Leo Handmade Gallery Local VinylLocal vinyl at Leo Handmade Gallery on Frazier Ave.
All over Hamilton County and as far south as Dalton, sightings of hovering, rotating black discs have been reported. The discs were very common throughout the ’50s,’60s, ’70s and even into the ’80s, but disappeared due to technological progress and became only memories.
Yet now vinyl LPs are making a major comeback. The invasion has only just begun in Chattanooga.
As far back as the late 1800’s, “records” brought immense amounts of pleasure to generations of listeners. Those of us 36 and older, (give or take) have smuggled music and recorded media into our homes at various RPMs (mostly at 33 1/3 and 45) and these records brought us endless hours of listening pleasure. Or pain. Or comforted us through the pain. Turning our receiver dials to “phono” has generated songs of limitless joy as well as the bottomless despair. Sometimes the songs of heartbreak have made us cry even harder—but the songs helped us push on through.
I had a lawn chair in my room when I was a teenager. Wedged tightly between my bed and stereo, with Realistic headphones on and the volume cranked up to broil, I found sanctuary. My first LPs were The Monkees’ Greatest Hits and KISS’ Destroyer. But those albums did not have the impact of the ones from my junior and senior years in high school. As I stared endlessly at the covers, searching for the meaning of life, Derek and the Dominos taught me all about unrequited love and not being able to have someone you really wanted. Dan Fogelberg, The Eagles, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band showed me the ropes of great acoustic music and Pure Prairie League let me sit down with them for hours of guitar lessons. Then Eric Clapton with his genius double live album Just One Night was there yet again as he showed me all about the blues.
One drink of wine
Two drinks of gin
Pretty young girl put me
In the sha-ape I’m in
Early in the Morning
— Sonny Boy Williamson
After high school, the CD brutally dethroned vinyl. I took my guitars and record player and moved from Rockwood, Tennessee to the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex. After two weeks there, I met owner Dana Bloxom while perusing Dino’s Records in Fort Worth. I told him I was new in town, we talked about music—and he hired me on the spot. It was a great place to work and I got to play records all day long, but the store finally closed its doors in 2004, due to the popularity of digital downloads so easily accessed on home computers. Easy access to the Internet and free music available took away the need to go hungry for a week, saving your lunch money in great anticipation of the new Def Leppard album.
Lacking anything tangible to look at as music is piped into Internet speakers at the speed of light, meaning was lost. It seemed there would be no more hours of covergazing, or better yet, gatefoldgazing, looking for the secrets of the universe, reading and taking in every word like it meant life or death. It had seemed somehow as if the artists became your friends through the artwork and melodies. Even the music label information had some value.
Now, the times they are a’changin’—again. Increasingingly, bands are releasing or re-releasing their music on vinyl. The CD has long lost its cachet, and downloads are just invisible tomfoolery. Music lovers have grown weary of this façade and it is time to switch gears. We came perilously close to losing the magic that only vinyl can create.
Records at the mall
Two divorces and a lot of years later, I’m in Chattanooga working at For the Record, a bright, eclectic store full of collectible vinyl, books, movies and rock-and-roll memorabilia. Mike and Gwen Bell, two serious music enthusiasts/entrepreneurs opened this little establishment in Northgate Mall three years ago. People stream in and out of the store buying and selling albums. Most leave with smiles on their faces after reminiscing about those years of freedom before adulthood and bills took over their lives.
“I love dealing with the public and people with great musical passions and helping them fulfill their collections,” says Mike Bell. “I got albums through my father who was in the cigarette machine and jukebox business. He would bring albums home and I never had to buy them when I was young.” Bell has worked various jobs during his 58 years, from a preacher to painter. He’s found a way to make a living doing two things that bring him much happiness: selling records and framing art.
For the Record’s walls are lined with framed LPs and singles. Each frame contains all the artwork that came with the record as well as the vinyl, turning each piece into in to a tasteful work of art. Every shelf in the store is packed with music memorabilia. Bell boasts, “We have the largest selection of new vinyl and posters in town, as well as a creative mixture of music and art.”
Gwen Bell was born and raised here. As a child, she had to make weekly pilgrimages to a little corner drug store, allowance in hand, to fuel her main passions. “Every week I would go down there and buy one record and one comic,” she says. “My first records were given to me. I remember listening to the Smothers Brothers and the Lennon Sisters’ album, Sad Movies Make Me Cry, when I was really young, but the first album I ever bought was The Diamonds with the song Little Darlin.”
