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The new Country Music Hall of Fame: tradition still matters

By Jon Johnson, July 2001

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A nearby photograph of John Hartford, taken in the late '60's with Glen Campbell (who made Hartford's "Gentle On My Mind" one of 1968's biggest hits), Bobbie Gentry, and the Smothers Brothers is particularly poignant given Hartford's death the day after my visit.

I recall visiting one of the Ernest Tubb record shops on my first trip to Nashville in 1990, the week when a reissue of Gram Parsons' two solo albums was scheduled to be released on CD. Not finding the CD in the store, I asked a clerk why the CD wasn't in stock and was given the answer that the staff regarded Parsons as more of a rock artist who dabbled with country, and hinted that Parsons still wasn't particularly well liked in Nashville, even 17 years after his death

In 2001 Parsons' CDs can be found at any record store in town - including the Ernest Tubb shops - and the Hall of Fame's country rock exhibit includes Parsons' Nudie suit worn on the cover of the Flying Burrito Brothers' "Gilded Palace of Sin" album, covered with embroidered marijuana leaves, as well as his Martin guitar. Appropriately, one of Emmylou Harris' stage costumes and her Gibson guitar are placed next to the Parsons mementos

Interestingly, there's scant evidence of the existence of alt.-country, other than a few items contributed by Jason and the Scorchers. Perhaps that's to be expected in a town that's regularly skewered in song and interviews by the likes of Dale Watson, Robbie Fulks, and Wayne Hancock, but it's still a strange omission, particularly considering that Watson, Gillian Welch and Mike Ireland all appear at the Opry on an occasional basis. Granted, few alt.-country recordings sell more than 100,000 copies (although plenty of acts who sold far less - like Parsons - are included), and only a few of the mainstays of the genre have originated or recorded in Nashville over the past 10 years, but it still smacks of circling the wagons.

However, the Hall of Fame's use of state-of-the-art interactive touchscreen displays giving visitors an opportunity to listen to music through earphones, view historic pictures (many of which have never seen the light of day until now), or visit artists' websites was particularly impressive.

One of the really interesting aspects of the new Hall of Fame is that its magnificent collection of recorded and print materials - formerly housed in the basement of the old museum - now makes up the core of the main hall, albeit behind glass and not accessible to the public, except by appointment.

Still, visitors now have the opportunity to watch while the library's staff pull out old 78's and tapes, remastering them for some future reissue project. For most visitors, the process is probably dull as dishwater, but for an archivist like me, the opportunity to watch country music's heritage being preserved for future generations was an integral part of the visit. It's also a gentle reminder that archival work is a large part of what the Country Music Hall of Fame has always been about.

The new Hall of Fame is a treasure; one that preserves the best aspects of the old hall while making ample use of additional space and 21st century technology to give visitors a thorough overview of the history of the genre from minstrelsy to Faith Hill. At a time when the country music industry is facing its toughest challenges since 1980, the new Hall of Fame is a breath of fresh air; evidence that tradition still matters.

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