Monday, February 7, 2022

The Starday Studio Is Being Demolished. My Response...

There was a recent article in the Madisonian about the Starday Studio getting demolished soon and many of my friends have been messaging me about it. This is my response:

Tommy Hill (controls) and Junior Huskey (bass) in the Starday Studio ca. early '60s.

The Starday Studio was immensely important, but I'm somewhat confused by all the reports that claim this as "James Brown's studio" or the site where Jimi Hendrix recorded… Or even that we need to do something now to preserve the “Starday-King legacy.” I understand that the other studios Jimi recorded while in Nashville are now gone, but Jimi's guitar was cut out of the one session he made here. And yes, James Brown did record “Sex Machine” during one or two sessions here, but this is far from the primary reason I think this studio was important. And the Starday-King merger lasted only about two years of this studio’s 44-year operation and should not (in my opinion) be the focus of restoration efforts.

The Starday Studio was built outside of Nashville in Madison and opened in May of 1960, because Starday was the Nashville-based anti-Nashville label. Starday president Don Pierce recorded all the acts the other Nashville labels wouldn't, marketed them in ways the other labels couldn’t, and he intentionally did all of this from the outskirts of town. Away from Music Row, Pierce revived the careers of Cowboy Copas, Red Sovine, and Johnny Bond with recordings made in his studio and pressed full-color LPs (when others wouldn’t even record the cheaper singles) by many of the Opry acts who could have otherwise not been recorded (Stringbean, Lew Childre, Sam & Kirk McGee, the Crook Brothers, Curly Fox & Texas Ruby, Robert Lunn, Bashful Brother Oswald, Lulu Belle & Scotty, Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith, and more). He then distributed these releases throughout grocery stores, department stores, and all around the globe. From a country music preservation standpoint, these recordings are immensely important.

This was also a place where session musicians and backing bands got their own releases. Nearly everybody in Roy Acuff’s group had their own release on Starday, Hank Snow’s Rainbow Ranch Boys, Dean Manuel and Jim Reeves’ band, Shot Jackson & Buddy Emmons, Joe Maphis, Jackie Phelps, Little Roy Wiggins, Pete Drake, Jerry Rivers, and so many more recorded solo projects here. Starday also built the largest country gospel catalog in the ‘60s and this studio was the site of many of those great gospel recordings by the Oak Ridge Boys, the Sunshine Boys, the Lewis Family, and more.

The studio also played a significant role in Starday building the largest bluegrass empire in the country and acts like The Lonesome Pine Fiddlers, Hylo Brown, New Grass Revival, the Stonemans, Carl Story, Jimmy Gately and Harold Morrison, Delmer Sexton and the Rone County Boys, Bill Luttrell and the Ozark Playboys, Jim Greer and the Mac-O-Chee Valley Folks, Lowell Varney, The Justice Brothers w/ the Cumberland Mt. Play Boys, Hoyt Scoggins, Donald Earl and Joe Monroe, Robert White and the Candy Mt Boys, and many more were all recorded here. This studio also became the primary outlet for country comedy albums in the ‘60s and the live, party-like atmospheres during stand-up recordings by Minnie Pearl, Archie Campell, Lonnie ‘Pap’ Wilson, Gene Martin, Johnny Bond, the Duke of Paducah, and others became the stuff of legend.

The Starday Studio also became a popular demo studio for major label artists like Patsy Cline, Carl Smith, Jim Reeves (the percussion from the Reeves demo "Distant Drums" recorded here was used in the hit version), and others when the major label studios were booked. Tommy Hill was also a big fan of the “fuzz country” sound and as a producer he championed the use of fuzz guitar on country recordings by the Willis Brothers, Cowboy Copas, Betty Amos w/ Judy & Jean, Johnny Nace, Pete Drake, Margie Lee, Tommy Belger, Jim Kandy, George Riddle, Clyde Moody, Moon Mullican, Red Sovine, and his own recordings long before Hendrix ever recorded with a fuzz pedal. In the late ‘60s, Hoss Allen had an office in the building for his Rogana Productions company and many of the great ‘60s Nashville soul recordings on the Hollywood subsidiary were produced here. It’s also where Country Music Hall of Famer Dottie West made her first recordings.

And all of this happened BEFORE the brief Starday-King merger in the early ‘70s (which resulted in James Brown's visit). It’s also where Red Sovine recorded “Teddy Bear” in the mid ‘70s, the success of which enabled Moe Lytle to purchase the studio and--many years later--let it fall into disrepair.

It’s strange to me to see people calling for this studio to be restored now, much as it was strange for me to see five or so years ago. I believe Moe finally did sell the studio to someone he hoped would demolish it. And it’s nice that the new owners want to incorporate some of the Starday history into their new apartment complex. But this site was never intended to be a tourist attraction and it wouldn’t succeed as one now. Music tourism sites like Twitty City, the House of Cash, and others have all struggled if they are not part of the immediate downtown Nashville area. Even George Jones, the most famous artist on Starday (but who did not record at this studio), had his downtown museum (which included a large Starday section) permanently closed last year.

And even if the new building never becomes a tourist site, I’ve read that some think it should be restored as a studio. Yet this studio was far too dilapidated (even five years ago) to be restored as a recording site–not to mention the already large number of struggling studios in Nashville.

I have made this argument elsewhere before, but if people really want to remember and celebrate Starday, then I suggest celebrating and supporting the artists who made records pressed by Starday and who are still with us (and in several cases, still performing)–Margie Singleton, Little Roy Lewis, Judy Lee, Jesse McReynolds, Darnell Miller, June Stearns, Bill Clifton, Willie Nelson, Ann Raye, Larry Sparks, Donna and Roni Stoneman, Dall Raney, Mayf Nutter, Karen Wheeler, Darrell McCall, to name just a few. Go to record stores and dig for Starday records (there are still lots of recordings to be discovered). And keep singing/performing the Starday songs you love so much and keeping the music in circulation (even if the catalog is long overdue for reissue). And keep recounting your favorite Starday stories to your friends.

Below: Photos from the Nashville Musical History Tour Facebook post about the studio...