Their latest album, Tiny Televisions, comes with a book they published called Hidden History of Music Row, which like the album, explores the lost history of Nashville. It may be the first time that musicians wrote a work of nonfiction to go with an album.
Both Elkins and Olivarez were part of the music industry long before forming Granville Automatic. Elkins played with a band called The Swear and won Grand Prize in the John Lennon Songwriting Contest in 2003. Olivarez made it deep into the second season of American Idol and had her song "The One" reach #9 in the Canadian chart in 2003. Singularly and as a pair they have written songs for Sugarland, Billy Currington, Kira Isabella, Angaleena Presley, and others. They've also placed music on Smallville, Jersey Shore, Mean Girls 2, and Rescue Me.
As Granville Automatic, the ladies specialize in historical story songs. In that way, they are tailor-made for a Songfacts interview. They literally (in the literal sense of the word literally) don't have a single tune that doesn't have a rich backstory.
Vanessa Olivarez: Well, I love old things, and one of my favorite old things is the typewriter. A long time ago, we were trying to figure out what this band was, what the sound was, and to try to find a name to really match that sound. So we thought, "Okay, since we love antiques, let's think of something old." And when we were thinking of old things, I was like, "What about a typewriter?"
So Elizabeth started looking up a bunch of different typewriters. When Granville Automatic came up, we thought it was a pretty good band name. So we stuck to that.
Songfacts: So you actively went seeking the name of a typewriter?
Olivarez: Yeah. Blickensderfer isn't really a great band name, so we thought Granville Automatic was the way to go. It was actually a really big failure.
Songfacts: The typewriter was?
Elizabeth Elkins: Yeah, the Granville Automatic typewriter was the very first automatic typewriter. It was made by a guy in Rhode Island, and he didn't make very many of them. So if you come across one now, they're worth thousands of dollars.
We've never even seen one. So now they're very, very valuable. But at the time, I think they were a little too ornate, and they weren't easy to use, so they didn't end up taking off as a commodity.
Songfacts: How did the two of you meet and how did you realize you shared a mutual interest in history?
Elkins: We were both in the music scene in Atlanta, Georgia. I think we met some time around 2002 or 2003, probably at a venue. I think it was Park Tavern, which used to have a radio station-sponsored concert series. I was in the rock scene, and Vanessa was more in country. We maybe said hello to each other a few times, then in 2009, my rock band was taking a break. One of the guys was having kids, which slows your rock band roll down a little, and Vanessa's band had just broken up. I was coming to Nashville to write a little bit, and I'm not a country singer at all. People told me that if I wanted someone who could sing the heck out of some country songs, they had a contact.
I called her and said, "Hey, would love for you to sing some demos for me that I've been writing, and what do you think about co-writing?" I had just started co-writing at the time.
We got together to write and ended up with something like a once-a-week writing appointment and found we worked pretty well together and ended up writing a number of songs. That went on for a few months, and we thought we really should start a band.
Olivarez: And thus, the love/hate relationship began.
Elkins: I think it was Vanessa's idea originally.
You know, when coming from a rock band, you kind of write variations of the same song over and over again. We really wanted to focus on story songs, which started bringing in stories from history. I still think of us as a story band.
Olivarez: For a while we were thought of as a Civil War band.
Songfacts: That's a pretty narrow niche to get stuck in.
Olivarez: Yeah, we'd done one album that had a few songs on it that were loosely based on the Civil War. Then the second album we put out was a Civil War-themed album, so I understand where people gathered that information, but it is incorrect.
Elkins: It's always been about the stories, and the stories could have happened last week or they could have happened 400 years ago. To me it's about telling other stories, and it's been really liberating as a songwriter to try. I laugh because now Taylor Swift is doing it, but that's always been our approach.
Songfacts: I think it was an interview in the Tennessean where you mentioned that you saw spots around Nashville being torn down and you thought it was sad that all this history was going to be gone. I was intrigued by that because I would think that a place like Nashville would make a real effort to preserve its history because it's one of the most culturally significant cities in the country, but I guess that's not the case.
Elkins: No, it's not at all. I work with Historic Nashville, which is a nonprofit group, and we do try to save spaces and buildings that are at risk. I'm not from here, and neither is Vanessa, but I would say as far as legislation, tax incentives and the general government approach to historic preservation here, it's not good at all.
