Reading the Row 

Sing Me Back Home

Sing Me Back Home

The best way to experience Music Row is from the seat of one of the trolleys that regularly departs from the Country Music Hall of Fame. A few weeks ago, I took the standard tourist tour. My guides were Frank and Tony, and, as the trolley crept along 16th and 17th Avenues, I was reminded that this, the Vatican City of country music, was once a traditional neighborhood—a turn-of-the-century suburb that was home to Vanderbilt and Peabody professors and students. Even now, the area retains the small land parcels, alleys, and sidewalks that characterized residential living before the advent of the automobile.

During my tour of the Row, I was surrounded by a standard band of sweaty music fans. Like the grandstand crowd at a tennis match, we craned our necks, straining to see the sights.

It makes sense that the quiet, residential character of Music Row’s streets should have given birth to a cottage industry with a reputation for intimacy and informality. In the minds of the people who work on the Row, that casual homeyness became a necessary component of their creativity. In the Music City myth, millions could be made while sittin’ and strummin’ on the front porch swing.

The first music enterprise on what would become Music Row began in the recording studio Owen Bradley created in 1956 by knocking out a floor of an old house. Subsequent recordings were made in Bradley’s famous Quonset Hut or within the low-rise concrete block walls of RCA’s Studio B. Music was written in and published from the neighborhood’s spacious turn-of-the-century houses—the kind with beveled-glass front doors, narrow sidewalks, and broad front porches shaded by large trees.

The look of the place continues to send out a mixed message—of good country people come to town but still longing for home. From a seat on a Music Row trolley, the look is an amalgam of suburban office park, early-20th- century neighborhood, and country kitsch, the architectural expression of a big business uncomfortable with the idea of big business. It is a place of weird architecture—and it is our own.

Like Vatican City in Rome, Music Row is both a workplace and a holy of holies, a place of financial power and a focal point of faith. But the classically inspired structures of the Vatican, even though they were built over hundreds of years, convey a message that is all of a piece. They suggest stability and permanence, hierarchy and order. The home of the papacy has had hundreds of years to figure out how to conduct business-as-usual amidst a swarm of fans. Music Row has been a mecca for decades, not for centuries. In that short time, the Row’s architectural character has been hybridized to the point of schizophrenia.

The Country Music Hall of Fame is the holy barn of country music. Housing the Hall of Fame itself, a museum of country music artifacts, and the offices and library of the Country Music Foundation, it has long been the major tourist attraction on Music Row. Indeed, word of the Hall of Fame’s imminent departure for the downtown tourist district has virtually forced the Row to reassess its future.

The Music Row Visioning Committee—a group of industry volunteers that includes Ed Benson, executive director of the Country Music Association; public relations executive and deal-maker Bill Hudson; Nashville Gas president and Music Row property owner Bill Denny; Country Music Foundation director Bill Ivey; and guitarist/producer Steve Gibson—is now fine-tuning a list of goals and guidelines for new development on or near the Row. The committee plans to present its visioning document, prepared with the assistance of developer Bobby Mathews, to the Metro Development and Housing Agency sometime in the fall.

The committee does not seem much concerned with increasing the tourist presence on Music Row. Neither are they talking about building more tall towers. Instead, they are talking about a continuation of the Music City legend. They are talking about big corporate business, but there is still a lot of talk about down-home dreams.

It’s easy to imagine the congregation of a country church gathering in the Hall of Fame’s central hall on a Sunday morning, the light of God streaming through the curtain of glass and bathing their bowed heads. At the Hall of Fame, however, heads are bowed to get a better view of the exhibit labels that describe Elvis’ gold-and-white Cadillac and the relics of country’s other canonized saints. This is the architecture of a sacred space, not of a billion-dollar industry.

Built in 1967 and expanded a decade later, the building, according to Country Music Foundation director Bill Ivey, was inspired by the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City. “It was an early major architectural statement for the Row,” says Ivey, “and an obvious symbolic choice.”

In its early years, the country music business was scattered all over town. “Many recordings were made downtown, at the WSM studios in the National Life building, or at Castle Studios in the old Tulane Hotel. And Acuff-Rose was in Melrose,” Ivey says. The neighborhood near Vanderbilt was attractive because it offered, for modest prices, big, old houses that could be converted to other uses. What’s more, the area was close to downtown without being part of it.

During the ’60s and ’70s, Ivey explains, “The hallmark of the industry was the adaptive reuse of residences, and that’s still a subtext. Garth Brooks has his offices in two of them.” One of the Row’s continuing attractions is that it allows “operations with shoestring budgets to be in proximity to the bigger businesses.”

