What’s the future for the Starday-King Sound Studio building in Nashville?
While the King Records facility in Cincinnati looks to have an assured future with financial support for restoration, judging by images of the Nashville premises that were utilized by Starday Records and later became the base for Starday-King, the prospects aren’t perhaps so good.
The studio, at 3557 Dickerson Pike (Highway 41), in Madison, about eight miles northeast of the Music Row area of Nashville, opened as Starday Sound during 1960; it was Nashville’s third commercial recording studio, after RCA Studios and Bradley Film and Recording Studio. Many prominent bluegrass artists recorded there during that time.
The premises comprise a single-story stone office building and a large, two-story cement block addition built in 1959 by Don Pierce, previously a California-based record executive. Country musician and singer Tommy Hill ran the day-to-day operation of the new studio as a producer, handling almost all production until 1968.
In 1961 Dixie Hall worked at Starday promoting several of their bluegrass and traditional country music artists.
Two years later Pierce built a warehouse onto the back of the Starday-King studio as he set up a unique mail order distribution outlet, The Country Music Record Club of America.
Pierce sold Starday Records to the Nashville-based LIN Broadcasting Corporation in 1970, and simultaneously Starday Sound’s parent company acquired King Records and the studio became known as Starday-King Sound. Hal Neely, already working as Pierce’s assistant, became President of the Starday-King organization.
Gayron ‘Moe’ Lytle, owner of Gusto Records, a label that he co-founded in 1972 with Starday’s former studio head, Tommy Hill, bought the studio in 1976. Under Gusto’s ownership, the Starday label was revived, and Hill once again took over management of the studio, returning it to full working order. Hill continued to operate the Starday-King studio until shortly before his death in March 2002.
The studio was still open in 2004, being used as a mastering facility for Gusto, operated by David McKinley. It was probably abandoned in 2005.
Lytle retained ownership of the premises until November 2021 when Woodbine Community Organization purchased it.
In the meantime, portions of the roof and ceilings have collapsed, allowing water from the rainstorm of 2010 to cause extensive damage to the building.
In 2016, the building was added to Historic Nashville’s Nashville Nine, a list of properties endangered by demolition, neglect, or development. However, neglect is very obvious as can be seen here in a 2016 video ….
While many of the bluegrass artists who had albums released by King an/or Starday recorded in Cincinnati, among other locations, some did record at these Nashville studios.
Among those who did are the Kentucky Travelers; Bill Clifton; the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers; Lowell Varney; Red Allen; Jimmy Gately and Harold Morrison; Hylo Brown; Earl Taylor (with Jay Johnson); the Stonemans (aka The Blue Grass Champs); Carl Story; the Lewis Family; Larry Sparks; IInd Generation; New Grass Revival; J.D. Crowe & New South; Mac Wiseman; and Jimmy Martin.
Related acts include Stringbean; Chubby Wise; Bashful Brother Oswald Kirby (accompanied by Howdy Forrester, among others); Norman Blake, and Doc Williams.
Recordings released on the James Monroe & Bill Monroe CD Blue Grass Special Memories (Raintree RR 599) were mixed at the studio also.
Nearly all single releases on the Nashville label, which Pierce set up in 1961, were produced at the Starday studio. Jim Greer and the Mac-O-Chee Valley Folks; Delmer Sexton and the Rone County Boys; Doc Williams; Justice Brothers Jim & Bill and the Cumberland Mt. Play Boys; Alex Campbell & Olabelle and the New River Boys; the Easter Brothers and Green Valley Quartet; and Hoyt Scoggins, Roy Ledford, and Ricky Woods; are just a few acts in this category.
Nate Gibson, author of The Starday Story: The House That Country Music Built (University Press of Mississippi; 2013), shares his thoughts …..
“The Starday Studio was immensely important, but I’m somewhat confused by all the reports that claim this as ‘James Brown’s studio,’ or the site where Jimi Hendrix recorded… Or even that we need to do something now to preserve the ‘Starday-King legacy.’ I understand that the other studios Jimi recorded in while in Nashville are now gone, but Jimi’s guitar was cut out of the one session he made here. And yes, James Brown did record Sex Machine during one or two sessions here, but this is far from the primary reason I think this studio was important. And the Starday-King merger lasted only about two years of this studio’s 44-year operation and should not (in my opinion) be the focus of restoration efforts.