You know, we should be more like Charleston or Savannah or Austin. Especially with the growth before the pandemic, they're becoming kind of a new Las Vegas here.
I think people are starting to think about it and I see some changes happening. Music Row is a great example. We're talking about 550 some-odd buildings that were historic-register eligible a decade ago, and 25 percent of them have been lost in this last 10 years. It's a very money-driven town. That's the music industry too.
We've been inspired by the things that happened in places that you don't know about, often because you don't see where they happened. That started in Atlanta, driving over certain roads over and over again, in particular the road between our two houses, Moreland Avenue. It's where the Battle of Atlanta happened, and now it's Targets and grocery stores and shopping centers, and it's not a space where you think about the tragedy that happened there. What started the idea for us is these places that have disappeared since when we first moved to Nashville.
Olivarez: When we first moved to Nashville, there was a charm to it that Atlanta didn't have because it had gotten so big, and Nashville is sort of becoming that now. It's been interesting to watch it over the last 10 years.
Elkins: Yeah, we've been coming here for 10 years and it feels like an entirely different city in that span.
Songfacts: Let's talk about the title track to your new album, Tiny Televisions.
A friend of ours named Steve Armistead restored the building into what would become Sony Music and BMG Music over the years. When the building had been sold, he walked in to take a look and see how it would be restored. He walked into the chapel where the nuns held service. The chapel was really beautiful and full of old folks sitting in chairs, sitting on the floor, propped against the wall, watching tiny televisions. It was kind of like One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, and he actually felt that he was doing a favor to everyone by the fact that that was closing down.
So this chapel where this kind of bizarre scene was unfolding was for a long time a spot where country music #1 songwriters would have parties. So when he said "tiny televisions," the image really stuck with us. That's why we decided to write from the perspective of someone who is sitting there staring at that TV in the middle of the century, watching all these huge, tumultuous events unfold and really not registering everything. It was a real stark image to us.
We wrote it with our friend Matt Nolan, who is a very talented guitar and piano player, and it kind of wrote itself really quickly in a couple of hours. Right Vanessa?
Olivarez: Oh, yeah, it was very, very quick. As soon as Matt started that guitar, I knew it was going to be a special song. And the image of the residents committing suicide from the fourth floor window was immediately what came to mind. That line came together very quickly, and the rest just sort of fell into place.
Elkins: Yeah, it's one of our favorites. I think both of us agree. It's probably in the top one or two or three of our songs we've ever written that way.
Songfacts: Something about the fact that it's a chapel makes the whole thing even more eerie.
Elkins: Yeah, they had the #1 parties there, and now Sony sold the building. I can imagine many, many hit songs were written in the building, but it's now owned by Vanderbilt University.
Olivarez: Overall, I feel like our desired effect was this song that felt as eerie as that image makes you feel. And I feel like we kind of slayed it.
I was very proud of the way that song came out. It's very different from a lot of our stuff in the past, but our songs have taken on many different shapes over the years. This album, to me, felt very freeform and we didn't have to necessarily be like a "country band," because I think we're an Americana band. We have hints of folk, hints of country, we have a sense of rock because of Elkins's background. I was very proud of the way that song came out in particular.
Elkins: I wanted it to feel like the first time I saw Pink Floyd's The Wall, which kind of freaked me out a little the first time I saw it. Those lyrics and melodies really capture that sense, and I think all of us in the room were right on the same page on it.
Songfacts: A Granville track that I discovered was "Monsters In The Stars." Could you talk about that one?
Olivarez: We had been wanting to write with a very successful writer in town for many, many years, and we were blessed with the opportunity that very few people in town get, which was to write with Mr. Tom Douglas. We presented him with many, many different ideas and topics.
Elkins: We came in so prepared for that.
Olivarez: Yeah, like extra prepared.
So we had a ton of different ideas because co-writing for this album was very different than co-writing for your typical album. I think Tom was a little taken aback about how to approach it and how to do it, because it is a very different experience.
When we presented him with all the ideas, he was most intrigued by our idea about the Trail of Tears.
