In life, some moments imprint themselves so distinctly on our hearts they become frozen in time—easy to recall with the faintest whiff of a fragrance or the first beat of a song that underscored the memory you were in the middle of composing. They’re moments we’ll remember forever, stored in the recesses of our minds to unshelve and reflect on with fondness and just a touch of longing. These are the moments country music is made of because these are the moments that a life well lived is made of.
Cinderella Studios, nestled in a quaint residential area on the edge of East Nashville, is a remarkable place where such moments happen in abundance. As I sat around the wooden table looking out the kitchen windows last Saturday listening to a soft-spoken man pour his heart out to the rhythm of his guitar, I realized that afternoon would never leave me. Life, at its best, is made up of good friends, good music, and a lot of laughter. Those three things are staples at Cinderella Studios; one no more important than the other, but all three crucial to the magic that happens there. My first thought when I was invited to do a studio tour and series of interviews with Wayne Moss and Dee Moeller was that I had a rare opportunity to observe a fascinating part of music history. What I gained instead was so much more profound and so much more important. I got a defining moment; a benchmark for the things I wanted to do in this life, the stories I wanted to tell, and the people I wanted to be a part of it all. My time at Cinderella Studios wasn’t about writing down the most famous names (and there are many) or the crucial turning points that made Nashville’s oldest independent recording studio as successful as it is. My time at Cinderella Studios was about learning the history that gave the land its feeling of stillness, it was about hearing love stories and accounts of practical jokes, it was about listening with my whole heart so I could tell the story, and tell it right.
The story, as it were, begins in West Virginia with a soft-spoken steady-handed man. Wayne Moss was born in 1938 and would waste little time on his journey to making music his life. “My mother’s originally from Cottontown, Tennessee and my dad is from Russellville, Kentucky. They met here in Tennessee and worked at DuPont together in 1925. I came along in 1938 in West Virginia, and I ended up coming here [Nashville] in 1959 to stay.” It was in 1953, however, that Moss would give his first audition in town, and receive his first no–an answer that quickly grew rare in his career. “I came down here when I was fifteen and did an audition with Chet Atkins. My mother was there, and she said to Chet ‘Isn’t he amazing?’ Chet said ‘No, he’s average, but maybe he can get a job at the Opry or something.’ My mother told him music was all I knew and asked what he’d have me do. Chet responded with ‘I don’t know, he looks like he’d make a good plumber.’ Chet didn’t figure it was up to him to figure out my career. For many people, that would crush their spirit, but all it did was piss me off. I made a concerted effort to make Chet Atkins hire me for a whole lot of sessions after that, and he did. He even cut four of my songs and came out to record at Cinderella.”
To hear Moss tell the story of how he came to music as a career, one would think he was making a simple decision like what to eat for dinner, or which shoes to wear out dancing. Moss maintains that casual tone and calm demeanor in everything he does, whether he is sipping coffee, explaining how his Flickinger console works, or quietly harmonizing with his wife, Dee, at the kitchen table. To Moss, it was a simple decision. When nothing else seemed palatable, Moss found music. “My dad worked in a chemical plant in West Virginia, and I didn’t want to do that; there were coal mines in the area, and I didn’t want to do that either. My dad had me help him deliver coal, and that also wasn’t any fun, so my mother encouraged me to pursue music. I started out with piano lessons when I was very young, and I didn’t care for that. My daddy bought me a six-dollar guitar when I was eight, and I’ve been playing it ever since.”
Dee Moeller, the other half of the Moss household and Cinderella Studios in its current form, has had an equally long and storied history in the music industry. Starting out at twelve years old, music has been a concentrated focus in Moeller’s life for the majority of her seventy-eight years. With song credits under the billing of Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Brenda Lee, and Wanda Jackson, Moeller has her own story to tell. Perhaps what is most remarkable about Dee Moeller, though, isn’t her impeccable songwriting or the fact that she knows her way around a piano so well she can make it sing like an angel; it is the stillness in her spirit. Her history impressed me, but it is her heart that left a lasting impression on mine. By ten o’clock, the gentlemen of the house had left us in favor of other things. Their absence was replaced by our laughter and the stories that we told well into the night, long after the interview was over and the recorder had been turned off. Sometimes it’s in the quiet moments, sitting at a kitchen table with the moonlight and a dimly lit lamp between you, where the best memories—and friends—are made.
Originally hailing from Roscoe, Texas, Moeller was a regular on the music scene before she had even started high school. “My family lived in Merkel, Texas, for a long time, but before we moved there, we lived in a little town called Roscoe, not too far from Snyder. Snyder had an amateur hour radio show on Saturday mornings. My parents took me down to audition when I was twelve, and KSNY kept me on as a regular so I didn’t have to audition every week. I did that for about a year every Saturday morning before we moved to Merkel, and then it was a little too far to continue. When I was thirteen I had an audition set on the Big State Jamboree in Abilene, and it turned out pretty well, so they made me a regular on that. There were two bands who had shows in the area; Slim Willett, who wrote “Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes” had one who did their show on Saturday mornings and another band, Fox Force Seven, who had their show on KRBC radio on Saturday nights. And then television came to Abilene, and I did that too, so I stayed pretty busy during my high school years.”
