‘MONUMENTAL STUFF’

How Cinderella Sound Studio helped shape Nashville music history

  • Not surprisingly, Nashville’s oldest independent recording studio isn’t located anywhere near Music Row. It is instead 12 miles away on a block-long, wooded street in Madison in the same space it has occupied since 1961. If it’s your first visit to Cinderella Sound Studio, it’s easy to drive right past it. From the outside, the repurposed two-car garage looks like it might be someone’s home workshop. There is nothing whatsoever to suggest that inside the white, cinder-block walls recordings were made that influenced the history of popular music, recordings that are featured in the Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats: A New Music City exhibit currently running at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, recordings that include a pair of albums by the genre-defying session supergroup Area Code 615.
         Cinderella Sound is owned by Wayne Moss, legendary session guitarist and protégé of Chet Atkins, and one of the aforementioned cats. Moss played the Buddy Holly-inspired guitar on Tommy Roe’s only No. 1 hit, “Sheila,” was one of the three guitarists (along with Jerry Kennedy and Billy Sanford) playing the monster riff on Roy Orbison’s second and final No. 1, “Oh, Pretty Woman,” and was one of the guitarists on Bob Dylan’s magnum opus Blonde On Blonde. He played on records by Patsy Cline, Bobby Vinton, Waylon Jennings, and Steve Miller, to name just a few. Moss was also one of the two guitarists in Area Code 615.
         Of the 16 musicians spotlighted in the Hall of Fame exhibit, seven of the cats were Moss’ bandmates in Area Code 615: keyboardist David Briggs, drummer Kenny Buttrey, guitarist Mac Gayden, multi-instrumentalist Charlie McCoy, pedal steel player Weldon Myrick, bassist Norbert Putnam, and fiddle player Buddy Spicher. (The band also included banjo player Bobby Thompson.) In many ways, the highly influential recordings the group made at Cinderella are what solidified the studio’s place in Nashville history. As McCoy put it recently by phone from his condo in Florida, “It was monumental stuff.”
         The two albums the band recorded at Cinderella — 1969’s Area Code 615 and 1970’s Grammy-nominated A Trip In The Country — were instrumental masterpieces that informed not only the burgeoning country rock movement, but also jam-oriented Southern rock bands, and even the godfathers of jam themselves, the Grateful Dead, who saw Area Code 615 perform live at the Fillmore West in February of 1970 during a four-night stand headlined by Country Joe and the Fish.
         The idea for an instrumental band combining country, rock, and R&B came out of some downtime during sessions in 1968 with The Monkees’ Michael Nesmith, who was in Nashville recording tracks for the album The Monkees Present. Moss, Putnam, and Briggs were among the musicians who joined in a “country rock” jam on The Beatles’ “Lady Madonna.” The result was an “aha” moment that prompted Moss to say, “We need to cut an album like this.”
         Not long thereafter, while boating at Center Hill Lake, Moss discussed with Buttrey and producer Elliot Mazer the idea of an instrumental group made up of some of the young session players. Mazer thought he could sell such a group to a label — and he did, landing the group a contract with Polydor.
         Because they were all busy with session work, the primary sessions for the first album were scheduled many weeks in advance. “We all booked a complete week, six weeks in advance,” Putnam explains, “because we couldn’t do it two weeks in advance, somebody would be booked, you know.”
         When the nine members of the group that would later take its name from a Nashville phone book convened at Cinderella studio to begin recording their first album, there was no real plan other than to improvise on some popular songs. After a week of work, they had 11 genre-bursting renditions that included not only “Lady Madonna,” but also The Beatles’ “Hey Jude” and “Get Back,” Dylan’s” Just Like A Woman,” Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” and Mason Williams’ “Classical Gas.”
         With all nine musicians in the tracking room, it would get pretty crowded. “We were literally on top of each other, which was a good thing,” Putnam says. “We could get a balance in the room and hear everything because we were so close. It was really cool.”
