HALL OF HISTORY

For five decades, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum has been telling the story of country music — and making its own history

  • In April 1976, Kyle Young was a 22-yearold college student in search of a summer job when he spotted a “Help Wanted” ad for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
         “I was looking around for a job and I loved music,” Young says. “I had never been in the Hall of Fame, but they hired me. It was small, about 20 people on staff and they all loved music. I began to understand what the place was and what it meant, and I got hooked, but I had no intention that I would work there for the rest of my life.”
         Forty-one years after that fateful spring, Young discusses the institution’s history and his personal memories from his office in the Hall. Over the last four decades he worked his way up from ticket taker to executive director, guiding the museum’s course through two decades of its 50-year history, but some of Young’s fondest memories are from those early days.
         “There was a group of academics who were hell-bent on making people understand that country music was an important part of the culture and it needed to be studied and collected,” Young says. “And then you had people like Diana Johnson who wanted to make it a great museum. It was just cool being there.”
         That mission of advocating, preserving, and educating the world about country music has been the primary focus of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum since it opened its doors in 1967. The roots of the Hall lie in the formation of the Country Music Association in 1958. The CMA was a direct response to the beating that country music sales suffered during the rock & roll explosion, and its primary objective was promoting the country format to radio stations, as well as elevating the stature of country music. With that in mind, the CMA established the Country Music Hall of Fame in November 1961 with the unveiling of three bronze plaques honoring Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, and songwriter and publisher Fred Rose at the CMA annual banquet.
         Although the Hall of Fame existed on paper and in bronze, it had no physical home. For the next few years, the plaques resided in a special exhibit in the Tennessee State Museum. In the meantime, the idea of building a permanent museum began to ferment. The CMA briefly considered a country music exhibition at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, but decided the money would be better spent on a permanent museum in Nashville.
         Plans shifted into high gear in the fall of 1963 when newly elected — and first — mayor for Metro-Davidson County Beverly Briley offered a city park at the corner of 16th Avenue South (now Music Square East) and Division Street as a site for the museum. To facilitate fundraising, the nonprofit Country Music Foundation was chartered to oversee the proposed museum. Approximately two years of intense fundraising followed. A groundbreaking ceremony took place on March 13, 1966. The official opening followed slightly over a year later on April 1, 1967.
         From its debut, the Hall was a popular destination for country music fans, attracting over 70,000 visitors in its first nine months of operation. By 1970, total attendance topped half a million. The museum space included a permanent exhibit on the history of country music, a central hall spotlighting the Hall of Fame plaques, a small rotating gallery space highlighting specific artists, a 40-seat theater, and a small gift shop. A small library was maintained in the balcony over the central gallery, but little emphasis was placed on the research or academic mission of the museum.
         CMF board members Bill Denny and Francis Preston advocated increasing the Hall’s academic profile, and in the summer of 1971, the CMF hired Bill Ivey, a 26-year-old folklorist, historian, and bluegrass fan, as the Hall’s first librarian.
         “To me it was going to be a one-year job while I looked around for a full-time teaching position,” Ivey recalls. “I started in August 1971 and immediately asked who do I report to? No one seemed to know. Jo Walker-Meador was the head of both the CMA and the CMF, but most of her time was devoted to the CMA. In October 1971, the board moved Jo to the CMA full time and made me executive director of the CMF. This was only a couple of months after I had been hired as the librarian.”
         Ivey quickly began establishing a separate identity for the CMF and the Hall. The first step came with an expansion into 4,000 square feet of previously unfinished basement space for offices, the library, and archive.
         “At the time, the Hall was doing very well financially, so that freed me up to concentrate on the library,” Ivey says. “We built the collection, hired academic staff, launched an oral history project, and started the Journal of Country Music, basically things that would impress my former academic colleagues and establish us as a serious academic research organization.”
         One of the largest and most important acquisitions was the more than 13,000 records the Hall of Fame purchased in the fall of 1972 from California collector Bob Pinson, one of the foremost collectors of prewar country music in the world. After negotiating the sale, Pinson followed his collection to Nashville and was hired as head of acquisitions for the museum in the summer of 1973.
