My first thought as I got out of the car at Third Man Records in Nashville, TN was – this feels right. I had no idea where I was having never been to Nashville before, but something about the industrial street on the edge of Pie Town, where Third Man Records has literally set up shop, just seemed Rock N’ Roll. From its subtle, yet vibrant facade with the lightning rig symbol on the roof, to the neighborly warehouse foundation still intact, I found Third Man Records to be genuinely honest before I even stepped in the door.
Jack White is obviously well-known for his dynamic music with The White Stripes, The Dead Weather, The Raconteurs and his solo material. As you can tell from White’s eclectic mix of old-fashioned guitars, White is also a bit of music historian with a passion for vinyl. White started Third Man Records as Detroit-based independent label in 2001. The initial intent was to use the label to reissue some of the White Stripes early material via “45’s. From there, White continued to produce various artists and reissue more of his own material on the Third Man label, mostly as exclusive vinyl offerings.
The name Third Man, has meaning behind it as well. Almost every record in the Jack White catalog has his Third Man logo imprinted somewhere on it – even those released prior to the launch of Third Man Records. White has occasionally expressed his admiration for the number three and the 1949 film The Third Man. As White worked on his music in the 90’s, he also had an upholstery company named Third Man Upholstery.
In March of 2009, with numerous Third Man releases out in the world (including Raconteurs’ live albums pressed for each of their 2006 UK shows), White opened the first Third Man Records physical location in Nashville. It’s one of most unique music establishments I have ever seen. The location is organized around five dedicated sections: the record store, a “novelties lounge,” the label’s offices and distribution center, its recording studios, and its photo studio. Each of White’s solo records and the Dead Weather records were recorded at the Third Man studio.
As I glanced wide-eyed at the museum-like, vintage photo booth and classic guitars on display, I found myself asking the staff if it was OK to buy some of the items I had in hand as even the yellow, Third Man branded composition books were so eloquently placed without a retail feel. White’s accomplishments are very tastefully blended into the mix as well. The walls sport records and plaques that span White’s storied career thus far. The White Stripes wall is one of the first things you see as it proudly holds its place behind the counter as you walk in. Tucked in the bottom right shelf of the front showcase, sits White’s three Grammy awards. It was the last picture I took because I almost didn’t even notice it.
One of the biggest attractions to the Third Man Records novelties lounge is the 1947 recording booth. For $20 you can record your own song right there. No advance notice or reservation is needed. It’s a first come, first serve setup where you are able to record on the spot, a two and half minute song. Upon concussion you immediately receive a 6 inch “33 record to take home. A similar recording setup is now in place in their Detroit location as well.
As for the records to purchase, many of the Third Man label artists have their music available in vinyl format at the novelty lounge in addition to the Third Man Records website. Such artists include; Yak, Wanda Jackson, The Haden Triplets, Margo Price, Dwight Yoakam and of course, The White Stripes, The Dead Weather, The Raconteurs and Jack White.
Two of the most exclusive categories in the vinyl catalog are the Blue Room and Green Room series. For the Blue Room, singers and bands that are traveling through Nashville, are invited to stop by to record one or two songs at Third Man Studio to be produced by Jack White. The songs are then made available on 7 inch vinyl and digitally on iTunes. The cover photos are taken in Third Man’s “blue room” photo studio/live venue. Recordings by artists like Beck and Michael Kiwanuka have been some of the most popular in the series. The Green Room offers a similar model, but focuses on non-musical performances. Whether it’s White conducting an interview or stand-up piece, the Green Series deals with non-musical ideas. It involves spoken word, poetry, or instructional discussions on a wide range of topics from cattle auctions to comedy. The Green Series usually contains an interview component and is also produced by Jack White. They too, are made available on 7” vinyl singles and digitally on iTunes. It’s here where you’ll find White interviewing the likes of Tempest Storm and Conan O’Brien. Like the Blue Room, all recordings are done right there onsite at Third Man.
The Blue Room also hosts a series entitled the Light and Sound Machine – which is a monthly film series to take place on the third Thursday of each month. Screenings are curated and hosted by filmmaker and critic James Cathcart, whose goal is to provide a venue for marginalized cinema, both new and repertory. Screenings take place on 16mm as well as digital.
The right side of Third Man Records is the music venue and studio. In addition to hosting the aforementioned acts as they come through Nashville, there is a live venue that holds a plethora of creative events. On any given night, you can find a local band rocking the stage, a national or global act jamming to a packed crowd, a comedy show (Bill Burr was performing the day I was there) or an educational session.
In case record label, recording studio, live venue and record store were not enough, there is also Third Man Books. It’s here where you will find some underground and compelling non-fictional stories. One of their most recent releases was TOTAL CHAOS: The Story of The Stooges – As Told by Iggy Pop. It’s the only book that provides the story of the Stooges by Iggy Pop himself – as he saw it, as he lived it. Dave Grohl, Josh Homme, Joan Jett and Jack White contributed to the book.
Another unique offering via Third Man Books is Life is a Total Rip Off. In this book, John Olson of Wolf Eyes, reviews one record a day, every day, for one year. He reviewed everything from death metal demo cassettes to the Staples Singers’ gospel and gives the reader an in-depth look into all the different genres, often turning you on to new music you never knew existed.
Staying true to theme, upholding the arts is a subject matter White and Third Man have taken a step further, as demonstrated by past partnerships with organizations such as Brightspark Travel and WorldStrides OnStage – where they created “School Choirs & Bands at Third Man: A Vinyl Recording Experience.” The partnership is described as a one of a kind program that offered students behind-the-scenes access to Third Man Records, as well as the chance to record their own “45rpm vinyl records. Through the program, students were treated to an exclusive tour, a Q & A session and the chance to record in the Third Man studio. The students then received a 7 inch single of the performance pressed in their school colors, a commemorative plaque for display at each school, and the option to upgrade their package to include a commemorative folder complete with a diploma signed by White. Currently, Brightspot offers a tour stop and recording opportunity at Third Man through their Nashville Performance Tour package.
Overall, Third Man Records is genuinely – for the arts fan, by the arts fan. It has its niche, primarily showcasing vinyl records, vintage instruments, old-fashioned styles and recording mechanisms, yet there’s a fascinating touch where the classic elements of the time period, like the 1947 record booth, are preserved to the point where they are attractive to both the modern music fan and the historian – similar to much of Jack White’s music.
Aside from his own musical career, Jack White is clearly doing a lot of great things for the arts. Through showcasing appreciation for the past, he is encouraging the future. As I grabbed my bag of merchandise, took a peppermint (the only option available of course) from the candy bowl and began to walk out, another employee met me at the door, handed me the Nashville Scene weekly publication and suggested I check out all the live events happening in and around the city. “Take Me With You When You Go.”