The Home of the Muse
Fanny's House of Music serves up musical inspiration, one power chord at a time
At Fanny’s House of Music, co-owner Pamela Cole has one very special question she always asks a particular segment of her clientele.
“When a young girl comes in who has been playing acoustic guitar,” Cole says, “maybe she’s into Taylor Swift, or Lorde, or perhaps something a little more angsty and introverted, I’ll ask her, ‘Have you ever played an electric guitar?’ and most of the time she’ll quietly say, ‘no.’ I’ll say, ‘Let’s go play a power chord.’ It truly is a rite of passage to play a power chord loud with distortion for the first time. If the girl comes in with her mom, I’ll ask her the same, and I’ll make them both do it. The same goes for young boys that are shy.”
Cole clearly delights in introducing kids to the liberating power of RAWK, but she has the warmth and charm that makes it easy to understand how she could breach the walls of shyness and connect with the most introverted kids over a mutual love of music. They’re very valuable skills because the small business she runs with co-owner Leigh Maples may be listed under “Musical Instruments & Teachers” on Yelp, but it’s a lot more than just a music shop, it’s a store with a mission.
In the five years since Fanny’s House of Music opened in the bluish-gray clapboard Folk Victorian house on the corner of Holly and 11th Streets, Cole and Maples have been at the center of a quintessentially Nashville success story. It’s a story that incorporates the standard tropes of following dreams, lucky breaks, and of course, lots of hard work. But it’s also a story of two women simply asking, “Why does it have to be this way?” and having the gumption to construct an alternative. Like any success story, it can be evaluated in financial terms and emotional satisfaction, but in this case, it can also be measured in the number of “Kerraaangs” that reverberate down the streets of Five Points.
The story of Fanny’s House of Music began in the fall of 1982, when Cole and Maples were both freshmen students at Belmont University. “I heard that there was another female bass player at Belmont,” Cole recalls, “so I was on the lookout for her to see who it was and how she played. We met our third day at Belmont and it was like, ‘You’re the other one!’ She was really, really good, and I couldn’t compete with her.”
In the early ’80s, rock music was beginning a slow change as more female musicians like Joan Jett, Chrissie Hynde and Tina Weymouth took the spotlight, but female rockers were still a novelty in many quarters. Both Cole and Maples benefited from growing up in families where a love of music was nurtured early and even more importantly, encouraged as a career choice.
Maples, a native of Panama City, Fla., grew up in a family of musicians. “My sisters and I all took piano lessons and were very involved in music at church,” Maples says. “I started playing ukulele when I was around 6. My mom played French horn, Dad was a choir director, and my sister is an accomplished pianist. I went on to guitar, attended music camps and was always involved in music somehow. When I was a senior in high school, I switched over to bass for stage band and stayed with it.
“My parents were very encouraging. They never told me that a girl couldn’t play music. I entered junior college as a music major and was playing in a contemporary Christian band. A youth director at church mentioned Belmont to me. I ended up moving to Nashville and changing my major to music business, but I kept playing bass in various bands.”
Cole grew up in a small town near Peoria, Ill., and the search for a music career also brought her to Nashville. “I started playing bass guitar when I was about 12,” Cole says. “I played trombone in marching band and bass in rock bands. I really thought that’s what I wanted to do for a living, but I had no idea what that meant or what I needed to do that.
“I visited Nashville on a vacation and toured RCA Studio B. I knew absolutely nothing about how records were made and had never even thought about it, but seeing the studio made me want to learn more. When I got home, I was looking on the back of a Dan Fogelberg album and saw a studio listed in Nashville. I called it and asked if they knew of any schools that taught recording engineering. They told me about Belmont and said good luck.”
After their first meeting at Belmont, Cole and Maples became good friends, but any dreams they might have entertained of a double-bass rock ’n’ roll attack never came to fruition as they chose different paths in the music business. Maples became a working musician, eventually dropping out of college for, as she puts it, “some great gigs and a lot of restaurant work.”
Cole graduated from Belmont with a music degree, and worked in music publishing before eventually leaving the business to work with animals as a veterinary assistant and in her own pet-sitting business. Although they had gone their separate ways career-wise, the two friends stayed in touch. Over two decades later, inspiration struck.
“We were sitting in the car in a drive-through line talking about our experiences with music stores,” Cole says, “and I said, ‘Someday, someone is going to open a music store that is comfortable for women to go to.’ We looked at each other, and it was like, Oh my gosh, maybe we’re the ones that are supposed to do this!”
Both Cole and Maples had many years of experience with the condescension, judgmental appraisals, way-off-base suppositions and unwanted advances that could often accompany a trip to a music shop. “One time I needed a speaker cabinet,” Maples says. “First of all, I had to explain to the salesman that I was actually shopping and that I was a bass player. Then he immediately said, ‘Well, for those small, country gigs you’ll want something like this.’ I had to explain I was in a funk band. I eventually stopped shopping at most of the music stores in Nashville. It was an uncomfortable experience a lot of the time.”