Elkins: This one was tricky because Vanessa and I both write by ourselves all the time. We write on each other's stuff, and we collaborate. I'm not comparing us to them, but it's more of a Lennon/McCartney approach. It's the way we work together.
Bringing a third person in the room is really tricky and different and interesting, and we really wanted to see what Tom's brain would do in this situation. You know, you're nervous when you're writing with someone like that, but Tom wanted to do something about the Trail of Tears, and we wanted to be careful about what perspective we were writing from. It's such a huge part of American history that people don't talk about.
So we were very careful to figure out our approach to this song. We talked and talked for a while, and he came up with this gorgeous chorus melody - this really beautiful, emotionally moving chorus melody that really fit that reflective moment of this Cherokee or Cree woman walking across the Cumberland River Bridge on her way to Oklahoma, leaving from the Cherokee lands in the Appalachian Mountains. I think the melody really did a good job of getting across that loss and sadness and unknowing.
Olivarez: His melody really helped the song spring into place.
Songfacts: So I assume that's a highlight in your career, working with Tom.
Elkins: I would call it a learning moment. In many ways.
Olivarez: Yes, I think that's an accurate depiction of that experience.
Songfacts: And this was the only track that he worked on?
Songfacts: Did he contribute to the lyrics?
Elkins: The verse lyrics are more me and Vanessa. The chorus was more collaborative between all of us.
Olivarez: The chorus was a lot of him, honestly. He had that beautiful melody, and he was mumbling most of it. He's just a great writer.
Songfacts: How about "Hell's Half Acre?"
Elkins: Before Tiny Televisions was an album called Radio Hymns. It's 13 tracks and it's Nashville lost history as well. There were several songs when we were working on that one. We knew we wanted to write about those things, but they didn't end up getting finished.
Olivarez: You know, there's always stuff that you don't get to, and those become B-sides. We always have ideas on the back burner. I mean, hell, we've got, what, five albums on the back burner?
Elkins: This was one that we both loved.
On Capitol Hill in Nashville, where the Capitol building sits, it used to be a very vibrant neighborhood with architecture that would remind you of Society Hill in Philadelphia, with beautiful federal-style buildings and row houses, but it was also a slum. Parts of it were a very crime-ridden slum.
It was both an African American neighborhood and a gay neighborhood. It was very creative, a lot of music. But by the time this mid-20th Century role to progress and complications of the civil rights movement and segregation started happening, the decision was made to tear it all down.
It's just like they did under the arch in Saint Louis. It's all got to go. We're just going to raze it to the ground.
So all of those buildings were completely taken down. All the churches, all the homes, with part of the argument that they can't run sewer lines into the bedrock. I don't know how much I believe that, but it was all razed. It's now Bicentennial Park around the Capitol.
It had always been a dangerous area. There was a main thoroughfare called Lime Street that we reference in the lyric, and it was renamed Joe Johnson in 1900 to try to rebrand the area because it was so dangerous, even in 1900. I think it could have been one of the most interesting neighborhoods in Nashville, architecturally, but it's gone.
So this was one of those things where I had an opening line and then I had no idea where to go with this.
Olivarez: Yeah. The guy that we wrote this with, he's just a super guitar genius and had this beautiful lick he played over and over again while we sat around the table, and I don't think he was intending it to be for us in the least. But I kept hearing it, and I said, "Wait, play that again." And I had this melody in my head almost immediately for the chorus.
Elkins: I feel like there was a chord pattern with the verses and a sketch of lyrics, and then magically they all fit. Vanessa, you're really good at describing it. You recently were talking about how this song is a metaphor that works perfectly for a relationship.
Olivarez: Right, how when a relationship is shiny and new and you're excited about a new person and the newness of them. How when that wears off and the shine is gone, you tend to want to leave. You don't want to fight when things get old. That's where the idea for the chorus came from, and the metaphor.
Elkins: We listened back to this after mixing and after the record was out and both of us thought, "Whoa, we really like this song."
Obviously we can't tour right now, but the idea of opening a set with this song makes so much sense to me because it encapsulates a lot of what we write about. You move on past these stories and past these places, and it's easier to move on and just forget. It takes some courage and bravery sometimes to look at something that's broken and see what it could be.
