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Ain’t It Nice In Here: The History of Cinderella Studios

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.

Wayne Moss

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.

Dee Moeller at Willie Nelson’s 2nd Annual Picnic

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.”

Grand piano at Cinderella, previously used by Ray Charles on the television show Hee-Haw

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.

CMHOF-Brenda Lee Exhibit Party on August 6, 2009.

The reality of a session musician’s life can be as tiring as it is exciting, and after twelve years on Music Row, Moss was ready to slow things down. “I spent twelve years playing with Dolly and Porter and everybody else. That’ll wear you out: four sessions a day, five or six days a week. I got to the point that I couldn’t do it anymore. A lot of times my day would start at 10:00 AM and end after a 10:00 PM session was over. There’s no way to stay alert with that kind of schedule. We drank a lot of coffee, smoked a lot of cigarettes, and most the time we’d knock out anywhere from four to six songs in a session. That’s tiring. Bob Dylan came to town, and we cut one song a week. He wasn’t in any hurry at all, and that was a nice change of pace for a little while.” Cinderella Studios came to life not long after that, but not without protest from Moss’ colleagues.

“One day after I quit I got a call. It was Porter and Dolly and Felton Jarvis on separate phones saying “what do you mean you quit doing sessions?” I told them I wanted to do my studio and pursue my own band, Barefoot Jerry. Another day I got a call from Felton, and he said: “hey man you’ve got to come down and do Elvis.” I told him, no, and he said, “But it’s Elvis.” I said, “I don’t care, I don’t want Porter and Dolly to think they’re less important.” Next thing you know, I had Chet Atkins out here recording in my studio with Mickey Newbury. We cut a lot of good records out here. We cut the original of “Delta Dawn”, we cut the first record of “American Trilogy” by Mickey Newbury, we cut the first record of “Burnin’ Love”. We’ve done a lot to help Elvis’ career without ever doing that session.”

Though Moss got his start in country music, his recording studio is not limited to one genre. What started as a good reputation by word of mouth eventually brought bands and musicians from far and wide to the front doors of Cinderella Studios. “KISS came because I recorded Steve Miller Band and they liked the way it sounded. Steve Miller and Linda Ronstadt were on Capitol Records at the time, and they recommended us—they knew me, and they told other people they needed to record here. Steve Miller is a good example of that; he was trying to cut on the West Coast, and there was so much partying going on he couldn’t get anything done. He had his first song here done in forty-five minutes, and he knew this was where he needed to be. He told Linda this was the place to go, and Linda ended up cutting Silk Purse, the whole album, and “Long Long Time,” as a single, out here.”

Alongside the launch of Cinderella Studios, Moss pursued his own music, first with a band of session musicians under the name Area Code 615, then Barefoot Jerry. “Area Code 615 came about while we were cutting The Monkees at RCA. Mike Nesbit told us he needed to work on some lyrics and to take five. On that break, I said somebody should play something. David Briggs started playing “Lady Madonna” on the piano. There was a banjo, a fiddle, and a steel guitar and we all started playing along with Briggs. I said we need to cut an album like this and everybody chimed in.” Area Code 615 began with an album at Polydor Records with the unique sound of 70’s hits performed by traditionally country sounding instruments. “Polydor, our label, sent a guy from William Morris up in New York down to see us and ask how many dates per year we’d like to work. We all said none because we were making a killing in sessions at the time. He advised Polydor to drop us, and right after they did, we were nominated for a Grammy for Best Instrumental Group of the Year in 1970. We were up against Ferrante & Teicher, Henry Mancini, Boots Randolph, and Blood Sweat and Tears. Blood, Sweat, and Tears won that year, but Henry Mancini lost too, so it’s alright.” After they were dropped from Polydor Charlie McCoy, Kenneth Buttrey, Mac Gayden, and Wayne Moss would go on to form Barefoot Jerry. Together with a total of forty-five members rotating in and out, the band produced ten albums, charted, and saw critical acclaim for their work.

