Inside the Hay Bale
This June marks the 10th anniversary of Bonnaroo's famed Hay Bale Studio; here's a look at the guys who've made it happen
Chad Evans and Elijah “Lij” Shaw know how to embrace the moment. The key that unlocks the door to the moment is, “Don’t take yourself too seriously.” If the focus of the moment happens to be you, then approach it with self-effacing humor. Don’t talk about what you’re “gonna do,” because that is an insult to the moment you’re in. There’s no “gonna do” — only “doing.” Besides, once you’re over the threshold of the moment it’s already over and another, a new moment has taken its place. Such is the way Evans and Shaw have been able to take on the extraordinary feat of assembling a recording studio in a trailer that’s covered by hundreds of bales of hay, in the middle of nowhere, from scratch, in the backstage area of one of the biggest festivals on God’s sorta-green earth. And, as of this year’s Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, they’ll have done it 10 years in a row.
Such feats of superhuman no-sweat-edness in the midst of tens of thousands of very sweaty people are what Chad Evans — the commander-in-chief of Vintage King Nashville and Hay Bale’s supplier of the gear, and Lij Shaw — the owner/operator of East Nashville’s The Toy Box Studio and Hay Bale’s master-of-the-realm/recording engineer, are all about. They put it all together and pull the whole thing off because, well, they know what the hell they’re doing, and they’re accomplished at what they do.
Make no mistake, theirs isn’t a job to be taken lightly, nor is it one for the faint of heart. Even the most run-of-the-mill recording sessions come with their fair share of pressure and high drama. Multiply that by a factor of 10. Add to that the fact that there is no “fix it in the mix” option. Oh yeah, then there’s dealing with the hundreds of people involved in the whole shebang — including the artists.
For anyone less than dialed into the moment, the entire experience would probably result in a nervous breakdown of the thumb-sucking, fetal position, crying-for-mama type.
Nevertheless, here they are, 10 years on.
Supplier of mega-cool pro audio gear
By Randy Fox
In the office of his Berry Hill business, Vintage King Audio, professional “gear guy” Chad Evans talks about one of the most unusual recording studios he’s equipped.
“It was back in 2005 that my friend Roger Allen Nichols wanted to audition a piece of equipment,” Evans says. “I brought it over to the studio where he was working, the Toy Box, run by Elijah ‘Lij’ Shaw. It was right down the road from my house in East Nashville. I was looking around and getting to know Lij, and he said he was building a studio at Bonnaroo. He didn’t have much gear, so I offered to help. I immediately drove to my house and gathered up microphones and whatever I had on hand because he was leaving in two days. That was the start of it.”
Since that ad hoc beginning, Shaw’s “Hay Bale Studio” has become a fixture at the annual music festival in Manchester, Tenn. The temporary but fully equipped working studio built inside hundreds of hay bales (used for sound insulation) works around the clock during the four-day festival, as bands cut tracks for broadcast on various radio and video outlets that cover Bonnaroo.
“The next year I had more time to plan it out,” Evans says. “I put the gear together every year, make sure it all works, and hand it off to Lij. Even though Bonnaroo is this giant festival that happens every year, the nuts and bolts don’t come together until about four weeks before the festival. I kind of anticipate it, then I just wing it and make it happen.”
When it comes to equipping recording studios, Evans has been making it happen in Nashville for over a decade, with small studios tucked away in basements or backyards and large, state-of-the-art professional studios. Evans has built a reputation as one of the No. 1 gear guys in the business. Combining salesmanship, technical expertise, and creative design, he has worked with such celebrated clients as Jack White, the Black Keys, Keith Urban, Sheryl Crow, and Rascal Flatts, while also giving the same care and attention to the home-based studios of less-flashy clients.
As with many classic Nashville stories, Evans’ path to success included some unexpected turns. Born in Pittsburgh, Penn., and raised in Utica, N.Y., Evans came from a musical family and followed the dream of becoming a rock star to Boston, New York, and Nashville.
“Like every other person, I came here for music,” Evans says, “but the wrong kind of music. I was in a psychedelic rock band, which in the mid-‘90s in Nashville was not the thing to be.” Evans wasn’t the only one finding hard times in Nashville at that time. The local rock scene of the ‘80s had wound down and the pop-country-stadium-rock hybrid of Garth Brooks and other crossover artists had become the main focus of Music City. A small underground rock scene was still raising a ruckus in venues like Lucy’s Record Shop and the Springwater, but any hope for rock‘n’roll dreams looked pretty remote.
“I got lost in the industry of pop-country music, which I really didn’t fit in,” Evans says. “So I went back to school for audio engineering and started working around town. I worked for one of the biggest studio groups in Nashville, but around 2000 to 2002 a major shift started happening. The recording budgets started drying up and the big studios were laying off guys and reducing staffing. At the time my uncle was an executive with Guitar Center. I was on the phone with him talking about life and bitching about paying my bills, and he told me they were going to open a Guitar Center in Nashville. I went ahead and applied and got a gig at the store here.”
