Our music editor, Donivan Berube and the brilliant photographer Robert Lindholm took a seven-day road trip through the historic recording studios and musical tool sheds of Atlanta, Nashville, and New Orleans in search of residence in Southern rhythm.
Words by Donivan Berube | Photos by Robert Lindholm
People talk as if Atlanta’s music scene began in 1994 with Outkast, Organized Noize, and the Dungeon Family. Their “dungeon” was the group’s home recording studio in producer Rico Wade’s mother’s unfinished basement. With no walls and no floors, it was nothing but a dirt hole in which they could write rhymes and record hits in perpetuity. Dig a little deeper, though, and the city supports a rich history of diversity in music, arts, and community that far predates this seminal turning point. While the modernization of rap and trap music in American pop culture has certainly taken its stronghold as the city’s identifying sound, younger generations might forget that Gladys Knight was born here, and so was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The city’s location on the southeast corner of the United States makes it an international stepping-off point for air travel (with the nation’s most heavily trafficked airport) as well as a veritable melting pot for immigration.
Take Me To Church
In the heart of downtown Atlanta lies one of its oldest living relics, the historic Tabernacle music hall. Voted Paste Magazine’s “best place to feel sanctified by a guitar solo,” this neoclassical masterpiece operates as a loving throwback to its religious roots of the early 1900’s. Originally constructed in 1910 as a church for Dr. Leonard Gaston Broughton, his congregation numbered into the thousands and continued to grow rapidly, requiring repeated expansions and added accommodations to the building.
Nowadays, its busy 2,500-capacity concert schedule is managed by Live Nation alongside nearby sister venues such as the larger Roxy and Buckhead Theatres, plus smaller rooms like Aisle 5 and the Masquerade for up-and-coming artists. Marketing Manager Josh Martin recalled the exciting growth of Grammy-winning rapper Lizzo’s trajectory within Atlanta’s club circuit: “I remember seeing her play at the different smaller rooms in town, but when she finally made it here, the screams were deafening. Literally, if you didn’t bring earplugs then you went home hurting.”
It’s not just concerts that locals love about the Tabernacle either. People have gotten married here. Movies premiere here as part of Georgia’s burgeoning film scene. When Dave Chapelle recorded his Sticks & Stones stand-up comedy special here last year, a stunning red carpet of actors and celebrities were in attendance, either out of pure fandom or simply because their day’s filming had just wrapped.
The Tabby’s walls are adorned with fresh bohemian paintings and beautifully hand-carved wooden intricacies, preserved faithfully from its tired roof all the way down to the creaking boards in its heavily slanted floor. Massive organ pipes behind the stage provide a breathtaking backdrop to even the most minimalist of stage productions. Performances have included Prince, Outkast, Kendrick Lamar, Bob Dylan, and a seemingly limitless roster of legendary artists on tour. Martin has noticed that the building seems to have fostered a unique reputation of credibility within the Atlanta hip hop community. “People simply want to play here,” he said, from younger stars like Chance the Rapper to legends like Killer Mike of Run the Jewels. For most, the Tabernacle is something of a last call to catch the superstars of tomorrow right on the cusp of global ascension.
Escape the Trap with T.I. & Company
Just 10 minutes down the street is the low key and understated Trap Music Museum, serving as the defacto epicenter for Atlanta’s claim to musical fame. Widely considered to be the “godfather” of the trap music genre, rapper Clifford Joseph Harris Jr. (known professionally as “T.I.” or “Tip”) financed the museum in memoriam not just to the community he’s helped raise, but for the community that raised him in turn.
While shining a bright and unfiltered light on the dangerous lifestyles of the movement’s many stars, the artifacts are presented as more of a learning tool than a glorification. “Gucci Mane’s Kitchen” is an exhibit not intended to encourage a culture of drug use, but as a faithful documentation of the storied rapper’s living quarters. Directly beneath their commissioned painting of “Trap Music’s Mount Rushmore” is a recreation of the jail cell T.I. lived in for 11 months, a fate shared by so many of his contemporaries within the trap music scene. Guests are encouraged to tag the walls here, with so many signatures and drawings flooding in with each visit that they have to fully repaint every single week. The drugs and paraphernalia littering the coffee table in “Grandma’s House” are only as much a part of the scene as the baby photos on the wall or Eddie Murphy’s iconic Delirious stand-up comedy special playing on the television.
