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Country’s Hallowed Hall

Get lost in musical lore at Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

Photography: Courtesy Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

The CMA Music Festival this past June afforded me my first grown-up trip to Nashville. It was a great scene, but three days into it the sheer human chaos and nonstop live music began to take their toll.

Melting in the heat in the heart of downtown and longing for a way to cool off, I ducked into the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. The plan was to buy a ticket, stare blankly at memorabilia for a few minutes, regulate my body temperature, and head back out into the madness. Three hours later, I felt like a different person — not from prolonged access to air conditioning, but from taking an enlightening, stimulating walk through the history of country music. I didn’t want to leave.

How had it escaped this lifelong country fan that there existed such a rich and interactive archive of the genre’s sights, sounds, and treasures?

“It’s a massive collection,” says golden-voiced Grammy winner Vince Gill. The museum’s best-known advocate, Gill is currently serving his 11th term as president of its board of trustees. “I’m pretty passionate about the place because, to me, it holds everything that’s ever been done in our world. It’s like the Holy Land for us.”

 

STEP INSIDE

Hundreds of thousands of country music artifacts and documents make up the museum’s collection, which moved in 2001 from an oversize barnlike building on Music Row to a gleaming complex at Fifth and Demonbreun. The move gave museum staff the chance to reorganize and provide dedicated spaces for the historical archives, exhibited materials, and Hall of Fame plaques.

Hall of Fame inductees — from Hank Williams in 1961 to Reba McEntire in 2011 — are immortalized in bronze plates in a stately 70-foot-high rotunda room on the second floor. I spent a good while in that soaring space with the bronzed presences of personal heroes, including Johnny Cash, The Louvin Brothers, and Loretta Lynn.

The purposefully winding spaces on the second and third floors house the story of country music, told through everything from legends’ cherished instruments and personal items, to sheet music and photo displays, to video screens and audio snippets. Some things made me chuckle (Johnny Paycheck’s custom electric guitar with “SHOVE IT” written across the neck), while others brought minor waterworks (Hank Williams’ music-note embellished Nudie suit.) And then there were moments of childlike joy, marveling at Elvis’ solid gold Caddy (pictured) and straining to read the tag on Minnie Pearl’s hat.

While the museum’s complete archives include some cordoned-off sections, Gill enjoys all-access status. “I go in there and poke around and look at cool stuff. ... I’m drawn to the instruments more than anything else.” Walking among iconic items like Bill Monroe’s 1923 Gibson F-5 mandolin and Johnny Cash’s 1968 Martin D-35S guitar, I could well imagine Gill, who’s a master of many instruments, having some hallowed moments here.

And of course there’s the music those instruments produced. “What I’m truly grateful for,” Gill says, “is that all the recorded music is available. That’s pretty amazing, if you think about the fact that the first records were made in the late ’20s — [The] Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers — and from that point, everything is archived.”

 

WALKING THROUGH HISTORY

The permanent exhibit dubbed Sing Me Back Home: A Journey Through Country Music incorporates the bulk of the museum’s contents into a chronological feast for the senses. Once visitors buy a museum ticket and pick up an audio-tour device, they’re ushered to the third floor, where the story begins. From 19th-century roots and early recordings, all the way to selected memorabilia from today’s critically acclaimed newcomers (Miranda Lambert lyric sheet, anyone?), each musical era receives plenty of space, attention, and historical context.

Gill and other country artists narrate the audio tour. “It’s more of a history lesson than anything else,” Gill says. “That’s the way it’s supposed to be. You’re always able to learn something.” You can do that by visually absorbing the displays and immersing yourself in original recordings in specially designed listening nooks.

Thanks to the way the information’s presented, the exhibit effectively illustrates why certain sounds and styles emerged when they did. You see and hear how influences and key players from across the country entered the narrative, mixed it up, and broke new musical ground.

“You’ll understand about the entirety of [country’s history], how circular things can be,” Gill says. “It may get slick and pop-driven at times, but there’s always a movement to bring it back to the traditional. It’s been like that since Day One.”

 

Y’ALL COME BACK, NOW

Special events and exhibits keep folks coming back: There are concerts at the in-house Ford Theater and regular tour outings to a faithfully restored RCA recording studio where industry legends worked.

The limited collections on display at the museum include modern attractions — Taylor Swift’s tour sets brought scads of young fans in 2012 — and larger retrospectives such as the current breakout exhibit The Bakersfield Sound, which honors Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and California country. (Narrated by Dwight Yoakam, it runs through December 31, 2013.)

From now through June, fans of Patsy Cline can check out a new biographical exhibit with audio recordings, interviews, costumes, and many of her favorite personal keepsakes.

While Cline’s salt and pepper shaker collection sounds plenty quirky, I’ll take a cue from Gill and search out the music-related treasures.

Does Gill, a fervent instrument collector, have any plans to donate anything from his personal stash to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum down the line? “I don’t fancy myself as having done anything as important as ‘Mother’ Maybelle Carter and her guitar or Bill Monroe and his mandolin or Earl Scruggs [and his] banjo — the things that are really historical,” Gill says. “But my dream is to see some of my instruments live on.”

Here’s hoping he’ll unload a few of those prized pieces before my next pilgrimage to country music’s Holy Land.

 

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