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Dream Makers in Music City

A True Nashville Experience

By Anthea Gerrie | Photography by Sean Hagwell

Imagine you could take a trip to Nashville and become an insider for a day: penning a ballad with a pro songwriter like the characters in the hit show Nashville seem to do between breakfast and lunch, hopping into the studio to record it, sitting side by side with a Grammy-winning producer in a mixing booth where five hundred chart-toppers have been laid down, and not just visiting the Grand Ole Opry, but standing on stage when the curtain goes up!

The good news is you can do these things; living the life of Nashville, now in its sixth season, is among the most seductive experiences Music City has to offer. The series’ popularity is one reason the appropriately named Imagine Recordings recently set up shop, according to co-president Steve Fishell, a producer who has played pedal steel guitar with Emmylou Harris, Reba McEntire, Dolly Parton, and Linda Ronstadt. Fishell was featured in the TV blockbuster as concert guitarist to Rayna James during Connie Britton’s multiseason run as the principal lady.

“One thing I noticed about the show was that the recording studio was depicted as an inner sanctum, a place the public could never enter, and I wanted to demystify that,” explains Grammy winner Fishell. Initially, he had planned only to open up sessions at the famous Sound Stage Studios on Music Row, where the likes of Alan Jackson have recorded, but he found himself drawn into also opening up the creative process that makes Music City the place of songwriters’ dreams.

“The idea grew out of a group who came to one of our studio sessions wanting to record a song they had written back home—not a process we particularly encourage,” he says. “But we did think it would be intriguing to partner a group with a professional singer-songwriter who could help them take an idea and draw lyrics out of them in an hour or less.” And the process, which has been tried by everyone from a handful of CEOs to larger team-building groups, is open to parties of friends or even couples able to afford the four-figure cost, which includes a copy of the song and a fair share of the publishing rights.

Attendees write a new song together during an Imagine Recordings songwriting session.
Attendees write a new song together during an Imagine Recordings songwriting session.

“Our interest is in showing the public the magic of the creative process,” says Fishell, who points out that the alchemy seen on the show Nashville, in which a winning arrangement seems to come together on the spot, is quite authentic. “

A writer wanting to record a song usually brings a demo to the session. Most of the musicians will never have heard the demo before. Then they each play the song as they feel it, and a producer helps the singer pull the parts together that best enhance the feel they’re looking for.” During Imagine’s regular recording sessions, visitors can book tickets for $85 a pop—giving them a seat in the studio to witness the guitarists, drummers, and other musicians in action—and see the magic evolve as a finished track is born.

Over at the Grand Ole Opry, there is an increased interest in interactive tours of the most famous venue in country music, thanks to the international spotlight the show has shone on the capital.

“Since the show started airing in eighty-three countries, we’re seeing visitors make the journey from areas that had shown no interest in Nashville before,” says the Opry’s sales director, Wayne Chandler.

“The investment the producers have made to film on location all around the city has helped to build the interest and show the authenticity of Music City.”

Now the Opry is giving guests the chance to sample a little of their own magic with an exclusive backstage tour for which no more than twenty places are sold. “The experience ends on the wings of the stage, from where the participants can be seen by the audience when the big red curtain rises,” says Chandler. The price of this backstage experience costs a cool $150—plus the amount of a seat for the performance. But it does include a professional photograph of visitors with the stage and auditorium behind them as a keepsake.

Participation experiences are increasingly the name of the game in Nashville tourism: at the famous RCA Studio B, where Elvis recorded “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” and the Everly Brothers laid down “All I Have to Do Is Dream,” groups can record (or ruin) a standard. Songwriting experiences run by the Country Music Hall of Fame, which owns Studio B, are open only to large tour groups, but they do offer an annual songwriting camp to teens, complete with voice coaching and professional recording sessions. If only adults could sign up—and if only the Bluebird Cafe would just allow the starstruck to wait tables for a night, if not take the mic, living the Nashville dream from the inside would be a done deal!

— V —

For more information on songwriting and recording sessions with the pros, visit ImagineRecordings.com.

Anthea Gerrie is based in the UK but travels the world in search of stories. Her special interests are architecture and design, culture, food, and drink, as well as the best places to visit in the world’s great playgrounds. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, the Independent, and Blueprint.

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