When Leon Bridges stepped into the dusty, unused Supreme Golf Warehouse space not far from downtown Fort Worth nearly two years ago — with a sheaf of soulful songs and a willing cohort of local musicians at the ready — Niles City Sound was little more than a notion.
As the music made that summer and fall atop 13,000 square feet of cement blossomed into what would become Bridges’ Grammy-nominated major-label debut, Coming Home, Niles City Sound was likewise coalescing, shifting from abstract concept to concrete reality.
The hastily assembled recording studio — which now occupies a more finished room inside the Supreme Golf Warehouse complex, just steps from where Coming Home was cut in the heat of a Texas summer and a stone’s throw from hip watering hole Shipping & Receiving — will prove a powerful draw for locals and visitors alike. Undoubtedly, it will attract at least a few hopefuls interested in finding their own Home.
On that point, it is important to note that Bridges begat Niles City Sound no more than Niles City Sound begat Bridges.
As happens with sudden, swift ascents from obscurity to ubiquity, much of Bridges’ rise to fame has hardened from anecdote into myth.
While Niles City Sound was very much a key component of Bridges’ creative journey from open-mike wunderkind to White House guest of honor, the three men behind the space — Austin Jenkins, Josh Block and Chris Vivion — fully intend to build a protective ecosystem for local creatives.
They want to build something that not only helped launch a rising star, but will continue to thrive and expand without its fortunes necessarily tied to those of Bridges.
They envision a place where, theoretically, any conceivable artistic need can be satisfied and do it in a city that has long nurtured a seemingly bottomless reservoir of musical talent.
What has happened thus far is more than anyone associated with Niles City Sound even dared dream.
What is most exciting is that what is to come could even eclipse that.
Past is prologue
Josh Block is seated inside the cozy Niles City Sound control room. It’s a flight of stairs above a room stuffed to the walls with musical instruments, amplifiers and microphones — gleaming guitars, a drum kit and a hundred-year-old piano, to name just a few — and outfitted with enormous sliding fabric panels that can be used to alter the sonic vibrancy of the space.
In just a few hours, Bridges will take to Shipping & Receiving’s outdoor stage on a hot June evening for his first ticketed performance in his adopted home town since the Coming Home whirlwind began a year earlier.
The mood in the control room is one of restrained joy, mindful of the past, relishing the present and already looking ahead, to the future.
But first, the backward glance.
Said Block, a crisp cowboy hat atop his long brown hair: “This isn’t what we were going to do at all.”
“This” was originally meant to be something else entirely — a throwback proposition steeped in the musical history of North Texas, but updated for the 21st century.
In the spirit of long-ago showcases like Big D Jamboree or even Louisiana Hayride, which were performed live and broadcast on the radio to millions of listeners in the 1940s and 1950s, Block and Jenkins hoped to restore the spirit of discovery such programs fostered. They would also provide a platform for as-yet-unknown musicians to be heard.
“We wanted to basically buy time on a radio station and break acts and then start to try to book touring acts and have them come in and do what you’d refer to as ‘exclusive content,’ ” Jenkins said. “The idea behind it was that [musicians] would play their tunes, but with our instruments and tracked the way that we liked it — imagine Sun or RCA Records.
“We just figured there was so much Texas music, and so much culture, and so many people that might be interested in tuning in.”
Block, Jenkins and Vivion sought a space flexible enough to acommodate their vision somewhere in Fort Worth.
They weren’t having much luck until they happened to cross paths with Eddie Vanston, owner of the Supreme Golf Warehouse complex and proprietor of Shipping & Receiving, who agreed to let the Niles City Sound brain trust rent some room. (Block and Jenkins, both former members of Austin indie rock outfit White Denim, left that band in 2015 to focus on building Niles City Sound and working with Bridges.)
