Nashville Richly Deserves its Moniker, ‘Music City, U.S.A.’
by Karen Rubin
The connection between how Country Music provides the back beat to America’s culture, becomes wonderfully vivid touring the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in downtown Nashville.
The museum takes the broader view of Country Music. Nashville has become the epicenter for country music industry, and the iconic Grand Ole Opry radio show, but the museum is more sweeping in its scope.
The museum was first established 40 years ago in a much more modest building on Music Row, where the biggest names in the music industry have their own buildings – much like the movie industry had its collection of movie lots.
This state-of-the-art, 130,000 sq. ft. building opened May 2001 with multimedia exhibits (the music as you go through is just fabulous) and interactive technologies that make the displays interesting, engaging and entertaining. What is more, the old location didn’t have a live performance space; this one has three theaters.
The museum has 1.2 million items in its collection – just about all donated and amazingly personal. There are so many that only about 10 percent are on view at any one time. It is like a Smithsonian Institution for America’s musical tradition and a Library of Congress for the archival materials it preserves. You can even see researchers and archivists at work.
Arranged over three floors, the exhibits walk you through the history of country music, with stops along the side roads. Everywhere you look, there are unique treasures that illustrate the story.
The permanent exhibit, “Sing Me Back Home: A Journey Through Country Music” immerses you in the history and sounds of country music, its origins and traditions. Across the length of two block-long gallery spaces, the story is revealed through objects, photographs, text panels, vintage video, new films, interactive touchscreens, and most wonderfully, the music itself. It starts with a series of stations that let you experience the evolution of country music from its roots in folk and gospel. Music is the backdrop to the vintage photos and personal artifacts, musical instruments, costumes, boots, cars.
You learn about the roots of Country in folk and gospel; how radio, which dates from 1911, popularized the music nationally; and how Armed Forces Radio spread it internationally during World War II.
Did you ever wonder how the “Western” came into Country Western? During the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, Western imagery and the freedom it symbolized provided escape, and began to dominate country music. Performers embraced the cowboy hats, boots and dress to advance that image.
As you stroll about, you see iconic symbols of your own past: Carl Perkins’ actual blue suede shoes; the Everly Brothers’ sweaters; Elvis Presley’s two-tone shoes, his solid gold 1960 Cadillac (painted with 40 coats of crushed diamonds and 24-carat gold plate highlights),and even his gold piano (a first year anniversary present from Priscilla).
There are always special exhibits. The current one, “The Family” – featuring the Hank Williams family – is so popular, it has been extended to 2011. The exhibit emerged out of oral history interviews with the family which are amazingly frank. Going through it, the material is so personal (all provided by the family), you think you are following a soap opera.
There is a massive multi-story wall filled with 850 gold records – just from the 20th century.
You also go into the Hall of Fame room, with the plaques for the inductees: Gene Autry, Hank Williams, Chet Atkins, Patsy Cline, the Original Carter Family, Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton.
The plaque for Minnie Pearl is different from the rest in that it has her birthdate but not the date of her death. This is because when Sarah Colley Cannon died, she said Minnie Pearl, the character she created, would live on (she even gave some pointers to her successor).
Even if you weren’t a fan of country music to start, you will be captivated by the story and gain an appreciation for the historical significance by the time you leave, and eager to seek out other landmarks and institutions which continue the cultural “journey.” (Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum, 222 Fifth Ave. South, Nashville, 37203, www.countrymusichallfoffame.com, 615-416-2001).
Historic RCA Studio B
The Country Music Hall of Fame also operates the historic RCA Studio B (leased to the museum for $1/year) – another treasure that has been saved and cherished. You can only visit the studio with a guided tour from the museum that begins with a bus ride (you can’t just walk into the studio on Music Row).
In a word, it is thrilling.
Studio B was state-of-the-art when it opened in 1957. In the 20-year period between 1957 and 1977 when it was shut down, more than 35,000 songs were produced there, of which 1,000 became Top 10 hits.
Some 2,000 artists recorded here, including Roy Orbison (“Only the Lonely”), Porter Waggoner and Dolly Parton, Charley Pride, Hank Snow, Waylon Jennings, Buddy Holly, Everly Brothers (“Cathy’s Clown”), Willie Nelson.