         For McCoy, the sessions really began to click when Spicher and Thompson presented their idea to the band for “Hey Jude,” playing the fiddle-banjo intro that can be heard on the record. “That was it,” he says. “Once we did that, we said, ‘OK, now we know what to do.’ We’d all been trying to play country, or we’d all been trying to play R&B. Let’s pick some great songs and everybody play his own style. And that’s what the Area Code was.” Spicher, Thompson, and Myrick were country cats, while the rest of the band, even though they played country sessions, had a background in R&B and rock.
         Regarding the band’s recording of “Hey Jude,” McCoy reveals a little-known fact: “If you listen to that record real close, at the end when it slows down and gets into that big, long fadeout, if you listen real close, Kenny has a saw and he is sawing a piece of wood. We took the microphone outside, and miked the saw, sawing that piece of wood. So, there’s a saw on that record.”
         Those sessions were “a whole lot of fun,” according to Gayden. “There was a lot of laughing,” he says. “It was real loose because you had nine session players who had played with everybody.”
         Briggs also remembers the sessions for the first album as being loose. “There was a lot of goofing off,” he says and laughs. “We would record one or two [songs], then we would go play baseball for an hour. We didn’t have any real teams or anything like that, we were just hitting and throwing around.”

    While Cinderella began to receive worldwide recognition after the release of Area Code 615’s eponymous debut, Moss was doing some rudimentary recording in his garage as early as 1961. “I was doing recording in West Virginia before I even got here, so I was just continuing what I had been doing since high school,” he explains over coffee in the kitchen of his ranch-style home located on the same property as Cinderella. “It was always my ambition to own a studio.”
         Back in ’61, Moss was playing guitar in Charlie McCoy & The Escorts, Nashville’s top rock band that included not only McCoy and Moss, but also Buttrey, keyboardist Bill Aikins, and saxophonist Quitman Dennis. When the group decided to close The Sack, their teen club in East Nashville, they moved the microphones and other gear to Moss’ garage. “We brainstormed it riding in the car to gigs,” Dennis recalls. “We decided to do it and that Wayne’s garage was going to become a studio. We all decided to cooperate and do it as a joint band venture.
         “We went to salvage yards, and scrounged up material and doors,” he continues. “Everybody worked with tools to do that and got it working.”
         “We all pitched in,” McCoy says. “That table the amplifiers sit on, I built that table. Everybody was pitching in out there.”
         “The band built that studio,” echoes Aikins. “That was an effort of the whole band.”
         They divided the garage into two areas: the control room and the tracking room. Dennis laughs as he recalls that he “hung the door” between the control room and the studio. There was a drum booth for Buttrey in the main room, which these days is used for vocals.
         It wasn’t long before both Aikins and Dennis left The Escorts, so Moss bought out his bandmates and became sole owner of the studio. “Yeah, it cost me 60 bucks per member, which was basically some microphones and cables and stuff,” he says.
         Early on, sessions at the studio were mostly for McCoy and Moss’ company, Wormwood Music. “Wayne and I had a publishing company, and the main reason we did that [the studio] was for us to do demos,” McCoy explains.
         In 1964, McCoy signed with Monument Records, and over the next four years, the label released seven double-sided singles featuring McCoy backed by The Escorts, most of which were recorded at Cinderella Sound.
         “The technique for recording that we all had was kind of developed during the Escorts sessions,” says Gayden, who had replaced Moss as the band’s guitarist by then. “We had a methodology to it, and we stuck to that all the way through the 615 and Barefoot Jerry stuff.
         “It’s just, you know, stay loose, be real, be genuine; this is not Music Row, we don’t have to worry about people sneaking in and listening to it from some label,” he continues. “Just do our thing, experiment and have a good time and not worry about it.
         “That was the first place in Nashville that I ever recorded where you could just be yourself a hundred percent.”
