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Hatch Prints Offer a Peek at America's Musical Past

Printer's Devil: Nashville's Hatch Show Print has been making posters the old-school way since 1879.

By Tim Hill | Posted 6/20/2001

Hatch Show Print

Jim Sherraden

Spur Design's Propaganda Gallery (3504 Ash St.) through Aug. 15

A chunk of American pop-music history is now scattered on the walls of a graphic-design firm in Hampden. A bold green-and-orange poster advertises Silas Green, a minstrel show that traveled the South from 1904 to 1957. The giant letters grand ole opry glare from a nearby poster. Facing these is a cluster of modern posters, hawking everyone from Beck to R.E.M. and Gladys Knight to Johnny Cash. In small letters at the bottom of each poster is a variation of hatch show print co.--nashville, tn.

The 122-year-old print shop still makes posters the old way: one at a ti me, using images and typefaces carved from wood, on a hand-operated letterpress, much the same way Gutenberg printed his Bible in 1455. Jim Sherraden, who's been running the Hatch Show shop since 1984, has brought a box of window cards--small posters--to his opening-night talk at Spur Design's Propaganda Gallery, to sell at $10 a pop.

Visitors to the June 9 opening shuffle through posters advertising percolated coffee, gangster movies, and the Kentucky State Fair. It's like a carnival, or maybe Filene's Basement, as each person scrambles for the perfect kitschy placard to hang in his or her kitchen or living room. A friend scoops up a great Bill Monroe poster, but Bo Diddley was elusive. There are too many B.B. Kings. I miss my chance to snag a poster advertising a book by the late FBI director/reputed cross-dresser J. Edgar Hoover, containing a line full of unintentional, prophetic humor: "Hoover tells her amazing story . . ."

These adverts show off the beauty and the shortcomings of this antiquated printing method: big clunky letters, simple contrast-y artwork, strong and saturated colors, but also smeared ink, clogged lines, uneven ink coverage. But for some viewers, these imperfections are what make the posters charming, as today's graphic artists are subordinated by the computer's tyranny of perfection.

The show's treats are Sherraden's larger posters. These contemporary works combine and overlap iconic figures from the print shop's 1950s heyday, turning straightforward poster graphics into ambiguous collages. The image of an obscure country-music radio host gets cleaved into a matrix of cowboy clip art, which is then dappled and rolled over with more ink, making his forgotten face somehow universal. On another poster, Bill Monroe peers through an inky cloud of faded type, surrounded by images from his career and other posters. "'This is my tribute to your life, Mr. Monroe,' I told him, making sure I said 'Mr.,'" Sherraden says during an interview. The printmaker was worried the father of bluegrass might not appreciate this modern treatment, but Monroe loved it, Sherraden says.

Many of the designer's re-combinations are made from woodblocks that workers discovered when the print shop changed locations in 1992. Printers from the shop's early days had no qualms about cutting up larger woodblocks they no longer used to make shelves for ones they did. The shop's relocation resembled an archaeological dig, Sherraden says, with images and words describing long-forgotten vaudeville, opera, and pop-music performers appearing out of piles of wooden planks.

The dig provided the Hatch Show folks fragments to be made into new art. "We're trying to bring new life to all those wonderful pieces of wood that've been sleeping in Nashville," Sherraden says during his opening-night talk. "We're also trying breathe life into the people who carved them."

Hatch Show Print was founded in 1879 by Charles and Herbert Hatch, two twentysomething sons of a minister and small publisher. Their first job was a handbill advertising a lecture by the famed theologian Henry Ward Beecher, but the religious affiliation didn't last long. While the rest of post-Civil War Nashville became a hub of Christian publishing--to this day, the city is home to a large number of publishers of Bibles and other religious literature--Hatch Show slowly built a name for itself as an entertainment-poster printer. The company printed countless reams of paper advertising everything from minstrel shows and carnivals to Vanderbilt football games. Thanks to some critical deals struck with the Grand Ole Opry, by the late 1940s Hatch Show Print had emerged as the premier print shop for Nashville's thriving country-music scene.

The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum considered Hatch Show Print's history so intertwined with that of the Opry that it started archiving, under Sherraden's supervision, the shop's collection of woodblocks. In 1991, the nonprofit organization bought the shop outright. Sherraden stayed on as manager, and began resurrecting a tradition that hadn't flourished since the last and most prolific Hatch, William T., died in 1952.

Appropriately, of the 44 posters displayed at the Propaganda Gallery, Opry stars predominate. And the spirit of their music--heartfelt, simple, honest, at times devilishly suggestive--survives in these posters. You get the feeling the hand-carved blocks do capture the long-dead spirits of not only the artists, but of the likenesses they capture. Something difficult, if not impossible, to achieve with a computer.

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