When Dolly Parton is ready to make an album, what she gets is a new, 7,200-square-foot studio complex, complete with a 15-by-60-foot video wall for 200 hanging lights; 24-foot ceilings with wall-to-wall soundproofing; and 75 to 100 staffers so committed to COVID-19 safety protocols that one employee’s full-time job is turning an air-conditioner on and off.
Parton’s manager, Danny Nozell, spent $1.6 million to convert a warehouse outside Nashville over six months last year, and when he finished, A Holly Dolly Christmas could finally proceed.
After Nozell’s team was through gutting and reinventing the two-studio Noz Entertainment in September, Parton took over the next month, recording and filming like crazy: 19 productions in all, including the one-hour Holly Dolly Christmas Special, which aired on CBS in December, a Pandora Live performance around the same time, her “All I Want for Christmas Is You” duet with Jimmy Fallon in which Parton sat by a fake fireplace, the audio for her “5 to 9” Squarespace ad that aired during the Super Bowl, plus additional videos and content for Apple and Amazon.
“Dolly was sitting at home watching herself get oversaturated everywhere,” Nozell says.
Like everybody, Nozell was initially frustrated in early 2020 when his original plans fizzled due to the pandemic: He had already received a $25 million loan to build what he believed to be Nashville’s only “major studio with filming and scoring big enough to put in a 100-person orchestra” on three commercial properties he’d recently purchased. But a week before breaking ground in fateful March 2020, Nozell had to pivot, updating his 10,000-square-foot warehouse with the help of an engineer and contractor.
“We started basically from scratch,” he says.
Why go to all the trouble? “Dolly said she wanted to do a Christmas album,” says Nozell, who has managed the country-music icon for 16 years, in addition to Barry Gibb, Meat Loaf and others. He also saw broader opportunity. After Parton finished her work at the completed studios, Nozell opened the buildings to other artists in a way that, he says, will pay for itself.
Country stars Dan + Shay, Bret Eldredge, Carly Pearce and Badflower have recorded at the facility in La Vergne, about 17 miles southeast of Nashville. A major label (which Nozell wouldn’t name) recently brought artists into the space. And when Big Machine Label Group’s team showed up in late January, CEO Scott Borchetta and senior vp creative Sandi Borchetta brought in six new artists, including Callista Clark and Conner Smith, to film acoustic performances and other video clips, using “every corner of the studios,” Nozell says.
One of those was Brock Gonyea, a 25-year-old singer from upstate New York whose debut album comes out in April. He needed to be loaded with promotional content, so Big Machine booked the Noz space for 48 hours; the label’s plan was to hire a new backup band for Gonyea, which would spend a day learning the songs, then an entire night recording live. Scott Borchetta would conduct an interview, and a crew would film Gonyea getting a haircut and singing in an on-site shower. The label brought in 15 of its own staff, from makeup artists to camera people.
“It surprised Brock,” says Julian Raymond, senior vp A&R for Big Machine. “It’s a lot of work.”
But the day before Gonyea was supposed to meet his band for the first time, Big Machine ran into Nozell’s COVID-19 protocols. Before any visitors can access the new studios, they must go through four checkpoints. The label’s people had to drive there in separate cars, submit to swab-up-the-nose testing, then wait two days for their results. It turned out Gonyea’s new guitarist tested positive and had to be replaced.
“He was very bummed,” Raymond says. “He wasn’t even sick. I had to find a guitar player to learn the songs in less than 24 hours. But Danny doesn’t take any chances and Sandi Borchetta doesn’t take any chances, either.”
Nozell, an amiable, fast-talking manager whose website refers to him as “a titan of the entertainment industry,” used to work with Slipknot before taking over Parton’s management. (Early on, she told Nozell he “went from darkness into light.”)
In several interviews for this story, what he most wants to enthuse about is COVID-19 safety. The studio’s HVAC system pumps in fresh, outdoor air, as opposed to the more standard recirculated kind; two nurses and two safety “officers” are on staff; the four checkpoints include temperature checks and submission of previous testing results; and, yes, one employee’s sole job is to turn the outside air-conditioners on and off so the HVAC system, despite being “silent,” won’t disturb recording.
When Parton, who is 75, recorded at Noz last fall, Nozell “cleared the studios” and reduced the staff to just three socially distanced camera, lighting and audio techs. “We go above and beyond the normal COVID-19 protocol. We want to give everyone a safe environment,” Nozell says, adding that his staff retested all the Big Machine staffers after Gonyea’s guitarist tested positive.
After the studios first opened in the fall, the nurses he’d hired from nearby Vanderbilt University tested a couple of Nozell’s employees positive for the virus — so he promptly sent them home and tested them regularly before they could return.
During productions, all employees are required to quarantine in “approved hotels” in addition to daily testing. The way Nozell describes the recording process is akin to the NBA’s approach for playing games during the pandemic last season.
“We got into a bubble,” he says. “It’s not cheap, but we want people to feel safe. We don’t take any chances. If there’s a doubt, we’re not going to do it.”