Academy Drive flies under the radar. Pulling in to a massive parking area behind the exclusive St. Cecilia Hotel, right off of the bustling South Congress Avenue, it’s hard to imagine that the sprawling office building on the edge of the lot could once have been a hotbed of the hybrid hippie-cowboy crowd that has long defined Austin’s music scene.
But when Willie Nelson purchased the land in 1977 - at the time, it was the Terrace Motor Hotel and Convention Center - the space quickly became exactly that. Willie booked himself for the first week straight, and later opened the stage to artists including Stevie Ray Vaughn, Muddy Waters, Bonnie Raitt, and Tom Waits, to name a few.
Today, far beyond the days of the Opry, the music culture bred here lives on in a nondescript substructure at the end of the lot. This is Arlyn Studios.
In 1984 Freddy Fletcher, a musician who had been touring with the likes of Billy Joe Shaver and Guy Clark, was ready to change his tune: “I was living in Nashville, about to leave music and trying to get into the bottled water business,” Freddy says. “I came to Austin to spend Christmas with my family, and [my uncle] Willie talked me into opening a studio on the Opry property.”
Having worked countless hours in studios nationwide, Freddy “just jumped off a cliff and opened Arlyn”, named for his late father. Arlyn “Bud” Fletcher “got my mom [Bobbie Nelson] and Willie out of playing in the church and promoted them. He was kind of their band leader back in the day. I wanted to pay tribute to him.”
Arlyn quickly became the premier recording facility in Austin. Fletcher references Bonnie Raitt’s hit album, Nick Of Time, as the studio’s first major record. The early years saw artists including Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, Kris Kristofferson, and Neil Young producing projects. Later, in 1996, Sublime recorded their final and arguably most impactful album, the eponymous Sublime.
By 2000 Freddy and his partner Lisa Fletcher had been running Nelson’s Pedernales Studios in addition to Arlyn. “Having two studios is a lot to manage,” Freddy says. “And we had this offer...from a recording school who wanted to book us out. That ended up going on for years. And eventually, we wanted the studio back. We wanted Austin to reclaim a great recording space.”
The Fletchers brought on two young partners and got to work reviving Arlyn. The first order of business was crafting a one-of-a-kind custom recording console out of two vintage consoles that Freddy owned. “Any gear lover would know, this had never been done before...combining the two most used boards in the industry [an API and a Neve] and making them work together. It was a painstaking process. But we did it. And no one else has.”
Lisa says the team also prioritized “taking back the space, instead of moving it forward.” When the building was still the Terrace Motor Hotel in the 60’s and 70’s, Freddy’s mom, Bobbie, played piano in the hotel’s restaurant. “It was important to honor the history of the studio and also the family ties. We uncovered brick walls and wood beams and brought everything back to its original state. Our big back room now looks exactly like it did when Bobbie played the piano there.”
Today, music heavy hitters from Gary Clark Jr. to Edie Brickell call Arlyn home - thanks in large part to Lisa, who’s run the studio for over 20 years. “I was living in Dallas and flying for Southwest Airlines, but was passionate about music and had a lot of friends in the industry,” Lisa says. On an Austin overnight in 1987 she met Freddy at a bar where he was playing drums. “I ended up marrying Freddy...so I kind of married into the business.” When Arlyn lost its general manager she “just started filling in, and fell in love with it and never left.”
Artists come to Arlyn for the world-class recording amenities, and stay for Lisa’s signature “pink drink” - a very specific blend of Tito’s Vodka and H-E-B grapefruit juice - as well as the team’s overall hospitality. “Our engineers who work here tirelessly make this place feel like home. They’ve been here since they were kids, and are still here with us. And I think that’s something that is special to the artists who come in here, as well. It’s like a family. We’re family.”
Artist accessibility is “vitally important” to the Fletchers, who work to accommodate local musicians as well as national label acts. This sentiment inspired the Arlyn team to begin hosting events so they could otherwise work within artists’ budgets. In recent years brands including Freehold and DefJam have tapped the studio as their homebase during South By Southwest and the Austin City Limits Festival; allowing Arlyn to keep their recording rates relatively affordable. These events also give the general public a chance to experience a piece of Austin music history. “What I enjoy most about those events is that people who’ve never been inside a studio are just in awe, and have such a respect for the history of the place,” says Freddy.
Overall, according to Lisa, Arlyn’s main goal is to be able to “creatively give back however possible.” That mission also inspired the partners to co-found Austin Originals, an organization of local businesses that came together to preserve the integrity of Austin music culture. “With this town growing as fast as it is, there’s a whole group of us who wanted to help musicians...to lobby for them to be paid on a decent scale. Other than doing what we do at Arlyn, this is the best thing we know how to do: to maintain the soul of our city.
If there’s one thing that has carried Arlyn through its nearly 40-year history, it’s family: not only blood relatives, but also the studio’s cultivated tribe. “We’ve taken the whole family element so full circle that even my father’s 5th circuit court of appeals pals want to do events here,” says Lisa. “Our daughter grew up doing her homework in this lobby...and chose to get married here. While music is still at our core, Arlyn has become more of a hub than just a recording space. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.”