Nashville has long been a hallmark of Southern adaptability. Transformed from a fort in the wilderness to a bustling river port, the pride of the Confederacy to a Union stronghold, and the Athens of the South to Music City, Nashville has had a consistent commitment to survival that necessitated a certain pliability in times of change. Naturally, this dedication has taken its toll on the physical footprint of the city, historicity falling second to the drive of progress; automobiles demanded broad avenues, increasing populations demanded housing and public works, and bureaucracy demanded an imposing façade. In the wake of these challenges, innumerable monuments have been plowed in and tilled under, a sacrifice that, if not unilaterally celebrated, has at least been accepted as necessary for the city’s growth. Nashville’s recent resurgence as one of the nation’s hot spots, however, has begun to blur the lines between progress and profit, and the startling rate at which historically relevant boroughs and buildings are being razed has garnered attention from outside of the typical contingent of misty-eyed sentimentalists. What began as a general murmur of discontent is slowly gathering momentum, and the issue has been brought to the forefront of national attention by Ben Folds, a musician whose impassioned plea for the preservation of Nashville’s RCA Studio A has grown to encompass the historical integrity of the entirety of Music Row.
The building that houses RCA Studio A is nothing to write home about. A lackluster assemblage of stone and brick in varying tones of beige, it has the stylistic and architectural enthusiasm of tweed, yet beneath the insipid façade, country music magic—the very essence of Nashville—has transpired. Built over fifty years ago by country music legends Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley, the luster of this studio is often dimmed in the shadow of its well-known neighbor, Studio B, yet the five-thousand-square-foot inner sanctum of Studio A has echoed with the voices of music royalty—Dolly Pardon, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, the Monkees, the Beach Boys, Waylon Jennings and dozens more—and unlike Studio B, which has been converted into a museum, Studio A lacks the frozen sterility of history under glass. It is still a fully functional recording studio where modern artists ranging from Miranda Lambert to the current occupant and self-proclaimed caretaker of the building, Ben Folds, continue to record. Folds, who has invested twelve years of renewed ninety-day leases and over one million dollars in rent and renovations in the building, was appropriately distressed when, after watching three of Nashville’s studios crumble beneath the wrecking ball in the past year, he discovered that the owners of Studio A were in negotiations with commercial design corporation Bravo Development. In what is now a nationally-popularized open letter to the residents of Nashville, Folds implored the city to recognize the gravity of its steady pace of demolition.
Both corners—the newly minted Music Industry Coalition and the heirs of Atkin’s and Bradley’s estates—pose legitimate arguments. A large portion of Folds’s argument is founded on the ephemera of memory: an alphabetical roster of the hundreds of artists that have cut their teeth in the studio and anecdotes ranging from roller skating techies waiting for Elvis to John D. Loudermilk sashaying his new bride across the parquet floors. This approach leaves Folds vulnerable to criticism; there are those who claim that this idealistic definition of historical relevance would mandate the preservation of virtually any moderately patinaed building in Nashville. The crux of Fold’s argument, however, should speak loudly to those who seek paydirt in the rich alluvial tracts of Nashville’s Music Row: uprooting the creative core of the city for condos and parking garages is essentially removing the need for them at all. To be sure, those who have made an investment in Music City properties deserve their returns, and extremists who call for an all-encompassing historical overlay on the city are grossly underestimating the detrimental effects that this would have on the its growth, but one can’t help but wonder, at what point the scales begin to tip? When will everything that made Nashville Nashville be gone forever?
As is often the case when profit margins and nostalgia come head to head, much of the debate has devolved into a passive aggressive battle of nit-pickery, yet the essence of the argument is one that speaks to the debated preservation of any historically-significant building: Is the magic of a moment embodied in the halls and walls of a building or in the memories of those that experienced it? What many fail to realize is that the two are not mutually exclusive; to disregard one is to lose the very essence of the other. Any attempt to disentangle memory from place begins a descent down the slippery slope of semiotic sophistry. If the studio where Dolly Parton recorded “Jolene” is irrelevant to the music, then is Parton herself to be disregarded as merely the vessel for the voice? Her voice merely a component of the track? The track simply a part of a musical era? Whether or not one is a believer in the breathless magic embodied in historic architecture, the undeniable truth is this: if we continue to destroy the monuments to our history, what will survive to remind us that these memories even exist?