I think this song really hits that, and it kind of sums up this sense that "that's what happens, babe." When things get old, you just throw them away, even if they're beautiful and vibrant and the greatest thing you've ever seen or felt. Well, it's tarnished now. Parts are broken. Now there's crime and the streets have cracks. Let's just move on to the next thing. I think both Vanessa and I don't believe you should do that all the time.
Songfacts: I love the line in that song, "The trick of mud and water is how deep you sleep."
Elkins: Yeah, sometimes I just play through these songs on my own, since I'm not the one singing them. It helps me play them better if I just run through singing on my own time, and I was singing that bridge and thought, "Wow, this bridge is wildly weird lyrically, but I get it."
I have no idea where that came from. It may have been something that just fell into place. I don't remember how that bridge happened. Vanessa, was it you?
Olivarez: No, but "the trick of mud and water is how deep you sleep" is the most Swear line I've ever heard in my life.
Elkins: My old rock band was called The Swear. Was it really me?
Olivarez: That is definitely you.
Elkins: But "plow me over, keep burying me" is you.
Olivarez: Yes, that's me.
Elkins: Okay, well, there you go. There's a bridge that's truly Elizabeth and Vanessa right there.
Songfacts: How about "Opryland?"
Elkins: That's a weird one. The honorary third member of Granville Automatic is a woman named Beth Dick-Olds.
Olivarez: Bethany is the best person in the land. She makes the most delicious bagels.
Elkins: Yeah, Bethany is a professional fiddle player. She played with Pam Tillis for a long time. She's an extraordinary singer. She and Vanessa have an incredible vocal blend.
Olivarez: We love playing with Bethany so much. One of my favorite voices.
Elkins: Weirdly, we'd written with her for other things. We had not written with her for Granville, and so we thought, "You know what, we really need to write a song together." She brought this idea of Dottie West.
Dottie was a country star, an opry star in the '70s and '80s. I didn't know a lot about her. She was killed in a car accident, and it was sort of a strange story.
She was late to her performance at the opry house for the Grand Ole Opry. One night, her car broke down around the far side of Nashville, and she called her friend. It was this older guy. I think he was 75 or 80 years old at the time, named George.
George said, "I'll come get you, I'll get you there on time." He had been drinking a little bit, and they kind of flew across town. The exit you take to get to where the Grand Ole Opry is now used to have a huge amusement park beside it called Opryland. It's now Opry Mills mall. But it was this big amusement park, and this exit you take off the freeway to get there is a big winding curve. He took it too fast in the car and literally flew almost 200 feet in the air.
He didn't really get injured, and she thought she was fine. I don't know if she performed that night, but she ended up dying four days later. She had massive internal bleeding.
Olivarez: Yeah, this is an interesting twist.
Elkins: So we're writing this with Bethany and, of course, we're looking up all the details and looking at newspaper accounts, and we realized this happened on August 30th, 1991, and I looked down at my computer and realize it's August 30th 2019.
Those kinds of things happen to us in Granville so much. I feel like sometimes stories want to be told. We got goose bumps thinking, "My gosh, this happened exactly 28 years ago." This, and Bethany lives near where it happened.
So I think it's a parallel, lyrically, about the lengths that people go to be in that circle at the Opry. The drugs, the deception, the sex, drugs, and rock and roll - and this end goal. Vanessa and I have both been through it, where people will do anything to get to the Opry. They stab each other in the back and they'll lie and cheat and steal just to be on the Grand Ole Opry. So I think we did it as a parallel a bit too.
It's kind of a metaphor for how you disregard things that you shouldn't do in order for success in the music industry.
Olivarez: Yeah, I do it every day.
Elkins: You know, proud music industry veteran here, so you can see the danger of it that you can't stop 100 percent. I think that's the metaphor summed up perfectly. I don't know how many times I thought, "Do I really want to do this for the sake of my music career? Is this worth it? Is this the right choice? Should we take this gig?"
Songfacts: How about "Ice Cream"?
Elkins: "Ice Cream" is another one like "Hell's Half Acre" that we'd had the story for a while. I think I read about it somewhere. And just on a totally light note, Vanessa loves ice cream. I feel like when we're on tour we're often trying to find the best ice cream shop in town.
