Hallowed Country

New Hall of Fame alive and reverent

This appeared in the Louisville Courier-Journal - June 2, 2001

On a beautiful spring day in Nashville, a strong, warm breeze carried the melody of "Wildwood Flower" into the air, stirring the emotions of country music legends and their fans, all of whom were gathered to honor the music they dearly love.

"Wildwood Flower," written by mountain royalty A.P. Carter, is a country touchstone, and Marty Stuart was playing it on a guitar once owned by Maybelle Carter, the Queen Mother herself. The song conjures everything good about country music -- its honesty, simple beauty and innate spirituality.

Behind Stuart, a newcomer compared to A.P. and Maybelle, the new Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum rose into the blue and white sky, ready for its grand opening. And as Stuart segued into A.P. Carter's classic "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," with the crowd joining him, there was a strong sense that the circle was intact and alive.

Gathered here on May 17 were children, mothers, fathers and grandmothers; young industry hopefuls such as Brad Paisly, who was no doubt wondering what it might feel like to have a plaque hanging in that building, and George Jones and Kitty Wells, who added their voices to the celebration. And hanging over it all, the promise of country music's rich history collected under a single roof, waiting behind the red ribbon that Wells would soon cut.

Kentuckians in the Hall of Fame

There are only four Kentuckians in the Country Music Hall of Fame, but it's a strong four. We'll also toss in Pee Wee King, who was born in Wisconsin but called Louisville home.

Here's a look at our claims to fame:

Bill Monroe -- The cross-eyed child who came out of Rosine in Ohio County to give the world bluegrass music was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1970. Some would argue that he should have been a charter member.

Monroe invented bluegrass in the 1930s, combining the music he grew up with -- old-time country, folk and blues -- with a startling rhythmic drive that was anchored by his fierce mandolin playing and fueled by his intense personality. Many followed him, but none fully emerged from his shadow.

Bluegrass got its name from Monroe's seminal band, Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, and for more than six decades the Kentuckian's influence on country music was inescapable. It was still being felt when he died in 1996 at age 84.

Merle Travis -- For too many country fans, Merle Travis is a name long forgotten. For those in the business of making country music, however, he stands as a giant.

Travis was born in Rosewood to a coal-mining family that owed its soul to the company store. By age 12 he had gotten good enough on the guitar to tackle what was then known as the Muhlenberg County style, which is simultaneously finger-picking bass rhythms and treble leads (one of his teachers was Ike Everly, who had a couple of boys who still sing a little).

Travis' career took off after he moved to California in 1944. He scored a string of hits, including "So Round, So Firm, So Fully Packed," and his stellar guitar playing influenced an untold number of pickers. Travis also designed guitars and wrote hits for others, including "Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)" and "Sixteen Tons," which Tennessee Ernie Ford turned into a standard.

Before his death in 1983, Travis began a second career as a gifted writer of articles about his career. He entered the Hall of Fame in 1977.

Grandpa Jones -- Although known primarily as a country comedian through his starring role on "Hee Haw" -- "Hey Grandpa, what's for supper?" -- Jones contributed mightily to the music.

The native of Niagra in Henderson County grew up obsessed with the banjo and old-time country music. Much of his career was dedicated to preserving the music of pioneers such as Jimmie Rodgers, Bradley Kincaid and the Delmore Brothers. He was also a member of Brown's Ferry Four, a highly regarded gospel quartet.

Jones' career was established in the 1930s, when he adopted his persona of a crochety old banjo man. He joined with fellow Kentuckian Travis to record as a duo and also released a string of hit solo records, including "Eight More Miles to Louisville."

Jones joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1946 and performed there with wife Ramona until his death in 1998. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1978.

Loretta Lynn -- Lynn has transcended mere success to become an icon. She is the "Coal Miner's Daughter," a symbol of hope for every hardscrabble woman singer who grew up getting beat down.

Lynn came out of Butcher Hollow, a coal town in Johnson County, and all 10 members of her family lived in a one-room log cabin in the holler, as it's pronounced. She was married by age 13 and had four children in less than five years, but in 1960, at age 25, she decided to become a country music singer. By the end of the year she had a hit single, "I'm A Honky Tonk Girl," and made her first appearance on the Grand Ole Opry. Two decades of influential hits followed.

Lynn's life doesn't just sound like a movie, but was one. "Coal Miner's Daughter" was released to much acclaim in 1980, and Lynn was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1988. She is still recording and performing.

Pee Wee King -- King was born in Wisconsin but lived in Louisville for nearly 70 years. That rates inclusion on this list.

King, who grew up playing polka, is considered a country music innovator. He introduced new sounds to the genre by adding trumpet players, electric guitarists and drummers to his bands and had what is considered the first major country-to-pop crossover hit in 1951 with "Slowpoke." He is also the co-author of "The Tennessee Waltz," one of the biggest-selling and most-recorded songs in modern music history.

King moved to Louisville in 1934 and his fame spread through frequent appearances on WHAS and WAVE radio. He became one of the first to host a country TV show in 1947 and later enjoyed a six-year run on ABC with "The Pee Wee King Show."

King was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1974 and died last year at age 86.

as the buildup worth the payoff? Was the heart of country music really behind those doors?