Performing, for Moeller, came naturally from a young age. When asked how she got started, she couldn’t recall ever not singing. “I knew I wanted to do this when I was two years old. I started singing before I started talking. Just to tell you how single-minded I was, my daddy for a time worked for the Texas Highway Department and helped build a highway through Sweetwater, Texas. During that time we lived in what was known in those days as a tourist court. They were like a motel, but they had all the amenities of a house. There was a cafe there, and when I was four, my mother was pregnant with my brother and sister, who are twins. I got a chance one day and ran for the cafe. I climbed up on the counter and started singing to everyone in the cafe. It got me a hamburger and a coke, and I was hooked. My mother came in the door frantic; here was this little woman, just about to have twins, looking for me everywhere and I was on the countertop singing to the crowd.”
During her time on television and radio in Abilene, Moeller found herself amid some of the greatest up and coming stars of the era. One such star was Elvis Presley, whom she opened for when he came to town because of her popularity and fan base in the community. “Since I was on television and radio so much in that area I had a fan base there. Elvis was just getting started; he’d had a couple of good hits on Sun Records, and somebody booked him. I was fourteen at the time, and since I had a popular following, they booked me as his opening act. That was pretty exciting stuff for a fourteen-year-old girl. At the time I had never dreamed of becoming a songwriter, so I was doing copy material. There was a popular song at the time by Georgia Gibbs called “Tweedle Dee”. I sang that song that night and later on Elvis, being new himself, didn’t have a lot of his own stuff, so he was doing some copy material, too. Naturally, after I was through singing, I stood right off the stage behind the curtain so the audience couldn’t see me, but I could see Elvis. He was so cute; he went out there and said: “Well, I’m going to do a song that’s already been done.” He looked over at me and winked and said: “Now she did it really well, but here’s my version.” So our audience heard “Tweedle Dee” twice that day.”
Her performances throughout high school in Texas provided a strong foundation for Moeller when she moved to Nashville at the age of twenty in 1960. With television, radio, and a series of live performances under her belt, Moeller relocated to Music City on her own and checked into the local YWCA, where she’d later phone a friend, Ann, who had been part of a duo called the Starlight Sisters back home. “When Ann got married and moved to Nashville, that meant I knew one person in town. I got to Nashville and checked into the Y, then called Ann up and she said, of course, I could stay with them. I did stay with them, and I got real lucky; Ann’s husband, Charlie, knew exactly one person in the music business, and that was Jim Denny, who had the Jim Denny Artist Bureau with Lucky Moeller. Charles got me an appointment with Jim Denny to see if he’d start booking me on gigs.” Moeller’s lucky streak continued right on through her first meeting with Mr. Denny; when she arrived for her interview, she had an unexpected fan there in the form of MariJohn Wilkin, one of country music’s finest songwriters. “MariJohn Wilkin was there when I went in to meet Jim Denny. She was from Winters, Texas, and her mother had told her about me because I made her think of Marijohn when she was young and playing around town back home. She recognized me and introduced herself, then took me into Jim’s office for my appointment and told him about my background in Texas. After that, he started booking me, and I wound up on tours with Minnie Pearl, Stonewall Jackson, Don Gibson, George Jones, Skeeter Davis. A few different people.”
Though she was in wonderful company, Moeller discovered quickly that touring was not for her. Luckily, the men at Jim Denny Artist’s Bureau had another place in mind for her. “I toured a lot, but I didn’t like it. I couldn’t handle it; I was really young, I was single, and I was alone. It was rough on me, and I didn’t want to do it anymore, so I did the unthinkable. I walked into Mr. Moeller’s office and said I really don’t like to tour, can you please not put me on anymore? It just so happened that Jim Denny and Lucky Moeller had just bought a club with Webb Pierce. It was downtown on Commerce Street. Lucky said he’d put me in the club. I’d work five nights a week and go on the occasional short-term tour. I went to Montgomery, Alabama for the Alabama state fair with Minnie Pearl and Stonewall Jackson. I wound up with the best of both worlds with that.”
With two such accomplished young artists in the same town, there was little chance that Moeller and Moss wouldn’t run into one another sooner or later. When they were both still at the start of what would become long careers, Moeller and Moss met and dated for a time before going their separate ways. The two, alone, accomplished enough in their decades apart to deem both of them worthy of Legend’s Corner. Their faces may not be in the mural just off of Broadway downtown, but the music they made has undoubtedly been weaved in and out of the fabric of Nashville for several generations.
Dolly Parton, Porter Wagoner, and the Outlaws
Before Cinderella Studios was established as a recording studio, Wayne Moss spent time working as a session musician for hire with several labels including Phillips, RCA, Columbia, and Bradley’s Barn in Mount Juliet, just outside of Nashville. Some of his most notable years as a session musician were spent alongside Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner at RCA, though they certainly weren’t the only artists he worked with. Moss’ record includes Roy Orbison, Tammy Wynette, and Bob Dylan. When asked what it was like as a young man playing behind Parton and Wagoner, Moss let out a quiet laugh. “It was a lot of fun. Dolly and Porter were both practical jokers; Felton Jarvis had an anaconda that he turned loose in the studio one day. There was a whole strings section, and I was sitting there playing guitar with them. They were all sitting there raising their feet up off the ground. I finally saw what it was—about a twelve-foot-long snake. We had a lot of fun together.” In addition to Parton and Wagoner, Moss spent two years playing alongside country music maven, Brenda Lee, and Charlie McCoy & The Escorts, doing live gigs and recording demos throughout the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.