Living with Music: Curating a Life of Legends
Nashville. Musicians accumulate the most interesting artifacts. Rarely do they own only one instrument, or even one means of listening to recordings. It’s complicated, this relationship they have with these ‘things,’ which are so much more than ‘things’ to them. They are sometimes scavengers, and sometimes in the salvage business. Meet two Tennessee musicians who aren’t just obsessed collectors, but who are also curators of our music culture: Shannon Pollard and Lon Eldridge.
SHANNON POLLARD collects vinyl. A shelf in his office nearly buckles under the weight of hundreds of albums. Above the shelf are books about said albums and their creators. He has a turntable where most offices park a printer, and there’s a record on deck ready to go. It’s his way of streaming, of streaming consciousness.
Shannon also makes vinyl. He cofounded the Plowboy Records label in 2012 with friend Don Cusic. His albums are artifacts infused with good design as well as interesting collaborations. His titles live up to its tagline, ‘respect the unexpected.’
When you tour the music studio in Brentwood, you can see why Ken Burns’ production crew has been there five times in recent months to film and interview Shannon. While we came to talk about his story, Shannon would rather tell you about other musicians’ stories–those he admires, those who persevere. Those kind of stories are where you find Shannon’s passion and the soul of Plowboy Records. Take Plowboy’s release of Meridian Rising by Paul Birch, a well-received musical journey that spins us ar ound all the way back to the short, yet epic, life of Jimmie Rodgers. If a region’s musical soul could be packaged, this is how it would sound today.
Ken Burn’s anticipated documentary Country Music connects Shannon to his famous grandfather, crooner Eddy Arnold. With so many legends long gone before Burns turned toward Nashville–thinkCash, Jones, and Arnold—Shannon’s artifacts serve as a bridge between generations and genres. Shannon owns some great tribal stories.
One family story is found in the real estate venture Shannon oversees off Granny White Pike. The Italian name for the property, Você, comes with a mystique, with legend. Você is a parcel of the rural property where Eddy Arnold once kept a log cabin and where he often retreated to work through song lyrics and melodies. The story goes that he liked to ride his horse among the hills and sing, adding credibility to his gentleman farmer persona. One evening as Arnold was out pacing the hills, perhaps on a stroll or I’d like to think while in the saddle, his voice suddenly reached a new depth just as he crowned a hill. This moment led to his second wind as a performer with wildly popular love ballads such as “Make the World Go Away” and “Welcome to My World.” These songs made Arnold one of the first cross-over, country and pop performers. Você is now a setting with architecturally distinct homes among conservation easements and scenic natural areas. It’s a place where designers now find their voice, their Você.
While The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum has its collection from Eddy Arnold’s estate, such as the canisters of film from his TV shows, Shannon keeps some artifacts closer to home. On Shannon’s desk is an autographed photo of Louis Armstrong. There’s a vintage address book with the handwritten names and phone numbers of icons from TV, radio, and the recording industry, that even predates a Rolodex. I lift the book and see the name ‘Steve Allen,’ and turn the pages to see in another blue script ‘Mike Douglas.’ Eddy Arnold touched every tab in the industry, A to Z. He was a champion of singer Charley Pride, when ‘controversial’ was code for a racial divide, in a community that could think rather small at times.
Like his grandfather, Shannon’s taste in music is wide-ranging as both a listener and a producer. He tells us that his grandfather liked to hit the jazz clubs in New York, and that once Dizzy Gillespie called him out from the stage, spotting him in the crowded venue. Eddy Arnold was a person who could travel from a place where “Dixie” is still whistled to a place where “Dizzy” defines a new American art form.
It’s no surprise Shannon would take on a production project to honor Bobby Bare, or introduce emerging talent such as the Blackfoot Gypsies. Eddy Arnold’s cluttered desk and reel-to-reel machines nearby on the console are all left for now relatively in place, as if the star stepped out for lunch. Shannon has the task ahead of sorting out a legendary life, in a different way than a Ken Burns or a Hall of Fame. For Shannon, it’s personal. Mostly he sees the task as an honor, and certainly as a place that demands a work ethic he’s inherited. The back room is a near shrine, and a glimpse into a past where business cards were taped up and down the bookshelf edge. That back office is an oddly public place and yet clearly poignant.
There’s so much to sift through, and Shannon has become a near archaeologist. Everything he touches is connected to hundreds of other rehearsals, career hits, and some near misses. For Shannon, it’s the music that matters and feels urgent. He gathered a stunning group of artists for a tribute with You Don’t Know Me: Rediscovering Eddy Arnold, a Plowboy release in 2013. It features everyone from Jason Isbell to Chris Scruggs. Designers and collectors will appreciate the stunning album art from Cronin Creative that makes the pearl inlay on the guitar close up iridescent, like the songs.
While the rooms at Shannon’s studio are rich in history, with stories that stack up like the drummer’s affinity for snares and vinyl, there’s nothing at all stagnant about 154 Franklin Road. This humble storefront is a dynamic working studio where musicians and visual artists pop in to talk about ideas and set up rehearsal time.
