Music Row is a special place, but as stories go, it’s harder to tell than some. History was made there by thousands of creatives scattered across hundreds of addresses, with only a few focal points and people that command the public imagination. Seventy years after Owen and Harold Bradley opened the first studio there, we hear calls to “Save Music Row,” but how to do that has been among Nashville’s most vexing concerns. Now a duo offers a new angle with an ambitious act of multi-media history.
Granville Automatic is the 11-year partnership of Elizabeth Elkins and Vanessa Olivarez, songwriters who’ve enjoyed success in a variety of forums, from country radio to TV and film placements to their own recordings and tours. They were working in different parts of the Atlanta scene and both nursing creative setbacks when they decided to co-write, and soon they leaned into song cycles inspired by historical research. They took their name from an old brand of typewriter.
“Both of us really miss the art of storytelling in music,” says Olivarez in the Q&A presented here. “One day, I looked at Elizabeth and I said, ‘Why don't we write an album about war and about history.’ So, the idea of Granville came about as really trying to find some of those hidden stories and bring them to light. And it also gives us something else to focus on besides the same old love story.”
The war songs eventually became the 2015 album An Army Without Music. The duo then researched story songs about lost landmarks in New York. But by then both women had moved to Nashville, and Olivarez says this city’s fading history grabbed their attention.
“I want to try to try to make people care that we're losing all of these very important places where so many musical ghosts lived and created,” she says. “So that was of the utmost important importance to us - to try to salvage what we could of Music Row, and of Nashville. So we decided to change focus.”
Their first Music City concept album was 2018’s Radio Hymns, with 13 songs that were carefully annotated and located on a map of Nashville. The Ryman’s near-death experience in the 1970s inspired the title track. The city’s last public hanging (1865) became “Black Avenue Gallows,” while “The House That Fell Down” tells the story of a mansion at 1111 16th Ave. that fell into neglect for fascinating reasons. And there lies a bridge to the duo’s latest efforts, a book called Hidden History of Music Row and an EP called Tiny Televisions.
The book project came by way of their co-writer in prose, Brian Allison, whose father was a Music Row power broker and who authors for The History Press of Charleston, SC. He, Elkins and Olivarez wrote bylined chapters in Hidden History, which range through narratives of city founders like Timothy Demonbreun and wild true tales like 1111 16th Ave, with snapshots of great studios and churches, some still with us and too many destroyed. The times they are a-changin’, and the book is a valuable primer on the Row’s evolution, with color commentary and curious factoids. It’s a good compliment to the NPT special of a few years ago.
The EP this time has less explicit ties between song and subject matter. It’s more loosely inspired and even more eclectic than the book itself. Granville Automatic brings together two widely skilled but extremely different songwriting backgrounds. Elkins had her footing in a rock and roll band, while Olivarez’s world centered around country, pop and hip-hop. They talk candidly about how fractious they can be. As Elkins says, “We could not be more different in a million different ways. But I think in that sense, we sort of help each other's weaknesses, which is a good thing.”
So their tool kit is deep and close at hand. Tightly wound rock and roll nestles together with shimmering pop and proud country music. There’s a bit of everything here, held together with the craft that is a hallmark of Music Row no wrecking ball can touch.
Of the two, Elkins is more involved in the civic and political side of preservation as president of Historic Nashville, Inc. She recognizes that there aren’t easy or obvious solutions. “In many cases, the industry has outgrown these spaces,” Elkins says of the legacy houses on Music Row. “And in the 90s, record labels started to build glass towers along here. A lot of the industry sort of believes that this is not a tangible neighborhood that you save and preserve forever, because the music industry as a whole is constantly changing. And it's slippery in a sense, and you can't just make it static. And I think that is the challenge.”