Nashville

 


 

As soon as the words left her lips, my chest heaved with excitement and the widest of smiles curled across my face. Everyone else wore a curious expression of slack-jawed apprehension and quiet anxiety. Three times the invitation came but I held back, willing the others to take their turn first so I could savour the moment unrushed. Nobody moved. They shuffled uncomfortably, flashed nervous smiles at one another, but all eight remained rooted to their spot on the tired vinyl. Maybe they thought it was tantamount to desecration. Perhaps they felt unworthy. I was as bewildered by their unwillingness as they were by my enthusiasm.

 

Slowly I sat on the cushioned stool, forced myself to exhale the giddiness. I recalled a song I'd first heard when I was four, maybe five years old, a favourite I'd played over and over again ever since. I reached out and stroked the ivory, ever so gently in case age and occasion had rendered it brittle, and dragged my fingertips up and down the keys. Smooth, but not without a tiny nick here and there. Back along the ivory and off, a flick of the wrist to catch a fingernail beneath the edge of a key. Along and down and a final stroke of the wooden frame's silk finish.

I glanced around the room at the acoustic tiles; some were immaculate, others torn and scrubbed. They'd heard it all, every note, every beat, every glorious crescendo. To be a tile on a wall in that room, to bear witness to the birth of over 35,000 songs, no less than a thousand top ten hits. I wasn't so much standing on the shoulders of giants, but sitting in their seat.

RCA Studio B in Nashville was a commercial recording studio for just 21 years, but in that time its output defined a musical genre that transformed American culture. The Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Roger Miller and dozens of other A-list artists of the 60s and 70s recorded in Studio B and crafted the Nashville Sound, channelling country music into the mainstream.

The moment had blindsided me. I'd visited the monumental Country Hall of Fame and Museum, idled through the flamboyant colours and sounds of the exhibits with grudging enthusiasm. I wasn't in town because I was a diehard, heel-kicking fan of its music, but because Nashville is one of those stand-out American cities you figure you should get around to visiting someday. The tour of Studio B meant a short bus journey to Music Row in the western suburbs and I'd taken the ride for the sake of completeness, at least until Laura the tour guide teased her passengers with the names of its most famous artists.

Elvis Presley? Elvis recorded in Memphis, he wasn't a country artist. No, Laura explained, Elvis Aaron Presley recorded at Studio B for 15 years until 1971 and not just one or two songs either, but half of his entire catalogue - over 250 songs. 

My parents weren't like those of the cool kids at school. They didn't have shelves of vinyl, hundreds of records stacked floor to ceiling, they didn't attempt to endow me with an encyclopaedic knowledge of popular music. Pride of mum's collection was her Elvis box set of nine albums; turn each 12 inch gatefold over, and they formed an image of Presley performing live. We'd listen to his music together, we'd dance around the living room, I'd shuffle album covers around on the floor to complete the picture puzzle. The earworm from that time that stayed stuck fast in my head for thirty years was Guitar Man, a belting, shimmying, insane jangling jam of song.

In the reception of Studio B, Nashville reached out to the disbeliever. A perspex sign listed each of Elvis's recording sessions at the studio; on the evening of September 10th 1967, two tracks were consigned to quarter inch reel. The first of the session was Guitar Man.

Would we like to go in the studio, asked Laura. The question caught the breath of everyone, as if nobody considered it possible. Only a dozen paces wide, a few more along its length, the control room visible through a broad window at the other end. From the ceiling hung a dozen sets of lights, four bulbs in each set - white, green, red and blue. Elvis would change the lighting to suit the mood of the session, tinge the studio in festive greens and reds while recording Christmas songs in the sweltering heat of the Tennessee summer or, as he did while recording Are You Lonesome Tonight, turn them off altogether. Around the edge of the studio, faded fabric baffles and microphone stands, an exquisite Hammond B3 organ. And there, a grand piano, where Elvis would sit at the beginning of each Sunday night session and warm up by playing gospel music, surrounded by The Jordanaires.

"Would anyone like to sit at the piano?"

As soon as the words left her lips, my chest heaved with excitement and the widest of smiles curled across my face. I was four years old again, holding the hand of my mum, giggling as she spun me around. It was a place that illuminated the world like a supernova, where a song I'd treasured since childhood had found its voice, and Nashville sounded all the better for it.




 
"Twitchhiker – How One Man Travelled the World by Twitter" is Paul's book about his social media adventure around the world, published by Summersdale and available on Amazon.
 
Paul's next book, "Tales from the Edge of America" will be published in Spring 2012. You can subscribe to the book's mailing list to find out more.