Nashville, September 2014. 2:55 PM.
Only two hours away from the deadline that heralds the end of one of the great incubators of the Nashville Sound: RCA Studio A. The building’s new owner, Tim Reynolds, has set a strict date, time, and price tag on the historic studio; if no one has come forward by Wednesday, September 30 at 5:00 sharp, he will close its doors, tear down its walls, and erect a five-story condominium complex on its bones.
For the past three months, a movement has been rising. One by one, the iconic studios that have lined Music Row since its inception have been torn down to make way for luxury condos, the market for which is at a sparkling rhinestone premium, thanks—ironically—to the irreplicable historicity of the street they’re built on. What had begun as a low rumble of discontent had grown into a fever of nostalgic angst over the city’s loss. Reynolds had been bullied, harassed, and villainized, and he was angry. September 30. 5:00. No exceptions.
At 3:00, Aubrey Preston walked into his office with a blank check.
In terms of architectural significance, the building that houses RCA’s Studio A doesn’t have much to offer. It’s only fifty years old—an infant, all things considered, in the business of Historically Significant Buildings—and it bears the unfortunate trademarks of its birth year: beige on beige brick, flat, modular angles. More beige. But it wasn’t the halls and walls of Studio A that brought the people of Nashville to picket on Reynold’s lawn, but the Music City magic that had transpired within them. Since Chet Atkins and Owens Bradley opened its doors in 1965, Studio A had seen to the success of hundreds of bluegrass, country, gospel, and rock n’ roll tracks, cutting the teeth of artists now so famous that we know them on a first name basis—Willie, Dolly, Elvis, Waylon, Shania, BB and Hank—and, with its cavernous studio space (big enough to house an entire orchestra, should the need arise), had helped coin the trademark, countrypolitan sound that put Nashville on the map.
For the past twelve years or so, Studio A has been somewhat of an underground favorite, equal parts cult icon and promised land for the fistful of artists—from Carrie Underwood to Ke$ha to the last tenant and unofficial caretaker, Ben Folds—who recorded there. When word got out that Tim Reynolds was bidding on the building in July of 2014, a wave of anxiety made its way through the broods of roosting in Music Row. Half-a-dozen historic studios had fallen in less than a year, and Tim Reynolds was not in the preservation business.
Reynolds did his best to quell concerns and smooth over ruffled feathers, promising that incorporating historic RCA Studio A had been a part of his plan all along, and that should the studio itself prove to be unsalvageable, he would no longer have any interest in the property. On July 28, he purchased the building for 4.1 million dollars. On July 31, he raised the tenants’ rents 124%. On September 12, he served them all eviction papers. They had until December 1 to move out.
Fortunately for Studio A, the building’s caretaker wasn’t willing to go down without a fight. In what has become a famous, 1450-word open letter to the city of Nashville, piano-rocker Ben Folds pled for the preservation of Nashville’s musical history, the symbolism of the city’s first studios, and the breathless magic of Studio A. The message spread like wildfire, not only garnering the support of the who’s-who in Nashville, but of masses across the nation. Studio A became the banner under which nostalgia was transformed to action, musicians transformed to historians, and one unlikely rock star to the leader of an unprecedented movement to save country music history.Reynolds refused to change his plans to tear down the studio, citing self-sponsored investigations filled with a laundry list of vague and ominous rehab buzzwords: suspicions of lead paint and asbestos. Mold. Structural integrity. He released plans of a towering, shiny, grey and glass stack of condominiums—eighty in total—all sitting atop a restaurant that would be (almost insultingly) “musically themed.” The only way that anyone could shake him from his purpose is if they came forward with a full price offer of 5.6 million dollars—1.5 million more than he had paid for the same building only months ago—before 5:00 on September 30. No one came forward.
Until, of course, they did. Aubrey Preston was an unlikely savior of Studio A. A quiet, thoughtful man, given to well-articulated plans and practical investments, he had no direct ties to the studio, only the gut feeling that tearing it down would be an untenable loss—a tragedy—to the city. And so, at 5:00 on September 30, after two hours of one-sided bargaining, he signed a personal check for the full asking price of 30 Music Square West.
Fortunately, Preston’s act of selfless philanthropy inspired only more good. Two civic powerhouses of the city—Mike Curb and Chuck Elcan—came to the table to help relieve some of the financial burden of the building’s purchase. 30 Music Square West was added to the National Register of Historic Places, and after a few minor cosmetic repairs, the building is set to reopen with Producer Dave Cobb named the new caretaker.
Perhaps even greater than the preservation of Studio A, however, is the conversation that it has started Nashville, one that weighs the temptation of gold-rush property gain against the historical integrity of what gave it its value in the first place. A conversation that takes a hard look at Music City—its past, its present, and its future—and demands an answer.