Every morning finds country music’s pilgrims wandering the Row in search of stars, queuing up at the Hall of Fame, and boarding the trolley for the short ride to Studio B—the home of 1,000 hits. The Row includes parts of 18th Avenue and various intersecting Music Circles, but the heart of the Row is 16th and 17th Avenues South. “It is where the music is made,” says Ivey, “where the industry has its offices and studios.” Asked if his definition of Music Row includes Demonbreun Street, he replies, “I don’t think so.”

In the minds of the industry, the business of making music is carefully segregated from the souvenir stands clustering on the Row’s flank. “The days of the T-shirt shops probably need to go away,” says Bill Hudson. “It’s got to do with the image of Music Row.”

The Row’s preferred image, says CMA’s Ed Benson, is “a community of creative excellence, not a storefront industry. We appreciate the fans, and it’s natural that they want to see where the music is made. But we don’t want tourists visiting the office buildings. We don’t have the facilities to handle them.”

There may be other motivations for keeping the tourists at arm’s length. “There is a real sense of ambiguity about the tourists,” says Metro Council member Leo Waters, who lives in the neighborhood and operates a tourist brochure distribution service on Demonbreun. “Some of the music people are embarrassed by the gift shops. And I’m not sure that some wouldn’t like to see 16th and 17th Avenues closed off to traffic entirely.”

Ivey says this sense of ambiguity is nothing new. “The industry has always had an ambivalent relationship with visitors out here,” he says. “The industry wants to connect to its fans, but they also want stars and executives to feel comfortable going to and from their place of work. So there hasn’t been an overt attempt to appeal to tourists.” He recalls attending meetings where there was talk of installing signs on the Row to lead tourists to historic sites and various events. “There’s never a real negative reaction” to the idea, Ivey says, “but there’s no great enthusiasm either.”

The Hall of Fame’s trolley tours do interpret Music Row as an historic site, while giving fans a hint of what goes on behind the scenes. There are stories of tourists leaving the trolley and heading off down the Row, where they knock on a door and ask, “I understand this is Garth’s office. Is he here?” Such incidents only encourage the reputation of Music Row tourists as intruders. “No one has ever asked us to stop pointing out where Garth Brooks’ office is,” Ivey says, “but if someone did it wouldn’t shock me.”

The trolley tours will continue after the Hall of Fame’s relocation, but other businesses that cater to the tourist trade are fearful that the museum’s departure will spell disaster for their incomes. Ivey says there are ways to mitigate the negative impact of the move. He talks about creating “a new attraction related to the history of Music Row on the current site of the Hall of Fame,” and he insists that “there will always be a fascination with where the stars make music.” But even Ivey admits that “the question is how great a concentration of tourist-related businesses will remain. There’s a lot of pressure right now for more office and studio space.”

There’s a strong sense of insider vs. outsider on Music Row. The neighborhood, like the nearby campuses of Belmont and Vanderbilt Universities, is frequently talked about as a small community within a larger one. “How to preserve the campus feel of Music Row is the primary issue addressed by the Visioning Committee,” says CMA’s Benson, who sees the physical proximity of the various studios and offices as an asset to the entire country music industry, not just to those who work on the Row. “There is no Tin Pan Alley anymore, and Los Angeles has always sprawled. The Nashville music business is unique,” Benson says. “People come here from New York and L.A., and they love the fact that they can schedule meetings on the hour and walk from one to the next without allowing for a lot of drive time.”

On the other hand, it is difficult to maintain a campus feeling amidst commerce and cars. Just ask the planners at Vanderbilt University.

At one time, the Vanderbilt campus was crisscrossed by public streets and faced outward to the surrounding neighborhood. As the character of the neighborhood changed, however—threatening the university’s ambience of thoughtful tranquility—Vanderbilt’s planning gradually changed direction. The primary façades of the buildings turned to face interior quadrangles rather than the street. Many public rights-of-way were closed. Thru traffic was actively discouraged. Monumental masonry piers, iron fences, and hedges of magnolia now mark the border between Vanderbilt and everything else.

The Music Row Visioning Committee is facing similar issues. They want to preserve the Row’s pedestrian ambience. They want more traffic and less parking. And they want to chart out the future growth of an area where there is a finite amount of land, much of which is already densely developed.

Traditionally, the average American city has had the option of growing up or growing out. Neither option seems to appeal to Music Row, however. To grow upward would be citified. It would run counter to the anti-urban impulse of country music. “People in the music business,” explains Benson, “don’t necessarily like a high-rise building as an image for the industry.”