Moeller with Willie Nelson and Company

While Moss was pursuing his band and studio, Moeller’s life took her in another direction: songwriting. “It just so happened that I started dating Lucky Moeller’s son Larry, who was also in the agency. Larry traveled with Minnie [Pearl] and her husband Henry, and after we married, whenever she threw a party I’d sit at the piano bench and sing the old standards with her. She wasn’t just funny in her act; she was a genuinely nice, funny person. I loved what I did, but I couldn’t take being on the road. It became harder to have that career and a family, though, and my family became more important. I started to write songs so I could do something with this music in me. I wrote a whole bunch of bad ones, then I got a little better and a little better, and eventually, I pitched four songs I was really proud of to a gentleman who used to watch me sing at the club downtown where I worked, Buddy Killen, who had Tree International Publishing. My first cut was a corny country song called “Beers and Tears,” and Carl and Pearl Butler did that as a single, so I was on my way,” Moeller laughed as she explained how she made the transition from singer to writer. Just as her singing career had taken off, so had her writing career. It didn’t take long at all for Moeller to have songs in the hands of Brenda Lee, Faron Young, and Dottie West. Moeller recalls her early years on Music Row as a songwriter with affection, stating: “It was fun because everybody was really nice to me. It was friendly down on Music Row, and it was small. Everybody practically knew everybody.”

Lee, Young, and West were only the start of what would become a successful venture into songwriting for Moeller. “Wanda Jackson ended up doing a song of mine called “Fancy Satin Pillows.” Waylon Jennings cut four of my songs, and Willie Nelson cut a couple.” Willie Nelson would go on to be an important part of the Moeller’s lives and careers, eventually allowing them to relocate to Texas to work with him almost exclusively. “Through the agency, Willie and my husband, Larry, became really good friends. They thought alike and really connected on business and life, and Larry started handling him a lot. The first thing Willie did was invite me to come up to New York and sing background on his first two albums with Atlantic Records. We cut Shotgun Willie and then we did a spiritual album, Trouble Maker. Then whenever we’d go to one of his shows, he’d invite me up to sing harmonies. One thing lead to another, and we moved to Austin because of our association with Willie. I started getting offers to sing, so at that point, I put a band together and started performing again. I hadn’t done it before because my children were teenagers and in high school, but it was time to go back out and do that.”

 

What’s Next for Cinderella Studios

Though the majority of their careers happened separately, Moeller and Moss crossed paths throughout their years and never once lost their affection for one another. Now, going on their first year of marriage, Moeller and Moss can look back on their lives with joy, knowing the rest of their story will be written together. When asked about her favorite song she’s written, Moeller focused on her life with Moss. “My favorite song is usually the last one I’ve written. I’m working on one now called “House of Love,” which is autobiographical. Wayne and I have known each other and been friends since 1960. We dated when we first met, and our lives went another way. We were reunited through a mutual friend a few years ago after my husband passed away and Wayne was divorced. This song is about us.”

Dee Moeller and Wayne Moss

Now Moeller and Moss live and work together at Cinderella Studios, and have recently come back into contact with a fellow Nashville musician’s son, Trey Ackerman. Together the three of them are embarking on a new chapter, and Ackerman has become an integral part of the story. Born to a drummer and a singer, Ackerman was quite literally dropped into the world of country music right from the start. “A couple of years before my mother passed away she wrote me a letter detailing my birth story. My dad was a studio musician here in town, and Mother had gone into labor with me, but dad had a session. She went with him to the studio and agreed that they would go to the hospital after the session was over. Her contractions kept getting closer together in the studio and Dad wouldn’t leave. Finally, when they were about ten minutes apart, she knew she had to go. They had the studio porter drive Mother to the Baptist hospital, and I was born about ten minutes later, so it was an  interesting introduction to the music business for me.”

Willie Ackerman on the WSM radio show with Johnny Cash and Stonewall Jackson.

Ackerman comes from a long line of musicians; his maternal grandmother, mother, and father were all in the industry, and for much of his life he was surrounded by the best musicians and producers—Wayne Moss included—that Nashville had to offer. As he recounted his childhood in and out of the studios, he elaborated on the importance that Cinderella had in his formative years. “My dad was a session drummer, a touring drummer, the staff drummer on the Grand Ole Opry, and staff drummer on the TV show Hee Haw. He was on the road with Little Jimmy Dickens, Bill Anderson, Johnny Cash, Bobby Bare, Ferlin Husky and others. I ran into Ferlin a few years ago, and he told me the story of how dad became a studio musician. He told Dad at the time “Willie, you’re too good to be on the road. You need to be a session musician making records.” My dad said, “No, you hired me, and I’m loyal, so I’m going to stay with you.” So Ferlin fired him. Dad became a session musician after that and worked with Buddy Harmon, who was the first staff drummer on the Grand Ole Opry, for a while. Buddy was so busy with sessions he gave dad the Opry gig. I was fascinated by it all when I was a kid. Dad would take me into the studios, and even here at Cinderella, I’d lay on the floor and listen to mixes and watch these guys cut records. I thought it was normal to have all this talent around. They’d learn a song, and by the third time they played it, it was good enough to be a number one record. I thought that was the way everyone played because that’s all I knew. I didn’t realize growing up that the people surrounding me were the best of the best. I’m not even sure they realized it at the time, but songs and records were coming out of there every few minutes, and that was my musical upbringing.”

