A Bigger Home for Country Music

April 15, 2014
From its conception in 1961 to the opening of its Music Row home in 1967, its pioneering move to downtown Nashville in 2001 through Tuesday's opening of its new facilities that more than double its size, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum has had a continuing core mission: to shed light on country music's evolving history, breadth, practitioners and flavors, and to honor them all.

The Hall has presented country music's multi-chaptered past and followed its always-evolving present with considerable finesse and imagination, even as the experiences and interests of the audience it both tracks and attracts, the sounds and range of the music, and technology available for museum presentations have changed dramatically.

"We pride ourselves, and focus on, maintaining relevance," museum director and CEO Kyle Young said in a recent interview. "The new space certainly allows us to engage visitors in telling a story related to what's going on now in the music, but we've always been pretty democratic in our approach, so 'what's going on now' doesn't refer only to who you'll hear on the radio. It might be news of Ralph Stanley."

The new 10,000-square-foot exhibit space, which comprises the ACM Gallery and the Fred and Dinah Gretsch Family Gallery, is a key public element of the Hall's $100 million expansion. Designed by Nashville's Tuck Hinton Architects, the expansion extends seamlessly from the existing Hall, increasing by 210,000 feet in total the previous 140,000-foot space. This new section of the museum is devoted to the state of today's country music, traditional and less so. The ACM Gallery features major country trends and milestones of the year just past for 2013, this included the return of country radio to New York, Darius Rucker's induction as a Grand Ole Opry member and George Strait's retirement from touring. The Gretsch Family Gallery offers hands-on, interactive exhibits designed to involve visitors in how songs are written and records are produced. With more than half of the museum's hundreds of thousands of annual visitors aged 45 and under, the means of creating lasting impressions needed to be updated to speak to those coming to it from the digital generation; the new interactive exhibits were designed with them in mind.

"We spent a lot of time early on with school groups, educators, music teachers, youth ministers, even parole officers," the expansion's project manager and museum vice president, Carolyn Tate, noted during a preview tour. "One thing we heard over and over was that children want to make things and put their imprint on them. So now, even a child who's shy and doesn't sing can come in here and design a record cover or Hall of Fame induction plaque that's about themselves."

Involving the burgeoning young country audience with the music's deep roots and history is the explicit point of a permanent new exhibit, "Country Connections," which links current stars to the country-music makers who came before. ("If you can take the younger audience back to Jimmie Rodgers or Merle Haggard, you're doing them a favor," noted Mr. Young.) Singer-songwriters Miranda Lambert and Mr. Haggard are among the first pairings, with a cap she'd customized with his photo a decade ago and the tank top celebrating his song "Mama Tried" that she wore in the video for her hit "Kerosene."

"It's important for us to pay respect to the people who kicked the door open for us," Ms. Lambert said by phone. "Merle inspired me to be honest in my music. Whatever happened in his life, he wasn't afraid to talk about it, without apologies, and that's why he means so much to me and, also, that his voice was just butter smooth."

In a new "Visible Archive" area, museum visitors can watch as "Miranda Lambert: Backstage Access" which will cover a year in her life, built around tweets she'd sent from the road is being readied for opening in mid-May. That preview space adds markedly to the Hall's ability to put its ever-growing collection of historic artifacts on display quickly. Glen Campbell recently donated to the Hall a stunning set of costumes, television show props and more from his storied career they also can be seen as they're being readied for addition to the collection. "Without this new space, " Mr. Young noted, "we would have been scheduling that to appear years out." More of the museum's massive collection will be seen more often and its expanded archives will provide increased opportunities for music researchers.

A new Taylor Swift Education Center, funded by contributions from Ms. Swift and the National Endowment for the Arts, increases to six from one the classrooms available for the Hall's "Words and Music" songwriting classes for Nashville area schoolchildren; a new dedicated Distance Learning Lab means schools from across the globe can arrange for similar experiences. The strikingly modern, horseshoe-shaped 800-seat CMA Theater is already being used for major Hall programs and civic and private events.

The historic Hatch Show Print letterpress shop, which has been producing distinctive and much-loved show posters since the 19th century, has a new and expanded permanent home within the new Hall space, with tours beginning this week. And a new event center, with views of the Nashville skyline, takes up the upper reaches of the facility. Providing space for events is an important source of revenue for an institution that, unusually, earns a substantial portion of its working revenue each year, in addition to the philanthropy it attracts.

Visitors to Nashville will be struck by how well the Hall and Museum's 2001 gamble in moving to its once-obscure neighborhood has paid off. The huge Music City Center convention center is next door on one side, the Schermerhorn Symphony Center on the other, with new hotels and restaurants opened or opening soon, within just a few blocks. Connecting the dots between country music's past and present remains a powerful attraction, and looks like a pretty safe bet.

The Wall Street Journal
by Barry Mazor