Todd Snider is only a few minutes late for his American Songwriter recording session. He walks in sporting dark sunglasses and an old pair of Chuck Taylors, his hat cocked at a rakish tilt. It’s just after 11 a.m., but we’re impressed the man is even awake, given his reputation as a late-night bard of the gonzo variety.
“You know Elvis once stayed in this room,” Snider says matter-of-factly of his manager’s office, located in the old Spence Manor Hotel, at the tail end of Music Row. It’s an interesting bit of Nashville lore, and a bit surprising, due to the utter drabness of the building itself. From the street, it looks more like a place where Nashville Metro might run a sting operation through Craigslist.
But Elvis did in fact stay here (as did The Beatles), according to numerous historical accounts, when he’d come to record at RCA Studio B, just a block away.
Today, the old hotel now functions as a condominium and office complex. Beside it sits a swimming pool in the shape of an acoustic guitar – a curious bit of Nashville kitsch from the late ‘70s, when the Country Music Hall of Fame ran its operation across the street. The pool was a popular tourist attraction back then, modeled after the pool at the Belle Meade mansion of Webb Pierce, a country singer from the ‘50s with a serious flair for pomp and excess.
Snider tunes up his classical guitar (“a gift from a friend,” he says) and sound checks with Dylan’s “You’re A Big Girl Now.” He says he lived in this building in the early ‘90s, when he first moved to town. This singer of “agnostic hymns” seems like he’d be a fish out of water living on Music Row. Today, Snider could be dubbed the unofficial poet laureate of East Nashville, a weird province of Music City popular among artists and made up of working-class neighborhoods and housing projects. He can often be found holding court at Drifters, a local bar in the Five Points area of East Nashville, chatting it up and collecting song ideas.
Sitting in on this session with Snider (which you can watch on our website), learning about the room’s Elvis connection and seeing the guitar-shaped pool for the first time, you realize there are still some secret gardens on Music Row, and a few lost tales lurking in the shadows, despite the “office” feel of the whole area.
For instance, down the road from Spence Manor is the old Hall Of Fame motel, where Tim McGraw first lived (and drank) when he came to town. In that hotel bar he first met Craig Wiseman, who would go on to pen many of the singer’s greatest hits. In our cover story, McGraw also discusses palling around with Tracy Lawrence and Kenny Chesney during his early days in Music City, noting that Chesney at the time was trying to make it as a songwriter (and never talked about becoming a recording artist).
Dierks Bentley, another artist profiled in our country issue, says he rediscovered country music by catching bluegrass shows at The Station Inn. Located a half-mile from Music Row in an area called The Gulch, The Station Inn is one of Nashville’s musical treasures, a sure bet to witness great musicianship any night of the week. It was here that Bentley became a fan of The Del McCoury Band, who appear on his last album, Up On The Ridge, a string-band effort that features original songs as well as cuts by Dylan and U2.
We also look at the legacy of Gram Parsons, who to this day in still not in the Country Music Hall Of Fame. A Georgia boy who never had his sights set on Nashville, Gram’s influence reaches far and wide, beyond the scope of country music. He’s inspired more than one generation of artists with his mythic poetry, sense of style, and deep, blue-eyed soul. We hope he inspires you as well.