Gone country

Hank Williams' gorgeous lavender-and-white boots; the autoharp Sara Carter used on the 1927 Bristol, Tenn., recording sessions, ground zero for country music; Bob Wills' battered fiddle; Gram Parsons' pot-leaf Nudie suit; the mixing board from RCA's legendary Studio B.

Uncle Dave Macon's favorite banjo and suit; Elvis' stunning "solid gold" 1960 Cadillac limousine, complete with TV set and phone; a pair of Dwight Yoakam's skintight jeans; a dress Loretta Lynn made at age 14.

The late Owen Bradley's office/recording studio, torn down and rebuilt exactly as the famed producer left it, right down to demo tapes on his desk; the guitar Luther Perkins played on Johnny Cash's "I Walk the Line"; Williams' hand-written lyrics to "I Saw the Light" and "Your Cheating Heart."

If you got even a hint of goose bumps reading that list, then you need to go the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. It's that simple.

The Country Music Foundation has more than 1 million archived items to choose from for display in the 135,000-square-foot building, which cost $37 million. There is 40,000 square feet of exhibit space, three times the amount in the original Hall of Fame, opened in 1967 on Music Row. Its climate-controlled archives house nearly 300,000 recordings.

There is the 214-seat Ford Theater, which shows "This Moment in Country," a short history of the music, and will later feature live performances by touring musicians. Two smaller theaters show films, and a cozy alcove designed in the round and seating 75 is home to songwriters, pickers and luthiers discussing their craft.

Three walls are covered with every gold and platinum country record awarded in the 20th century, and another is filled with famous Hatch Show Print posters. Marty Stuart, whose home is a miniature museum, has filled two large display cases with everything from Patsy Cline's makeup kit to a purple suit that Johnny Cash, the Man in Black, pointedly wore only once.

"Plum' amazing," said veteran musician Jim Calvin, a Nashvillian. "Durn, I know a lot of these folks. I'm friends with Marty Stuart, and I always wanted to take a peek into his closet. I finally got the chance."

Other than sheer size, the biggest difference between the old and new museums is the 28 interactive computer stations. They allow you to access Web sites, "interview" videotaped songwriters about their craft, watch clips of famous country comedians or listen to a virtual stack of 21 rare 78s and 45s (highly recommended).

Computers are fun, but nothing is more fun than poring over Webb Pierce's 1962 Bonneville "Silver Dollar" convertible. The door handles are cowboy pistols, with more pistols mounted in holsters on the back of the front seats and the hood. A Winchester rifle is mounted on the trunk. The hand-tooled-leather interior is studded with silver dollars, and a bull's horns are splayed across the front grill.

It is show business at its most divine, and nearly every one of the 5,000 people who filled the museum on opening day was drawn to it like Junior Samples to a bad joke.

The museum isn't perfect. Although the amount of history is impressive, and often impressively delivered, it is almost too fairly parceled. You can see and hear significant artists from the beginning to last week, but it's a legitimate worry that as much space is given to Tanya Tucker as to Bill Monroe. You'll even find Steve Earle and Jason and the Scorchers. It's almost as if, in an attempt to be inclusive, some of the legends were shortchanged.

Diana Johnson, the museum's deputy director, said that filling displays with a wide variety of information and artifacts was a primary goal -- and she stressed that no one has forgotten where country came from. The old museum featured a major Williams exhibit for three years, she said, and it was retired for the grand opening. It will return, as will exhibits featuring other pioneers.

"We wanted to get as much of the story in front of people as we could," Johnson said, "but we also wanted them to explore. We have a media exhibit with video of Brooks & Dunn and George Strait, but it also has Gillian Welch. We want people to kind of think about that, to question it."

If you skip "This Moment in Country," which would be a bad move, you're not left with much context. The displays are filled with information, but to read each and every sign is daunting.

For longtime country fans, it's likely a moot point. They know that Williams, Monroe, the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers and Roy Acuff are essential, so it's enough to get a glimpse into their lives -- a favorite shirt, a page of handwritten lyrics, a guitar you've seen only in photos.

Just don't plan on buzzing through in an hour.

"You could go through the old one in a few minutes," Calvin said, "and this one looks like it could take two or three days."

The unbroken circle

On an uncloudy day, the Hall of Fame itself is a special room.

The walls rise 70 feet and are topped with enormous windows that let waves of sunlight spill into the room. The room is round, and perhaps halfway up the walls, in letters 15 feet tall, is written A.P. Carter's most fervent wish: Will the Circle Be Unbroken.

The middle of the room is empty, and people mill about in the sun, taking it all in as children run through the wide open spaces. It feels reverent but alive, like a celebration.

Hanging on the walls are the likenesses of the 74 members of the Country Music Hall of Fame, from 1961 charter members Williams, Rodgers and Fred Rose to the newest, Charley Pride and Faron Young. None of the likenesses is very good, but that doesn't matter. We've known most of them all our lives.

"I'm from here, but I grew up in rock 'n' roll and kind of ignored country," Chris Finley said as he surveyed the room. "But you can't live here without knowing who these people are. I've met a lot of them. I was just talking to Charley Pride last night and here he is on the wall.

"Being here reminds me of everything I grew up with and forgot."

That's what places such as this are supposed to do: Reunite you with things that are important. Tradition, pride in a favorite art form, forgotten heroes, faint memories of falling to sleep in your crib listening to Marty Robbins sing "El Paso."

These things matter, they're crucial, and now you can find them all under one roof.

By Jeffrey Lee Puckett

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