Band digs up Nashville’s forgotten past with songs, videos

In this June 8, 2015, file photo, pedestrians pass by the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tenn. Granville Automatic, which began in Atlanta and is now based in Nashville, recently released its album “Radio Hymns.” (AP)
The Associated Press

From a public hanging on Nashville’s Music Row to the days when a young and still unknown guitar player named Jimi Hendrix walked the city’s streets, a band is documenting Nashville’s forgotten history in songs and videos.

Granville Automatic, which got its start in Atlanta and is now based in Nashville, recently released its album “Radio Hymns.”

The title track recounts how the Ryman Auditorium was saved just as it was about to be demolished in the 1970s.

The former church that became home to the Grand Ole Opry radio show and still hosts music shows, was built with help from riverboat Capt. Thomas Ryman. He helped build the church after finding Jesus at a tent revival.

Ryman “wanted to save people — he felt Nashville needed saving,” said Granville Automatic songwriter and guitarist Elizabeth Elkins.

“I like to think the building is still saving people, even though it’s through music rather than through God,” Elkins said.

The band released an album of songs inspired by Civil War battles in 2015, then filmed videos on the battlefields and in the places where the stories played out in the 1860s. Future projects in the works include an album about lost buildings of New York City. Another album focused on Texas history, the home state of band member Vanessa Olivarez, is also planned.

In developing “Radio Hymns,” Elkins consulted with archivists and sought out antique books from a Nashville book store so she could get historical accounts more authentic than those available on the internet.

“Historians, authors, and longtime musicians here in town had some great stories that led us to songs,” she said.

Among them: Musician Jim Lauderdale shared a story about how Jimi Hendrix spent nearly a year honing his music in clubs along Nashville’s Jefferson street, which were later demolished to make way for an Interstate 40 interchange.

In another song, the band recounts the story of Gus Hyatt, a train robber who masterminded a scheme to smuggle dynamite and guns into the Tennessee State Prison. After years of planning, he blew up a wall of the building in 1902, a blast that killed several inmates and allowed him to escape.

“Black Avenue Gallows” documents the last legal public hanging in Nashville, which took place in 1865 in an alley of what came to be known as Music Row for its multiple recording studios music industry offices. A large crowd gathered to watch four thieves being hanged just outside what’s now RCA Studio B, where Elvis Presley would later record many of his hit songs.

The band also studied letters between former President Andrew Jackson and his wife, Rachel, to craft a song about their Nashville romance. Rachel Jackson had been married before she met Jackson. The former president’s political opponents seized on that to attack him, suggesting that she was still married when she fell in love with Jackson.

Rachel Jackson came down with an illness that seemed to have stricken her heart and lungs, and stress worsened her condition. Jackson blamed his political enemies for her death in 1828, according to accounts from Andrew Jackson’s presidential library, The Hermitage.

In the future, the band aims to produce an album of ghost stories by staying in places said to be haunted and craft songs on the spot, writing them “in the moment,” Elkins said.

The working plan for that record also involves Karla K. Morton, who was appointed poet laureate of Texas in 2010, writing poems to accompany the songs.