by Jennifer Justus
Songwriters Elizabeth Elkins and Vanessa Olivarez have felt the strange vibes while writing or rehearsing late at night at the BMG building off Music Row in Nashville.
“It gets weird over there,” Elkins says. “You never really feel alone.”
Like others who work in the building, they chalked it up to musical spirits that might dance up and down Music Row or at nearby RCA Studio B — the ghosts of Elvis Presley or Roy Orbison, maybe.
But then they met the historian Brian Allison, author of Murder & Mayhem in Nashville.
He told them about the lawlessness of Nashville following the Civil War and walked them into the fall of 1865, when Nashville saw its last public and legal hanging — four gang members, convicted of murder by military tribunal after holding up the coach of a city alderman. The men were ages 15, 17, 18, and 24.
“If you overlay all the maps and information we have,” Elkins says, “(the hanging) lands pretty much on the alley behind RCA Studio B.” BMG sits across the alley from Studio B. “And I went, ‘This explains so much.’”
Sitting a stone’s throw from that spot at their manager’s office, Elkins and Olivarez talked about how the characters in Nashville’s history helped inspire their latest record for Granville Automatic, their band named after a 19th century typewriter and nodding to their love of story. They wrote a song inspired by the hanging, but they also wrote about the two wives of Nashville’s first citizen, Timothy Demonbreun, and the suicide of a longtime bartender at a Printers’ Alley club. They wrote from the perspective of Andrew Jackson’s wife Rachel, working with lines from her letters. And in the title track, “Radio Hymns,” we hear about the days after 1974 when the Ryman Auditorium nearly met the wrecking ball. It remains a place where people can be saved, they say, not necessarily because of its bones as a church but through its modern-day hymns — the music.
The songs on Radio Hymns have themes that resonate today — deception, debauchery, love, and war — but they end in redemption (or maybe damnation) as melodies highlight the emotion in the stories.
“We didn’t start with the intention of writing about history,” Olivarez explains. “We started with the intention to write about stories and bring back the tradition of telling stories through song, because a lot of people don’t do that anymore. It’s all about ‘Look at that girl in the cut-off jean shorts.’”
“Which we are probably guilty of writing,” Elkins admits.
The women of Granville Automatic make a living by day “for other people and country radio,” says Olivarez. Their songs have appeared on albums by Sugarland, Billy Currington, Wanda Jackson, and others.
By night, Granville Automatic is their personal project, and while they’ve written other Americana/country songs that don’t involve history, this isn’t their first foray into historical concept albums either. They have a record about Texas history (Olivarez comes from the Lone Star State) and another about the Civil War. But as they found inspiration in the stories anchored in old buildings, Olivarez suggested they look at the landscape in Nashville.
“We’re losing everything,” Elkins says.
“The skyline is legit full of cranes,” Olivarez adds.
Elkins, a self-proclaimed “history nerd” who used to be in an Atlanta punk band, sits on the executive board of the all-volunteer nonprofit Historic Nashville and chairs the Nashville Nine project, which aims to protect nine endangered sites each year.
Just like the excavation crews at sites across the city, finding some of the stories on Radio Hymns took digging. They poked through archives and talked with local writers and historians. Elkins heard Allison speak at a roundtable about crime during the months following the Civil War.
“Black Avenue Gallows,” the song the hanging helped inspired, has a rolling, steady gait like the horse-drawn wagon that would have pulled the men, sitting atop their coffins, to their doom. It was the custom of the day, Elkins says, and up to 20,000 people had gathered that day to see the men hang.
“There had been so many murders in a very short time period,” she says.
The lyrics zoom inside the minds of the men, a mix of Confederate and Union soldiers and at least one deserter working together post-war. Co-written and performed with Ben Fields, the song makes space for contemplation while layered vocals create a ghostly feeling.
Big picture, “Black Avenue Gallows” reflects on the state of music and music-making itself.
“We’re sitting up on the ledge all the time just waiting to fall,” Olivarez says, “and we’re about to lose all this rich tradition within music and within this community.” It’s about the demise of publishers and writers and the complications of trying to hold onto a deal and make a living.
For this song, in particular, it also highlights the complex history of the land Music Row sits upon.
“It started as someone’s farm,” says Elkins, “then after the Civil War it becomes where African American freed soldiers camped.” Working with Historic Nashville, she says they’re “looking at how to save Music Row, and there are a lot of outliers who are like, ‘Hey, it’s kind of funny this has come back around to this.’ The questions coming up are how we save things and what we save and what’s historic and what should be remembered and how to remember it.”
Elkins likes to think of Granville Automatic’s latest album as a gateway to learning more about Nashville’s past. For instance, there’s a lot to unpack with the song “Marbles,” about Jimi Hendrix’s short but significant time in Nashville. Before he found fame, he played the R&B clubs along Jefferson Street that were razed and buried for Interstate 40. It’s not lost on Elkins and Olivarez, who wrote the song with Americana great Jim Lauderdale, that it’s a sensitive subject for a white woman and Hispanic woman to tell as a duo.
So rather than tell it through Hendrix or others of that place and time, the song gets narrated by a lost marble from his pocket. Nashvillians had referred to Hendrix in those days as “Marbles,” because they figured he had lost his. He toted his Stratocaster everywhere — even playing it unplugged while sitting in movie theatres.
“It’s a fun way of looking at a very crucial part of our music history here,” Elkins says. “Our hope is that people look at this and maybe put on their glasses and dig into the liner notes and think, ‘Man, I didn’t know anything about Jimi. What else did I miss?’”
The liner notes, a six-page foldout with a map of the sites, include lyrics along with bits of stories for each song.
“I do feel like the Hendrix story is one little, flashy light bulb on a much, much bigger story that has just kind of been forgotten,” Elkins says.
And then Olivarez jokes that maybe the record should come with a magnifying glass. It’s an idea that could be literal or figurative as they ask us to look harder at who we’ve been and where we’re headed.
“Maybe people will say, ‘I’m gonna go drive around and see what might have been,” she says, “and where things used to be.”