Alive And Kickin': Country's Historic Buildings Still Breathe Life Into Business

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The Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tenn.

When the USA Network shot a Willie Nelson special at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium in 2002, one of the numerous guests -- some guy named Keith Richards -- moved to the front edge of the stage during rehearsals, broke a rule by lighting up a cigarette and took a few long breaths as he soaked up the history of the place.

The Ryman is one of country's iconic venues celebrating major anniversaries this year after at least five decades since their founding: The Ryman turned 125, RCA Studio B observed its 60th anniversary in October, and the John T. Floore Country Store in Helotes, Texas, hosted Nelson at the close of its 75th anniversary celebrations in October. Fresh, new arenas and modern studios may change the landscape for musicians, but the classic buildings offer a connection to history that can't be replaced.

"You're at the Ryman, and you're standing on the spot where Hank Williams or Patsy Cline sang," says Nelson's harmonica player, Mickey Raphael. "Or you walk into the Fillmore [in San Francisco], and you're playing on the same stage that Jimi Hendrix or Led Zeppelin played. It's humbling and inspiring. You pick up on the energy of the room."

The Ryman, Studio B and Floore's may be similarly historic, but each has its own distinguishing backstory:

• The Ryman was founded as a tabernacle, then repurposed as a concert hall, eventually hosting WSM-AM Nashville's Grand Ole Opry for more than 30 years. It went mostly dormant for nearly 20 years as Music City's downtown declined, but since its 1994 reopening, the Ryman has become one of the best-loved venues in the world.

• RCA established Studio B to facilitate Nashville recording sessions, with Elvis Presley at the top of the list. The likes of Dolly Parton, Roy Orbison, Waylon Jennings and Chet Atkins stepped on its black-and-white checkerboard floor in its heyday, but it closed as a daily working venue in 1977, shifting to a tour destination overseen by the Country Music Hall of Fame.

• Floore's was a key live venue in the western-swing era that became revered for its tamales. It boasts both an indoor hall and an outdoor amphitheater, and it has emerged as a must-play concert stop for the artists on the Texas red-dirt scene, including Robert Earl Keen and Randy Rogers Band, both of whom have recorded live albums there.

Keeping an older hot spot in working condition is an accomplishment. Major League Baseball, which just wrapped its annual World Series, offers prime examples. Los Angeles' Dodger Stadium, which opened 55 years ago, is one of only three ballparks still in use from the time period, joining Chicago's Wrigley Field and Boston's Fenway Park. Owners have to be willing to spend the money to maintain the property, and the venues also have to continue to appeal to customers even as culture changes.

"It can't be exactly what it was 50 years ago," says Floore's managing partner Mark McKinney. "Technology is different, the bands require different things, people expect different things. It's just like walking a really fine line in some ways, modernizing it but overall having it keep that nostalgic feel."

When McKinney's group took ownership in 2001, Floore's had holes in the roof, no bathroom facilities for artists and -- crucial in central Texas summers -- no air conditioning. They found a way to install the A/C without changing the look of the place, and those other amenities were added without taking away from the building's character. Each alteration was a risk, since what looks good on paper doesn't always translate well in the real world. But some of the quirks in the space are crucial for its success.

"If you were going to start a venue and build it, you wouldn't build it exactly how Floore's is," says McKinney. "I could design something a whole lot more efficient. But so many things are so homogenous. Everything feels like everything else. For good, bad or indifferent, Floore's is truly unique. I think that's kind of what makes it special. It's kind of a funky place, but it's very genuine, and I think people can feel that."

Management at the Ryman, located in the heart of a thriving downtown in the digital era, has remained acutely aware of that balance between past and present. When it was renovated in 1994, air conditioning and dressing rooms were major additions, as were an upgraded sound system and expanded TV production capabilities. In more recent times, the venue added a cafe, but it has also put up statues of Bill Monroe and Little Jimmy Dickens to call attention to its Opry past.

"It needed some modernization, and it will continue to [need it] 20, 50, 100 years from now," says Ryman PR and digital media manager Lisaann Dupont. "Whoever is in there at that point will have to make those same decisions, because it is a national landmark and it will outlive us all."

RCA Studio B is a bit unusual in that balance of history with current conditions. It occasionally hosts recording sessions for the likes of Marty Stuart, Old Crow Medicine Show and J.D. McPherson, but its primary purpose is as a Hall of Fame exhibit, and keeping its older features intact has a higher priority. Many other landmark recording hubs -- including the American Studios in Memphis and the J&M Studios in New Orleans -- no longer exist. Studio B, by contrast, still has some of the original equipment, including the Steinway piano played on such hallmarks as Floyd Cramer's "Last Date" and Skeeter Davis' "The End of the World."

"We're lucky in the sense that there wasn't much of a gap between when it stopped being used commercially and when the Country Music Foundation got involved," says Studio B manager Justin Croft. "All along, it's been kept up, and I think by virtue of having people through all the time, we're all paying attention, you know. We fix the things that need to get fixed and try not to [change] too much."

Nashville and the country music business are generally more attuned to the past and the role its older buildings played in it.

"In other parts of the country, they talk about the newest thing that they've got," says Croft. "We sort of want to talk about, 'Hey, look at this -- this is from 1960, and it's still working.'"

But it's not just the machine parts that are working. It's the ghosts, too -- the specter of Bob Wills at Floore's, of Jim Reeves at Studio B and of Williams and Johnny Cash at the Ryman. Their spirits still occupy those old buildings -- figuratively, at least -- and they serve as an inspiration to the musicians now treading in their footsteps.

"You bring your A game every time you play," says Raphael. "But if I had to go with Hank Williams over my shoulder, I think maybe I'm going to stand a little straighter."


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