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The new Country Music Hall of Fame: tradition still matters

By Jon Johnson, July 2001

When I had last visited Nashville in 1994, Music Row was thriving. Tourist buses jammed parking lots, and shops owned by the likes of Alabama, Hank Williams Jr. and the estate of Conway Twitty still did a brisk business.

What a difference seven years makes. Though Music Row remains the seat of power for Nashville's country music industry, much of that power has evaporated over the past five years; the result of label mergers and closings and a weak market for country recordings.

Seven years ago, Lower Broadway was only of marginal interest to many tourists. Seedy adult bookstores and pawnshops made certain of that, though attractions such as the Ryman Auditorium brought in a few tourists.

But as with 42nd Street in Manhattan, pawn 'n' porn has been pushed out of Lower Broadway, replaced by a Planet Hollywood, the futuristic Gaylord Entertainment Center, and huge - and very modern - new skyscrapers a few blocks over in the city's financial district.

A block away from the Gaylord complex is the new $37-million monument to Nashville's country music heritage, the brand new Country Music Hall of Fame, open a mere three weeks at the time of my visit.

Like everything else that's been built in that part of town of late, "futuristic" is the first word that springs to mind.

The Country Music Hall of Fame, which opened May 17th, is symbolic of the changes that have taken place around Lower Broadway over the last few years. Though from the air the building resembles a giant bass clef, from the ground the museum sports three dominant characteristics: a drum-like cylinder topped by a towering antenna-like structure (a feature also prominent on the nearby Gaylord building) and a long main hall reminiscent, more than anything else, of the tail fin on a late '50's Cadillac.

It's an interesting contrast to the original Hall of Fame - built near Music Row in 1967 and less than half the size of the new building - which from the outside resembles a cathedral designer's take on a barn.

The contrast says much. The original hall embodied tradition. The new hall suggests motion.

The visitor's first view is of the ground floor level of the cavernous main hall, which includes ample room for the museum's gift shop, an information booth, and a bar and restaurant, with plenty of space left over for, say, a B-52 bomber, or Tara.

A quick elevator ride whisked me to the fourth floor where I could view cases filled with mementos of country music's early years. By the time one has walked the length of the main hall, a visitor has gotten a solid schooling in country music's history from the 19th century to the late 1960's.

Mother Maybelle Carter's Gibson guitar and Sara Carter's autoharp show up early in the tour; quiet but powerful relics of the First Family of Country Music. Jimmie Rodgers' guitar and one of his railroad outfits are also displayed nearby.

In the western swing exhibit, the fiddles of Bob Wills and Spade Cooley sit side-by-side, symbolic of their owners' rivalry and combined dominance of western swing during the 1940's.

Lefty Frizzell's guitar and the original lyrics for "I Love You a Thousand Ways," written to Frizzell's wife as a sort of apology while he was stewing in a Roswell, N.M. jail for statutory rape, are on display in the honky tonk exhibit.

A giant projection screen hovers over the rockabilly exhibit, where life-sized TV clips of Elvis Presley, Wanda Jackson and Carl Perkins hold court, slowing traffic through the museum as effectively as a cinderblock thrown out in the middle of Broadway during rush hour while visitors stand and gawk at rockabilly's founders when they were in their early 20's. The exhibit case includes clothes owned by Presley, Jackson and Johnny Cash as well as one of Jackson's guitars.

A case filled with mementos of country in the '60's includes guitars and clothes owned by the likes of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard as well as a film loop featuring a spellbinding appearance by the mid-'60's Buckaroos at their zenith; still young and, in the case of guitarist Don Rich, still alive.

Two of the old Hall of Fame's most popular displays are still featured in the new hall; Webb Pierce's astonishing Pontiac Bonneville, featuring silver dollars set into the upper dashboard, hand-tooled leather seats, gun and rifle door handles and fittings, and a set of steer horns attached to the front of the car giving pedestrians ample incentive to get out of the way in a hurry. And Elvis Presley's fabled "Solid Gold Cadillac," with a gold-colored interior (including a PA system and record player in the back seat) and a pearlescent exterior paint scheme achieved partly by the use of pulverized diamond dust mixed into the paint.

An exhibit on the history of country music's contribution to television includes a theatre where visitors can watch a documentary (narrated by Glen Campbell) featuring clips of Tennessee Ernie Ford, Flatt & Scruggs on "The Beverly Hillbillies," The Dillards on Andy Griffith's show, Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan on Cash's late '60's show and the now-legendary clip of Alan Jackson abandoning "Pop-a-Top" in mid-song in favor of George Jones' "Choices" at the 1999 CMA show. Interestingly, a large display is devoted to "Hee Haw"'s nearly 20 year run, featuring costumes and fake corn stalks from the show. It's a generous concession from the museum's directors given the antipathy with which some in the industry held the show when it was on the air.

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