“My experience is different,” Cole says, “I was usually just ignored. When we started researching (the idea of opening a music shop) I went in Guitar Center and was there for two hours. Nobody said a word to me. Since that time Guitar Center has actually hired an outside consultant to help them with female customers. They should have hired me!”
After their drive-through epiphany, both Cole and Maples became obsessed with opening their own music store, but they were willing to take their time and get it right. “We probably researched for five years putting our plan together,” Maples says. “We visited every music store in the area to see what was working and what wasn’t working.”
“The demographic for most music stores is usually guys about 12 to 22 years old,” Cole says. “That’s who buys most instruments so it makes sense that most stores cater to them. But there are a lot of other people who play music, and we decided we wanted to create a store that would be comfortable for everyone. We had so many male friends who were just tired of the poor customer service. For a musician, working at a music shop is often a form of ‘settling.’ They would rather be out on the road playing gigs or recording instead of working in a music store, but for us it was a different story.”
Beyond the idea that they could offer an alternative to the usual music store experience, the pair soon realized there was another factor driving their plans. “We talked a lot about how music had changed our lives.” Cole says. “How it had really helped us stay centered even in the craziness. It felt like it was something we were supposed to do, to give back for what we had been given. The more we researched and the more we thought about it, the more it made sense.”
By 2008, Cole and Maples were ready to put their plan into action. With more and more musicians moving across the river, including Cole and Maples, it became apparent the East Side was the place to do so. “We were actually looking in Berry Hill before Guitar Center opened and then we moved to Inglewood,” Cole says. “We thought we might be able to make more money in a different part of town, but the musicians on the Eastside were the people we wanted to support.”
Shortly after beginning their search for a location, the house on the corner of Holly and 11th became available. “We had no money, no credit, no nothing,” says Cole. “We didn’t know how we were going to do it, but we kept moving forward. Within two days the house was sold. I was talking to Bret MacFadyen at Art & Invention Gallery, asking him if he felt there was room in part of his space. He mentioned this house, but I told him it was already sold. And he said Tommy Keenum bought it. We knew Tommy, Leigh had been in a band with him. We went to him, said here’s our business plan, and he became our biggest supporter.”
Keenum, who lives nearby, bought the property with the intention of refurbishing the former group home as a retail space. With the plan for a music store, the house was renovated specifically for Cole and Maples. In July 2008, Fanny’s House of Music opened its doors for business, taking its name from the early 70s, pioneering all-female rock band, Fanny. Six weeks later, the worst global recession since World War II began to unfold.
“We didn’t have any money and didn’t know what to do,” Cole says. “I always think of that scene in Indiana Jones when he steps off the cliff and that thing rises up to catch him. We just jumped off. We didn’t have hardly anything in the store, which was okay because we didn’t have any customers. No one was buying anything. A friend of ours had some inheritance that helped us get started, but none of the banks were lending money. So in a way, it was a good time to start a business because we never had the huge amount of debt that other people had. We would sit back here and have lunch and wait to hear the ‘ding’ of the door, hoping that someone would come in.”
Although Fanny’s may have been low on inventory, the main focus was never meant to be the typical meat locker experience of most music stores, with rows and rows of guitars hanging from the ceiling and a frosty reception until a potential customer can prove themselves worthy of attention.
“We didn’t want people to walk in and be overwhelmed by guitars from floor to ceiling,” Maples says. “One kind of guitar in every color imaginable – just same, same, same, same, same, same.”
“We just wanted a place that’s comfortable,” Cole says, “a place where you could walk in and not be overwhelmed and over-stimulated with sounds and colors. A place where you would be treated with respect whoever you are and not only be allowed to play an instrument, be encouraged to play no matter your skill level.”
In addition to the friendly atmosphere, Fanny’s hit the ground running with a full schedule of music classes. Maples oversaw the bulk of the lesson program with a few musician friends working on a contract basis for additional classes. Another unique feature was Fanny’s selection of vintage clothing and antiques, supplied by outside dealers who sold their goods on consignment. Prominently visible when one entered the store, the vintage goods drove the point home that this was not your typical music store.
“The community embraced us right away because of the lesson program,” Cole says. “That and the clothing made us different, and we were getting a little money from both of those and the accessories [guitar strings, etc.]. Pretty soon people started bringing in instruments to sell on consignment. We were just month to month for the first two years. Every month got better. It just continued to grow and get better, we continued on.”
“We never thought it wasn’t going to work,” Maples adds. “I didn’t want to entertain that thought.”