Evans soon discovered the shift that had thrown him out of his engineering work was benefiting him in his new job. “I was one of the first employees in the professional sales division,” Evans says. “I found myself riding the wave of musicians who were forced to start building their own studios or recording out of their homes. Within three to four months I had doubled my income, and then I tripled it.”
With his experience as a working musician and recording engineer, Evans found himself in a unique position. “I knew what a professional expected, what they wanted to hear and see,” he says. “So I found this weird niche that I never anticipated. It was certainly not what I had dreamed about when I was 16. I never dug the corporate structure, but I was generating enough revenue that they were very hands-off. The business just kept growing and growing.”
Advances in technology and the new world of smaller, start-up studios and home-based recording meant that both established musicians and engineers along with ambitious amateurs had access to professional-level recording equipment at a much lower cost. That was a change that became particularly important in the new century as A&R budgets for major labels dried up and the long-established idea of “talent development” became a thing of the past.
“The major labels aren’t really looking to develop new talent the way they used to,” Evans says. “They’re looking at how they can financially exploit the artists they already have to the utmost limit. [If you’re starting out] there’s really no avenue other than the do-it-yourself method now. A guy in his house can spend a moderate amount and record on a professional level. You couldn’t do that before. You would have to buy a $100,000 tape machine and a $600,000 console — it was a million-dollar venture even into the ‘90s. The shift has opened up creative expression to anyone with an idea in his head.”
The change in technology sparked a “baby boom” for small studios in Nashville, a city that already had one of the world’s largest collections of recording studios per capita. “I don’t even think it’s a per capita thing anymore,” Evans says. “Without a doubt, Nashville is the densest music production community in the world. People from other cities think I’m full of shit when I talk about all the studios, but just here in Berry Hill, there are dozens of recording studios or mastering facilities. Two blocks one direction is Peter Frampton’s studio, and two blocks over there is Jonathan Cain from Journey’s studio, and John McBride’s Blackbird Studio is just two blocks that way. Just drive around these blocks and you’ll see little tiny houses with an addition behind it where music is being made. It’s the same way in East Nashville. I’ve been living on the East Side since 2005 and every month I learn about another guy that has a room and is making records.”
The DIY spirit that Evans finds in the recording studios tucked away in classic houses is one of the features that attracted him to East Nashville. “Going to shows at the Slow Bar and the 5 Spot originally brought me to East Nashville,” he says. “I heard the warnings about how ‘bad’ it was, but I dug it. I bought a house, so I’m all in.
“I lived in several different places when I was younger, often in what people would say were sketchy areas, but I always liked the diversity of cultures. That’s what appealed to me about East Nashville: the energy, the diversity, the human element, and then the charm of it — the houses, the look. It seemed more like where I’m from, so it felt like home to me from the get-go.”
That same independent spirit eventually led to Evans parting ways with the corporate structure of Guitar Center. He then approached the family-owned, Detroit-based company, Vintage King Audio — world-renowned specialists in vintage and small-run, handcrafted audio equipment. He convinced them to open a Nashville showroom and office in early 2013, with Evans personally overseeing the design of the office space, making it a friendly hang-out for fellow musicians rather than a high-pressure sales floor.
“I’ve always felt that Nashville was lacking a true professional shop where musicians can go to test the gear, hear the gear, and become familiar with everything that is out there. I had spoken with the owners of Vintage King over the years, trying to find esoteric equipment for clients. I eventually hit a point where I couldn’t facilitate their level of product through Guitar Center. For example, a guy and his son build a line of compressors or mic pre-amps in their garage. A corporate chain would never carry them, but that’s the kind of equipment we sell. We’re trying to provide experiences and not just mass-produced product.”
Strolling through the different rooms at Vintage King Audio feels like gear-head heaven. A cool Mid-Century Modern esthetic rules with room after room of instruments, switches, dials, and lights — each one promising that unique sound or lost chord just waiting to be discovered. For Evans, the real heaven isn’t the technology; it’s the city and the people like him that have made it their home.
“Nashville is a beautiful place,” he says. “It’s a small city, but it seems like half the population is all music all the time. I’m just glad I found a spot and home in it. When I came here I didn’t find the warmest welcome, and I battled with staying, but I hung in there and tried to figure out what to do, and every complaint or criticism got washed away. I saw the growth of downtown, the music scene started to widen out, and the restaurant scene blossomed. I’m so glad I stuck it out. Something told me to just shut up and deal with it and things would get better, and they most definitely did.”
Visit Vintage King on the web at: vintageking.com/nashville
ELIJAH “Lij” SHAW
The Hay Bale Sessions
By Jeff Finlin
After graduating from architecture school in St Louis, Elijah “Lij” Shaw was dissatisfied. He’d gone through the whole process, and what he found at the end left him flat. “In architecture school, they always described architecture as frozen music,” he says. “I thought to myself, ‘Screw that, I’m going to go do liquid architecture.’” So he joined his keyboard-playing brother in Hong Kong to play in a blues band for six months. The excitement of music, dim sum, and Kentucky Fried Chicken on every street corner was too much to pass up.