But this story was just really compelling. It's about a woman named Sarah Estell, and she had an ice cream shop in downtown Nashville, I think, from around the mid-1830s to right before the Civil War, and she was very popular. She would cater to all the big church events or political events, stuff for the police and firemen.
The interesting twist in the story is that she was Black, which not only was rare, there were also very few free African Americans in Nashville prior to the war. She was a woman who was free and who owned her own business, making it unique. I think she's probably one of the first to do so.
Then there's the interesting twist. That friend of mine, who's a very detailed historian far better than I am, found a record that she owned her husband.
Olivarez: Yeah, which is super interesting.
Elkins: She thinks the reason for that was so no one else could buy him. So we kind of wrote this as something similar to "Hell's Half Acre"and "Opryland." It's just this, "Oh, it's cool when I'm catering your party, but there's a real darkness to the story here."
It's always tricky telling perspectives that you haven't lived through.
Olivarez: We just tried to imagine ourselves into her experience.
Elkins: Yeah, and I really love some of the lyrics. Ice cream is something we think of with such joy, and it brings joy to children and brings joy to people. It's sugar. People like it. But to know that there could be something so much sadder and darker behind that was really the heart of what we wanted to convey.
Musically, that's definitely a departure from what we've done. This sort of swing and the vibe is very different than our other songs.
Olivarez: For some reason, the piano intro really reminds me a little of Dick Tracy. I don't know why, it comes to mind every single time.
I also should note that a lot of the reason that this album, in particular the piano on this album, is so special is because the guy who played it, whose name is John Lancaster, this was actually the last thing he played on because he passed this year, which is just so terrible.
But I'm so glad that we were able to have him on this record, and I really feel like this record honors his abilities because we allowed him to get creative and do whatever the hell he wanted. In most sessions, he'd probably been told to pretty much stay out of the way, so I was just really glad to be able to showcase him.
Elkins: John and Vanessa had been friends back in Atlanta for a long time. Both as a session guy and touring musician professionally.
Another thing that was unique about this record overall is the band we put together on Radio Hymns. We started producing our own records, which has worked out well. It's really expanded our sound in a cool way, and it lets us both play to our strengths and to know when to get out of the way on our weaknesses.
But the drummer on the whole record is the guy [Kent Aberle] from my rock band. So you have a really different drumming approach than maybe a Nashville guy would have, and having John play keys with his history with Vanessa. Then, of course, Bethany's on every album. Hopefully, she always will be.
But the guy that played steel is not a pro session guy. He should be and probably will be, but he's this guy that takes these risks and chances and is kind of a wild man with it, and I think it's cool.
Olivarez: Yes, it was.
Elkins: It was a cool combination of players on this record in a really interesting combination of people. Two guys, Mike Rinne on bass and Justin Ostrander, are the best top-level Nashville professionals. They're extraordinarily gifted. Them, combined with some outsiders, I think really made a cool sound.
Songfacts: How about "Getaway Car"?
Olivarez: That was another one that we wanted to write for the last album that we put out. I had this idea and the title and the concept for a really long time, and it got pushed to the side or overlooked for some other reason or other. I'm a firm believer that if something isn't done and it hasn't come to fruition, then it wasn't meant to happen yet. So we ended up waiting and putting it on this record, and I'm so glad we did.
But it's all about the story of the Frost Building on Music Row and Waylon Jennings' escape from his drug charges. It's a super interesting song, and I love that it feels very outlaw country when you listen to it. That part makes me happy.
Elkins: She had the chorus for a while back when we were making the Radio Hymns record, and I thought it was such a cool approach. You know, this moment of wondering what Waylon Jennings was thinking when he's flushing the drugs down the toilet on 17th Avenue.
It's just fun, you know, just '70s country-disco fun. You know, we don't do uptempo as much as we probably should.
Olivarez: Well, Elkins hates a train beat.
We were lucky enough to record this at Blackbird Studio in Nashville, which has the most amazing sounding studio and also has the best people. With our band being so diverse, I felt like we could throw anything at them and they would just run with it.
So my initial idea, because I know Elkins just absolutely loathes the train beat and would kill me if I did that, was, "What if we take it disco, what if Kent rolls on that hi-hat a little bit more and we really pick up that upswing?" It ended up being the perfect approach, because again it felt like '70s disco-inspired outlaw country.
