Nashville may be the country music capital, but the industry for which its famous began in Atlanta. Now, a grassroots drive to preserve a historic downtown building is highlighting Atlanta's somewhat forgotten role in early roots music.
At 152 Nassau Street in Downtown Atlanta, an unmarked two-story rose brick storefront houses a piece of Atlanta's music history. This was the site of a pop-up recording studio in 1923.
"Recording executives from New York came down to the South to record jazz, gospel, blues and country music," architect Kyle Kessler says as he stands outside the building.
Kessler is part of Historic Atlanta, a preservation group trying to stop the planned demolition of this building to make way for a Jimmy Buffett Margaritaville high-rise hotel restaurant.
"It was completely acoustic. There was no microphone," Kessler says. "There was no post-production. It was all singing or playing your instrument into a horn and that carried down to a needle, which carved in the grooves of the record all the sounds that were heard in that building at that time."
Behind the recording was a man named Ralph Peer. Lance Ledbetter, who runs Atlanta outfit Dust to Digital, says Peer was really good at discovering new talent.
"He had this idea to come down to the South and try to record people from the region that maybe they couldn't find you know from their offices in New York," Ledbetter says of Peer.
Peer's big discovery in Atlanta in 1923 was Fiddlin' John Carson, a well-known musician in Atlanta's Cabbagetown neighborhood. "He won so many of the contests that they banned him from entering anymore, says music history buff and Cabbagetown resident James Kelly. "He was amazing."
Carson played and sang an old minstrel tune, "The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane," in the studio. According to Ledbetter, Carson's record was a hit. The first pressing sold out almost instantly.
"The sales here in Atlanta and throughout the South just start to explode. People were buying these records like crazy because they'd never heard their musicians that they're used to on record,"Ledbetter says.
That success put record companies on notice.
"This isn't just dumb rednecks or dumb hillbillies or whatever they want to think it is. This is music that's important and people love it," Ledbetter says. "And Fiddlin' John Carson in 1923, when he made that recording, it opened the doors on what country music was to become."
Four years later, Peer traveled to the city of Bristol, on the Tennessee/Virginia borderline, for what's called the "big bang" of country music — sessions featuring the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. But for Fiddlin' John Carson, fame was short-lived.
"He never really had a big career," Kelly says. "He played for the governor-elect and the governor liked him so he gave him a job as an elevator operator in The Capitol. And that's where he worked most of his life."
The little brick building where Fiddlin' John Carson cut that first country hit sits amid Atlanta's modern tourist attractions. Kessler says it's hard for old buildings to compete.
"I think Atlanta still struggles with its identity," Kessler notes. "I think on any given weekend, this city is a different city with whatever convention or sporting event [is] in town. Atlanta, since the Civil Rights era, has claimed to be the city too busy to hate. I think oftentimes we're just too busy."
City planners did push for landmark status for the building, but the designation didn't get through and developers now have a demolition permit. Kessler has launched on online petition to try to convince Jimmy Buffett to intervene and prevent the building from being torn down. An attorney for Margaritaville said via email he is unaware of the history of the building or whether the permit is connected to a future deal with Margaritaville.
In an email response to NPR's inquiry, developer Strand Capital Group of North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, said it evaluated the history of the site. "We care about the history of country music and the rich, diverse history of Atlanta," wrote J. Patrick Lowe. "As part of the development, we are considering ways to respectfully acknowledge that Okeh Music recorded an early country music song there."