When the band went into a studio to record, Shaw became intrigued with the recording process. “I saw what was going on and thought to myself, ‘You know, I could do this,’” he says. So, after his run through the Orient, Shaw decided to look into recording schools in the US. He applied to about 50 schools and finally landed down at MTSU in Murfreesboro.
Shaw had no plans to stay in Nashville after school but wound up with an internship at Woodland Studios in East Nashville. “The first project I got introduced to was Daniel Lanois and Emmylou Harris recording ‘Wrecking Ball,’” he remembers. “Looking back, it was amazing. I was so green. I had no idea that I probably shouldn’t have gone up to Lanois and introduced myself and started asking him all kinds of silly questions. But he was very nice and he would come in and check out my student mix project in the other room.”
Another key milestone for Shaw while at Woodland was meeting Robin Eaton and Brad Jones, who were there to mix Jill Sobule’s self-titled record for producer Roger Moutenot. “I didn’t come here for country music, so when I heard what they were doing I got excited,” says Shaw.
After graduating from school a year or so later, he was down and out. Finding himself with no job and a wrecked car, he happened to hear that Jill Sobule record again on local radio. “I found the name of Robin and Brads’ studio (Alex The Great) on the back of the album, looked it up in the phone book, and just called the number,” says Shaw. “Brad Jones answered the phone, and we started talking. They invited me in on a session, and I ended up working there for years. Only in Nashville, right?
“I feel like I learned all that I needed to know about the technical aspects of a recording session, session flow and feel from Brad Jones. All the songwriting, creative, and people skills stuff I learned from Robin Eaton,” Shaw continues. “Those guys were indispensable to my career.”
Shaw started working with other bands outside of Alex the Great, and eventually opened his own studio in East Nashville called The Toy Box Studio. He started producing and recording bands himself, both locally and nationally, and found he was being asked to set up makeshift studios in odd locations around the country. He also partnered with his bandmate Chris King from the St. Louis band Enormous Richard and started doing a series of field recordings à la Alan Lomax. “Chris and I would throw all of our recording gear into a car and drive up and down the east coast and find people to record. We’d drive up to Queens to record blues artist Rosco Gordon in his high-rise apartment and then we’d drive over to Connecticut where we recorded the poet laureate Leo Connellan. We’d set up shop in an old train depot in Marshall, North Carolina. The word would get out and people would start showing up. Old raconteurs from the hills and musicians young and old would just come out to play and be recorded. It was amazing.”
During this time Shaw discovered his affinity for live, in-the-moment recording. “I think that is where the magic really happens, for me, when it comes to recording,” says Shaw. “There’s something special that happens when everyone is in the same room making eye contact and music together.”
Fast-forward a few years to Manchester, Tenn., and the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival. Sean O’Connell, who was doing a radio broadcast in association with the festival called “Hotel Bonnaroo,” contacted Shaw. “They would put together two artists from the festival roster and take them into a studio to do a cover song together and then broadcast it to syndicated radio stations across the country,” Shaw says. “They hired me to do one here in Nashville with Warren Haynes and the band Gomez doing a cover of John Lennon’s “Don’t Bring Me Down.” They recorded the song from start to finish in about six hours and then wound up playing the song together that night during a Gomez performance at the sold-out Ryman Auditorium. To see the whole thing come together and then top it off by performing the song live at the Ryman that night for thousands of people was incredible!”
In 2005 O’Connell called Shaw again and asked him what it would take to set up a real recording studio at the Bonnaroo festival itself. “I knew this was going to be awesome,” Shaw says. Solidifying a partnership with Chad Evans at Vintage King in Nashville they secured all the top-notch gear they needed. “The plan was to bring in a double-wide trailer and just park it right behind the two main stages. We would bring the bands in and record them right there,” explains Shaw. “The problem was the sound leakage from the stages, of course.” Sean ran into a local farmer who suggested bringing in bales of hay to cover the trailers and insulate them from the sound of the two main stages.
It worked perfectly. Thus began what is now known as the famed Hay Bale Studio at Bonnaroo. Teaming up with Music Allies and Vintage King they record 40 bands for 40 different radio markets. “Each hour during the festival another artist comes into record a few live tracks in our humble studio,” Shaw says. “We record, mix, and master live to two-track recorders and upload directly to radio, all from our high tech hay bale studio.”
“You know, all the way back to the very first band I played in it seemed that the very best stuff I did was always recorded as a live band,” says Shaw. “The best results were almost always achieved when everyone was in the same rooming looking at each other and playing together live. There is a certain energy there that, when captured, can’t be beat. As much as my school experience and Nashville tries to teach you to overanalyze things when making recordings, I learned that the best music almost always comes from people communicating, interacting and playing together in the moment. That’s what the Hay Bale Sessions at Bonnaroo is all about. I get a quick soundcheck, I mix everything live, the band is playing live, and it’s going to the recording gear live. It’s pure performance top to bottom. I think that’s what makes the Hay Bale Studio and Sessions so special. For me, it’s where the magic really happens.”
For more info and music from the Hay Bale Sessions go to thetoyboxstudio.com/hay-studio/