Songwriters Vanessa Olivarez and Elizabeth Elkins form the duo Granville Automatic, the name borrowed from a 19th Century typewriter. And, as you might guess, leaning on a name like that, they love to write about history. "Radio Hymns" is a journey into Nashville's storied past, beyond the glitz of neon, cowboy hats and Lower Broad to some earlier tales of dark times. Theirs is a side of Music City that few have heard.
The music, while haunting in few places, skips along nicely in country and gentle rock grooves as several guests join them in the 13-track journey. Jim Lauderdale helps on "Marbles" and "The House That Fell Down" while Kevin Griffin of Better Than Ezra does the honors on "Treaty Oak" and Ben Fields contributes to "Black Avenue Gallows." All three of the guests also helped write their respective songs, and Matraca Berg co-wrote the title track. Olivarez handles all lead vocals.
The opener "Summer Street" tells the story of city founder Timothy Demonbreun's two wives, setting the stage for a mix of scandalous love affairs, illicit drugs, debauchery, war, ghosts and mayhem. "Black Avenue Gallows" is about the last legal public hanging in 1863 in now what is the alley between 16th and 17th Avenues in Music Row. "News of the World" relates to Ike Johnson who ran a pre-Prohibition saloon that also served as a brothel and gambling joint. "Marbles" was the nickname bestowed on Jimi Hendrix, who spent a year in Nashville circa 1962. Yes, the locals thought he was crazy. Hendrix played in clubs along Jefferson Street, later torn down to build the Interstate 40-Jefferson Street Interchange. Hence the lines - "I feel the calluses from his fingers on the strings/now I'm buried under the highway/where we played in '62."
Every one of these songs has a deep history that even long-term residents of Nashville are likely unaware of it. The title track tells the story of the city's bid to tear down the Mother Church (The Ryman) only to have a group of musicians led by Emmylou Harris persevere to save it from destruction. "Blood Medicine" is about an illicit drug made from a combination of opium and alcohol used in the late 19th century. The others are equally intriguing.
Olivarez and Elkins obviously put tons of research into this project, so you can be rewarded by listening.