A well worn fiddle from deep in the Appalachian mountains, a handmade banjo from more than a century ago, a black Gibson guitar with a red rose inlay, a notebook page with words written and crossed out and written again to become the words of a song: these are touchstones of the Country Music Hall of Fame for me. You may have others: Patsy Cline’s cowgirl dress that her mother made for her, a silk jacket Ray Charles used to wear, Mother Maybelle Carter’s archtop guitar, gold records from Johnny Cash, Shania Twain, and just about everybody in between, Elvis Presley’s gold Cadillac. All of these, each of these, and the stories behind them, are part of the story of America told through music.
That story begins on the third floor of the museum’s building in downtown Nashville, with that beat up fiddle and old banjo, with the varied ways music wove into the lives of people when passing along songs and tunes on the back porch, in the parlor, and around the fireplace was the main way people heard and learned music. A time that, really, is not that long ago.
At the same time you are walking among sheet music, recordings, stage clothes, and instruments that were part of the story as country music came down from the hills and in from the plains, you may pause to see videos of Loretta Lynn, Garth Brooks, Charlie Pride, Patty Loveless and others talking about their childhood memories of music. All that is just in the first few feet of the main exhibit. From that third floor vantage point there are sights and sounds of what lies ahead, as country came to city and then to the international stage. You also see, through a glass walled core, the shelves of sound and print archives, and sometimes, an archivist or sound recordist at work, keeping the legacy of this music going.
As you walk on you’ll move through sound and story, to quiet listening spaces where individual songs of an era may be savored, to cases holding instruments, apparel, and photographs telling the stories of stars and lesser known performers. “People have their favorites, and sometimes people will say that we don’t have enough on display by their favorite artist,” says Jay Orr, Vice President for Museum Programs. “Things on display change . There are just any number of riches which help us tell the story. The real star of the show is the music itself.”
But what if country music isn’t your interest? I always get a kick out of inviting people who think that way to come along to the Hall of Fame, and seeing their reactions. The story told there is a story of people following dreams, facing struggles, working with their hearts, overcoming hardships, putting their creativity out in the world. It is also a story of American history told through a particular sort of music, a music which is more wide ranging in its scope than you might think. From that old hand worn fiddle through the sounds and sights of the whole story of the music, from a video of songwriter Matraca Berg reflecting on how it felt to a song of hers played over the radio for the first time, to Gretchen Peters’ handwritten rough draft of what would become the hit Independence Day, to the gold records and gold Cadillacs, the instruments and boots, to the quiet of the rotunda where plaques honoring those who’ve been elected to the Hall of Fame are found, to the library, the archives, the special projects and exhibits, it’s a story worth the telling, and worth the listening.
Related Perceptive Travel Story: A Tale of Two Music Cities