She is constantly spinning the Beatles on the store turntable. Her favorite Beatle is George Harrison, and she can tell you all about the history, wives, and tragedies behind the Beatles and most other rock stars.
No fad at Chad’s
“Our store is all killer and no filler,” exclaims the lone employee at Chad’s Records. Known only as “John”, he is wiping down an LP as I enter the dimly lit store on Vine Street. Stacked and packed with records, the store is a trip back in time. Walls are adorned with rows of LPs representing the heyday of rock and roll, and a punk rock LP was spinning on the turntable.
Proprietor Chad Bledsoe has owned the store for 23 years and is just as in love with vinyl as he was as a child. “Since I was a little kid I’ve been into music of some kind,” he says. “When I was a teenager, I was into rhythmic music like disco and rock and pop. I’m a sucker for a good song, so I like artists like Journey and Rick Springfield and I’m equally interested in Prince, Rick James and The Gap Band. Then I got interested in classic rock during high school, especially Neil Young and The Doors.”
Searching through the stacks of vinyl in Chad’s, you’ll find a huge jazz collection, an even bigger rock assortment—and an assortment of the despised compact disc. John says, “We have reduced our CD collection by at least a third lately. Since we moved next door, we just don’t have the room and there is a lack of interest in them.”
Bledsoe began compiling records at an early age. “I had a collection of 200-300 albums before I opened the store. I liked vintage records and started buying them in the ’80s—that was part of the appeal. I take good care of all the vinyl that comes into the store. It’s all hand cleaned and graded before it hits the shelves. People find a wide range of music to browse that’s very affordable. If they want collectible stuff, I have that too.”
LPs at Leo
Cold rain pelted me as I walked on Chattanooga’s North Shore. Shivering, I entered into the artsy confines of Leo Handmade Gallery and Boutique on Frazier Avenue. I soon recovered. This festive little store has jewelry, clothing and a smaller yet surprisingly diverse array of records that are its centerpiece. Employee Bridget Miller was busy arranging products and simultaneously attentive to customers’ needs. “Our store carries items from local musicians and artists. It’s important to promote locals and remember their talents. Oh, and we have great, cheap records, too.”
While chatting with Bridget, I met local musician Arettie Ford, bassist for the cult-inspired band The Stacker 3. All of their music is instrumental and is recorded and sold on vinyl, and every album also comes with a burned CD as a bonus. Their latest disc, Healter Skelter, an album named for the Charles Manson killing spree, was on sale in the store. The artwork on this disc even has its own unique font—the Charles Manson Font, was created by local artist Emily Efflin after viewing Manson’s handwriting online and reproducing it for the record sleeve.
Ford excitedly talks about the band’s next project, Seven Seals, which is directly inspired by the story of the Branch Davidians. She says, “Every record is completely different from the last. I think everybody would be interested in our cult sounds. We’re not playing many live shows, but doing a lot of recording—and clipping a lot of coupons.”
“There’s nothing better than vinyl and the aesthetic beauty of albums. You can just disappear in the music and cover of a Rolling Stones’ album like Their Satanic Majesty’s Request,” says record collector Dan Frix. He has more than 1,000 albums and has been in love with the black discs since he was a toddler. “I remember being in a baby pool when I was 2 or 3 years old. My brother and sister were having a great time as “Please Please Me” by The Beatles spun on our little record player on the back porch. I was enamored. And hooked from that point. Later on I got into the Clash, Elvis Costello, and the Velvet Underground, but I love the Beatles.”
Frix collects albums simply for the love of music and the deep, rich quality of sound records produce. He’s never been one to collect vinyl just for the sake of collecting the records or for financial gain. He admonishes those that do: “They think it’s blue-chip stock that will always hold its value. They should listen to it and pay attention to the musicianship, engineering and production. Don’t miss out on the sonic beauty of records.”
So maybe vinyl will come back in a very big way. Chattanooga has laid the runway out for the potential return, and many people are lining up to see the touch down. Vinyl can take us away to a better place and time where the world wasn’t so complicated. Buy a record for your teenager or spouse this Christmas. Place it under the tree while visions of lava lamps and black lights dance in your head.
Chris Kelly is a failed musician and freelance writer who found himself living in Chattanooga one confused and hungover morning. He tried long, long ago to escape the clutches of his love for music and actually working a real job, but finally realized the he didn’t choose this road. It chose him, man. Email Chris at email@example.com.