         “It was a great decision for the organization because it gave us first-class, in-house expertise, and it was great for Bob because he went from being a collector to being the confidant of major artists and a player in the music industry,” Ivey says. “Bob and I collaborated on The Bob Wills Anthology, a two-LP album that was the first real historical reissue to be produced by the Hall of Fame. I’m proud to say that album is still in print on CD.”
         The atmosphere of music and academic research that Ivey fostered hooked Kyle Young when he began working at the Hall of Fame in the spring of 1976. “There were academic discussions about music constantly going on,” Young says. “Everybody was consumed by music. Doug Green, who was in charge of the oral history project, was also auditioning people for the band that would become Riders in the Sky. On Friday afternoons, Ivey, who was a great guitar player, and other guitar players would gather in the reading room in the library and play and talk about music.”
         Folklorist and music journalist Jay Orr discovered the same intoxicating atmosphere of music and knowledge when he joined the museum in 1983.
         “The library was like a crossroads,” says Orr, who left the museum in 1989 to work for the Nashville Banner, and later CMT.com, before returning in 2002. “If you went from one part of the office to another, you crossed the library and you would run into researchers who were doing interesting things. Alan Stoker had his audio restoration studio at the back of the library. So you would hear Hank Williams with just his guitar over and over again as Alan worked to get the clicks and pops out of the recordings. I worked the reference desk, and we would get calls from all over the world asking what was the No. 1 country hit in 1954 or whatever. You could not help but learn a lot from being there.”

    As the museum’s stature as a research and academic organization continued to grow, the staff began to experience fundraising challenges as well as space issues. The financially flush early years faded as economic downturns, rising gas prices, and competing tourist attractions nibbled away at the museum’s attendance. Fortunately, Ivey’s business savvy kept the museum afloat.
         “By the late ’70s, tourism as an automatic source of revenue was over,” Ivey explains. “We had to worry about funding like any other cultural nonprofit. It stayed that way for a long time. At one point in the ’80s, we desperately needed a small cash flow loan of $55,000 to make payrolls. We already owed First American National Bank some money, and we were working with a loan officer who was trying to be a tough guy. I got the word that he was going to turn down our loan. I went down the street to Brian Williams, who had just opened a new Commerce Union office on Music Row, and told him I wanted to move our banking, but we needed this loan. He agreed, so when I met with the First American loan officer, I said, ‘Before you start, we’re moving everything to Commerce Union. Thank you for all the help you’ve given us through the years,’ and walked out on him. I sounded tough, but it was actually a move of desperation.”
         Along with cash flow problems, space — or lack thereof — continued to be an issue. Building expansions in 1977 and 1984 increased exhibit and meeting space, allowing in-depth rotating exhibits and an education program focused on local schools, but “if we only had more room” became a constant refrain for the museum’s staff. When the Hall received accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums in 1987, the wish became more urgent. Young worked his way up through various positions and recalls the intense desire to give back to the city responsible for creating the Hall.
         “We desperately needed more space to really become a part of the community, rather than just this odd attraction on Music Row that you wanted to avoid during Fan Fair week because of the traffic,” Young recalls. “We had a great education program, but we needed more space to engage the community.”
         Although several proposals were considered to expand, the real estate limitations of Music Row continued hampering improvements. The Hall attempted to expand its scope with the acquisition of RCA Studio B in 1977 and Hatch Show Print in 1987 by becoming a multi-stop experience through the use of shuttle buses, but logistics proved to be an ongoing issue.
         In the spring of 1992, Ivey received an auspicious phone call. “Phil Bredesen was mayor at the time, and he was trying to sell the concept for a downtown arena,” Ivey says. “There was going to be 150,000 square feet of open space in the arena building and he wanted to know if the museum would be interested in relocating. He wasn’t really serious. He just wanted to use the Hall of Fame as a selling point for the arena, but I took him seriously.”
         Over the next several months, Ivey and his staff worked with the mayor’s office and the Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency to secure a new location for the Hall. The old Church Street Center, a failed mall that eventually was converted into the main branch of the Nashville Public Library, and several other locations were considered before settling on Demonbreun Street, between Fourth and Fifth avenues, catty-corned from the new arena.
         In 1994, the Hall officially announced its relocation plans, and the long process of design and implementation began. Securing the $37 million necessary for the new facility required fundraising at a level never before undertaken by the Hall. Money wasn’t the only obstacle; the transition from Music Row to downtown required a completely new vision for fulfilling their mission.
