A Walk In The Country

This appeared in The Tennessean - May 13, 2001

Seldom does a brand-new building seem haunted.

Yet here is the cream-colored suit with periwinkle blue adornments, palpably connected to the life force that once propelled its rail-thin owner, Hank Williams, to squirm his way through "Lovesick Blues."

And here is DeFord Bailey's long-silenced harmonica, and here is Lefty Frizzell's guitar, and here are the other relics, totems, historical signifiers and aural revelators that have been deemed worthy of inclusion in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

''That's what you live for in this business, really......... to be remembered,'' said George Jones, considering all that he had just seen on a tour of the Hall's new downtown digs.

Jones is sometimes called The Possum and sometimes called the greatest country vocalist who ever lived. As long as there is a Country Music Hall of Fame, he will be remembered. When Jones was a small child, he rode with his parents on the Doodle Bug train from Kountze, Texas, to Beaumont. The three Joneses disembarked in Beaumont and walked to the Jefferson Music Co., where George Washington Jones paid something like $15 to a salesman, then handed a guitar to his son.

That action, seemingly like what must have gone on every week at Jefferson Music, set the stage for a career that would change the course of country music history. Today, the Doodle Bug is gone, but George Jones' white western suit is being prepared for display at the new Hall, which opens at 11:30 a.m. on May 17. His Hall of Fame plaque is one of 74 that hangs in the rotunda, and his devastating 1980 recording of "He Stopped Loving Her Today" is generally considered the country genre's premier vocal performance.

''Nancy, come look at this,'' Jones called to his wife of 18 years, pointing to a cheap, Gene Autry model guitar resting in the midst of a ''western influence'' display. ''That's exactly like the first guitar I ever got. That's what I started out with in Beaumont. I toted that guitar wherever I went. It'd get soaking wet, and it'd never warp. You buy a Martin (guitar) now and put it out in the rain and see if it don't warp. Oh, this one sounded good to me.''

With steel beams that recall small town railroads and bridges and long, thin conservatory windows reminiscent of a prison's set against the sparkling trappings of country music superstardom, the new Hall of Fame is designed to evoke the music's impoverished rural underpinnings and its triumphant successes.

Singer Patty Loveless, who took a private tour of the new Hall the day before Jones went through, shares with Jones the memories of bleaker days when country music was a balm for a rough life, not a means to riches.

''I used to work right down there,'' she said, nodding a few blocks down 5th Street to the Lower Broadway area. ''I worked at the Music City USA record shop. It used to be the Hank Williams Jr. restaurant.''

Loveless first attended the Hall of Fame in the early 1970s, when she was a teen-ager and the barn-shaped building on Music Row was still relatively new (it opened in 1967). Back then, Loveless was a bluegrass singer who worked with the Wilburn Brothers. Doyle Wilburn sometimes would arrange for her and a cousin to tour the Hall at no charge.

''This is a whole lot different,'' she said on her tour of the new building, which is four times larger than the prior location. The new, $37 million Hall's wiring alone cost more than the construction of the Music Row structure, and its campus includes several live performance spaces, a full-service restaurant and a satellite radio studio.

The intent has changed as well: Instead of striving merely to display more artifacts, the Hall's staff worked with museum designer Ralph Appelbaum Associates (the same crew who designed Washington, D.C.'s Holocaust Museum) to tell a riveting, multi-layered story. And while cornpone humor (a display featuring the Hee-Haw television show) and gaudy excess (Elvis Presley's gold-plated Cadillac) are by no means ignored, the story's presentation conveys an unaffected nobility and sense of importance.

Jones' and Loveless' walk-throughs were, of course, special. Both singers are characters in the story themselves, and both have had myriad personal experiences with the titans whose pictures, instruments and stage-wear are on display.

''There's a poster with the Wilburn Brothers, and then right next to them there's Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs,'' Loveless said, beginning her tour at the high-ceilinged third floor exhibit of Hatch Show Print posters. ''That just hits home. I worked with the Wilburns, and Flatt & Scruggs were the first act I ever saw. Earl just played on my new record.''

The third-floor stimuli also stirred memories in Jones.

''I used to hear DeFord Bailey on the Opry,'' he said. ''He played that harmonica, and he could make it sound like dogs barking. And there's Roy Acuff. On my bus, I've got a picture of Roy next to my bed. And at home I've got a picture of him on the bedroom wall. Oh Lord, he was my idol -- 'til Hank Williams came along, and of course he took everybody's heart.''

Jones stopped at the glass case that holds Williams' white suit. Stationed in San Jose, Calif., during a stint in the Marines, Jones stumbled home in the early morning hours of New Year's Day, 1953, and heard that Williams was dead at the age of 29. Jones laid in his bunk and wept.

''Hank wasn't wearing a suit the only time I saw him, because it was summertime,'' Jones remembered of a 1949 encounter. I was playing on KRIC radio with (Beaumont duo) Eddie and Pearl. We had a show every day from 4:05 p.m. until 5 o'clock, and Hank came by to plug his date (he was playing that night at the Blue Jean Club). Hank had "Wedding Bells" out then, and I stood across from him. I was supposed to play a little backup guitar for him, and I never hit the first note. I just stood there and stared. I couldn't even hit a note.''

Jones was 17 years old at the time.

