The handwritten notes on cheap lined paper gave me chills. Dated Jan. 26, 1947, they are the words scrawled by Hank Williams for his classic, “I Saw the Light.”
Then there’s the more-than-half-century-old suit — the one decorated with musical notes on the sleeves — that I’ve seen in so many photographs of the legendary Hank.
At the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, visitors come face to face with the greatest names in county music. And it’s amazing how emotional it can be to see some of these simple treasures once owned by country music icons.
When the Grande Caribe cruise ship arrived in Nashville, passengers climbed on a tour bus to see the museum. Judging from comments afterwards, no one was disappointed in what they saw and heard.
Many years ago, my Dad and his band played that old Hank Williams song. In fact, I kept seeing flashes of Dad’s musical repertoire throughout the museum — the tried and the true, the old standards from the beginning of country music.
The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum has a way of touching the memories of its visitors. Opened in May 2001, the $37 million facility has a wealth of artifacts that continues to grow. And the museum has only about 10 percent of its fabulous collection on display at any time.
To help fill that space need, the museum is undergoing an expansion that will increase it from 140,000 square feet to 350,000 square feet. Scheduled for completion in early 2014, the expansion will include an 800-seat state-of-the-art CMA Theater designed for a broad range of activities from concerts and films to lectures and meetings.
CREATION OF NEW MUSEUM
For years, I had visited the old Country Museum Hall of Fame in its former location. It was nice but it was nothing like the big-city cousin created to replace it. The old hall, built in 1967 on Nashville’s Music Row, had been stuffed with mementos and memories but it was getting too rundown at the heels and was losing visitors.
Over the years, folks who loved country music and those who made their living from it pushed to have a new museum built. It took a while but the result is certainly spectacular. Located in the heart of the city, just steps from the Ryman Auditorium and the Lower Broadway honky-tonks, the new Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum is a real eye catcher.
The facility, with almost three times the exhibit space of the first location, is built of glass, brick and limestone. From the air, the building looks like a bass clef.
The dark windows on the face of the building resemble piano keys. There’s the hint of a ’50s Cadillac fin in the sweeping arch of the structure. And, yes, that’s a radio tower rising from the rotunda honoring the WSM tower so instrumental in the rise of country music.
Look for the suggestion of a drum kit in the rotunda’s exterior while the four disc tiers of its roof trace the evolution of recording from 78 to 45, the vinyl LP and the CD of today.
Symbolic touches are everywhere, even the stones that ring the top of the rotunda wall are more than ornamental — they’re a musical arrangement. Each stone represents a note in the classic Carter Family song, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”
Throughout the 40,000 square feet of museum space, exhibits chronicle country music’s history from its rural origin to present-day popularity. The journey traces the roots of country music from Anglo-Irish folk songs to blues and spiritual, early popular music and the radio age. Each key era and influence is highlighted — the cowboy singers, the boom of the 1940s, honky-tonk, rockabilly and the West Coast sound.
The galleries arc around a glassed-in central core where vast archives are housed. Items on display include the last picture ever taken of Patsy Cline before her death, Gram Parsons’ sequined suit with its marijuana leaves, Keith Whitley’s motorcycle and a copy of one-time San Quentin Penitentiary resident Merle Haggard’s full pardon from then-California Governor Ronald Reagan.
Even today’s souped-up celebrity vehicles might be left in the dust by two famed automobiles on display. Webb Pierce’s 1962 Bonneville convertible has a silver dollar studded dashboard and pistols for door handles.
Parked nearby, Elvis Presley’s 1960 gold Cadillac features a television and record player with an automatic changer. The Caddy’s gold luster was created by gold paint highlights and nearly 40 painted coats of a translucent mixture of crushed diamonds and fish scales.
You can easily spend the better part of a day wandering among the displays, watching films in the theaters and listening to vintage music. The Hall of Fame rotunda is a Who’s Who of country music luminaries. Election to the Country Music Hall of Fame is the highest honor in country music. Created in 1961 by the Country Music Association, the award recognizes people — not just performers — who have made outstanding contributions to country music. Winners are announced during the CMA Awards Show each year.
Music is the heart and soul of Nashville and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum is a must-see attraction. It does justice to those early country music pioneers, as well as to today’s up-and-coming performers.
Climbing back on our tour bus, cruise passenger John Aspegren of New York said he could have spent the entire day at the museum to hear and see even more of this amazing country music story.
MORE INFORMATION: Call the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum at (800) 852-6437, www.countrymusichalloffame.org or Blount Small Ship Adventures at (800) 556-7450, www.BlountSmallShipAdventures.
Photos by Jackie Sheckler Finch