Music Row’s first, and only, high rise, the United Artists tower, was constructed in the mid-’70s, Ivey explains, as “a speculative office tower, without a primary tenant.” The building struggled for a long time. For the music industry, Ivey says, “The idea of riding up in an elevator was not appealing. That told future developers that the industry liked low rise.”

Now, with the influx of music executives from New York and L.A., there may be a bigger market for high-rise building, Benson suggests. Property on the north side of Demonbreun might be ripe for such development, which “could satisfy a certain amount of the demand for new offices brought by immigrants from [New York and L.A.],” Benson says.

Already, there are rumors that one group of “immigrants” is already planning to build a high rise. “It’s my understanding,” says one longtime Row resident, “that BMG is looking at several pieces of land across Demonbreun—one of them the old Gilley’s site—for a 20-to-30-story tower. That whole area is zoned commercial, it’s underutilized, and it has a great view of downtown.” Still, there is one drawback, the insider notes: “No one wants to build a nice modern building and sit looking at a hot dog stand.”

The Visioning Committee expects that mid-rise buildings will continue to cluster on the northern end of 16th and 17th Avenues, gradually replacing the old houses that remain there. Some companies are so desperate for land at the north end of the Row that they are willing to pay above-market prices for it. According to a real estate agent who specializes in Music Row property, Capitol Records paid over $60 a square foot for the property where its new headquarters is under construction. “That’s a lot more than what the area’s worth,” says the real estate agent, “but they wanted to return from exile on West End. And paying too much for land is a Music Row tradition. I heard that Warner Brothers didn’t even deal for their property; they paid list.”

Meanwhile, if the industry were to attempt to grow outward, it might find itself moving into neighborhoods where the music business would not be particularly welcome. Beyond the Music Squares and Music Circles, there are limits about what can be demolished and what can be built. For example, Metro Council member Stewart Clifton says that the Subarea 10 plan calls for the retention of the residential scale of structures south of Horton Street, if not the actual structures themselves. According to Clifton, property owners are already contemplating a zoning overlay that would “retain the architectural character” if not the residential land use of the southern end of Music Row.

Ed Benson says that the Subarea 10 plan is consistent with his committee’s vision of the future: “We don’t want to lose the small entrepreneurs, the start-up businesses. They’re part of our creativity. The [independent labels] may prefer an old house, and south of Horton is an area that can still lend itself to that cottage-industry feel.”

Meanwhile, Vanderbilt lies to the west of Music Row. And to the east lies an enclave of middle-class blacks, living in homes wedged between the Row and I-40. To tangle with either neighborhood would be to stir up a hornet’s nest of political problems. If the music industry is to spread out, it must make the jump across Demonbreun to grow. And now, more than ever, it will have to deal with cars.

Every day during the rush hour, commuters hurtle along 16th and 17th Avenues, heading downtown from the west side of town. “I think the only reason pedestrians haven’t been killed crossing the street,” says Ivey, “is that it is so obviously dangerous that people are extraordinarily careful. It’s safe for all the wrong reasons.”

At present, Magnolia Boulevard, a connector that diverts cars away from Hillsboro Village to Demonbreun and downtown, funnels traffic into the Row. Eventually, the Demonbreun traffic will reach downtown via the six-lane Franklin Street corridor.

In the early planning stages of the corridor, some consideration was given to a linking into 12th Avenue South. The option of linking Magnolia and the Franklin Street corridor with 12th Avenue rather than Demonbreun still appeals to many denizens of Music Row. But that solution would also be highly controversial. It would divert commuter traffic through a primarily black neighborhood.

Ironically, the traffic problems on the Row are the result of efforts to encourage the music business. In the late 1960s, according to then-Planning Commission director Farris Deep, representatives of the music business approached Nashville Mayor Beverly Briley with a futuristic vision of their own. Their goal was to encourage the growth of the industry with a little help from friends in city government.

Ultimately, Briley gave the Council a proposal for a six-lane boulevard running all the way from 21st Avenue, west of Hillsboro Village, to Demonbreun Street. Illustrations in the music journals of the day show a Music Boulevard lined with starkly modern high-rise towers elevated on piers.

The purpose of the boulevard was not just to make it easier for commuters to get from the west into downtown. It was an attempt to make Music Row a prestigious address, the sort of address that any corporation would be proud to print on its stationery. The new boulevard would have required the demolition of everything east of the alley that runs parallel to16th and 17th Avenues. In those days of urban renewal, Briley’s Boulevard was part of the University Center plan—the plan that devoured all the residential neighborhoods south of Vanderbilt, all the way to Blakemore.

James Hamilton, who represented the Music Row area in Metro Council and who lived in a pre-Civil War house that still stands at the head of Music Square West, strongly objected to the plan. An active neighborhood opposition formed to support his stance.

