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Hail to the Country Music Hall of Fame

By Tom Netherland, January 2001

Rain falls. All about Music Row, a dreary cloud hangs as if in mourning. Besides country's often not-so-country sounds of today, perhaps Mother Nature mourns the closing of the current home of the Country Music Hall of Fame.

With good reason.

Since its doors opened in April 1967, the diminutive barn-like building has housed country's rich history and welcomed fans worldwide. From Elvis' solid gold plated Cadillac to Willie Nelson's unassuming sneakers, the curious and most arduous of fans have visited. Eyes wide in taking a peak into the lives of stars like Hank Williams and Patsy Cline, fans felt at home in country's longtime home of the past.

I'm no different. Since my first visit in 1980 to my last on this cold and rainy November day, not once did my eyes betray me.

No matter that I'd seen Tex Ritter's Western-tooled saddle dozens of times. No matter that I'd smiled time and again while gazing spellbound at Hank Snow's sparkling Nudie suits. The effect was always the same - a tingle here, a chill there.

Amid country's treasures such reactions are the norm. But on this last visit, memories welled in my eyes much as the items before me had. Like last June, standing among fellow journalists and Hall of Famers like Brenda Lee as Charley Pride and the late Faron Young were announced as its newest members. Pride stood five feet to my side as Lee announced his name. Pride couldn't say a word. Instead, he hung his head and cried as we all cheered the announcement.

And then there was my first visit. On a hot July day, elbow to elbow and stretching my neck for a glimpse at Webb Pierce's silver-dollar laden 1962 Pontiac Bonneville, back in 1980. I've since forgotten cost of admission that day, but what passed before my eyes have never taken five from my memory. Hank Williams' intricately patterned boots, The Carter Family's plaque, Cousin Jody's “biscuit board” (slang for a lap steel guitar) - earned a permanent place within the walls of time in my memory. And surely others' minds also.

But on this last visit, few fellow patrons mingled.

Indeed, I had the place nearly to myself. Elvis' Cadillac was gone, having been taken to the new building several months prior to my visit, though I didn't really mind. For there, sequestered to its own room sat a 1949 Packard that once carted Hank Williams and The Drifting Cowboys from show to show. It looks immaculate, almost as if any second ol' Hank will pop open a door and curl from within its mass.

And over yonder, a room full of guitars teases amateurs such as myself. From Merle Travis' homemade ax to several that were once lively within Chet Atkins' nimble fingers, hit record after hit record comes to mind that were made with these instruments.

But hands down, the most startling room is the gallery in which each Hall of Fame plaque rests. There are now 74, including the newly inducted Pride and Young plaques. Lights appear especially low here. Close to the feel of a graveyard, this most hallowed of ground never fails to render chills within my country honed bones. to my left, a wall welcomes attention to plaques of The Carter Family, the Sons of the Pioneers and Johnny Cash among others.

Time moves as a whisper here. As always, I read the words left for all-time on the plaques of Roy Acuff, Minnie Pearl and Bill Monroe. And as always, I never fail to read those of Willie Nelson, Roger Miller and Merle Haggard, all relative Hall newcomers. At least when compared to folks like Uncle Dave Macon.

It's crowded here, in this hall of plaques. Not with fans - at least today but with plaques. There's little room for more, visual evidence of a need for the move downtown in May.

Yet for longtime visitors such as myself, the move will be bittersweet. For as surely as the current Hal of Fame is the home of inductees like Kitty Wells and Jim Reeves, it's also as the home of fans such as myself.

Hours upon hours spent walking snail-like amid greatness in a building that exudes warmth, coziness will do that. As I've grown older, the building appears to shrink. Of course, it hasn't, but with time's passage its hallowed halls don't seem as large anymore.

Like today while admiring (for about the 50th time or so) Pierce's customized by Nudie Pontiac, it seems larger than ever. As if jammed into a shed, Webb's gleaming white wonder looks like a great white whale. Silver plated rifles mounted on each rear fender and trunk appear poised and ready to fire. Its driver's side door spreads open as if awaiting Webb's return to the car that he once drove with peacock pride through Nashville's streets. Bet that was a sight.

Just as this Hall of Fame has been.

To me and millions of fans from around the world, this building has spread the word on country music's foundation - its past. Eddy Arnold, Marty Robbins, Hank Thompson, Patsy Montana, Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty - all welcomed, all represented. Just as fans like myself have been for 33 years.

Yeah, the new hall will be bigger, offer more exhibit space and thus artifacts for which to see, but it'll have to go a country mile to beat this one.