The man who helped save a historic Nashville recording studio thinks Huntsville is a good fit for his Southern music tourism initiative.
Aubrey Preston’s primary vocation is investment real estate. But he’s been a passionate music fan since growing up in Cleveland, Tenn. entranced by Hank Williams’ haunting country-music songs. In 2014, as RCA Studios was set to be demolished to make way for condos, Preston purchased the property, where legends from Loretta Lynn to B.B. King recorded, for $5.6 million. Recordings made at RCA since Preston stepped in, including those by Alabama-born singer/songwriter Jason Isbell, have won a pile of Grammys.
“We bought the building at the last minute because nobody else was going to step up and save it,” Preston says. “The cultural importance of this studio was not fully understood by Nashville’s community and philanthropic leaders at the time. How could Nashville continue to brand itself ‘Music City’ to the world and let this landmark be demolished and replaced with condominiums?” Preston now leases RCA Studios space, address 30 Music Sq. W., to Dave Cobb, producer of Grammy-garnishing Isbell, Chris Stapleton and Brandi Carlile records.
Flash forward to last summer.
At a public forum for a City of Huntsville commissioned audit of the music economy here, Preston spoke about his Americana Music Triangle initiative, which connects music-oriented travelers with Southern music history and culture. Specifically, by promoting what the organization calls the “Gold Record Road,” the 1,500 miles or so of highway connecting Nashville, Memphis and New Orleans, and the many musically historic sites within. Launched in May 2015 and traversing five states, the route already includes Alabama cities Montgomery and, just an hour or so away from Huntsville, Muscle Shoals.
Huntsville could also benefit from inclusion in the Americana Music Triangle, Preston says now.
“A vibrant cultural-musical scene helps recruit the next job creators,” he says, echoing points he made at last summer’s open forum. “Music tourism is a fast-growing category and tourism brings ‘clean’ tax dollars to an economy that don’t require expenditures for schools and many other services that expand as population of an area expands. And it’s a lot of fun.”
In addition to Muscle Shoals, which boasts a rich music recording heritage, Preston sites Franklin, Tenn. as another city somewhat near Huntsville that’s reaped benefits from AMT inclusion.
There’s no direct cost for a city to be involved with the Americana Music Triangle. The organization is a 501c3 nonprofit supported by private donations and operated entirely by volunteers. “Different cities get different results depending on how much effort they put into their AMT community involvement,” Preston says.
But what does the Americana Music Triangle involve beside being a dot on a map?
“Basically, it operates like a basketball team that passes the ball among the team to accomplish bigger results for each team member in the end,” Preston says. “Global music visitors come to our region because we are the world’s ‘superstore’ for people who love music and music history. It’s the essence of Southern hospitality when we all share information to help visitors have a better experience. And then hopefully they go back home and rave about how our region works together to help visitors, which brings more visitors. Some of those folks end up falling in love with our area and investing in the next business start up here – or maybe preserving an important musical landmark.”
Huntsville is home to plenty of musical talent, enjoyable live venues and clubs and behind-the-scenes industry successes. But the city has never really produced an undeniably famous band, venue or recording studio. Still, Preston says, “Huntsville has a vibrant music and creative community that seems to be expanding and it has many stories of being connected culturally to the primary AMT area musically.”
The Americana Music Triangle has the potential to impact local musicians.
Preston is involved with the rising Southern rock band Bishop Gunn. Before the group had even formed, he’d met their eventual lead singer Travis McCready while visiting Natchez, Miss., where McCready lived at the time, to talk to that community about the Americana Music Triangle. Preston found McCready to be such “a rare talent,” he introduced him to stars like Justin Timberlake and Kid Rock. This all led to the formation of Bishop Gunn, a band now based in Leiper’s Fork, Tenn., where Preston also resides.
In 2018, Bishop Gunn became the first band to release music tracked inside the refurbished Sheffield studio Muscle Shoals Sound since it reopened two years prior, with the soul-rock single “Shine.” That track and the band subsequently received coverage in Rolling Stone and other notable outlets.
Earlier this year, Bishop Gunn toured Europe with Guns N’ Roses guitar god Slash’s solo band. “They got to play for tens of thousands of music lovers who got them immediately,” Preston says. “As Travis said the other day about playing music in Italy ‘It’s like they’re still living in 1975,’ the golden era of rock.” It’s no secret rap, R&B and pop dominate contemporary music. (No, legacy band tours don’t count.) But Preston thinks Bishop Gunn has what it takes to breakthrough on the level of young Michigan classic-rockers Greta Van Fleet, one of few newer bands who’ve pierced the mainstream. “In my opinion this band has the potential to become the biggest rock band in the world,” Preston says, “and I’m not kidding.”
On April 6, Bishop Gunn will play a free show at outdoor Huntsville music venue The Camp, address 5909 University Drive. Support acts include Mississippi blues-rocker Wes Sheffield at 5:30 p.m. and Huntsville R&B singer Wade Brown at 7 p.m. Bishop Gunn’s set starts at 8:30 p.m. The show has been dubbed “Americana Music Triangle Celebration Day,” although the city has yet to officially join the AMT. Huntsville Director of Communication Kelly Schrimsher says, “At this time, the city is waiting on the results of the music audit and looks forward to exploring this option and other opportunities that underscore Huntsville as a prime attraction and influencer in music.” Still Schrimsher says city officials are “most interested in the possibility” of the AMT.
Last spring, the city enlisted London-based firm Sound Diplomacy to perform the aforementioned music audit, for $165,000, allocated from Huntsville’s Economic Development Fund. Some initial survey findings were revealed in October. Sound Diplomacy CEO Shain Shapiro indicated he saw opportunities to develop music technology in Huntsville, a city that prides itself in innovation. Things like designing guitar pedals, mixing software, blockchain that gets artists paid royalties quicker, etc.
The audit’s taken place amid a flurry of music related developments in Huntsville. City council has approved funding for plans for an amphitheater at the University Drive development MidCity. The Von Braun Center’s building a new 1,200-capacity venue, aimed at booking rising acts. This summer a new venue called The Mercantile is opening in the former Crossroads Music Hall/U.G. White retailer space downtown on Clinton Avenue.
Sound Diplomacy’s other current clients include New Orleans, one of the Americana Music Triangle’s cornerstones. Shapiro feels the AMT is important as “a way to bring people together through music, so we weave its mission into our work, whenever we can.” If Huntsville music assets were included on that network, the hope is more tourists traversing the triangle would visit and experience the city. Shapiro thinks the AMT could also result in Huntsville creating increased sustainable music partnerships with Muscle Shoals and other involved cities. The Huntsville music audit final study is expected to be released this spring. Sound Diplomacy can’t instruct municipalities which music organizations to join or not join. Their audit findings and resulting recommendations are more structural. “But of course, increasing music tourism assets, marketing them better, etc., is part of it, and that’s something the AMT as a network helps advocate for.”