The complex averages around 3,000 visitors each weekend between the museum and its adjacent escape room, an experiential real-life puzzle wherein guests react with paid actors to “escape the trap.” Picture Santa Fe’s Meow Wolf reassembled inside of a trap house, with each minute detail of every room transporting guests into a scene from its founder’s memory.
Legendary Soul Singer George Hughley
With great legend comes rare sighting, and the septuagenarian soul singer George Hughley is no exception. Bringing his electrifying set to a weekly Friday night residency at Blind Willie’s blues club in the Virginia-Highland neighborhood of Atlanta’s northeast corner, Hughley arrived early and dressed immaculately, wearing a sharp three-piece suit topped off with a French beret and red sequined shoes.
Although originally from Louisiana, Hughley came to Atlanta back in 1954 after his grandparents died in a car accident. He was only 11-years-old at the time, and had mistakenly perceived his grandparents to be his actual biological parents. He moved in with his mother first, but was soon sent to live with extended family.
From there, Hughley set to playing guitar and writing songs quickly. He formed a band with some friends for the Howard High School talent show, who were -subsequently asked to perform outside of an attendee’s barbershop to attract customers. One of the barber’s customers then asked the band to perform at his country club, and one lead turned to the next forever thereafter. A DJ at Atlanta’s WAOK radio station, named Sonny Woods, came on board as Hughley’s manager, and the legendary Joe Carpenter joined the band on guitar. Hughley recalls record producer Wendell Parker rolling into town on assignment, carrying $20,000 in his pocket to bribe local DJs into playing Hughley’s records. While varying iterations of the bands came and went, they became the go-to opening act for icons like Joe Tex, Irma Thomas, Big Joe Turner, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, and the great Tina Turner. “Gatemouth said that next time he came back to town, he’d play before us, not afterwards,” Hughley laughed. “We were running all around and jumping off stage. He didn’t want to follow all that energy.”
He implored these stars for advice and took their lessons to heart. “They taught me how to perform, how to focus on the audience, to look them in the eyes and adapt to what they want to hear,” he said.
After writing “It Hurts Me Too” at just 15-years-old, the tune would go on to become his very first recording just a few years later at the age of 18. It was released on 7” vinyl in 1961, with Gladys Knight’s Pips singing backup vocals. This early success led to a deal with Buddah records, famed home to Captain Beefheart and other heavyweights, releasing more singles that followed.
“Then Otis Redding took me down to Macon, Georgia,” Hughley explained. “He wanted to sign me to a record deal, but died that weekend on his way back from Wisconsin.” Hughley remained in Atlanta forevermore, describing the scene there as somewhat of a southeastern Las Vegas catering heavily to jukebox crooners like Brook Benton. “All the hotels had blues clubs, so everybody would come through to play and stay there.”
After his band The Shadows warmed up the crowd with a few songs, Hughley was welcomed to the stage as the night’s star while launching into their rendition of “Rock Me Baby.” The set traversed a classic repertoire of soul standards, blues ballads, and original songs, seamlessly blending Aretha Franklin, the Temptations, and an entire James Brown discography in medley. The band made way for Hughley’s Brown-inspired screams while the crowd joyously kept time. Those old records that he cut back in the day are now in extremely rare supply, selling for hundreds of dollars online when available, so it might be best to catch him live at Blind Willie’s instead.
Third Man Records and RCA ís Historic Studio B
Just north across the state line and into Tennessee brews an entirely different batch of music history. Since the origins of Nashville as “Music City” are most closely aligned with the heyday of country & western music of the 1960’s, its story has been more expertly documented as a national hub for the music business and its recording artists. The city’s oldest and most famed studios are still in use to this day, lovingly preserved as educational tools and exhibits unto themselves.
