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The Birthplace Of Country Music's First Hit Is Being Threatened By Modern Construction

May 4, 2019

Nashville may be the country music capital, but the industry for which its famous began in Atlanta. Now, a grassroots drive to preserve a historic downtown building is highlighting Atlanta's somewhat forgotten role in early roots music.

At 152 Nassau Street in Downtown Atlanta, an unmarked two-story rose brick storefront houses a piece of Atlanta's music history. This was the site of a pop-up recording studio in 1923.

"Recording executives from New York came down to the South to record jazz, gospel, blues and country music," architect Kyle Kessler says as he stands outside the building.

Kessler is part of Historic Atlanta, a preservation group trying to stop the planned demolition of this building to make way for a Jimmy Buffett Margaritaville high-rise hotel restaurant.

The acts that passed through 152 Nassau Street to record included Alabama blues singer Lucille Bogan, a gospel quartet from Morehouse College and Atlanta jazz orchestra Warner's Seven Aces.

"It was completely acoustic. There was no microphone," Kessler says. "There was no post-production. It was all singing or playing your instrument into a horn and that carried down to a needle, which carved in the grooves of the record all the sounds that were heard in that building at that time."

Behind the recording was a man named Ralph Peer. Lance Ledbetter, who runs Atlanta outfit Dust to Digital, says Peer was really good at discovering new talent.

"He had this idea to come down to the South and try to record people from the region that maybe they couldn't find you know from their offices in New York," Ledbetter says of Peer.

Peer's big discovery in Atlanta in 1923 was Fiddlin' John Carson, a well-known musician in Atlanta's Cabbagetown neighborhood. "He won so many of the contests that they banned him from entering anymore, says music history buff and Cabbagetown resident James Kelly. "He was amazing."

Carson played and sang an old minstrel tune, "The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane," in the studio. According to Ledbetter, Carson's record was a hit. The first pressing sold out almost instantly.

"The sales here in Atlanta and throughout the South just start to explode. People were buying these records like crazy because they'd never heard their musicians that they're used to on record,"Ledbetter says.

That success put record companies on notice.

"This isn't just dumb rednecks or dumb hillbillies or whatever they want to think it is. This is music that's important and people love it," Ledbetter says. "And Fiddlin' John Carson in 1923, when he made that recording, it opened the doors on what country music was to become."

Four years later, Peer traveled to the city of Bristol, on the Tennessee/Virginia borderline, for what's called the "big bang" of country music — sessions featuring the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. But for Fiddlin' John Carson, fame was short-lived.

Kyle Kessler holds a pressing of Fiddlin' John Carson's "The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane," which was recorded at 152 Nassau Street in Atlanta.
Debbie Elliott / NPR

"He never really had a big career," Kelly says. "He played for the governor-elect and the governor liked him so he gave him a job as an elevator operator in The Capitol. And that's where he worked most of his life."

The little brick building where Fiddlin' John Carson cut that first country hit sits amid Atlanta's modern tourist attractions. Kessler says it's hard for old buildings to compete.

"I think Atlanta still struggles with its identity," Kessler notes. "I think on any given weekend, this city is a different city with whatever convention or sporting event [is] in town. Atlanta, since the Civil Rights era, has claimed to be the city too busy to hate. I think oftentimes we're just too busy."

City planners did push for landmark status for the building, but the designation didn't get through and developers now have a demolition permit. Kessler has launched on online petition to try to convince Jimmy Buffett to intervene and prevent the building from being torn down. An attorney for Margaritaville said via email he is unaware of the history of the building or whether the permit is connected to a future deal with Margaritaville.

In an email response to NPR's inquiry, developer Strand Capital Group of North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, said it evaluated the history of the site. "We care about the history of country music and the rich, diverse history of Atlanta," wrote J. Patrick Lowe. "As part of the development, we are considering ways to respectfully acknowledge that Okeh Music recorded an early country music song there."

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Nashville may be - what do you mean? - Nashville is the country music capital. But the industry for which it's famous began in Atlanta. Now a drive to preserve a historic downtown building that highlights that, perhaps unappreciated, role of Atlanta is underway. Activists are trying to stop a developer from demolishing the place where the first country music hit was recorded to build a Jimmy Buffett Margaritaville high-rise complex. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Architect Kyle Kessler takes me to a short block in the heart of Atlanta's bustling city center.

KYLE KESSLER: We're coming up on 152 Nassau, which was where music history was made in Atlanta.

ELIOTT: He stops in front of an unmarked two-story rose brick storefront on Nassau Street.

KESSLER: So this is it (laughter).

ELIOTT: Kessler is part of Historic Atlanta, a preservation group trying to stop the planned demolition of this building to make way for a high-rise hotel and restaurant because this was the site of a pop-up recording studio in 1923.