''I was scared to death, and he had to think I was a crazy kid,'' he said. ''But after he finished playing he sat on the couch and just talked up a storm. He was one of the nicest people I've ever met. I couldn't think of a thing to say, so I just shut up and listened to him. Hell, he even talked pretty. He had a lot of fans, but he couldn't have had any that felt more than I felt for him.''

The stories continued, with both Loveless and Jones talking more as fans than as icons. Loveless wished out loud that her husband, producer Emory Gordy Jr., had been there with her, as Gordy remains fascinated with the sounds and personalities of early country music (he's also producing Jones' next album). She asked numerous questions of Hall of Fame Director Kyle Young, noted that she owns a print of one of the photos on display (Bill Monroe, with Scruggs and Flatt performing in his band), and marveled at Harold Bradley's guitar.

Having recorded in unapologetically modern styles ("I Try To Think About Elvis") and in neo-traditionalist settings (her forthcoming bluegrass album, for instance, and her aching 1997 ballad "You Don't Seem To Miss Me," which featured Jones on harmony vocals), Loveless is subtly or overtly connected to many of the Hall's exhibits and artifacts. Her time with the Wilburn Brothers links her to the brother duo tradition. A drum set from Larrie Londin is a reminder not only of Londin's contributions to Loveless' Up Against My Heart album but also of the shot of energy that Londin provided for Loveless' co-conspirators in hip-1980s Nashville, including Rodney Crowell, Vince Gill and Rosanne Cash. A guiding force in that scene was Emmylou Harris Ö who employed Gordy as a bass player in her Hot Band -- and Harris got her start in country music from Gram Parsons -- who idolized Merle Haggard and the Louvin Brothers -- which brings us back to the brother duo tradition.

''Sometimes it seems like everything I've done in music was already planned for me,'' she said, reflecting on her position as an integral link in the country music chain, a position underscored by her seven albums represented on the Hall's ''Wall of Gold Records.''

While Loveless tended to experience the museum by looking, reading and observing, Jones kept up a running patter, talking about eating all Cowboy Copas' specially prepared fried chicken, remembering cowboy star Tex Ritter's tendency to unleash audible snorts during a drinking bout, and pointedly asking Young when Webb Pierce would be inducted into the Hall of Fame.

''I don't know what Webb did to make people around Nashville mad at him, but he deserves to be here,'' Jones said. ''He had more damn No. 1s than I did.'' (In fact, according to Billboard chart records, Jones and Pierce each had 13 No. 1 country hits.)

Passing Pierce's garish Pontiac convertible, designed by Nudie Cohn with silver dollars all over the interior, pistol door handles and other flamboyant features, spurred more memories.

''I had one just like that,'' Jones said. ''I didn't have any place to put it, though. I put it out at the farm I had then in Spring Hill, but that was crazy. Rats ate the seats, and I ended up selling it back to Nudie. Actually, I think mine looked better than that one.''

Loveless claimed no connections to the museum's small but potent automobile collection, but she did experience a rush when she spotted a yellow dress that belonged to Dolly Parton.

''I remember Dolly wearing that dress on the Opry in the early 1970s,'' she said. ''I'll never forget that dress. I guess I'd come closer to forgetting the outfit than the person in it, though.''

The tour continued, with stops at displays that featured memorabilia related to Southern rock, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, the outlaw movement of the 1970s, songwriting, and Jones himself.

Nancy Jones told her husband that she'd read aloud from the biographical information that accompanied his Western suit.

''It says here, 'George Jones was the meanest little thing,' '' she announced, referring to Jones' extended periods of cocaine and booze-influenced unsteadiness. ''It says, 'He has now outgrown all his meanness, and he is married to the sweetest woman in the world.' ''

Actually, the brief bio mentions that, since 1955, Jones has ''personified hard-core country with a voice that can reach towering heights or plumb harrowing depths.''

That's the voice that made Jones a Hall of Famer, an honor he regards as his crowning achievement in country music. In the new Hall, the plaques line the walls of the second floor rotunda, while a facsimile of the WSM radio tower hangs from the ceiling.

''We used to listen to WSM on Saturday nights when I was a kid in Texas, trying to hear Roy Acuff on the Grand Ole Opry,'' Jones said, as his voice echoed through the mostly-empty room. ''Static would come in real bad, and one of us would go out and water the rod down in the ground, the rod that had the antenna wire on it. We thought that would make the Opry come in clearer. Back then, who'd have thought I'd ever even get to meet Roy Acuff, much less stand on the same stage with him?''

Even the hallowed Opry stage is not as rarified a space as the Hall's rotunda, where Jones' plaque is on display, assuring the old Possum that his life's ambition -- a wish to live on in memory -- already has been achieved. Walking in the same room where he is enshrined, Jones took on an aura both ephemeral and immortal, like an etching that has jumped to life from a hillbilly equivalent of John Keats' Grecian urn: cold pastoral made warm and ambulant.

The new museum strives for that aura as well, offering patrons images and sounds of musical heroism, of Country's defining moments, and of the specters' worldly days.

At tour's end, a white-gloved museum official handed Jones a Gretsch acoustic guitar that once belonged to fellow Hall of Famer Red Foley. Jones strummed the instrument, then sang a bit of "Peace In The Valley", a hit for Foley a half-century ago.

''Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter,'' Keats asserted. He was wrong on that one.

By Peter Cooper

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