White Stripes video — bears the fingerprints of White's seeming Midas touch.

"People always look at the finished product and they assume it was written down on paper beforehand," White tells the Scene one afternoon, long after the crowds are gone and the blue lights dimmed. "The funniest thing is, the bands, and the building, and these records, they're all the exact opposite — they're all just happenstance."

Still, for anyone venturing into this room for the first time, it all just looks too perfect. In a sense, it is. Local rockers hoped White's cachet of cool would galvanize the scene when he planted roots here four years ago — even if they feared he'd overshadow them.

But past experience made the acclaimed rocker slow to impose his identity and curatorial savvy upon a music city so steeped in its own traditions. From The White Stripes' early success in Detroit's happening garage-rock scene of the 1990s, and the resentment it fostered, White knew the pitfalls of local rock politics and pissing contests. By the time he left, bands he'd helped get national attention tried to get even more by slagging him publicly and milking confrontations for coverage.

"I tread lightly on the scene in Nashville because I don't wanna infiltrate it and be too involved in it," he says. "I got really burned in Detroit, being heavily involved in the scene up there, so it's a little bit scary. I have some trepidation about it. I don't wanna cause any problems" — he laughs — "you know? I don't wanna interrupt the flow of what's naturally happening with [Nashville] bands either."

So instead of painting the town a White Stripes red and white, he settled for black and yellow (and white). He recruited a tight group of close confidants to start up Third Man — a boutique record label, store, production and distribution center, photo studio, and live music venue. Each show is recorded, and most are released as live albums — souvenirs of an experience, not a concert.

In so doing, Third Man Records has produced one of the most counterintuitive, and inspiring, business models the music industry has seen since the extinction-level advent of digital. Its releases are primarily vinyl. Promotion and marketing costs are almost nil. Above all, its artist roster is driven by personal taste.

And yet Third Man has become something of an indie-rock tourist destination — a magnet that attracts collectors, early adopters and vinyl junkies, as well as the attention of typically indifferent-to-Nashville media. Its headquarters acts as a veritable Chocolate Factory to White's Willy Wonka. And there's almost as much curiosity, and misconception, about what goes on inside.

People know Third Man is a store, but what does it sell? They know Conan played there, but who could get in? They've heard there's a recording studio inside. There isn't. Why do they wear matching suits? Because they feel like it.

True, the place is a monument to Jack White's musical accomplishments. But the dirty secret behind Third Man is that it's not a vanity project. You don't have to be a fan of White's to find records there you'd like but have never heard. And for those of you who are fans of White's, well, there's Mastercard.

It also helps if you own a record player. If not, they sell those too — in addition to headphones, and any other item that accompanies onset audiophilia.

Third Man's slogan, "Your Turntable Is Not Dead," applies to both the products they sell and the experience they provide. In this day of featureless digital downloads — the boneless skinless chicken breast of the music industry — White is the rare post-Napster artist who's a celebrity even to people who don't follow music closely.

Accordingly, the label's focus is on the tangible. While the rest of the music business struggles to keep up with ringtones and apps, Third Man is doing the opposite — investing in, and capitalizing on, the visceral appreciation of collectible vinyl artifacts, as if records were baseball cards or comic books. And just as the card collector gets little intrinsic payoff from a JPEG of Mickey Mantle, significant numbers of Jack White's fans get little from an MP3.

"I think the labels are just as confused as the fans are — confused by how many formats, and how many different types of experiences are thrown at them just from the Internet alone," says White, who describes his business and his aims in quick, disarmingly conversational terms. "[With] this place, we start with something real, and tangible, and things that you can only get and experience if you got up off your seat and went and did it.

"It's kids getting real records in their hands and listening to them, and starting a whole new trek down some other path that's not digital, not invisible, not disposable. It's about appreciating real experiences, and real objects, and art that can be appreciated, listened to, and loved."

Step inside the tiny storefront, and you'll see what's essentially a glorified merch-table display. Tour souvenirs and framed photos give a cursory history lesson of White's successes. Yellow tinted windows cast a golden glow throughout the shop, resonating off the yellow and black wood paneling, gold tin roof and black floor.

This space may be about 400 square feet, but it houses a carnival of antiquity. The store is decorated in eye-catching trinkets and gadgets: button dispensers, a wooden phone booth, stuffed birds, shrunken heads, vintage Victrolas, a coin-operated automated monkey band. Perhaps the last thing you notice is the lone record rack to your right.

Yet its seemingly modest selection of records — remember them? — is where Jack White's heart lies. Dig through and you'll find a treasure trove of releases you'd be hard pressed to find aggregated at any other record store. LPs and 45s span artists as wide-ranging as Flat Duo Jets founder Dex Romweber, rockabilly pioneer Wanda Jackson, Swedish psychedelic outfit Dungen, even the late astronomer Carl Sagan.

Each is produced and overseen by White and manufactured in house. And each is a testament to the fastidious, hands-on presentation for which he is known.

On the opposite side of the building is its anchor, known as "The Blue Room." Originally intended as a joint rehearsal space/photo-studio — complete with adjoining darkroom — it has evolved into Nashville's latest concert venue, accommodating an audience of 300 or more.

But the performances you're likely to see there are unlike any you'll see at clubs in this city or any other. Like when White flew legendary Japanese garage-rock trio The's around the world to Nashville for a one-off gig, then got up and jammed with them. Or when he tapped Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, to host the label's Halloween shindig.

Or, yes, when Conan O'Brien stopped in for a performance last year on his way to Bonnaroo — an experience Coco described on the premiere episode of his TBS show (with White as a guest) as "one of the highlights of my tour, and my life."

All the shows in The Blue Room are recorded, and most are released (even Conan's). It's the only venue in the world where concerts can be recorded live direct to analog tape. That includes lesser-known artists like comedian Reggie Watts and locals like PUJOL.

Since opening in March 2009, Third Man now has an impressive 74 titles. Two weeks ago, the label released JEFF the Brotherhood's Live at Third Man, and on Tuesday they'll put out Wanda Jackson's The Party Ain't Over — an album White produced and performed on with the rockabilly queen and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee.

If you ask White, he'll say he's not trying to make over Nashville's street cred or give the town's artists a ride on his long coattails. But as Third Man's fame spreads, it's getting harder and harder to tell. After all, it's happenstance. So how did Nashville end up holding the golden ticket?

"I wanted to live down South when I was trying to leave Detroit," says White, who was looking for somewhere to explore his bone-deep affinity for Southern music and folklore. "I just looked everywhere — Mississippi, South Carolina, Kentucky — and I kept finding myself working in Nashville for reasons out of my control.

"And it sort of just hit me over the head, 'There's a reason I keep coming here.' At first it was Tennessee: I thought, 'Memphis.' But Memphis is too similar to Detroit."

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