September 10, 2010

Back to Tennessee, Day 4

We began our one full day in Nashville under rainy skies.  The day was set to be another busy one, with plans to include a tour of United Record Pressing, lunch at Arnold's Country Kitchen, and a visit to Third Man Records.  The evening was yet to be decided, but with the Americana Music Festival still going on, how could it not include music?

First stop was URP, which is down a couple of blocks and around the corner from the historic city cemetery I found on my last trip to Nashville.  Like anyone else of my generation, I grew up on vinyl records and then moved on to cassette tapes, then to cds, and now listen to a fair amount of digitally conveyed music in mp3 form.  The compactness of today's formats provides a convenience that vinyl just ain't got.  Can't lug a turntable on the subway, after all, and there's little I love more than flying along a curvy country road with the car stereo blaring my favorite tunes.  But you really can't be a true fan of Jack White without becoming at least a little curious about vinyl's place in today's music, so I recently went out and bought a record player and a few platters.  And, being that I've been on this journey of exploration since getting into Jack, there was no way I could pass up the opportunity to learn how records are made while in Nashville.  

The tour began with a reminder of yesterday's topical issue, when we were ushered into the upstairs "Motown Suite", a fully equipped apartment created in the 60's for visiting black musicians and record execs who found themselves barred from Nashville hotels.  It's a pretty sweet suite, maintained in its original 60's style--

Photo not mine, I snagged it from the URP website
Back downstairs, we got into the nitty-gritty of album production as we were led through every single step of the process.  URP is one of only a handful of pressing plants left in the U.S., as a large percentage of pressing these days is apparently done in the Czech Republic. But URP is not only conveniently located to Third Man, it also fits perfectly into Jack White's ethos-- that of quality work done with traditional methods, much by hand. And they really do everything, not only creating the record master from its lacquer and then pressing it to vinyl, but also printing the record labels in-house. They even have a machine shop in the building where they can build any part necessary to repair the specialized pressing machines. And I was very surprised to see that once the records are pressed, they're sleeved completely by hand. I had fully expected to see yet another decades-old, monstrous machine doing this bit. Instead, there was one woman swiftly and efficiently inspecting each album before whisking it first into its sleeve and then its jacket. She can apparently do hundreds a day. Amazing stuff, and seeing the process honestly did give me a burgeoning appreciation for vinyl.

Watch The Dead Weather watching the production of one of their singles:

Leaving URP in a pouring rainstorm, we headed directly to Arnold's Country Kitchen and queued up in a line that stretched out the front door.  I said it before and I'll say it again, the food here is. so. damned. good.  This time I had room not only for meat'n'two (side dishes, that is) accompanied by corn bread, but also for dessert: a Chess pie that had me practically moaning in pleasure.  Fortunately for my table-mates and all the folks crowded in around us, I was able to restrain myself.  But take my word for it, a trip to Nashville is just not complete without a meal at Arnold's.

Lucifer the Pony at Arnold's.  Photo taken the following day, when the parking lot was empty and the sky wasn't pissing down rain.

After lunch, we swung around the block to visit Jack's place-- Third Man Records in Nashville is the physical embodiment of a record label that apparently began in his Detroit living room almost a decade ago.  But, as seems to be typical of Jack, the idea mushroomed once he began working on it.  The place includes the offices of the label, a performance/recording space that doubles as a photography/video recording studio, a dark room for developing said photos, a distribution center, and a jaw-dropping little shop up front that's filled with White Stripes memorabilia and assorted taxidermied water fowl.  Having shopped in the shop and attended a show in the performance space around back, I don't know how the hell he fit all of that into the building.  It just does not seem big enough.  There must be trick walls or subterranean chambers or something.  Jack's Magic Hall of Mirrors and Music.  

In the shop, I picked up an album of the Dex Romweber Duo's "Third Man Live" performance from earlier this year along with both Raconteurs albums, then stepped outside to smoke a Djarum while my traveling companions completed their purchases.  It was a peaceful moment, standing on Jack's front stoop, watching what was left of the rain dripping from the eaves and listening to the tones of a wind chime hanging on the porch of the methadone clinic next door.  I could've easily hung out there all day, just soaking up the atmosphere from those black bricks.

Lucifer the Pony at TMR.  Photo again taken the next day, without the rain.

I've wondered a few times what the folks at the clinic and nearby homeless mission think of the goings on at TMR, what with all the fanatics who begin lining up in the wee hours of the morning whenever a new record is released or a show or some other special promotion takes place.  The recent performance by Conan O'Brien had folks showing up 24 hours in advance and lining up around two sides of a city block.  At one point while I was lounging against the wall next to the door, a guy walking across the street yelled over, "Hey, what is that place?"  I called back, "It's a record label".  He said, "Ohhh, a record company", and continued on his way as if that explained everything.  If the guy's around this coming Friday, he's in for a treat-- Jack's latest trick is sure to draw one of TMR's biggest crowds yet when its limited number is offered for sale:

The man is a mad freaking genius and, in a perverse way, I envy the hell out of the homeless folks who get to hang out near his crazy laboratory.

From one mad genius to another-- We followed up our visit to Jack's colorful world by wandering through an exhibit of Dale Chihuly's work at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts.  I've been a fan of his work for a few years after being enchanted by the ceiling of the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas.  Like the music created by TMR and URP, Chihuly's art requires hands-on, traditional techniques that are fascinating to watch.  Intricately simple, delicate and bold, composed of the most incredible colors, the finished pieces are only slightly more amazing than the creative process itself.   

The day ended with another visit to Mercy Lounge, then hanging out in Lyle's hotel room listening to Captain Beefheart and Two Star Tabernacle (featuring a very young Jack White, stealing the show already).  Three trips to this city and I feel that I've still barely seen any of it.  Perhaps one day I'll be able to go back and get outside of that few-block radius to experience more of what Nashville has to offer.  For now, though, it would seem that all roads lead to TMR.  And that's sure as hell not a bad thing.

Full album of photos here.

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