Founded in 1879, Hatch Show Print has a unique place in the history of American music. Pull out one of its drawers of wood type and you might very well be looking at the letters used on a poster for Johnny Cash or to advertise a Hank Williams show. The woodblock images carved by Will T Hatch (last of the founding family to work at the print shop) helped define the look of country music during the 1940s and 50s.
But although it is based in Nashville, Hatch’s importance stretches beyond country. Its archive includes posters for the likes of BB King, Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington alongside those for the Carter Family and Jim Reeves. The very first posters printed by Hatch were for America’s earliest forms of popular entertainment. Ads for circuses, travelling ‘minstrel’ shows and fairs, silent films, rodeo shows and car races.
As music became an ‘industry’, Hatch found its niche. Being in Nashville helped, as there was a constant demand for posters to advertise gigs at the likes of the Grand Ole Opry and countless smaller local venues. Though we may now revere them as artworks, these were functional pieces of print with a job to do.
That we have the chance to revere them at all has a great deal to do with one man. In 1984, Jim Sherraden had just graduated from a college printmaking course. “I was trying hard to be a singer-songwriter in Nashville,” he recalls. “I’d worked in the office of Waylon Jennings but I joke that, in an effort to stay in the family will, I went back to college. I asked a buddy what was easy and he said that printmaking seemed pretty simple. So I followed him like a dog to class and fell in love with it. Because I could have no senior art show, I started showing my prints in restaurants and when one teacher from Vanderbilt saw them she said ‘you’ve got to see this old dying print shop in downtown Nashville’. I’d never heard of Hatch, but all of this history was there and these gorgeous blocks. It was poorly run and managed, so I asked for the opportunity to run it and they gave it to me.”
Despite having virtually no previous experience in running a business, Sherraden took on Hatch, determined to keep its unique archive together and put it to good use.
Sherraden adopted a strategy of “preservation through production” for Hatch’s precious archive. While some may been wary of damaging those wooden blocks, Sherraden was determined to ink them up and get them working. “It’s not that they have souls, although I suspect they do, but the old blocks seem to respond in a positive manner when ink is applied,” Sherraden says.
In order to clean old ink residue off the blocks, he started printing from them, running thin sheets of paper through the Hatch presses multiple times. The rich, abstract prints that resulted, with images overprinted in multiple layers, revealed a new possibility to Sherraden. “The monoprints were my version of pressing the creative panic button,” he says. Sherraden had been part of a band who had been signed to Capitol in the 80s but whose record was never released.
After trying and failing to find success with another band, he began to face up to the fact that he was never going to make it as a professional musician (although he does still tour with a band). “So what I’m left with is this great shop,” he says. “It seemed logical to celebrate the incredible talent that went into carving these blocks but give them a contemporary context.”
Sherraden’s monoprints now combine archive images with new ones, but the type remains original. In his role of Hatch archivist (as well as manager and chief designer) Sherraden recognised the value of keeping the shop’s collection of wood type exactly as it had been when he arrived. “Not to water down the archive seemed to make sense to me,” he says. The Hatch letters had grown old together, their combination over time creating a distinct aesthetic. Adding new type would, Sherraden reasoned “be confusing to the viewer and make our posters look like everybody else’s. The challenge [here] is to make the best poster with the available resources.”
Today, Hatch produces around 600 print jobs a year with a staff of ten, plus regular interns. The posters are still handmade. If new images are required, they will be carved from woodblocks just as they always were. Otherwise, design at Hatch is a stand-up, hands-on process involving searching through the drawers of type and decorative blocks to find the right combination for the job. And because the Hatch archive elements are still very much in use, the chances are that a poster for, say The White Stripes, might well contain an ‘s’ from a 1960s Johnny Cash poster or an ‘E’ once picked out for Elvis Presley.
This lineage is what keeps contemporary artists coming back to Hatch for gig posters and album covers. It’s also what attracted Donald Smith, director of exhibitions at the Chelsea Space gallery in London, to give Hatch its first UK show.
Aside from Hatch’s nostalgic appeal, Smith believes that the shop is also a valuable example to Chelsea students today. “It’s this idea of a holistic business,” he says. “Hatch is designing, printing and selling work. In terms of a model for practice, it shows that you can do something that is well-designed, well-made and is functional for the client.”
Smith’s colleague at Chelsea, lecturer in graphic design Nigel Bents, adds that the process of letterpress printing goes beyond historical curiosity in its educational value. “For my 21st century students who visit the New North Press in Hoxton to do letterpress sessions, the seemingly absurd act of setting one line of type all day teaches them so much more about type than the same exercise on screen,” Bents says. “It clearly provides a knowing and tacit link with the past, which underlines the relevance of seeing not just the Hatch exhibition, but any similar significant body of work. It’s the contextualisation of knowledge that gives us understanding. And practice embeds learning.”
