A UAE reporter lays down a tune in Nashville with the Voice-O-Graph

Rob Garratt records a song at the vintage 1947 Voice-O-Graph record booth at Jack White's Third Man Records, Nashville, Tennesse

From left, Neil Young and Jack White on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show with the Voice-O-Graph. Douglas Gorenstein / NBC / NBCU Photo Bank
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Once upon a time, the Voice-O-Graph was a miracle machine, seemingly beamed back in time from the future: a portable ­recording studio, about the size of a phone booth.

Anyone could step inside and lay down a tune, cut directly onto a phonograph record, and take it home on the spot, all for less than a dollar.

In 1950s America, the booths were a hugely popular fairground novelty, primarily used by punters to send short recorded messages to far-flung ­relatives.

I first heard about the Voice-O-Graph when Neil Young, the most contrary of musicians, released A Letter Home, an entire album of scratchy, low-fi, solo, acoustic covers recorded in a restored 1947 record booth belonging to Jack White. The pair made history during a joint appearance on the Tonight Show last May, when Young recorded a song in the booth, pressed live to vinyl in front of host Jimmy Fallon.

On the surface, it was among the most self-indulgent of stunts by two notoriously idiosyncratic, self-indulgent musicians. Yet ­listening to the recordings ­revealed a haunting, ethereal quality, a Quixotic relic dug up from a buried time capsule.

Travelling through the ­American South on a music roots-themed road trip, I couldn’t resist ­stopping off at White’s Third Man Records, the recording studio/concert venue/curio shop/vanity project he runs in Nashville, ­Tennessee. I’d read about the ­embalmed animals and black-red-yellow (not white anymore) colour scheme staff are required to wear. It was too weird to miss.

Pulling up outside, there was a young band entering through the shuttered warehouse doors – were they the next big thing, or some garage kids rehearsing?

Anyone can step inside the main entrance, into the “novelties lounge” – essentially a store/shrine. Framed copies of White’s recordings hang in a row above the till. Items on sale range from bumper stickers to a US$400 (Dh1,469) retro synthesiser or a $500 yellow turntable.

And then there are the records – the bulk of the store is set aside for Third Man’s vinyl catalogue: row upon row of limited-release live recordings made in the studio, alongside carefully curated blues compilations and reissues. A whole rack is set aside for classic Sun Records seven-inch singles, which White bought the rights to.

I picked up a copy of Young's A Letter Home, recorded in that very building – there couldn't be a better souvenir of my visit. Or so I thought.

The conversation that followed went something like this.

Me: “How much is the Neil Young record?”

Store lady: “Twenty dollars.”

Me: “Cool. And it was recorded here, right?”

Store lady: “Yep, it was recorded in that booth right there.”

[Store lady points. I squeal].

Me: “No way! Can I go inside?”

Store lady: “Sure. You can even record a song in it if you like.”

Me: “Ah, man, if only I had my guitar ...”

Store lady: “There’s a guitar you can use there.”

[I squeal, again].

Inside, the booth is tiny and cramped. Even with the shop’s miniature guitar, it’s a tight squeeze. I place three ­plastic ­tokens in the slot and wait. ­Suddenly the thing whirrs into life. It’s noisy – and it smells (of wax?). With nothing prepared – no idea that I’d find myself in a recording booth when I awoke that morning – I begin to play a sketchy, unfinished original. Confused, nervous, sweaty, and aware I’m singing my heart out in the ­middle of a crowded store, with just a thin layer of glass ­between me and the people ­outside.

After what feels like a minute, the magic red light comes on. The archaic machine had been waking up and hadn’t started recording. I start the song again, my eyes glued to a crude digital ­display (a new addition since White’s ­refurbishment) that counts down the 144 seconds I have to record my five-minute song. I skip a verse but then end up with time to burn after the second chorus, so improv a new bit about being in Third Man, or something.

All the while, I can see the clunky machinery etching my warbles directly onto a clear, six-inch, 45rpm polyvinyl ­record (this is another upgrade – the 1947 machine ­originally cut 65-second 78rpms onto ­laminated cardboard discs that only survived a few playbacks).

As I emerged from the booth a stranger high-fived me, as ­gobsmacked as I that such a piece of history was just sitting there, for anyone to play with. He hurried to the till to buy his own plastic tokens.

The whole thing cost me $15 – it was only 35 cents back in the day – for a one-of-a-kind, ­surreal ­experience. I can’t say the garbled, nervy, out-of-tune ­recording is my best work – but it’s a keepsake I’ll treasure ­forever.

And now I can always say: “I laid down a tune in Nashville.”