Ardent Studios has long been the origin of many a Grammy winning album from artists in and outside of Memphis. It all started simply enough with John Fry’s home-brewed recording studio in his parent’s garage. From that humble garage Ardent moved to a brand new studio on National Street, which saw the likes of Led Zeppelin and finally settled down at its current location in 1971.
Its current manager, Jody Stephens, came to Ardent when his band Big Star recorded its debut album at the then brand-new studio. He stayed around since then offering his expertise to the artists that come far and wide to record.
Daniel Russo is the man responsible for booking artists into Ardent’s three studios and has been a part of company for the past five years. He was born outside of Philadelphia, but graduated from the University of Memphis with a degree in music management. Pop ‘stache recently caught up with both him and Stephens to see how they felt their studio fit in Memphis’ music scene.
Pop ‘stache: Had you been down South before coming to school here?
Daniel Russo: Not at all.
P’s: What was your first impression coming here?
DR: I was a little bit star-struck with it, you know, because your first time here as somebody who’s not from here you get the tourist experience. All that cool history kind of smacks you in the face because that’s what they do for tourism is smack people in the face with their history.
P’s: Did anything about the music scene in Memphis really surprise you?
DR: Once I kind of dulled into it you find out it’s not what most people think it is. It’s not blues cover bands on Beale Street.
P’s: They’re there.
DR: They’re definitely there, but they’re there for people who don’t live here. There’s a lot of cool original cool music emanating out of mid-town that is cool to discover and find out about.
P’s: What are some local bands you’re digging right now?
DR: Well, there’s a band on our local called Star and Micey, and they’ve always been one of my favorites. Just really cool kind of folk, pop dudes. But aside from us locally I really love the band Dirty Streets. There like three piece balls-to-the-wall rock-n-roll.
P’s: I think Memphis is known for music, but we don’t have a big spot in the national music scene. Do you feel like we get enough respect music wise?
DR: Well, It’s hard to say. Certainly Memphis is a city people think of when they think about music cities, but I don’t know if it’s in the right way. I think it goes back to people on the outside view Memphis as its history in music. That’s fine but it takes focus away from the cool local things that are happening now.
Jody Stephens: You know, it’s … Respect is usually related to where some artists or some bands connect with people. If it doesn’t connect with you and the type of music you like then you just don’t show up to see the band. They’re some great band’s here: John Paul Keith and the 145s, Jack O [Jack Oblivian], Tennessee Tearjerkers, Harlan T Bobo, Amy Lavere. I just heard some of Joyce Cobb’s record and it sounded wonderful. They all seem to have a lot of respect for what they do from my point of view. They’re audience might be limited. The appeal of that band may have a smaller audience, but I think these folks get a lot of respect. They certainly have mine.
P’s: What’s your daily schedule like here?
DR: It changes every day. I do all the booking, I take all calls regarding studio time, I quote rates, I schedule most of the personnel here on sessions for day shifts and things like that, I’m in charge of the website and newsletter and publicity.
P’s: Have you ever been star struck while you’re doing your job?
DR: No, I try to maintain a professional front about the whole thing but it was really cool to meet Huey Lewis earlier this year. He’s a personable guy. It’s always nice to meet somebody big like that, and they turn out to be genuinely nice people. A lot of times, and this is not to say his specifically, but in any case just because of how famous somebody is you assume they’re probably not very friendly. A lot of times it turns out they’re great though.
P’s: Where do you see ardent studios in the grand scheme of the music scene in Memphis?
JS: I see it as a hub for wonderful things to happen. The stuff that’s been recorded here has certainly had an impact nationally and internationally. Led Zeppelin, Staple Singers, Isaac Hayes, 8 ZZ Top Records, Joe Cocker, Holiday from France, Chikasen is coming in from Japan to mix with John Hampton. The Souldiers from Amsterdam were just in recording.
DR: We had some Swedes in earlier in the year. The perception of what Memphis is and its history and everything…there’s sort of an obsession about that on a worldwide scale. It’s great. We receive artists from all over the world. We’ve had three or four artists from Japan. All over Europe and certainly all over the United States.
P’s: What’s the favorite part of your job?
DR: I get to meet really interesting people just about every day and be around music.
JS: It’s the music definitely and when you hit that artist that is just creating something special for you. When you have an artist here that connects musically it just makes your day and reminds you why you listen to music and have fun with it. Outside of that, everybody is pursuing their dream, and we get to help out and be a part of it.