It would almost be understandable if the folks at Nashville’s Hatch Show Print wanted to keep the ins and outs of their poster-making process under wraps. Hatch’s iconic, blocky, letterpress style is in such high demand that there are usually well over 100 custom orders waiting in the queue at any given time.
But after relocating to shiny, spacious new digs at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum a year ago, Hatch began offering public tours for the first time in its existence. Tour guides usher visitors into a gigantic room where they can observe printer-designers operating presses of varying vintage and size, stamping one color at a time onto one sheet of paper at a time — because that’s how it’s done.
Occupying every square inch of shelf space are blocks of type amassed by founding brothers Charles R. and Herbert H. Hatch and Charles’ son Will T. Hatch nearly a century ago — or even longer — and still in use now.
The guides take time to demonstrate how the blocks are arranged on composing sticks (little brackets that hold your Scrabble letters are sort of a distant cousin) and separated by slivers of wood or metal that ensure the resulting text is properly spaced and legible.
The tours cover a wide swath of history, from the Gutenberg Press making the printed word accessible to the masses in the 15th century to Grand Ole Opry stars becoming essential Hatch customers, especially after the Opry moved into the neighboring Ryman Auditorium in 1943. Those performers got a big chunk of their income from touring, and they’d often send someone ahead to plaster towns with Hatch-inked notices of their upcoming appearances.
The story takes a left turn in 1974, which was when the Opry moved to the suburbs. For its wealth of acts, Hatch was no longer a convenient stop, and the print shop, which had never catered strictly to musicians, came to lean on other sources of business — like pro wrestling matches.
Posters displayed in every room of today’s Hatch headquarters vividly narrate the history. There’s a hand-carved, larger-than-life likeness of Roy Acuff, a second design from his unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign, along with subjects ranging from state fairs and stock car races to Fleetwood Mac and Jerry Seinfeld appearances.
No poster played a bigger role in the modern age of Hatch than one created for a live album Emmylou Harris and the Nash Ramblers recorded at the Ryman in 1992. She fought to keep the historic auditorium from being razed and helped usher in a new era of Ryman performances. Ever since, pretty much everyone who plays the place sells a one-of-a-kind Hatch poster that night. They’re treated as art now, rather than a disposable means of preshow promotion.
There’s a growing collection of handwritten masking tape labels from completed poster orders, including one for Janelle Monáe and another for the local Flying Monkey Marathon, as well as evidence of Hatch’s nonposter design work — wine labels, watch tins and the like.
Deep in the disembodied digital age, in the middle of a revival of artisanal arts and hand crafts, it’s not at all hard to grasp the appeal of a sturdy, storied, letterpress aesthetic like Hatch’s. Before the tour is over, you get a chance to try out the time-tested method for yourself.