When stepping from under the forest green awning into the infamous Hilltop Studios during a session, creativity fills the air and stimulating tempos welcome you inside, evoking that sense of unity music often provides.
Founded in the mid-1960s by veteran music engineer Jack Linneman and his son Billy, Hilltop celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, making it one of the longest-running recording studios in the Nashville area. Located just outside of Music City in Madison, Tennessee, the studio has remained in the same spot since its inception, and boasts a hefty client list of both rising and renowned stars such as Bill Anderson, Dolly Parton, Jeannie Seely, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard, Vince Gill and many more.
Seely, a frequent client of Hilltop Studios, shares with MusicRow, “Hilltop remains my go-to studio. I feel so comfortable there, the sound is always great, John Nicholson is always so accommodating and knowledgeable, and the vibes are just there! The history alone gives you a sense of belonging. I’ve made so many memories there and I look forward to making more.”
Today, Hilltop is managed by Nicholson, an established engineer and Hilltop’s former owner. He has help from staff engineer Matt Huitt, who oversees the studio’s social media platforms and has his own production company in partnership with Hilltop, Huitt Productions. MusicRow recently sat down with both of them to talk about the history of Hilltop and sit in on a session at the iconic studio.
Hilltop founder Jack Linneman got the idea to build the studio while working as an engineer for country label Starday King Records.
“Jack saw the need to create a quality recording studio for a clientele including independent artists and people who didn’t have huge budgets, but nevertheless wanted to make a good record,” notes Nicholson. He then left Starday to build Hilltop from the ground up. The bottom floor served as a studio while the top floor served as Linneman’s residence. In the early days, he worked with many legendary artists prior to their record deal signings.
“Our bread and butter ever since day one—and what I believe has contributed to our longevity— is catering to independent artists. That’s still our business model today,” Nicholson continues.
Born and raised in Hohenwald, Tennessee, Nicholson began his music career as a self-taught drummer in a local band, eventually finding himself more interested in the audio and production side of things. After high school, he attended the Nashville School of Broadcast Technique with an initial goal of becoming a television cameraman. But when the school debuted a course called “How To Be A Recording Engineer,” his dreams quickly shifted back to music.
Nicholson began his job search following graduation, flipping through the phone book and calling every Nashville studio his finger landed on. Not many were hiring at the time, but he continued to make calls. Finally, his finger found Hilltop, and as fate would have it, Linneman answered the phone while their secretary was away from the desk—a rarity—and shared that they could use somebody.
In March of 1981, he moved in with his brother, who lived only a few miles from the studio, and met with Linneman. The two hit it off and he began work immediately. Nicholson learned the ropes from both Jack and Billy, as well as Kevin McManus, one of the chief engineers during that time. Nicholson was manning the console within a month of starting and has now been with the studio for over 40 years, working with an array of world-class musicians.
“Even to this day [the sessions] are all fun. When you’re working with studio musicians that are the world’s best—and they all are—every time we have a session it’s always made up of that caliber. That makes a session fun everyday,” he says. “There’s some notable people I’ve worked with that have been fun. I know it’s cliché to say that they’ve all been great, but for the most part, they have been. I can’t think of one I’ve enjoyed more than another.”
In 1994, Nicholson bought Hilltop from the Linnemans and ran it as an owner for nearly two decades. He updated the decor as well as the technology as it evolved from analog tape to Pro Tools and computer recording, and added isolation booths to the space. He shares that he didn’t want to mess with the physical properties of the studio too much because everything already sounded great acoustics-wise. In 2013, he sold Hilltop to music and production company Virginia Dreams, LLC, who said they would only purchase it if he agreed to stay on and run it.
Hilltop currently houses two studios, Studio A and Studio B. Studio A is located on the ground floor and includes a 56 channel SSL 9000J analog recording console. It is the larger of two and the one that primarily caters to all of the musicians with its stunning Yamaha C7 grand piano and four isolation booths. The stone walls that frame the control room give it a cabin-like, comfortable and cozy feel. Studio B is a smaller extension of Studio A located on the second floor. With a Digidesign Pro Tools HD system, C24 control surface and two isolation booths, it’s designed to record mainly vocals and is where most of the mixing takes place.
What separates Hilltop from other recording studios in Music City is that it is “off the beaten path” and gives a sense a privacy that can be hard to find. As long as he’s been in charge, Nicholson has only ever had one other main person helping him. He keeps the team lean partially as a result of low staffing need due to technology advancement, but mostly because he wants clients to truly get to know the members of the Hilltop team, so that they make recording experiences more intimate and personal. Today, he and Huitt are the only primary team members.
Huitt has been with Hilltop for more than a decade now, and his love for music production shines through his work ethic and the way he communicates with his clients.
“Matt reminded me of myself in a way. He would kind of just hang out [at Hilltop] because he just wanted to learn. We would invite him to come watch sessions and help here and there,” Nicholson recalls.
Clients quickly got to know and trust Huitt as he took on more and more projects. “I like to say if you hang out here long enough, you’ll end up working here,” jokes Nicholson. In 2021, he was encouraged by Nicholson to start Huitt Productions in partnership with Hilltop to help expand their production services.
“For me, this is a dream career, going way back to when I loved the audio of the drums and learning how to make sound. The thing that is most rewarding everyday is working with world-class musicians. It makes me realize just how good we have it to be able to do this everyday,” Nicholson shares. “There’s nothing better than watching a song start off as an idea and grow all the way into a radio production.”
Huitt says what he loves most about his job is, “watching somebody’s dream come true, because most of the time, we’re dealing with an independent person who has saved up a lot of money and they are working hard to record. To see the look on their faces when they say, ‘It has always sounded like that in my head,’ [is fulfilling.]”
The walls of Hilltop Studios have heard many a song and story, and plan to continue to for hopefully 60 more years and beyond.