         Over the years, a number of legendary engineers got their start at Cinderella, including Neil Wilburn, who would go on to become one of Columbia’s top engineers in Nashville, and Gene Eichelberger, who is probably best known for his work at Quadrafonic Sound.
         “We had a UA (Universal Audio) board and it was tube type,” Moss says of the studio’s original console. “Neil Wilburn wired it up. He was working at Electra Distributing, selling me resistors and stuff.
         “So when I got Neil to wire that up, I said, ‘Why don’t you come out here and engineer?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know anything about music.’ I said, ‘It doesn’t matter, you know about electronics, and a monkey can mix music.’ ” So that’s how Wilburn became Cinderella’s first engineer.
         Initially, Moss had a Roberts mono 2-track recorder, but was using an Ampex PR-10 2-track stereo machine by the time Wilburn came on board. “I know Neil Wilburn engineered the Faron Young radio show out here on the PR10,” Moss says. “In the process, he [Young] brought Merle Kilgore, and The Louvin Brothers, and everybody on The Opry to do their latest single on his radio show. The Louvin Brothers and all these people that came in here got to see the studio, and thought, ‘Shoot, I ought to cut here, too.’ So, it brought a lot of business to the place.”
         Eichelberger moved to Nashville to work at Cinderella in the fall of 1969. “Gene is very knowledgeable,” Moss says. “I don’t care what you brought into the studio, a tuba or whatever it was, he’d listen to it in the studio and go back into the control room and make it sound just like it sounded live — and that is hard to do.”
         By the time Eichelberger arrived, Moss had moved up to an Ampex 8-track machine. Within a few years, he had upgraded to first a 16-track MCI recorder and finally a 24-track MCI machine, which he still has. “It’s a good workhorse machine for those who are fanatics about cutting to tape,” he says.
         After he acquired the 16-track MCI machine, he got the board he still uses, a recording console designed by legendary audio engineer Daniel Flickinger and considered to be among the best sounding mixing desks ever made. There are only two still in use — the one at Cinderella and one in the U.K. — but back in the ’70s, in addition to Cinderella, Flickinger made consoles for Sly Stone, Curtis Mayfield, Johnny Cash, Ike Turner, Ray Stevens, Funkadelic, Muscle Shoals Sound, and Motown.
         Flickinger himself came to Cinderella after it was installed. “They never fired up the console to see if it worked until it got installed at Cinderella,” Moss recalls. “Then they had to go through and debug it, and Flickinger showed up for that.
         “The Flinginger was 24 in and 24 out,” he continues. “I told Flickinger I wanted a 16-track console because I had a 16-track machine at the time, and he said, ‘No, you want a 24.’ And I said, ‘No, I want 16 and four extra busses for echo returns.’ He said, ‘I’m going to charge you the same thing for a 24 as I will for a 16.’ I said, ‘OK, I’ll take it.’ “Flickinger and I had several disagreements, and he always won,” Moss adds with a laugh.

    The first album recorded at Cinderella was 1964’s Folk Instrumentals, an album by The Greenwoods released on the Decca label. The Greenwoods included McCoy, Moss, Dennis (on bass), and Gayden, as well as multi-instrumentalist Willow Collins.
         “That was pretty cool,” McCoy recalls. “I had never really played a lot with a banjo before that, and Willow Collins was a really fine banjo player. It was kind of an eye-opening experience.”
         In addition to the sessions for Wormwood Music, Cinderella hosted demo sessions for other Nashville-based publishing companies. “We had a good portion of the writers on Combine cut out here — Billy Swan, Kristofferson,” Moss says of the storied company led by Bob Beckham.
         The first hit record recorded at Cinderella was Clifford Curry’s 1967 beach music classic “She Shot A Hole In My Soul,” which was written by Gayden and Chuck Neese. Gayden led the session which included Buttrey and Putnam.