Trey Ackerman at a recent Writer’s Round in Nashville.

Ackerman caught the music bug early and began writing poetry by the time he was in fifth grade in hopes of becoming a songwriter himself. Little did he know, it wouldn’t take him very long at all to see that dream recognized. “I had a friend named Arnie Powell who lived just down the street from us. One day I was supposed to spend the night at his house, but I was in the middle of writing a song. I took my guitar down with me, and we finished the song and played it for Arnie’s dad, Max Powell. Max told us it was great and he wanted us to play it for someone, so he got on the phone and held the receiver out while we played the song again. The person on the other end of the line was Webb Pierce. Max managed Webb, and a couple of months after we played him the song, Webb cut it on one of his records.”

Ackerman left Nashville while he was still young, moving back to his mother’s home state of Texas when his parents divorced. Though Ackerman temporarily lost his exposure to Nashville through his father’s work, it wouldn’t take him long to get back into the swing of things when he moved back to Music City after college. “The very first day I got back into town I went to the Ralph Emery show with Dad. Another guy was singing, and after the set, he came up to Dad and told him he needed a drummer. Dad volunteered me, so I had a gig the very first day I got back.” Though Ackerman possesses a natural born talent for music, he treated it as a hobby for many years while he worked in IT and cybersecurity, running radio shows and singing on the side. When his parents passed away, Ackerman knew it was time to make good on a dream of his: to cut a record with his Dad’s friends. “Mom and Dad passed away a few years ago, and I got the bug to do my own thing. I’d always played in other people’s bands, and I wanted to do something more traditionally country with that late 60’s, early 70’s sound. When I’m by myself, and it’s one AM, and it’s just me and the ghosts, that’s what I’m playing. I wanted to do that, and I wanted to do it with my Dad’s friends.”

“I ran into Wayne at a book signing at the Musician’s Hall of Fame, and we reconnected over Facebook. I posted a song that I had recorded with my iPhone, “Autumn Leaves,” and Wayne mentioned that it’d sound better on a U67 mic over at Cinderella Studios. Wayne helped me record a few of my original songs, and I got to know him and Dee really well through the process. Dee sang background vocals, and Wayne produced, and we’ve developed a great friendship and a deep bond. I wanted to start doing some live shows, and I asked Dee if she might be interested in singing with me. I didn’t have an hour or more worth of original pieces I wanted to share, but Dee has some great songs. Now we’re doing it. We’ve got a band, and we’ve written together, and it’s a ton of fun.”

(L to R): Buddy Spicher, Wayne Moss, Trey Ackerman, Lloyd Green and Robert Lucas

Now Moeller and Ackerman are writing together, rehearsing together, and forming a band with students from Belmont College, taught by music professor Tammy Rogers. They’re recording at the studio and planning to gig as soon as they finish their setlist. Moss is still producing some of the most legendary and some of the most promising acts, side by side, at Cinderella Studios. The stories of Cinderella Studios, Dee Moeller, and Wayne Moss are far from over, making it nearly impossible to find an adequate conclusion for this piece. There are certain people you meet and places you visit throughout your life that you leave little pieces of your heart with forever. A piece of mine is still sitting at that kitchen table, listening to Trey strike a chord while their voices blend harmoniously on the newest song they’ll be recording at the end of this month. That is the magic of Cinderella Studios: you go in expecting to do a job and come out having witnessed a life-changing moment.

For more information about Cinderella Studios or to book your recording session, visit the Cinderella Studios website or email Moss. For more information on when and where Trey Ackerman is playing, check out his website.

 

Edited by Morgan Pynn 

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