Nashville’s Music Industry Getting Back on Track After Flood

November 16, 2010

In a white clapboard house on a quiet street in Berry Hill, a six-month marathon effort to save dozens of flood-damaged musical instruments remains a daily labor of love with the goal of salvaging Nashville’s best-known industry from near disaster.

Joe Glaser’s repair shop has resuscitated about 100 guitars along with musicians’ livelihoods some of which were “given up for dead” after being found warped or smeared in river sludge when the Cumberland River overflowed after torrential rains in early May.

Damaged goods sat waterlogged in artists’ homes, in recording studios and inside the massive SoundCheck music storage warehouse near the river, where working musicians and big-name stars alike stored thousands of valuable instruments.

“In the beginning, when I saw all of those instruments, I thought, ‘Oh, no way. It’s too many. They’re warped. They’re dead. It’s hopeless,’ ” said Glaser, who has been repairing guitars in Nashville for 30 years.

“Then we just focused on one instrument at a time. In a lot of cases, instruments couldn’t be saved. But in others, in a peculiar way, the guitars sound better. They’ve got more soul.”

Nearly every aspect of Nashville’s music industry was hurt in some way by May’s flood, but slow and painstaking restoration efforts such as Glaser’s are getting musical landmarks back in shape, companies back on their feet and musicians back in business.

For instance:

SoundCheck, the 160,000-square-foot warehouse and rehearsal studio that stored an estimated 60 percent of Nashville musicians’ instruments and professional gear, reopened in July. Insurance and Small Business Administration loans covered $2.2 million in damages to the facility, but owner Ben Jumper said few musicians had insurance to cover an estimated $10 million in damages to individual instruments stored there.

The Schermerhorn Symphony Center sustained $40 million in damage when up to 24 feet of water flooded the building’s basement and sub-basement. Two weeks ago, power was finally restored. Two 10-hour shifts of workers continue on the highly specialized restoration work required to maintain acoustic perfection in the hall, while experts in San Francisco work to save a valuable and badly damaged organ. The symphony is on track to reopen with a New Year’s Eve concert, featuring violinist Itzhak Perlman.

Gibson Guitar’s first post-flood electric guitar rolled off the assembly line at its fully restored South Nashville plant about three months after the flood. The company had to destroy 15,000 damaged instruments, creating shortages of guitars at retail outlets for a time, but Gibson said it caught up on back orders by last month.

The Grand Ole Opry House, whose flooded stage door became an image of flood-wrecked Nashville, reopened Sept. 29 after repairs helped the building bounce back from sustaining $20 million in damages. The Grand Ole Opry radio show, the longest running radio program in the U.S., returned from temporary hosts to continue broadcasting weekly from the space.

And then there are the ranks of everyday working musicians such as Michael Spriggs, who lost an estimated $50,000 worth of instruments at SoundCheck. He said he can never fully replace what was lost.

That facility on Cowan Street between the river and Interstate 24 held the single-largest collection of musical instruments in Nashville, an estimated 1,000 guitars, 2,000 amplifiers and hundreds of drum sets.

Fundraising efforts such as those by MusicCares and the Musician’s Union have helped cover some losses for Spriggs and others, but much of the gear Spriggs used for 25 years as an A-list session player for Faith Hill, Reba McEntire, Trace Adkins and Eddie Rabbitt is “irreplaceable.”

“I’m not hurting for guitars, and I still work,” said Spriggs. “But I just can’t get the ambiance of an 80-year-old instrument out of my new Dobro.”

Before the flood, the facility had a waiting list of musicians wanting a climate-controlled storage locker. Now, a third of the 250 storage spaces remain empty, according to owner Ben Jumper.

“It’s still heart-breaking to think how much people lost,” Jumper said. “The big acts, they’re OK. But it’s the everyday acts that took the biggest hits. It was the session musicians.”

Spriggs said he no longer has the volume of gear to store at SoundCheck, where he used to be one of about 600 musicians who used climate-controlled storage lockers for safe-keeping between gigs.

SoundCheck Recovers

Still, by October, Kenny Chesney was back rehearsing at SoundCheck’s freshly restored rehearsal space, adjacent to the storage lockers. Brad Paisley and Keith Urban, who had lost much of their gear in the facility, were touring with new or repaired instruments.

Two weeks ago, the facility hosted a fundraiser, ReTune Nashville, which raised more than $20,000 for musicians affected by the floods.

The MusiCares Nashville Flood Relief Fund, sponsored by the Recording Academy, has received approximately $1 million in donations and distributed some 350 grants to industry people affected by the floods, Executive Director Debbie Carroll said. And the Nashville Musicians’ Association raised more than $80,000, distributing $750 individual grants to artists who requested them.

Glaser, the guitar repair expert, said he is among those taking installment-plan payments for work on damaged instruments. One room in his facility is devoted to guitars that rest on the floor, sit on a table or hang from the walls as they await word on insurance coverage.

About a third of the instruments he has seen couldn’t be fixed, Glaser said.

What’s the toughest part of the job. Breaking the news to musicians that despite his best efforts their instruments could not be saved.

“My low point came when I had to tell (Grand Ole Opry bandleader) Steve Gibson that two of his guitars weren’t repairable,” Glaser said. “It was like telling him his pet died on the table.”

But Glaser said he has heard and seen a “peculiar phenomenon” with some of the instruments he has managed to restore.

“I’m not touting this, and I’m not advising that anybody go put their guitar in a bathtub. But some guitars sound better, richer than ever. It’s like they’ve got the flood in their soul.”

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