Hatch’s appeal does, of course, come with a healthy dose of nostalgia, what Sherraden refers to as its “in-built romance”. At some point consumers’ relationship with advertising changes from one of ambivalence or perhaps suspicion to that of warmth and nostalgia. Among the Hatch archive are poster ads for sausages and caravans, reproductions of which sell well through the shop’s website. Many people would be very happy to have advertisements by Hatch in their homes but probably would not have done so at the time they were printed. Is there something in the way that the Hatch work is made that renders it particularly susceptible to being viewed in this way? Will we feel similarly warm to today’s advertising messages in years to come?
“I particularly like the irony that wooden letters, when printed for today’s fashionable market have to ‘feel’ like wooden letters – perhaps underinked, perhaps overinked,” Bents says. “It is seen as ‘part of the handmade character’ in the homogenised world of digital perfection, the irony being that many of these would have been considered poor prints at the time. In fact the nearer to a digital type output – ie typographically flawless – that the images appear, the less welcome they are! We exist in a virtually perfect world. We can buy Ravilious and Piech woodcuts in the V & A shop as re-editioned ‘Giclée prints’.
The past does not now lie hidden in dirty junk shops, the best of it is digitally re-mastered and available now. We buy it because the handmade in our lives reflects our humanity. And I’m sure we’ll buy today’s advertising messages too just as soon as fashions change in 20 minutes’ time and as simple, cheery nostalgia for digital perfection. Or if civilisation comes crashing down it’ll contrast with a world full of home-made potato prints!”
What does Sherraden think the Hatch brothers would make of the contemporary appeal of damaged wood type and imperfect prints? “They would be confused,” he admits. “Although I think they would be grateful the shop is still in business. They wouldn’t be able to understand the contemporary repositioning of Hatch as a leader in graphic design (if people want to give us that). I worked with a wonderful old printer who was my bridge to the Hatch brothers era. He never understood what I was doing with the monoprints, it was confusing to him. But it’s a direct response to the perfect digital world we live in.”
And here lies the secret to much of Hatch’s appeal to young designers, musicians and their fans today. “There is no artwork to celebrate contemporary music anymore, nothing tangible,” Sherraden says. “Something in our psyche says ‘something is missing from this picture. Oh, it’s the picture that’s missing, it’s the poster for the Black Keys, it’s the poster for Old Crow Medicine Show.’ For a lot of kids who grew up with the internet, Hatch fills a void in people’s heads that is a direct result of living in a cyber community. Hatch can answer a lot of questions to what is missing in a digital era.” As can many of the other designers contributing to the burgeoning gig poster scene in the US which Hatch has helped establish. “They are responding in the same way with the tools they have available,” Sherraden says.
The Hatch poster has “been transformed from something functional to something celebratory, something you collect as a memory for that show you enjoyed so much,” Sherraden says. After a nomadic existence that has embraced five different locations in Nashville, Hatch has just moved into a spacious new home which boasts a custom-designed print-shop where visitors can watch posters roll off the presses, a retail shop, the Haley Gallery, featuring Sherraden’s monoprints, and the Hatch Show Print Space for Design, a classroom and workshop space.
All this is possible thanks to the involvement of the non-profit Country Music Hall of Fame which was given the Hatch archive as a donation in 1992. “The idea was to safely place in the hands of the museum this black force called the ‘letterpress poster shop’,” Sherraden says. “Nobody saw this digital revolution coming, our job was simply to keep the brothers and sisters of the woodblocks together, hopefully by creating enough revenue so that the shop paid for its own real estate. The next thing you know, we start getting busy as a direct result of everything that has changed our lives – the digital era. Add to that the Ryman Auditorium renovation [the famous former home of the Grand Ole Opry]. Everybody wants to play this venue and we have become the poster designer and printer for these shows. So overnight we were thrown back into the contemporary music industry.”
Hatch now sits happily astride the old and the new. A unique historical resource, it is also a thriving business, a contemporary design practice that in its self-reliance exhibits a modernity at odds with its arcane production methods.
And in these days of social media and integrated campaigns, it is also testament to the enduring appeal of that age-old advertising format, the poster. Because, as the Hatch Brothers liked to say, “Advertising without posters is like fishing without worms.”
For more on Hatch Show Print and to buy posters from its online shop, see countrymusichalloffame.org. Details of the Chelsea Space exhibition shown right