At RCA’s Historic Studio B, they’ve saved everything, down to the splintered pieces of a door that Elvis kicked in during one recording session when the turntable used to listen to demo takes stopped working. Dolly Parton wrote and recorded both “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You” on the same day here, just after driving her car into the side of the building upon arrival. Grammy-winning songwriter Chris Stapleton picked up his first guitar ever on a family tour of the building at just seven years old. The world’s first vocal isolation booth is said to have originated here when technicians cornered Roy Orbison behind a few coat racks. The lowered ceiling tiles retain their yellowed stains of age, as does the chipped checkerboard flooring, but why restore something that was never perfect in the first place? The room was never about looking the best, but simply sounding the best.
And whereas Studio B showcases the spirit of Nashville’s history, Third Man Records is paving the way for its future. A record store, photography studio, and concert venue tactfully curated by its owner, Jack White, Third Man is the place to find anything White Stripes-related, with rare records, custom guitar pedals, and Hotel Yorba snowglobes. The label’s expanding yet exclusive catalog is on foremost display, with releases from contemporary country rock songwriters to blues and country classics and psychedelic metal bands. Neil Young recorded an entire record here in their automated direct-to-vinyl record booth, with more 150-second sessions to follow by Willie Nelson, Shaquille O’Neal, and countless others.
Behind the store and through their office space is the Third Man concert venue and recording studio, featuring another direct-to-acetate vinyl lathe and tape machine. Performances here are cut simultaneously for in-house production by renowned recording engineer George Ingram on the exact 1950’s Scully lathe used by King Records to make early James Brown and Motown records. The machine is calibrated against each live performance for optimum vinyl playback in a hermetically sealed booth backstage, completely soundproof and wrapped with acoustic tiling so as to be fully isolated from even the loudest and heaviest of heavy metal shows happening literally on the other side of the wall. Ribbons of mixing notes are strung about like party decorations, input notations ripped from the mixing console to make way for the next session. It seems that nothing in Nashville gets lost in translation, but preserved for all time to provide insight further down the road.
Sweet Home Carter Vintage
Just around the corner from Third Man is where husband-and-wife team Christie & Walter Carter opened the doors to Carter Vintage Guitars, starting out with only 150 instruments in stock. Six lightning-fast years later, their inventory has skyrocketed to include an average of over 1,700 of the finest, rarest pieces of craftsmanship in the world. It’s not just the highly sought-after 1950’s Les Pauls and Telecasters on display, but stranger artifacts as well. There are guitars autographed by Stevie Ray Vaughan and Bill & Hillary Clinton, or a homemade Bo Diddley guitar with a CD player embedded into the plywood. The very last G&L bass that Leo Fender worked on was resting on the counter, his scrappy pencil markings and loose -measurements still intact. The world’s first Ro-Pat-In electric guitar hangs in the corner, a Spanish design from 1932, right next to the exact 1973 Stratocaster on which Ed King wrote and recorded Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.” Several offerings from the shop’s collection are listed for well over $300,000, while the bulk of their sales floor is comprised of the holy grail 1970’s builds of Fender, Gibson, and Martin’s most prized models.
While the store hasn’t been open very long, Walter worked for a decade as Gibson’s in-house historian and has written a dozen books on the subject, establishing Carter Vintage as the go-to destination for any and all enthusiasts. On one afternoon, Lenny Kravitz, Chris Stapleton, and John C. Reily all arrived at the same time, all separately, to shop amongst the revered collection. This has become something of a common occurrence, as Grammy-winning producer Dave Cobb is known to stop by with his guests during studio breaks. The stars are out on every day of the week, it seems, and always in search of new tools and toys to utilize on the next album.
