Know Your Neighbor: Grant Houston

1967 was the Summer of Love and where was I? Living in the Haight Ashbury. In the 1980s, where did I live? On Music Row. Now I live here, in Eastwood, which is getting all this buzz. I don’t know if I’m bringing it with me, or if I just get lucky every place I go.” — Grant Houston

Whenever there’s a show at the Bridgestone that features acoustic piano, or when the sound of one is captured in a high-end Nashville studio, there’s a better-than-good chance Grant Houston tuned it. Stevie Wonder used his services at the arena recently; Taylor Swift, too. A serene, genial presence with a spray of gray beard and glasses, Houston tunes so many pianos at the Bridgestone that he has his own parking space. Ye shall know him by his license plate: TUNER.
     His client roster over the years includes Michael McDonald, the Nashville Symphony, Willie Nelson, Keith Urban, Johnny Cash, Curb Studio, The Woods Amphitheater at Fontanel, Warner Bros., Tim McGraw, W.O. Smith Music School, Roberta Flack, and on and on. “My first-ever house call was to tune a piano in Dottie West’s home,” he says, “and after that, we bowled a few frames downstairs in her bowling alley.” (Yes, Dottie West had a bowling alley in her basement. Three lanes.)
     In the wake of Lee Greenwood’s massive single “God Bless the USA,” the singer’s staff presented him with a magnificent Kawai grand piano, and for 30 years now, Houston has been charged with the care and upkeep of it. Each time he services it, he first gets the proper pitch of one key with the use of an electronic tuner, then tunes all the others entirely by ear.
     He came from San Francisco to Nashville in 1978, not with a piano, but a guitar. Armed with a fistful of songs, he knocked on doors up and down Music Row. Riches and fame were not forthcoming. “One door closes, another opens,” he says philosophically.
     He wound up sweeping the floor in a piano store on Second Avenue, ultimately graduating to taking care of the pianos, and then to learning them inside and out, including tuning. He had found his niche in the world and success came with it. In a scant two years after he’d first hit town, he was the piano tuner to the stars. “It came much quicker than I expected,” he says. “I just took to it like a duck to water.”
    Since then, he has not only maintained good pianos, he also has refurbished many that had seen better days. He ran a restoration facility in Dyersburg, Tenn., (the scene of a profile on Tennessee Crossroads in 2009) and a retail store in Green Hills, neither of which survived the recession. Houston’s current restoration labor of love — in the workshop behind his home on Benjamin Street — is a Friedrich Ehrbar grand piano that was built in Vienna before World War II. “It’s the Rolls Royce of pianos,” he says. Also in the shop at the moment is Lee Greenwood’s keyboard, not the whole piano, just the keyboard and the first series of hammers, the “action,” as it’s known in piano parlance.
     Houston has been active in his community. He was the Democratic Party committee man for District 6 in 1992 (the year of Bill Clinton’s first victory) and was involved in forming the first Nashville chapter of NORML in 1994. These days, though, he takes life a little more languidly. He paints (quite well), makes music, and writes poetry. The spirit of the Haight glows in him, and he appreciates the Zen of where he lives now.
     “The essence of this area is renaissance,” he says of life on the East Side. “We’re renaissance people here. I’m a musician, I’m a painter, I write poetry, tune pianos, fly kites; there’s an energy that’s going on here. I’ve seen limousines with tourists cruising right down this street — people from New York, or wherever, who have read about this area and want to check it out. There’s a reason why this is where a city popped up. There’s an aura here.”
     So where does he feel like he fits in this firmament? “What I like to think I do,” he says, “is provide harmony.” That he does — one key at a time.

For more information about Grant Houston, visit pianotuningnashville.com