The Starday Studio was built outside of Nashville in Madison and opened in May of 1960, because Starday was the Nashville-based anti-Nashville label. Starday President Don Pierce recorded all the acts the other Nashville labels wouldn’t, marketed them in ways the other labels couldn’t, and he intentionally did all of this from the outskirts of town. Away from Music Row, Pierce revived the careers of Cowboy Copas, Red Sovine, and Johnny Bond with recordings made in his studio, and pressed full-color LPs (when others wouldn’t even record the cheaper singles) by many of the Opry acts who could have otherwise not been recorded (Stringbean, Lew Childre, Sam & Kirk McGee, the Crook Brothers, Curly Fox & Texas Ruby, Robert Lunn, Bashful Brother Oswald, Lulu Belle & Scotty, Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith, and more). He then distributed these releases throughout grocery stores, department stores, mail-order, and all around the globe. From a country music preservation standpoint, these recordings are immensely important.
This was also a place where session musicians and backing bands got their own releases. Nearly everybody in Roy Acuff’s group had their own release on Starday, Hank Snow’s Rainbow Ranch Boys, Dean Manuel and Jim Reeves’ band, Shot Jackson and Buddy Emmons, Joe Maphis, Jackie Phelps, Little Roy Wiggins, Pete Drake, Jerry Rivers, and so many more recorded solo projects here. Starday also built the largest country Gospel catalog in the ’60s, and this studio was the site of many of those great Gospel recordings by the Oak Ridge Boys, the Sunshine Boys, the Lewis Family, and more.
The studio also played a significant role in Starday building the largest bluegrass empire in the country. Also, it became the primary outlet for country comedy albums in the 1960s, and the live, party-like atmospheres during stand-up recordings by Minnie Pearl, Archie Campbell, Lonnie ‘Pap’ Wilson, Gene Martin, Johnny Bond, the Duke of Paducah, and others became the stuff of legend.
[It was used] as a popular demo studio for major label artists like Patsy Cline, Carl Smith, Jim Reeves (the percussion from the Reeves demo Distant Drums recorded here was used in the hit version), and others when the major label studios were booked.
Tommy Hill was also a big fan of the ‘fuzz country’ sound, and as a producer he championed the use of fuzz guitar on country recordings by the Willis Brothers, Cowboy Copas, Betty Amos w/ Judy & Jean, Johnny Nace, Pete Drake, Margie Lee, Tommy Belger, Jim Kandy, George Riddle, Clyde Moody, Moon Mullican, Red Sovine, and his own recordings long before Hendrix ever recorded with a fuzz pedal. In the late ’60s, Hoss Allen had an office in the building for his Rogana Productions company and many of the great ’60s Nashville soul recordings on the Hollywood subsidiary were produced here. It’s also where Country Music Hall of Famer Dottie West made her first recordings.
And all of this happened BEFORE the brief Starday-King merger in the early-1970s (which resulted in James Brown’s visit). It’s also where Red Sovine recorded Teddy Bear in the mid-1970s, the success of which enabled Moe Lytle to purchase the studio and—many years later—let it fall into disrepair.
It’s strange to me to see people calling for this studio to be restored now, much as it was strange for me to see five or so years ago. I believe Moe finally did sell the studio to someone he hoped would demolish it. And it’s nice that the new owners want to incorporate some of the Starday history into their new apartment complex. But this site was never intended to be a tourist attraction and it wouldn’t succeed as one now. Music tourism sites like Twitty City, the House of Cash, and others have all struggled if they are not part of the immediate downtown Nashville area. Even George Jones, the most famous artist on Starday (but who did not record at this studio), had his downtown museum (which included a large Starday section) permanently closed last year.
And even if the new building never becomes a tourist site, I’ve read that some think it should be restored as a studio. Yet this studio was far too dilapidated (even five years ago) to be restored as a recording site – not to mention the already large number of struggling studios in Nashville.”
Perhaps members of the Nashville-based bluegrass music community can offer some support to help ensure that the premises can be salvaged and renovated, helping to create an important historical landmark, a legacy of which they and the entire music community can be proud.
Gibson responds ….
“I have made this argument elsewhere before, but if people really want to remember and celebrate Starday, then I suggest celebrating and supporting the artists who made records pressed by Starday, and who are still with us (and in several cases, still performing)–Margie Singleton, Little Roy Lewis, Judy Lee, Jesse McReynolds, Darnell Miller, June Stearns, Bill Clifton, Willie Nelson, Ann Raye, Larry Sparks, Donna and Roni Stoneman, Dall Raney, Mayf Nutter, Karen Wheeler, Darrell McCall, Pat Wykle, to name just a few. Go to record stores and dig for Starday records (there are still lots of recordings to be discovered). And keep singing/performing the Starday songs you love so much and keeping the music in circulation (even if the catalog is long overdue for reissue). And keep recounting your favorite Starday stories to your friends.
What do our readers think?
The Starday Story: The House That Country Music Built is still available from the usual outlets.
I am grateful to discographer Dick Grant for providing most of the information about the artists who had releases on the Nashville label.