“I had just moved back to Nashville,” remembers neighborhood activist and Vanderbilt lobbyist Betty Nixon, “and I immediately became embroiled in the fighting because I lived nearby. It was the boulevard issue that involved me in politics, that ultimately got me into the Council.”

According to Nixon’s recollection, “The music industry supported the boulevard.” But Nixon cautions that “you have to remember that Nashville wasn’t Music City U.S.A. at this point. Briley’s vision was to give the industry a strong business presence.”

Only one part of Briley’s Boulevard was completed, the curious strip that is Magnolia Boulevard. The blame for the defeat of the plan lies with greedy land speculators, although neighborhood activists are happy to take credit for short-circuiting Briley’s master-building.

Once the city had announced plans to acquire the land, says Farris Deep, “there was excessive land speculation that drove up the costs of acquisition for a public right-of-way.” As a result, the state Department of Transportation came up with an alternate plan: 16th Avenue would be one way headed downtown; 17th would be one way headed westward. The Planning Commission agreed with the alternative, and not just because it was cheaper. Deep says the commission “basically felt that the boulevard would be difficult for pedestrians, tourists to cross.”

Property owners on the Row were disappointed. “They had invested in the land at a high price,” Deep recalls. “At the same time, they made the mistake of pushing for a massive rezoning north of Edgehill that flooded the market with commercial property and further reduced property values. They just went too fast.”

So do the commuters on Music Row. And for the people who do business there, parking is an increasing problem. Unlike the distant suburbs, Music Row does not have acres of undeveloped property that can be used for surface parking. And underground parking is hardly an affordable option. When you dig down eight feet on Music Row, like most everywhere else in Nashville, you hit bedrock. Meanwhile, Benson argues that multilevel parking would mitigate “the campus feel” on the Row. Once again Music Row is trapped on the fence between practicality and ideology, refusing to jump.

The ASCAP and BMI buildings are home to the not-for-profit powerbrokers of the music industry. These are the agencies that protect the rights of the songwriters, even if it means muscling the Girl Scouts. Ironically, the buildings of these two not-for-profits are the slickest on the Row, the buildings that speak the most unabashedly corporate language.

The ASCAP building is all precast concrete and reflective glass, with an interior in black and white, chrome, and marble. Designed by Tom Bulla, Music Row’s unofficial architect-in-residence, and with interiors by Keith Lightsey, it features an atrium and a red-and-white leather conference room that offers a splendid view of the old Hank Williams ranchburger and the endless stream of traffic fighting its way through the intersection-from-hell at the top of Demonbreun.

“ASCAP is based in New York,” explains Bulla, “and there was a real New York influence. It may be a branch, but it’s still on a grand scale.” That desire for grand scale, and the building’s position on a corner lot, resulted in a structure with three primary frontages—one for the parking lot to the side, a curving façade at the intersection, and another for the street. Sort of like the three faces of Eve.

BMI first established its physical presence on the Row with a low-slung, modernist brick building on a small lawn that borrowed much from the suburban ranch house. When a portico and a new wing were added, they spoke much the same language. Now the brutalist addition by Earl Swensson Associates quashes suburb-speak into numb silence.

What the new BMI tells us is how difficult it is to deal with multi-level parking above grade while maintaining the scale of the Row. The new—with all flags flying—is devouring the old in a battle of styles that the ruthless concrete interloper cannot fail to win.

The ceremonial entrance to the BMI building is located on Music Circle North. It leads to a lobby that is a grand exercise in pretension. The oversize scale and roughly stuccoed piers and walls suggest the Baths of Caracalla, while the fieldstone floor goes native. An inscribed quote from John Dryden dwarfs the workers at the reception desk—“The trumpet shall be heard on high/The dead shall live, the living die,” etc. We’ve gone from Butcher Holler to the Second Coming.

ASCAP and BMI are music as power, or rather, they are places where musicians/songwriters clearly are power players. But it is SONY Music Publishing, on Music Square West right behind ASCAP, that reveals the most about how a country music company displays and disguises its economic clout. The building’s exterior has an undistinguished, office-park feel; it consists of warm brick and cool reflective glass—the standard building materials on much of the Row—jostling for supremacy. Near the sidewalk, four SONY bird feeders play host to doves and sparrows, whose coos and twitterings are lost in the sounds of traffic rushing by.

“The absolute premise” of the interior of SONY Music Publishing, according to architect Bulla, “was to make it homey.” There are fireplaces in the lobby and in the conference room. There are wood floors, antiques—authentic and pseudo—area rugs, and tapestries in rich colors. CEO Donna Hilley’s office has the look of a traditional living/dining combo, and there are no fluorescent lights anywhere. This is corporate office space making like a sorority house.

