Fight Over RCA Studio Boiled Down: The Preservationist Vs. The History Maker
Artist Ben Folds rallies supporters in RCA Studio A, which was designed to fit an orchestra. Credit: Stephen Jerkins

Fight Over RCA Studio Boiled Down: The Preservationist Vs. The History Maker

The fate of RCA Studio A remains unclear. The developer who was said to have a $4.4 million contract on the property hasn’t stated his plans for the building, and the sale has not yet closed.

But the battle lines on Music Row have been drawn. There’s Ben Folds, an artist inspired by historic recordings made in the studio, and Harold Bradley, a trailblazing musician who made that history and built the studio itself.

“You kind of have to figure out where you’re going to save and where you’re going to let go,” said music journalist Brian Mansfield who covers Nashville for USA Today. “I think Harold sees the cutoff point for saving the studios maybe coincidentally — maybe not — right at the point where he’s got property to sell.”

The Tenant Producer

Piano rocker Ben Folds made his name with a big hit in the ’90s. He’s currently a judge on a reality singing competition. But on the side, he rents the famous studio where he runs a business recording musicians like Willie Nelson and Tony Bennett.

“You can feel how musical this space is,” Folds said at his rally to save the studio from development. “You’re standing in, like, a Stradivarius violin right now.”

This space was built in the early ’60s on Music Row. That’s the neighborhood that’s been the nexus of Nashville’s music industry for decades. Pioneering recording label RCA brought in some of the best audio engineers of the time to design the huge room with undulating walls that diffuse the sound.

Every detail was crafted so that musicians like Eddy Arnold could sing “Make The World Go Away” with full-size orchestras. It’s one of the longest-running studio spaces in Nashville, which was a big draw for singer Jim Lauderdale, who cut about half of his new album here.

“I’m sitting in the same room that Roy Orbison and Waylon and Elvis were in,” Lauderdale said. “It gives you goosebumps.” But that room is at risk.

The Owner And Legend

Recently, the owner taped a notice to the studio door, saying he’s selling it — to a developer. Folds sounded the alarm online.

Other Music Row buildings have been razed to make way for condos. Folds suggested that might be the fate of the historic room, too. A few days later, about 200 songwriters, audio engineers, producers and concerned fans crammed into Studio A.

Producer Terry Bruce said there’s real value to keeping places with so much history.

“We flock to these old rooms to make new music because they’re old rooms and there’s ghosts in the walls,” Bruce said.

Whether those ghosts are real or not, folks like Bruce and Folds consider them valuable inspiration.

The building’s owner sees the studio as valuable real estate. But that owner isn’t some businessman who doesn’t appreciate music. It’s Harold Bradley, one of the most prolific session guitarists country music has ever seen.

“Harold and his brother Owen and Chet Atkins essentially built the recording industry in Nashville,” Mansfield said.

For several decades, Harold Bradley played on seemingly every country hit. He backed up Patsy Cline, Roger Miller, Tammy Wynette — the list goes on, and it includes Elvis.

Bradley’s not opposed to preserving studios. At the grand reopening of another studio built in the 1960s, he said it felt good just being in the room where he used to make that music.

“I feel like I ought to be picking up a guitar playing somewhere,” Bradley said that day. “I get really excited.”

Bradley hasn’t spoken directly to the press about Studio A. But after the rally, he defended his decision to sell in an open letter.

“There are old studio spaces that, in our imaginations, ring with sonic magic,” the letter stated. “But in truth, it’s not the room; it’s the music.”

Nina Cardona

Nina Cardona is WPLN's host for All Things Considered. As a reporter, she covers a wide range of assignments with an emphasis on culture, the arts and local history. A graduate of Converse College, she's lived in Middle Tennessee most of her life.
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