“He was like, ‘What are you doing in here?’ ” Jenkins recalled. “I said, ‘Well, we’ve got a guy that we met, and we’re excited about recording his music, and I’m just going to invite some friends in and we’re going to set up all the necessities to make a recording out of the gear that we had.’ We kind of just went from there.”
Vivion, who serves as Niles City Sound’s director of operations, remembers the decidedly lo-fi beginnings, and taming the 13,000-square-foot space with U-Haul blankets and Block’s substantial collection of vintage recording gear (including a tape machine employed by the Grateful Dead to record its concerts).
“We had folding tables that worked as a console desk and stuff like that,” Vivion said. “It was fun. We had people ducking their head in from the hallway because they heard music and thought, ‘What the hell is going on in there?’ There’s always people coming and going.
“It was really cool, low-key; it just had a very no-stress feel. … It got us to the point where we had a moment to really focus on building something more permanent.”
As for what that “permanent” Niles City Sound will encompass, Jenkins, Block and Vivion — who demur on specifics, as the exact dimensions of what Niles City Sound will ultimately entail are still very much in flux — envision filling in more of the Supreme Golf Warehouse space.
Right now, the sprawling, musty and junk-filled space where Coming Home was cut sits empty, directly adjacent to the finished studio space. The goal is to create a kind of Brill Building in miniature.
“We’d like to push forward into an expansion kind of thing,” Jenkins said. “The idea behind this specific room … is that we’ve got enough space on the floor that you can have a band down there to play all together and capture what it is to do a live performance. … It’s supposed to be a large-scale recording studio, the kind that you’re just not really supposed to build anymore unless you’re crazy.”
“Then the idea grew,” Block continued. “It would be nice to have some spaces involved that some of the local writers … we noticed Fort Worth had a really good writing scene. … It would be nice to have space for writers to do their work in peace.
“I’ve talked to a couple of songwriters from the area that always complained, ‘I can’t really get together and play with people because I’ve got neighbors or I don’t have anywhere peaceful to go.’ It would just be nice to have that and bring people from out of town to come spend time with Fort Worth writers as well.”
There is also the matter of Coming Home and its unexpected success.
While Block, Jenkins and Vivion readily acknowledge being captivated by Bridges’ raw talent in those early, makeshift days, none of the men anticipated what would happen when Bridges not only signed with Columbia Records in late 2014, but then went on to become a Grammy-nominated sensation.
The gravitational pull of so much attention in such a short span of time could, theoretically, yank Niles City Sound away from its intended path forward.
If not for Bridges, there is every chance that Niles City would be just like the dozens of other studio spaces across North Texas, steadily working with a host of musicians and turning out record after record, an unseen but vital cog in the machine of musical production.
Viewed from a different angle, the startling visibility afforded by Coming Home could prove beneficial — a surprising but welcome injection of rocket fuel for ambitious goals.
“Maybe we just go with the changes that have already happened,” Block said. “We wanted a radio studio. We ended up with a full-blown tracking studio. We just wanted to make a record for Leon to sell at his shows.
“It ended up putting him in touch with a lot of aspects of the music business and then that launched. It seems like we’re naturally working in that direction as it is, like a funnel.”
All of that is still yet to come. For now, Jenkins, Block and Vivion must disperse, attending to the evening’s guest list, greeting friends and collaborators and settling in for Bridges’ performance.
Just as an empty warehouse turned into something far beyond their wildest dreams, the men behind Niles City Sound will be happy to take musicians anywhere they want to go, helping the talented turn ideas into songs.
A friendly word of advice, however: Don’t turn up at Niles City Sound expecting to walk away with your own version of Leon Bridges’ Coming Home.
“That was just one way to represent what he was up to at that point,” Jenkins said. “It’s funny, because I’m not sure we can actually give the treatment [we gave Leon] that we give to everyone. In some sense, it would be really interesting to try.”
Block chips in: “We’d have to hire that band and get Leon to write their songs. I think he just basically said, ‘It’s not you, it’s us.’ ”