The Cradle of Jazz with John McCusker
While New Orleans doesn’t necessarily characterize “Southern music” in the way that places like Memphis or Nashville do, NOLA is without a doubt the nation’s most musical city. “New Orleans jazz was never a genre, it’s an entirely different way of playing music,” explained John McCusker, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist and jazz historian. “These guys were playing popular styles of ragtime and blues music, but making it something you could dance to. And that’s the same thing musicians are doing today, except that the popular styles of music now are rap and hip hop.”
We met at his home in Algiers Point, a sprawling archive of historic jazz artifacts and restored Victrola phonographs. McCusker began offering his “Cradle of Jazz” tours about 25 years ago, partly out of embarrassment that there were no other music tours, plaques, or similar commemorations happening in New Orleans. “The city’s number one best-selling tour was about hauntings; people would rather learn about ghost stories than the actual histories of people from the very birthplace of American music,” he bemoaned.
Talking music with McCusker is like speaking into a visceral encyclopedia, and with his extensive investment in researching the city’s history, he hopes to dispel the common myths and inaccuracies that are spun so often, like the true story behind Louis Armstrong’s birthday (lying about his age simply so that he could get into the jazz bar where he was playing with King Oliver’s band). “Kid Ory said that Louis came up like a sunflower,” McCusker said, explaining that Armstrong was a kid once too, playing trumpet for others’ bands while in his late-teens and early-twenties, still too young to get into the bars where they were playing.
Having already published the biography, Creole Trombone: Kid Ory and the Early Years of Jazz, his most recent labor of love is the restoration of Kid Ory’s birthplace plantation. He dreams of the museum as an authentic document of New Orleans’ history, “not just another rich white family’s house filled with expensive European furniture.” McCusker earned his Pulitzer along with the entire staff of the Times-Picayune newspaper for their book Katrina: The Ruin and Recovery of New Orleans. “All my life I’d dreamed of this award,” he admitted. “But I’d give it all back just to sit on the couch in my old living room and watch a Saints game again.”
Reborn In Brass
Uptown on the corner of Napoleon Avenue & Tchoupitoulas Street is Tipitina’s, the storied centerpiece of New Orleans’ live music venues. Though renamed after a Professor Longhair song, the building started out as a gambling house and brothel in the early 1900’s. Throughout more recent years, the WWOZ community radio station broadcast from one of the apartments upstairs, lowering a microphone through a hole in the floor to air concerts happening downstairs.
Jazz funk jam band Galactic purchased the building in hopes of keeping its communal spirit alive and preserving its salience in the future of New Orleans’ music. Their love for the venue is grounded even further back though, as saxophonist Ben Ellman used to work in the now-defunct kitchen. Now utilizing the room as a recording and rehearsal space, we joined the band as they prepared for another two week, 10-show tour across the United States, having just returned from the annual Jam Cruise festival with Les Claypool, Tank & the Bangas, and dozens more artists.
Hanging from the vaulted ceilings, exposed wooden crossbeams, and corrugated tin siding are the vintage concert prints and posters from their most recognizable performers: Memphis Slim, Dr. John, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Taj Mahal, the Meters, Buckwheat Zydeco, Doc Watson, John Mayall’s Blues Breakers, Bo Diddley, the all-star list goes on and on.
And converting old houses into legendary music venues seems to have become somewhat of a theme here, as the Rebirth Brass Band has called Tuesday nights home at the Leaf for three decades. In that time, they’ve been voted Best Jazz Band by Offbeat Magazine, won the 2012 Grammy for Best Regional Roots Music, and even have a beer named after them, NOLA Brewing Company’s Rebirth Pale Ale.
A 30-year residency can’t come without its fair share of turnover, and the night’s lead trumpeter described getting the offer to come up. “People find out you can play,” he said. “And eventually you get the call.” Their lineup may change but the energy never dies, with their riotous sets being met with nonstop applause from the jam-packed Tuesday night crowd. The show felt very much like we’d stumbled into a neighborhood block party, the perfect balance of musicianship, brotherhood, and celebration, woven between original compositions, marching standards, and modern hip hop covers. In a city where brass bands set up nightly on each street corner to perform for tips, Rebirth’s longevity is a singular testament to their success.
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