Elvis Presley recorded here for 13 years – you can actually sit at the same piano where he would play and sing gospel before a session, though he did not play music for his recordings.
Elvis had some odd routines: he would record on only on Sundays, never began until after 10 p.m., and did his best work 4-5 a.m.. He would create a mood in the studio with lights, and once recorded in total darkness. He recorded, “Are You Lonesome Tonight” at 4:30 a.m. in just two takes. Studio B was shut down in 1977, by coincidence, within days of Elvis’ death.
The guided tour here has you in a constant swoon – you learn that Don Gibson wrote “Oh, Lonesome Me” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You” in a two-hour stretch in one afternoon. Inspired by the break-up with his wife that year, when both songs went #1, he sent her a thank you note.
Studio B was managed by Chet Atkins, a brilliant guitarist but an especially talented record producer, who is credited with creating “the Nashville Sound.” This was a more relaxed yet polished style o that helped revive the popularity of country music at a time when it was actually dying, while establishing Nashville as an international recording center.
The Nashville Sound was cultivated in this studio – polishing the sound with steel guitars, and lush, string-filled orchestration instead of fiddles and banjo. The ability to cross over from pure country to pop charts was what saved country music.
The studio is surprisingly small, but you get to go into the actual recording room (groups even get to make a recording there) and can even handle the original musical instruments. Amazingly enough, a lot of purists love to return to make recordings there with the original instruments and the baffles, which they believe gives a truer sound that the techno-perfection of today’s digitized studios.
The Country Music Hall of Fame also owns and operates the Hatch Show Print Historic Site on Broadway. Hatch Show Print is one of the oldest working letterpress print shops in America. Founded in 1879, it blossomed in the 1920s under Will T. Hatch, who applied his bold style in hand carving the wood blocks. For much of the 20th century, the colorful posters were the leading advertising medium for southern entertainment, from the vaudeville and minstrel shows, to magicians and opera singers. The Grand Ole Opry stars were among the most loyal clients. Stepping across the threshold is like stepping back in time.
Manual: The Rhinestone Rembrandt
So much of Country Music is theatrics, including the Western look, and the flamboyant sequined costumes people like Porter Waggoner and Dolly Parton wore and Little Jimmy Dickens still wears the night we attend the Grand Ole Opry. We see many of the most wonderful ones on display in the Country Music Hall of Fame.
These were the creations of Manuel, dubbed the “Rhinestone Rembrandt.” Now Manuel, who has spent a lifetime creating elaborate costumes for stage and screen, has opened a shop, as well as a line of clothing, “Opry by Manuel” to the public.
We are first introduced to Manuel, a prot�g� of the costume designer Nudie, in a photo exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame. Now we get to meet him at his atelier.
Located on Music Row near the RCA Studio B building, his shop is in a historic brick house that used to be a bordello; the top floors are where the “magic” happens – the workrooms where the items are handcrafted. We see outfits commissioned for the upcoming Country Music Awards evening in their final preparations, with their custom labels sewn in (he points out Roseanne Cash’s).
Manuel, one of 15 children, was just 7 years old when he started making clothes; 12 years old when he decided what he wanted to be. In 1954, he worked with Edith Head on the “Giant” movie, creating outfits for James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor. Edith called him “The King of Cowboy Couture.”
Who were his favorites to design for? The Lone Ranger, Gene Autry, Barbara Stanwyck in “Big Valley”, Kathryn Hepburn. He did the costumes for the Jackson 5, and designed for four or five presidents, he tells us as he holds up Robert Redford’s hat from “Electric Cowboy.”
He says he designs an outfit that reflects who the person is. “Once I know you, I cut the suit,” he says.
He is a bit nostalgic about his days designing for the Grateful Dead, Rolling Stone, Elvis, Osmond Brothers, Allman Brothers. “Now, performers are content with coming in jeans with holes. That fashion is staying too long, honey.”
He doesn’t just do flamboyant costumes such as we see Jimmy Dickens wearing on the Grand Ole Opry stage that night, but more “normal” things like wedding dresses.
If you want an outfit, you will find pants starting at $600; a jacket for $2500-plus; a suit for $3000-plus.
(Manuel Couture, 1922 Broadway, www.manuelcouture.com; open weekdays, 10-4).
Thursday, 15 April, 2010
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