Classic Track: “King of the Road” - Roger Miller’s Smash Breakthrough

May 1, 2013 9:00 AM, Mix, By Blair Jackson


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King of the Road album cover

It’s hard to remember back to a time when Nashville’s vaunted Music Row was really just a couple of studios and music publishing houses dotting tree-shaded 16th Avenue. This month’s Classic Track, Roger Miller’s “King of the Road,” takes us back to the fall of 1964, an era when the top dog on the Row, studio-wise, was CBS’s Quonset Hut, a utilitarian structure that had been one of many thousands of identical small, prefabricated corrugated galvanized steel buildings with semicircular roofs made during World War II.

“I’m pretty sure it wasn’t even called ‘Music Row’ back then,” says the song’s producer, now retired, Jerry Kennedy. “In the late ’50s and early ’60s, some of the houses on 16th Avenue were being invaded by people who were opening up publishing companies and throwing up a funky little studio here and there. It was a neat time. Everybody was amazed at what was happening with the influx of pop artists coming to record and the country artists becoming huge. And it was mostly being done by a small group of musicians and a small group of writers and publishers, working in a small number of studios. It was giving birth in the early ’60s to what became an explosion later.”

When the 19-year-old Kennedy traveled from his native Louisiana to Music City in 1960 to work on sessions for Mercury Records’ Nashville A&R head, Shelby Singleton, he was already a seasoned music industry veteran. He’d signed his first record deal with RCA at the age of 11, cut a couple of singles, and later worked as a background singer, guitarist and songwriter on numerous sessions during his high school years. In March ’61, Kennedy moved to Nashville, and immediately became one of Mercury’s in-house producers, and a bit later, following the label’s acquisition by the European music giant Philips, for the offshoot label Smash. “Shelby Singleton had a lot of faith in me,” Kennedy says modestly. “He turned things over to me he probably shouldn’t have, but we were fortunate that some good things began to happen.

“We did most of the Mercury/Smash/Philips stuff at the Quonset Hut because it was a magic place,” he continues. “It had a great sound I thought we could not get at RCA [Studio B, the other leading studio of the day] or at Monument, which was Fred Foster’s studio downtown in the Cumberland Lodge building—Sam Phillips [of Sun Records] had built that one originally, and it was a good place to make records, but not for the country thing as much.”

The Quonset Hut, as a recording studio, dated back to the mid-’50s, when brothers Owen and Harold Bradley—Owen had worked at radio station WSM as music director of the Grand Ole Opry broadcasts; Harold was an in-demand guitarist—bought a duplex on 16th Avenue South, knocked out the ground floor, and built a basement studio there. They also put an Army surplus Quonset hut behind the main studio to accommodate film work they hoped to attract (from the Grand Ole Opry and others) and called the entire complex the Bradley Film and Recording Studio. As it turned out, the studio in the house (Studio A) proved to be too small for some types of sessions, but the Quonset Hut (Studio B) was just right, so that became their main recording room.

It was undeniably a humble atmosphere. To get some reflective surfaces into the curved structure and to deal with other sound issues, the Bradleys “built walls that went up maybe 10 feet,” recalls engineer Lou Bradley (no relation), who worked as an engineer at the Quonset Hut beginning in 1969, but had been a regular presence there for much of the previous decade. “Then they built this frame that went up to a smaller rectangle at the top, and they had banks of louvres running up the side of this frame—each bank was maybe three or four feet long. They weren’t adjustable, but the opposing ones were pointed differently to diffuse that sound going up. They also put these old theater curtains up there so the sound wouldn’t come back down. That solved the problem of that dome.” Acoustical tile, burlap hangings and baffles also helped control the sound.

The Quonset Hut’s control room was equipped with a custom 12-input, 3-track-capable tube console that had Langevin rotary faders, mic pre’s and EQs. Owen Bradley favored Ampex recorders, Neumann microphones, LA-2A and GE BA-9 “uni-level” compressors, and German EMT reverbs. The studio also had a live chamber and what was called the “drum hut,” which was essentially a drum booth with an open front. The Bradleys sold the Quonset Hut and much of the equipment—including the console, which is now in the Country Music Hall of Fame—to CBS Records in 1962, opting to build a new studio: the equally legendary Bradley’s Barn, in nearby Mt. Juliet, east of Nashville. The Quonset Hut barely missed a beat in the transition and remained a popular recording destination for CBS and other acts up until it closed in 1982.

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