For the first two years, Cole and Maples were running the store seven days a week. By the third year, their revenues had increased to the point that they were able to hire their first part-time employees. Business got even better when they gained a very popular and powerful ally — country-pop superstar Taylor Swift.
“Taylor came by a few times and then mentioned the shop in a list of places she likes to shop,” Cole says. “Then she did an interview here in the shop with Parade magazine. Since those stories are on the Internet, people are still discovering us through them. Every week a young girl will come in with her mom just to see where Taylor Swift was. She signed a poster on one of our lesson rooms, and tourists come in and have to have their picture taken with the poster.”
“They say things like, ‘Taylor touched this doorknob!’” Maples adds.
“The influx of tourists because of the press that East Nashville has received has been amazing,” Cole says. “I’ve lived in Nashville 32 years, and I’ve never seen anything like what’s happening now. Saturdays are mostly tourists and not a lot of sales, but that’s cool, too. It’s absolutely, completely different from the early days. We have so many people from other countries that come in the door. Just the other day I sold a guitar to a guy from Brazil. Some people came in from Iceland two days ago, and I gave a harmonica away to someone from Italy.”
“She gives away too many things,” Maples says.
“It’s true I do,” Cole says with a smile and a shrug of her shoulders.
In addition to the parade of tourists, Fanny’s also stays busy with sales of a variety of vintage and new instruments. Continuing the vintage theme, Fanny’s carries only two lines of new guitars, Recording King and Loar. Both are based on the classic, pre-WWII designs of Martin and Gibson guitars. Fanny’s also specializes in finding the right guitar for each individual, a level of personal service not found at most music shops.
“I love to match the right guitar with the right customer,” Cole says. “A lot of dads will buy guitars for their daughters. They’ll get a dreadnought guitar because they try it and it sounds good to them, but a girl or even a young boy can hardly get their arm over it. That’s why we carry a number of smaller guitars.”
Fanny’s extensive program of music lessons has also grown over the last five years with approximately 50 students enrolled in weekly, personalized classes for guitar, bass, drums, piano and many other instruments. Fanny’s also offers a single parent discount and has a small scholarship program, endowed by local musicians.
“Our lesson programs are less rigid than many programs,” Maples says. “They’re guided more by the wants of individual students than any set program. There’s about a 70/30 split between kids and adults. We have lots of adults that come in to learn piano again that had mean teachers when they were kids. We constantly see the awkward child, or the don’t-fit-in adult come here and find a place where they do fit.”
In addition to Cole and Maples, Fanny’s currently has five part-time employees, all of who are musicians themselves. To avoid “settling syndrome” Cole and Maples work with their employees to give them extended time-off for touring or other music work. “We know that’s what they want to do, and we’re very supportive of them,” Cole says. “I’m not sure a lot of bosses would be that way, but we want to hire people that fully understand our mission.”
As a celebration of their survival, growth and success, Cole and Maples commissioned a special mural for the side of Fanny’s facing 11th Street. Painted by local artist Scott Guion, and unveiled in March of this year, it’s a loving portrait of the house itself with a variety of influential women guitarists picking and performing on the porch, in the lawn, and even on the roof. The dream band includes: Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Maybelle Carter, Joan Jett, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Bonnie Raitt, Memphis Minnie, Kitty Wells, Barbara Lynn, Carol Kaye and Suzi Quatro. Also included is Eulene Cole, Pamela Cole’s mother, with her 1948 Harmony Gene Autry guitar.
“Scott insisted that my mom be in the painting or he wouldn’t do it,” Cole says. The portrait is drawn from a 1948 photo of Cole’s mother that hangs proudly by the front door, next to a portrait of Maples’ mom, Janie Maples, as an Oxford, Mississippi University High School majorette in 1948. It’s a tribute to two women who continue to serve as inspirations to their daughters, who in turn are passing on that inspiration to others.
As for the future, both Cole and Maples know that the Eastside boom is sure to bring competition. “We’ve been lucky to have been the only dog over here, but we know that will change,” Cole says. “But we think we can keep growing, and if other music stores do come in, we’ll be able to compete.”
“Something really cool happens here every day,” Cole says. “We’re so lucky to be doing what we love. Granted we’re tired as hell. Running a small business is not easy, but women players often tell us there’s no place like this anywhere. And for the boys that are taking lessons from Leigh, they will never question whether a woman can or should play guitar or bass, because they learned how to play from a woman.”
“Guys want to be comfortable too,” Maples adds. “People walk in, find a friendly atmosphere and you hear that sigh of contentment — mission accomplished.”
With that mission carried out every day, the future for Fanny’s House of Music looks bright — even without the rows and rows of guitars, walls of gadgets, and the standard issue long-haired dude sitting in the corner playing the guitar solo from “Stairway to Heaven.”
“And even if one does show up,” Cole says with a smile, “that’s all right, he’s welcome to play too — for a little bit, just not all day.”