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VOL. 40 | NO. 53 | Friday, December 30, 2016

MadeFirst hits high note with Nashville's New Year’s drop

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Jonathan Hammel’s “beast” of a musical note is 16 feet tall and weighs in at 300 pounds.

-- Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp.

The fellow who makes sure Nashville’s New Year gets off on a cheerful, multi-colored note wanders across his MadeFirst complex – a 30,000 square-foot office and warehouse – in East Nashville and smiles brightly.

Jonathan Hammel – “I’m my own boss, it’s nice” – has plenty to be happy about.

He and his group of skilled artisans, who create everything from concert stages to theater sets to convention showcases, have been sounding the last musical note of the old year and the first of the New Year in Music City for six years now.

“Well, they (the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp., creators of this annual event that is designed to cheer locals and bait tourists into the city) had this idea of doing something and getting away from the old guitar drop, they came to me and we made this.

“It’s a pretty big deal. It’s a beast,” he says, of the musical note that is 16-feet tall and weighs around 300 pounds. He leads me past a Navy Seals simulation set (that’s being built for the History Channel) and to the massive note as it rests on a platoon of saw horses, ready for the big night.

As I stand here, smelling the paint of the under-construction History Channel set (visitors will use night-vision goggles to negotiate it at the huge Las Vegas CES electronics show), the LED lights cast a red glow. But there are other colors of lights – blue and green – that are mixed and matched to change the note’s complexion variously as it descends.

The note is red when it’s poised at the top of the 145-foot-high scaffolding in preparation for the big celebration. It then turns different colors before it becomes red again and starts flashing as it settles beside a couple of other notes and a massive treble clef that are stationary inside a mammoth musical measure that’s 80 feet from the ground, he explains.

In addition to making the note –stored in this warehouse for 360-some days before it is brought out and its diamond-aluminum frame buffed up for the big night – Jonathan and his troops make sure that the musical measure as well as other lighted parts of the display are ready for their midnight appointment with the city.

The only real change they make – other than routine maintenance – is to update the name/number of the year that is being flashed into existence.

“Makes the old guitar look like a postage stamp,” says this affable New Orleans native who “followed a woman, just the same old story” to Nashville about 10 years ago.

“The girl’s gone now,” he says with a shrug. What remains are his offices and workshop that have expanded from an 8,000-square-foot beginning to 30,000. Since he’s only 35, who knows how big his complex in the Space Park East industrial park will eventually become?

(Another quick Crescent City note from his youth: Jonathan began building things when he was 15 and helped construct the Krewe of Orpheus Mardi Gras float, initiated to a large degree by Harry Connick Jr.)

While that girl he followed to Nashville departed, Music City fully captured his heart. “I live in Inglewood and I’m staying here.

“I like it in Nashville. We can get our product or creations to about half of the country in one day. Only bad thing about Nashville is that the condos are being built everywhere and it has changed the city.

“I like a little grit and reality,” he adds, his comments accompanied by my nodding head. (Whenever someone remarks on the condo-led, politically correct defacing of our city, I like to point that out in this space. After all, in Nashville the more things change, the more they look alike.)

You may recall the old Gibson guitar that was lowered from a scaffold for Nashville’s mini-Times Square Happy New Year hoopla in the first two years after it was initiated by the convention and visitors folks.

After the guitar was lowered, some of Music City’s finest citizens – the folks who give our city that nickname – would pick up their guitars and blast the New Year in right with festive tunes and partying lyrics. Australian hillbilly Keith Urban headlines what will be a full evening of music when he does guitar acrobatics while the fireworks blaze.

That guitar drop on First and Broad, at the head of Nashville’s neon, honky-tonk Disney World (just a sour note from me on the vanishing grit and reality of our town, where, as John Hartford sang “Nobody Eats at Linebaugh’s Anymore” … if that lyric is meaningless to you that’s OK, just read on).

That guitar lasted just a couple of years. Six years ago the convention and visitors’ folks decided it was time for something uniquely Nashville. Now that’s a concept I endorse….

Co-sponsored by the Hard Rock Café, the guitar made perfect sense when this ceremony was first cooked up. Course it really was small, comparatively.

That lighted Gibson-clone’s size simply was too tiny to effectively cap off the New Year’s countdown and celebration by the unexpectedly huge crowds that crammed Lower Broad from the main stage on First all the way to another stage on Fifth.

It was the beginning of Nashville’s leap into the New Year’s Eve party competition, allowing local folks and hotels filled with tourists to celebrate like the big cities do.

Of course, we didn’t have the big crystal ball to lower over Times Square as the late Dick Clark still does for his “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.”

Dick – America’s oldest teenager, the former host of American Bandstand – annually quarterbacked the New York City celebration that is broadcast around the world so folks of all stripes can sing a basically meaningless take on “Auld Lange Syne,” knowing those old acquaintances may well be forgot as soon as the hangover ends and Pasadena’s Tournament of Roses Parade fills the TV screen.

Dick, who was a genuinely nice guy to me on a number of journalistic occasions, died in 2012, after already handing over the broadcast duties to Ryan Seacrest, ubiquitous host of the late, and generally unlamented “American Idol.”

Jonathan Hammel, owner of Nashville-based MadeFirst.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

Ryan seems to turn up at most big national celebrations. (Who knows? He may even dye his hair orange and turn up at D.C.’s TrumpFest 2017 in a few weeks.)

Dick has not attended the Times Square shindig in the years since he died, although his name still is in the title of “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve with Ryan Seacrest.”

(If you are really old and in the way, like this writer, you may remember that Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians used to escort the New Year’s arrival by playing big band dance music in some swanky ballroom. Guy, like Dick Clark, is dead.