         Some of the folk and rock artists who followed Dylan to Nashville worked at Cinderella. One of the first was folk artist Eric Anderson, who recorded the album A Country Dream there in 1968, backed by five of the cats from the Code: Briggs, Buttrey, McCoy, Myrick , and Putnam.
         Mazer met Buttrey at a session in Nashville for the folk duo Ian & Sylvia, and met Moss through the drummer. “Kenny introduced me to Wayne Moss, and I meet Wayne, and we talk about it, and we see Cinderella Sound,” Mazer recalls. “I say, ‘Great, we’ll work there.’ And I did quite a few albums there. Did 615 there, a guy called Jake Holmes — I did one album there. A guy called Ken Lauber — I did a beautiful album there with him.”
         One of the best-known records Mazer helmed at Cinderella was Linda Ronstadt’s Silk Purse. Ironically, Moss missed those sessions — he was in Alabama fishing at the time — but Gayden was among the musicians who got the call from Mazer. “That’s where we introduced Linda Ronstadt to Smokey Robinson, she’d never heard of him,” Gayden says of the sessions in 1969. “We would play some of Smokey’s stuff in between takes, and she would say, ‘Who is that?’” In the mid-to-late ’70s, Ronstadt would twice hit the Billboard Top 40 with Smokey Robinson compositions: “Tracks Of My Tears” went to No. 25 in 1976, and two years later, “Ooh Baby Baby” went all the way to No. 7.
         In 1970, Steve Miller and a few of his bandmates came to town and recorded tracks for Number 5 at Cinderella, working with Moss, McCoy, Spicher, and Thompson. “He was impressed with how fast things went,” Moss says. “He ran a song down for us and 15 minutes later it was finished.”
         While waiting for one of his sessions at the studio to start, Miller picked up a little guitar trick from Gayden he would use a few years later on the first of three No. 1 hits he would score.
         “I was in there working on the wah pedal, messing around, playing a little slide, and he heard me working on it,” Gayden, who pioneered the slide-wah technique, recalls. “He walked in and introduced himself, and at the time, I didn’t know who Steve Miller was very much. I had heard about him from the San Francisco area, but I really wasn’t aware of a lot of his stuff except what was on the radio. Anyway, I showed him how I did it, and he went back and put it on ‘The Joker.’ ”
         Miller and Moss have remained friends over the years, and the rock legend plans to return to Cinderella to record later this year. “He’s going to be in town next fall and he’s going to cut some more stuff, some acoustic things,” Moss says.
         When Area Code 615 broke up because most of the members didn’t want to give up their careers as in-demand session players, Gayden, Buttrey, and Moss joined with keyboardist John Harris to form the legendary Southern rock outfit Barefoot Jerry. Their debut album, Southern Delight, which was recorded at Cinderella and released in 1971, is considered a Southern rock classic. Although first Buttrey and then Gayden left the band after the first album, Moss kept the band going for five more albums, all of which were recorded at Cinderella.
         After Area Code 615, McCoy went on to a celebrated career as an instrumental recording artist whose virtuosity on the harmonica is acclaimed across the globe. To date, McCoy has released 40 full-length albums, the majority of which were recorded at Cinderella Sound.
         Over the studio’s 55 years in business, a wide array of artists have recorded there, including Mickey Newbury, Tony Joe White, Charlie Daniels Band, Leo Kottke, Ricky Skaggs, James Gang, The Whites, Alex Harvey, Joe South, Jerry Reed, and Peter Criss (of KISS), just to name a few.
         And because of its place in Nashville history, it has attracted artists from all over the planet. “Eddie Mitchell has cut five albums out here,” Moss says, then adds with a smile, “The Elvis of France.”
         When as a child Moss envisioned one day owning a studio, he couldn’t have imagined the fulfillment of his ambition unfolding in the historic way it has. “We never were in the phone book, so it was all word of mouth,” he says. “That kept the Gray Line Tours from coming out when people were recording.”