Take Me to Church: How Old Sanctuaries Influence Nashville’s Music Landscape

When fans play Dierks Bentley’s “American Girl” video online, they may find themselves a tad confused by the presence of a pipe organ.

Why the hell, one might ask, are a bunch of country musicians covering Tom Petty in a church?

But it’s actually a daily occurrence in Music City. As denominations across America consider the meaning of Good Friday and Easter this weekend, Nashville’s music infrastructure has drummers, producers, marketers and label executives working on their secular product in old churches that have been resurrected for a different purpose.

“I’m one who would never advocate for tearing down an old building if we could figure out a way to salvage it and make it useful in today’s age,” says Ryman Auditorium senior events manager Chrissy Hall. “If its use as a church isn’t necessarily what it’s needed for anymore, I think that’s a wonderful thing. It’s a great use of history.”

The Ryman is the most prominent example of a former place of worship becoming a modern Nashville music structure. Nicknamed the “Mother Church of Country Music,” it opened in 1892 as the Union Gospel Tabernacle, but in short order it was adapted as a significant meeting place. It earned particular notice as the home of the Grand Ole Opry from 1943-1974.

It was the place where Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn and Hank Williams all made their Opry debuts. It stands as a sort of “temple-ate” for other conversions from church to music-related structure. Clementine Hall – the place where Bentley shot his “American Girl” video – is an event space renovated from a Methodist church by Dragon Park. The company also turned an old Baptist sanctuary into Ruby, a hall that’s housed music events for Don Henley, Jordan Davis and Dan Tyminski.

At least two working studios – Ocean Way, owned by Belmont University; and Neon Cross, owned by producer Jay Joyce (Eric Church, Ashley McBryde) – are repurposed houses of worship. Marketing company Ave East and management firm Q Prime South are also in buildings once reserved for sermons.

“It is like Hogwarts meets a medieval church,” says MARB MKTG CEO Faithe Dillman of the Q Prime locale. “I love working from there.”

MARB only recently moved into its new office, aptly located on Chapel Avenue. Dillman adapted the original Hobson Methodist Episcopal Church covenant as a company pledge to be a positive force in the community, “to listen to and learn from each other, treating each other with respect and dignity.” The company also keeps a hand-written set of “Humble and Kind” lyrics, signed by songwriter Lori McKenna, above the fireplace. Dillman has cultivated an atmosphere that values maturity and spirituality, qualities that come in handy as they work for such disparate clients as Dolly Parton and even Megadeth. They even attempt to maintain that atmosphere when the structure itself breaks down.

“You don’t move into a 150-year-old building and think this thing is gonna run without problems,” Dillman says. “[It’s even] down to little things like we’re having to have custom window treatments made. All of our windows are arched, and they’re not standard sizes. Those were things that I didn’t consider actually when I moved in that I needed to.”

The quirks of a converted church can give repurposed buildings some unique qualities. The inside of the old steeple has become an artful appendage in the Q Prime office. The wooden pews in the Ryman are much less amenable to concert-goers’ backsides than the old-time preacher man’s words were for the congregation’s insides. And the stained glass in the main room at Ocean Way sets an inspiring atmosphere.

“We have good light from the streetlights and everything, so it’s already predetermined to have an other-worldly experience, whether it’s day or night, just from the windows,” says Ocean Way director of studio operations Joe Baldridge.

Joyce named his recording room the Neon Cross Studio, paying homage to a blue-lit symbol at the crown of the former Baptist church’s roof. Inside, Joyce originally placed the soundboard at the front of the auditorium. After a couple years, he had the console moved to the center of the room.

“It felt a little weird with me talking to the band from the altar,” Joyce says.

Not every old church appointment is completely appreciated at first. When Dragon Park owners Dan and Brenda Cook bought Clementine Hall from the Methodist Church in 2017, they had every intention of getting rid of the pipe organ. When word got out that they planned to remove it, churches from as far away as Germany and Australia inquired about purchasing it. Ultimately, producer T Bone Burnett and Widespread Panic’s JoJo Herman convinced the Cooks to keep it.

“We thought the organ could be a detriment for a couple reasons,” Dan notes. “One, it quite frankly just takes up space. It might be considered too churchy, I guess, to some elements, and we want to appeal to the broadest number of potential clients, like any business. And then, of course, it was the idea of if you keep it, you got to kind of restore it and maintain it. There’s a commitment element to it.”

The organ practically announces Clementine’s previous incarnation, though its current usage is often distinctly different from its original purpose. It’s hosted a Big Loud party for Mason Ramsey; a Universal Music Group Nashville showcase, Rhythm, Rebels, Revival; and a Brantley Gilbert TV appearance. Despite those activities, the most popular reason to rent Clementine is to exchange vows. It dictates some of the property’s rules.

“We don’t do shots here,” Cook says. “And it’s not because of the church history, because we certainly allow alcohol. It’s just I don’t think that that’s a classy thing to do at a wedding.”

Despite their spiritual histories, the venues don’t generally place any restrictions on the creative work that occurs on the premises. Ocean Way’s past client list includes 5 Seconds of Summer, Alice Cooper and Evanescence, acts that are more raucous than religious. Policies are focused on preserving the facilities, not on regulating creativity.

“We do have a policy that if you’re out of hand and don’t respond to suggestions, that you can lose your time,” Baldridge says. “But that’s not based upon anything other than poor behavior – like if Phil Spector was shooting a gun into the ceiling, it would probably be, ‘You’re not coming back.’ Common sense.”

It’s appropriate that churches play a role in the physical landscape of the country music business, given the gospel influence on the genre. Artists have tended to receive early musical training at church, and acts such as The Carter Family, The Statler Brothers, The Gatlins and Connie Smith picked up pieces of their sound from Christian music.

For Good Friday and Easter weekend, it will be business as usual for the companies occupying the former Nashville churches. That includes the Ryman, which had an A.J. Croce concert planned for March 29. Going to a show or recording a new song might be the most appropriate way to observe the holiday, given music’s ability to connect with the individual’s heart.

“It doesn’t matter your religious affiliation,” Hall says. “Music can be very moving in whatever way you need it to be, whether that’s spiritual and bringing you closer to God, or whether you’re having a bad day and it brightens your mood, or it expresses the sorrow that you’re feeling over love or loss. Music is such a powerful emotional tool.”

“In my opinion, music is God’s language,” Joyce agrees. “I mean, when you think about it, everything is vibration. So us musicians and people who make music are to me more like High Priests than some Billy Graham guy. Like, we’re actually using God’s word – I mean, the music, the sound. It’s 100% spiritual.”

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