KESSLER: This was where recording executives from New York came down to the South to record jazz, gospel, blues and country music.

ELIOTT: The acts included Alabama blues singer Lucille Bogan.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE PAWN SHOP BLUES")

LUCILLE BOGAN: (Singing) All the girls in Atlanta town done found out that Joe was nothing but a clown.

ELIOTT: A gospel quartet from historically black Morehouse College and an Atlanta jazz orchestra named Warner's Seven Aces.

(SOUNDBITE OF WARNER'S SEVEN ACES' "WONDER IF SHE'S LONELY, TOO")

KESSLER: It was completely acoustic. There was no microphone. There was no postproduction. It was all singing or playing your instrument into a horn. And that carried down to a needle, which carved, in the grooves of the record, all the sounds that were heard in that building at that time.

(SOUNDBITE OF WARNER'S SEVEN ACES' "WONDER IF SHE'S LONELY, TOO")

ELIOTT: Behind the recording was a man named Ralph Peer.

LANCE LEDBETTER: Ralph Peer was really good at discovering new talent. And he had a huge hit in 1920 with a blues artist named Mamie Smith.

ELIOTT: Lance Ledbetter better runs Dust to Digital, an Atlanta outfit that makes records, films and does music research.

LEDBETTER: He had this idea to come down to the South and try to record people from the region that maybe they couldn't find from their offices in New York.

ELIOTT: Peers' big discovery in Atlanta that day in 1923 was Fiddlin' John Carson.

(SOUNDBITE OF FIDDLIN' JOHN CARSON SONG, "THE LITTLE OLD LOG CABIN IN THE LANE")

ELIOTT: Carson played and sang an old minstrel tune, "The Little Old Log Cabin In The Lane."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LITTLE OLD LOG CABIN IN THE LANE")

FIDDLIN' JOHN CARSON: (Singing) Now I'm getting old and feeble. And I cannot work no more. That rusted bladed hoe I've laid to rest. Old master and old missus, they are sleeping side by side. Their spirits now are roaming with the blessed.

JAMES KELLY: Fiddlin' John Carson worked in the mill and lived here in Cabbagetown.

ELIOTT: James Kelly is a music history buff and record collector who also lives in Atlanta's Cabbagetown neighborhood, an old cotton mill area that drew workers from Appalachia, like Carson.

KELLY: He was a champion old-time fiddler. He won so many of the contests that they banned him from entering any more. He was amazing.

(SOUNDBITE OF FIDDLIN' JOHN CARSON SONG, "THE LITTLE OLD LOG CABIN IN THE LANE")

ELIOTT: Carson's record was an instant hit, says Lance Ledbetter.

LEDBETTER: The sales here in Atlanta and throughout the South just started to explode. People were buying these records like crazy because they never heard their musicians that they're used to on record.

ELIOTT: The first pressing sold out almost instantly. Ledbetter says that success put record companies on notice.

LEDBETTER: This isn't just dumb rednecks or dumb hillbillies or whatever they want to think it is. This is music that's important. And people love it. And Fiddlin' John Carson in 1923, when he made that recording - it opened the doors on what country music was to become.

ELIOTT: Four years later, Ralph Peer traveled to Bristol on the Tennessee-Virginia line for what's called the big bang of country music - sessions featuring the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. But for Fiddlin' John Carson, fame was short lived, says James Kelly.

KELLY: Fiddlin' John ended up being an elevator operator. He just played around here. He never really had a big career. He played for the governor-elect. And the governor liked him, so he gave him a job as an elevator operator in the Capitol. And that's where he worked most of his life.

ELIOTT: The little brick building where Fiddlin' John Carson cut that first country hit sits amid Atlanta's tourist attractions - Centennial Park, a giant Ferris wheel and the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which was host to the Super Bowl this year. Preservationist Kyle Kessler says it's hard for old buildings to compete.

KESSLER: I think Atlanta still struggles with its identity. I think on any given weekend, the city is a different city with whatever convention or sporting event is in town. Atlanta, since the Civil Rights era, has claimed to be the city too busy to hate. I think oftentimes we're just too busy.

ELIOTT: City planners did push for landmark status for the building, but the designation didn't get through. And developers now have a demolition permit. Kessler has launched an online petition to try to convince Jimmy Buffett to intervene and prevent the building from being torn down. An attorney for Margaritaville said in an email he is unaware of the history of the building or whether the permit is connected to a future deal with Margaritaville. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Atlanta.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LITTLE OLD LOG CABIN IN THE LANE")

FIDDLIN' JOHN CARSON: (Singing) But the only friend that's left here is that good old dog of mine and the little old log cabin in the lane. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.