Unlike Dick Clark, when Guy Lombardo died, I believe he stopped hosting New Year’s Eve festivities. But I’m getting away from my point here….

Nashville jumped into the New Year’s Eve countdown game eight years ago, according to Deana Ivey, the tourism agency’s chief marketing officer.

She says that while the Gibson guitar certainly was appropriate in what Steve Earle labeled “Guitar Town” (back when he was a slim, young Nashville troubadour), it was relatively small for such a huge gathering. And Nashville wanted to be unique.

“We decided we needed to change that when the Hard Rock started doing the guitar drop in Memphis,” she says, noting that Hard Rock guitar drops could well be occurring in other towns as well.

Deana and her colleagues had no intention of our celebration being confused with the Bluff City’s, so plans were made to make a change.

“We wanted to be authentic to Nashville. We wanted it to be only Nashville. We didn’t want to have the same thing as in some other city,” Deana says.

“We wanted something that would represent all types of music that is produced in Nashville.

“Our creative team got together, but our CEO was the one” who honed in on the red note logo of that same Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp.

(That CEO is Butch Spyridon, of course. I like the guy, but he gets enough publicity, so that’s the only mention of him I’ll have in this column.)

“It is a pretty recognizable symbol,” adds Deana of the massive note.

And in the name of civic booster-ism, the NCVC wanted this new New Year’s symbol to be made right here in Music City.

She reached out to Jonathan – who is acquiring a national reputation at his MadeFirst – and told him of the new idea.

“I designed a couple different ones and this is what they chose,” says Jonathan, dwarfed by the big note, as he stands by it out in the warehouse/workroom/studio of his building.

“With the musical note, we are marketing it to people out of town to come in (for a unique experience) and stay,” Deana says.

“We try to get them to stay for several nights, do the Music City Bowl, the Titans’ game, the New Year’s Eve note drop.”

She says the goal for her agency is simple: To fill hotel rooms, get the tourism biz a jump-start from the Christmas bustle and ho-ho-ho hangover.

“For New Year’s (this year) we have filled like 22,000 hotel rooms and we get a lot of national and international attention.”

In addition to building musical notes, Hammel’s Nashville-based MadeFirst company makes custom items that can’t be purchased off the shelf, including a Navy Seals simulator for the History Channel.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

And she gives a big chunk of the credit to Jonathan and the musical note. “It’s really cool how he designed it.”

For the last few years, the Happy New Year celebration has been at the foot of Lower Broad, which is the place tourists are led to believe is representative of Nashville.

Deana notes that the original guitar drop “was very successful almost immediately. We didn’t expect the crowd we’ve got. It’s pretty incredible how it has grown.”

That popularity has increased steadily and now the descending note and accompanying fireworks signal either the bitter end or a fresh start for the city.

Deana says that about 180,000 people elbow-to-elbowed it in the lower five blocks of Broadway for the note drop last year.

This year the drop will take place at a more family-friendly and more spacious Bicentennial Mall, and at the conclusion fireworks will be going off around the Capitol, which dominates the park’s horizon.

“It’s definitely going to be a different sight this year,” says Jonathan, his eyes glistening in anticipation.

Deana doesn’t expect the new location to have much impact on Lower Broad and its biggest honky-tonk night. The steel guitars and 1980s-style pop music that passes for today’s country will continue wailing from every available saloon door.

“Lower Broadway will still be full,” Deana points out, adding that there will be shuttles from Commerce Street, at the Renaissance, on Fifth, to the mall and there will be specially designated Uber and taxi drop-off/pick-up lanes.

Jonathan is happy to talk about the new era that began when the old guitar was cast off, and he took over the New Year’s Eve celebration with the music note that changes from red to blue to green to pink and then flashes red when the countdown ends.

“It took us about three weeks to build everything that goes with it. The note itself got a week-and-a-half. And then there was so much LED wiring that had to be done.”

Even though it is moving to the Bicentennial Mall this year, Jonathan says the process is pretty much the same.

“The massive note attaches to a track built on the scaffolding tower. Another company – Five Points Rigging – pushes the button to make it come down,” he adds.

The main thing that worries him is pretty obvious, as it is the bane of all outdoor events.

“We always track the weather. See if it’s gonna be a pain in the ass, if it’s going to be cold, wet icy… Cold you can deal with. Rain makes it dangerous,” making it difficult for Jonathan’s artisans to keep sound footing.

And then there’s the wind that can provide woes when the note is raised by chains and guide ropes to the top of the scaffold.

The wind ceases to be a threat once the note is anchored to its spot in the track on the scaffold.

Jonathan is pleased with the reaction to his 300-pound note and its once-a-year visit to the city’s New Year’s celebration.

“It’s gotten so damn popular. And it feels good to be mentioned for it.

“What makes my guys proud, at least, is that it’s important for local folks to know this stuff is built right here in town.”

For the record, while it takes about a day-and-a-half to do the set-up, it takes six hours to bring the note down and take it back to East Nashville for the next 360-some days.

Then Jonathan and his guys will return to their task, building display booths for the History Channel and for others.

“We’re building a kiosk for Music City Brewing Company to have out at the airport. And we’re getting ready to build a 20-foot fake tree that’s lighted inside for a church. It’s for the kids to go inside and play.”

He takes great pride in his unofficial company mantra: “We make shit you can’t buy.”

Like a 16-foot-tall, 300-pound, lighted music note that dominates the city’s New Year’s Eve festivities and can’t help but be a bit of flashy advertising for a city … and for Jonathan’s company.

“I think without a doubt over the last six years it has led to other jobs I have now,” Jonathan says.

“It’s got a lot of eyeballs on that thing. It’s pretty cool to see people enjoy it.

“It’s very cool, man.”

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