Singer Elvis Presley, in stockinged feet and looking tired and somewhat dejected, is sitting in a chair during a break from recording new record at the RCA studio in Nashville while head of Country and Western Artist and Repertoire, Steve Sholes, is talking to producer Chet Atkins in the background. Don Cravens / The LIFE Images Collection / Getty Images
That may be changing. While Music Row never achieved historic zoning status, Tim Walker, executive director of the Nashville Historical Commission for the city, says the RCA Studio A outcry is forcing the city to reassess the eligibility of Studio A and other buildings for local and federal protections. The city planning commission is holding public meetings this month to get feedback from the community.
“It’s making us re-examine how we grow and how we look at those early structures related to our music heritage,” Walker says.
But there are challenges: While the city can designate historic zoning protections of a district that would slow or prevent the altering or demolition of historic structures, federal protections require that buildings generally should be at least 50 years old, have a relatively high degree of physical integrity and must be of historical significance. On Music Row, many of the buildings were built more recently — the RCA building went up in 1965 — and are in poor condition.
“Some of this is such recent history, a lot of things that we may want to save may not fit that criteria, so another tool may have to be developed” to protect Music Row, says Walker. “We can certainly develop something, but I think that’s hard to do. The clock is ticking.”
Historic significance is often tricky to define because it “can depend on who you are talking to,” says Carolyn Brackett, who heads the Nashville office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Traditional preservation efforts focus on exterior or interior building details, the significance of the architect or the time period in which they worked. But cultural significance is more elusive, since pioneering songs or creative collaborations often originated in humble, unremarkable surroundings — barrooms, storefronts, street corners, alleys or, in the case of Music Row, nondescript industrial office buildings.
Advocates for Music Row are trying to change the perception of what constitutes historic character.
“From our perspective, where something happened is just as important as what the building looks like,” Brackett says.
Protections not only require the approval of the city, they also require the involvement, and backing, of the property owner. To make that happen requires not only street rallies, but actual outreach with parties that otherwise might be perceived as adversaries. Brackett says the upsurge in activity this summer is starting “a whole new conversation” that she has never before seen in her city.
“It’s anybody’s guess where this is going to go but it’s really caught the attention of a lot of people who may not have thought of it before, but who now realize we have some serious decisions to make,” she says.
Among those people is Pat McMakin, operator of Ocean Way Nashville Recording Studios, which boasts a long client list including Beck, Hank Williams Jr. and Kenny Chesney. Over the years, McMakin started noticing changes during his commute. “We’d see this publishing house knocked down and that recording studio knocked down and now it’s coming up the hill. So we all started talking and realized how much had already gone under the bulldozer,” he says.
The discussions among his music veteran peers resulted in the Music Industry Coalition, a nonprofit incorporated this month that aims to serve as a conduit for conversations between the city, developers, community and artists. Besides already meeting with the city’s planning commission and serving as a unified voice in the local media, the group has grappled with questions that many standing up for preservation in Music City have faced: “Are we preserving buildings, are we preserving building districts, a lifestyle, or a culture? Those are big questions,” McMakin says.
So far, the group can already claim one victory: Construction crews located near the recording studios have agreed to blast only at 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. so that the music makers can know when to take a break.
Says McMakin: “That’s collaboration.”