Elkins: We originally planned to have a very long, '70s-style fade-out at the end of it, but in the mix, I think we forgot about it. So now it just ends, but it was supposed to have one of those "is this song still going?" kind of fades.
Songfacts: You both seem to have a few projects going on at all times. Is Granville your primary?
Elkins: Well, I think our primary focus since we first started writing together has been songwriting and the art of songwriting. So we've always both had side projects. You know, I still play with my rock band. Vanessa has an awesome group called Boys Club For Girls that she works with. It's more of a Fleetwood Mac kind of thing, but this is the band that we come back to every time.
It's the one that led to a book deal and a second book deal, and it led to a publishing deal on Music Row. We have five albums out, and as mid-level touring artists and songwriters you kind of become a freelancer in a sense, to get enough income to keep going.
But it's a writing partnership that has proven it's a different twist every time we look at it. I think we're both pretty committed to it as a project that does what it does and keeps opening up new weird doors that we never think we're going to go down.
Olivarez: Yeah, it's usually not musical doors. Typically, it's someone saying, "Hey, do you want to write this book? Okay, I want you guys to be the new faces and voices of my podcast." That's a new thing that we're doing now. It's always really, really interesting the opportunities that we are handed as a band versus other bands because it's definitely not anything that anyone else would be, and it's very, very strange opportunities. I'm very grateful for that.
Songfacts: Any other projects coming up or anything that you would like to discuss?
Elkins: We released the book The Hidden History of Music Row in conjunction with Tiny Televisions. It's a history book available worldwide in bookstores. We wrote it with our friend Brian Allison, who actually is a professional historian. His father was a famous producer and songwriter, so he grew up with people like Patsy Cline around the dinner table. He has an incredible point of view in his chapters.
Songfacts: Vanessa, before Granville, you had a #9 single on the Canadian charts with "The One." Can you talk about that a bit?
Olivarez: There was a guy named James Collins and a guy named Dave Pickell who got in touch with me after I was on American Idol. They asked if I wanted to come to Canada. I recorded a couple of songs with them in the same weekend and then did a little radio tour to try to be Canada-famous. They had a lot of legs in the adult-contemporary world, so they really wanted to take it and lean it in that direction, which was maybe not my preferred direction at the time. But I was like, "Whatever. You know, let's shoot for something and see what we get."
So we wrote the song in Vancouver and recorded it the same day. We wrote two songs, that one and another one, and it ended up doing okay. I guess that's something better than nothing.
Songfacts: Elizabeth, you won the John Lennon songwriting contest, correct?
Elkins: I did.
Songfacts: Could you just tell a quick story about that?
Elkins: I won it in the year 2003 with a rock song called "Deception Bay," which is an actual city in Australia. I just thought it was a cool place name. And of course, I would write very obtuse lyrics with Swear.
It was a cool moment. It happened on a week when I thought I was done with music. I was looking into other options for a career, like education. I remember getting the phone call about that and thinking, "Okay, I'm not done with music yet." So it was very cool. Met some awesome people through it.
Songfacts: And the two of you write for other artists as well.
Elkins: Yeah. We have a Top 30 Billboard hit with Billy Currington, "Drinkin' Town With a Football Problem." We have a Top 10 in Canada for Kira Isabella. Vanessa has a song on Angaleena Presley's last record. She wrote a bunch of stuff for Wanda Jackson. Vanessa has a Sugarland cut as well on their Enjoy The Ride record.
So yeah, professionally, that's where there is potentially a way to make a living as a songwriter. We both wrote professionally for BMG for a few years and that was based on not only supporting Granville Automatic and our artist career, but also writing for mainstream country and Americana artists, which we've both done extensively.
So I think between the two of us, we probably have songs with 70 to 80 outside artists. Some of those are repeats of artists cutting different songs.
Songfacts: So did the freelance writing lead to Granville or vice versa?
Elkins: Granville led us to doing that professionally. Writing together is how we got our professional publishing deal, even though it was for the Billy Currington song. We got together with the co-writers on that to write a history song for Granville Automatic, and we ended up writing Billy Currington songs. So it has been the weird connector.
January 15, 2020
photos: Alexandra Arielle
- 1] Official name: Little Sisters of the Poor Home (back)
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