Meet the Woman Keeping Nashville's Historic Sound Emporium Perking

Juanita Copeland
The sign outside of Jack Clement Recording Studio in Nashville, Tenn.

Don’t ask Juanita Copeland for a cup of coffee.

As the president/GM of busy Nashville recording studio Sound Emporium, she works in a segment of the industry that has long been dominated by men, and has made it a point to help break stereotypes. She employs female engineers whenever possible, but notices they often have to work harder than men to earn respect because the immediate perception when they walk into a studio is that “they’re someone’s girlfriend,” says Copeland.

Musicians and other studio visitors “will look at her and say, ‘Hey, can you get me a cup of coffee?’ I on purpose did not learn how to make coffee ever, because, No. 1, I don’t drink it, and No. 2, just because I have breasts and a vagina doesn’t mean I have to make coffee.”

With that, Copeland puts the industry on notice that she’s meant to be taken seriously. After a career that included stints with Mercury Records, Almo Sounds, Pioneer Music Group and American Federation of Musicians Local 257, she joined Sound Emporium as studio manager in 2005 and says the place quickly became her home. She was promoted to her current role last year, and retained that position after owner George Shinn donated the studio to nearby Lipscomb University, which was announced in May. Copeland and her full-time staff of five will become employees of the university once the transfer of ownership closes, a transaction expected to be completed by June 30.

Copeland holds the keys to a studio with a rich history. Founded by producer-songwriter and 2013 Country Music Hall of Fame inductee “Cowboy Jack” Clement in 1969, the studio has hosted recording sessions with Garth Brooks, Jimmy Buffett, Johnny Cash, Kenny Chesney, Elvis Costello, Alan Jackson, Alison Krauss and Robert Plant, Yo-Yo Ma, Willie Nelson, R.E.M., Taylor Swift, Pharrell Williams and many more stars. In addition, the film soundtracks for Walk the Line, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Cold Mountain were all recorded at Sound Emporium under famed producer T Bone Burnett.

In 1979, Clement sold the studio, and the name was changed from Jack Clement Recording Studios to Sound Emporium. Grammy-nominated producer Garth Fundis purchased it in 1992 and ran it until 2011, when it was sold to Shinn, a philanthropist and former owner of the NBA’s Charlotte/New Orleans Hornets franchise.

On May 15, Lipscomb University announced that Shinn was gifting the facility to the school. And while students enrolled in Lipscomb’s contemporary music program will have access, Copeland has been tasked with keeping it operating as a profitable commercial studio used by the music industry at large.

While it has become increasingly difficult for recording studios to make money, Copeland says Sound Emporium is “probably one of the busiest studios in town, and we’ve been able to reinvest profits into getting more gear, more microphones, and we’ve invested in our staff. We have a 401k that is funded by the studio.” She adds, “We’ve been self-sufficient … for a very long time.” With the studio now running at 90 percent booked, Copeland says, “Last year was our best year we’ve had here in probably 20 years ... We are not just surviving. We’re thriving.”

Being proud of its history, Copeland has decorated the studio walls with old photos. When it became clear Clement was gravely ill, she worked with the Nashville Historical Commission to rush through a historical marker that now sits outside the building, and was able to show Clement the mock-ups just days before he died in 2013. Clement’s response: “That’s cool as shit.”

With the studio’s 50th anniversary coming up in two years, Copeland says Lipscomb is “committed to preserving the history here. I cried [with joy] when I was told that.” Under the university’s patronage, she says she no longer has to worry about the studio one day being sold and “turned into a Starbucks.”

“What sets us apart from every other studio is there’s a heart here,” she says. “This place is where art is made. But it lives and breathes, and people are emotionally attached here because we care ... This studio is more than a job to me. It’s my life.”

When she took over, Copeland says Sound Emporium “needed a woman’s touch. I was able to change a few things around here and really take care of people, rather [than having it] just be a building people came to record [in].”

Just don’t ask her for a cup of coffee.