Other recent additions to the Row have a similar effect—so normal to insiders but unsettling to outsiders—of the casual making of millions. “Brick says tradition,” says Bulla. “With the Opryland Music Group, there was no consideration of anything else.” The New Capitol Records building will also be brick, he promises, and it will have “windows that open, even if they have to be motorized.”

On the Row, Bulla says, “Everyone wants the warm feel of a home. I ask a client on the Row about studio space, and we end up talking about French doors. Music Row is very peculiar, because it’s all about being part of the old Music Row—and that was houses.”

When Warner/Reprise built its new building on Music Row, the self-conscious demand was for a style that was “studied casual.” “We had lived in a building on Division Street that was once Dr. Barr’s Infirmary and was later a home for unwed mothers,” explains Eddie Reeves, Warner/Reprise executive VP and general manager. “It was like an old fraternity or sorority house, where people could put their feet up on the tables. We wanted to keep that residential feel in the new place—but of course we didn’t, and probably couldn’t, totally accomplish it.”

What architect Seab Tuck did accomplish for Warner Brothers is a building finely detailed in materials of gray brick, dry stack limestone, wood—in both natural and black stains—steel, and glass. Just inside the door, the sense of entrance is marred by a blank wood panel. It was supposed to display the logos of the various labels housed in the building, but there have been so many buy-outs and takeovers that the plaques have never been hung. The great hall on the building’s second level features exposed wooden rafters and black leather furniture, and it opens into a conference room and terrace high in the treetops.

“I was told that [Warner/Reprise] needed almost 40,000 square feet for close to 100 employees,” says Tuck, “but that they wanted it to feel like a house.” What Tuck’s client got was the effect of an upscale resort hotel, which is probably as close to home as an architect can get when he’s making this much space for this many people. Wide rather than high, the Warner/Reprise headquarters has a mass that is not exactly neighborly.

If you want to create a sense of family in 40,000 square feet of Class-A office space, it doesn’t take a house; it takes a village. Otherwise, you get a building with a split personality. Nowhere is that schizophrenia more in evidence that in “Reba’s building.” Reba McEntire’s Starstruck Entertainment is housed in a brand-new monument that is the architectural equivalent of big hair. The structure is a decidedly odd combination of expensive and cheap, down-home and city slicker.

The conspicuous consumption of the granite around the major openings in the façade is undercut by the walls of spray-on concrete. The gabled profile has a long history on houses, but at this scale it recalls the latest Kroger makeovers. The green reflective glass windows and vaguely Wrightian postmodern light standards say this is the ’90s, or maybe the ’80s. The dry-stack fieldstone walls and the babbling brook, alongside which graze a bronze mare and foal, transcend time—and architectural sense—entirely.

The Row does make sense, however, in its own way. Take the landscaping, for example. Country music may be an industry, but it is not an industry that works amidst bland corporate vegetation. There are real flowers blooming here, perennials and annuals. Beside Reba’s building grows one of my special favorites—portulaca, the kind I remember from my mother’s garden, the kind that grew in pie pans during my Mississippi days.

That small memory is exactly the point. “Country music is about family values and everyday life,” says Warner/Reprise’s Reeves. “Its stars pride themselves on being regular people who speak plainly.” Music Row’s architecture, however, is hardly plainspoken. It is a confusing expression of the tension between modern commerce and country culture.

Bill Ivey is right when he says that Music Row found a home where it did because the area offered relatively inexpensive land that was near downtown. But there’s more to it than that. A fledgling cottage industry gravitated to a residential neighborhood because it felt at home there.

“Country music puts home’s enveloping love and kindness against materialism, social status, hurdles of hierarchy, and all sorts of false value systems,” writes Vanderbilt professor Cecilia Tichi. “Repeatedly, country music positions the home directly against the opposing values represented by urbanism.”

In many ways, country music continues to defy the realities of social change. The Nashville music industry, however, must plan for its physical growth, taking into account the urban fact that it will inevitably have to deal with more workers, less space, and more cars. The goals developed by the Visioning Committee offer a compromise between the belief system of country music and the industry of country music. Achieving those goals will be a real high-wire act.

A look at the recent architecture on the Row reveals just how difficult it is to achieve an integrity of expression when creative dreams are at odds with business realities. The homey touches that are part of the design of so many recent Music Row buildings are good-luck charms. They are like dice hanging from a rearview mirror, reminders that the music business is always a game of chance. Music Row needs homey buildings like a gambler needs a rabbit’s foot: to keep the magic happening, to keep the dollars coming in.

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