Visual art is found all around such as a guitar-inspired table by Nashville artist Rob Hendon. Real estate is sold to a new generation with bold new tastes and takes on what it means to live and work in Music City. Keep your eyes and ears out for this thoughtful work that combines design and sound into the word ‘respect.’
LON ELDRIDGE lives in Chattanooga and stays on the road playing music much of the time. He is a master of the blues finger-style resonator guitar and
is a founding member of The 9th Street Stompers. The raucous band pays homage to the Big Nine blues music scene that claims Bessie Smith as its most famous daughter. Think Django Reinhardt meets Rockabilly.
Lon can tell you anything you want to know about Bessie Smith’s discography and its disconnects. He can describe exactly how the recordings of Bessie Smith evolved, both the technology and the social history. He collects a culture more fragile than vinyl, more brittle, and much older. He spins shellac 78 rpms on gramophones, transcendent machines he has learned to take apart, repair, and play.
When Lon’s not touring with his big stomping band, he goes solo as the persona of ‘DJ Passé,’ complete with handle-bar moustache and Victorian gentlemen’s attire. He seems to have just stepped out of a tin-type, and well, he has. DJ Passé can be heard in such places as Asheville’s Speak-Easy-style lounge, The Crow & Quill. Nostalgia or being quaint ain’t his take on music, please note. Lon’s understanding of the mechanical technologies has convinced him that there’s something vital to the old recording systems that brings us closer to the raw, live human voice. There’s a connection between the contraptions and the very design of the human ear. There’s something to ponder there, but regardless of the technology de jour, Lon elevates the art of listening.
Lon recently gave a delightful public lecture at Jazzanooga, a new music venue on MLK Blvd. (formerly Ninth Street) in downtown Chattanooga. He moved like a dancer between two hand-cranked gramophones as his podiums. ‘Around the World in 80 Plays’ included music from his extensive collection of salvaged 78s. He travels with his heavy burdens of old equipment and enjoys speaking about the history of His Master’s Voice as he quickly replaces the needle in the arm and turns a crank.
Watching Lon Eldridge spin the old technologies is nearly as hypnotizing as the sounds are enthralling. He is spinning music that dates to a time just before Billie Holiday stepped up to a now-vintage microphone to sing about ‘All the Old Familiar Places,’ some that are now gone. Lon is sharing music recorded acoustically, as the soft voice had to lean way in to the horn and allow the needle to mark the wax. What we take away from this scene is a context, the realization of how determined music and its makers have always
been. He points out a musician’s courage and desire to change our consciousness, to connect—even when it was cumbersome. One small steel needle Lon pulls from a tiny envelope only allows him two spins, a front and a back. The work is labor intensive, a labor of love.
Lon has one of the largest private collection of Bessie Smith recordings I’ve seen, but also has a weakness for the even more obscure. Lon is someone you would want on your Trivia team, or creating your college syllabus. He knows what details matter, but also what ideas hold together‑–that hard to pin down word, ‘relevance.’ He goes for what many of us amateurs might overlook at the estate sale and he’s generous to name off the places he peruses. Lon Eldridge makes meaning, as well as music.
Plowboy Records, Shannon Pollard, Nashville
United Record Pressing, Friday tours by appt., 866.407.3165, Nashville
The Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum, Nashville
Grimey’s New and Preloved Music, Mike Grimes: 1604 8th Ave. S., Nashville
The Great Escape Superstore, 5400 Charlotte Ave., Nashville
Chad’s Records, 40 Frazier Ave. Chattanooga (at Winder Binder Books, Art and Music): Store: 423.413.9464
Alison’s Record Shop (and Sonny’s Vintage Vinyl Gallery), Alison Warford: 994 Davidson Dr., Nashville
Brian’s Custom Theaters & Hi-Fi, Brian Warford (turntable
experts and home theater installation): Nashville, 615.356.0180
Third Man Records and Novelties Lounge/Store , Jack White,
623 7th Ave. S. Nashville, 615.891.4393
Carpe Diem Vintage Vinyl , Next door to Kimbro’s Pickin’
Parlor, 212 S. Margin St., Franklin, 615.429.0157
Lon Eldridge, Chattanooga
9th Street Stompers , Chattanooga
Bessie Smith Culture Center , Chattanooga, 423.266.8658
Jazzanooga , Shane Morrow and James McKissic, Chattanooga
Wade Hunton , gramophone restoration, 78s, sales, accessories,
Decatur, GA., 678.640.2022
Charles Coleman , tin type photography, Chattanooga
The Crow & Quill , 106 N. Lexington Ave. Asheville, NC
Rick Taylor , turntables and radio restoration/repair, Ooltewah, TN
The Refindery, urban market offering vintage radios, vinyl record sales, Mid-century modern stereo cabinets, and more, 423.697.1243, Chattanooga
Photography by Billy Weeks