         “Looking back, I’m stunned that we had the conviction and the courage to stand up to people and explain what the new Hall could be,” Young says. “We had an opportunity to reposition and reinvent who we were, and (publicity director) Liz Thiels’ vision was so prominent. I’m glad she was a big dreamer. She inspired us to dream big, too.”
         As plans proceeded, Ivey received another unexpected phone call from an elected official. President Bill Clinton offered Ivey the chairmanship of the National Endowment for the Arts. “I had to go to the chairman of the CMF Board and say we have all this rolling, but I’m out of here,” Ivey says. “It probably took Kyle Young a year to get up to speed (as the new director of the CMF), but it all worked out. The key was Diana Johnson. She had left the Hall [where she had been associate director], but returned as the project manager on the relocation and expansion. She was the one who kept everything moving.”

    On May 17, 2001, the new Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum opened with much fanfare. It was a dramatic reinvention, plainly evident in its grand design, massive open spaces, and three floors of exhibits, archives, and program space. More than a museum, the new Hall was a living celebration of the past, present, and future of the music that transformed the “Athens of the South” into “Music City, U.S.A.”
         The transformation was not without problems. A few months after the move, Young found himself embroiled in controversy after the firing of five longtime employees, followed by Bob Pinson’s resignation in protest. According to Ivey, discontent among some members of the academic staff over changes in the Hall’s mission had been simmering for some time. Several outside critics demanded Young’s resignation over the firings — leveling accusations that the Hall’s days as a research and educational entity had been sold out.
         “I didn’t comment on the specifics then, and I don’t think I should do so now, but the environment changed a lot when we moved,” Young says. “We were moving from a 25,000-squarefoot building to a 140,000-square-foot building. We had $31 million in debt, and I needed people who were really tuned into and understood what was in front of us. I didn’t take it lightly and the decisions I made were, I thought, for the good of the place. There was never anything personal in it.”
         Despite the prognostications of doom, the new Hall continued refining its mission. With room for large exhibits exploring specific chapters of history, the Hall’s staff created landmark historical exhibits leading to ancillary programs, concerts, and products, including books and historical reissues of music. The high profile of such exhibits also served as a marketing tool for the museum’s fundraising. This combination of scholarship and education with entertainment and marketing came together fully in the 2004-05 exhibit, Night Train to Nashville: Music City Rhythm & Blues — an exploration of Nashville’s once thriving African-American music scene and the synergy that existed between soul and country.
         “Night Train was a game changer,” says Orr, who is now the executive senior director for research, editorial, and content. “It embraced a local music community that the museum had never embraced, and the curators, Daniel Cooper and Michael Gray, were excellent stewards of that story. There’s a phrase that they give me credit for coining, “confounding expectations.” I think the Night Train exhibit confounded expectations more than any other exhibit. It preserved an important story that was in danger of being lost, and it gave us something to talk about with granting agencies and arts councils.”
         Young also views the Night Train exhibit as a major turning point. “It demonstrated that this was a great museum that does what it’s supposed to do,” he says. “It was cool to make people think about us differently, and that worked not only in Nashville, but across the country.”
         The Country Music Hall of Fame continues confounding expectations with major exhibits focusing on Hank Williams and his family legacy, the country music recordings of Ray Charles, the California country music of Bakersfield, the influence of Bob Dylan’s exhibits focused on both classic and new artists. The mixture of popular topics and untold stories has established the Hall as one of the top music-themed museums in the world. In addition to these triumphs, the Hall has also found financial stability.
         “Rolling the dice for the expansion paid off very well, but it was incredibly risky at the time,” Young says. “If we hadn’t moved when we did, it may have survived, but just barely. Even after opening the new Hall in May 2001, money was an issue for a long time. Midway through 2007 was when it seemed like the incremental gains were continuing and we were probably going to be OK. That was also when we began talking about expanding again. We knew that the convention center was going to happen, and we didn’t want to be left behind again like we were on Music Row.”
         The most recent expansion of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum was completed in 2013 and 2014 and features more exhibit space, the Taylor Swift Education Center, and the 800-seat CMA Theater. Hatch Show Print was also relocated from a separate location on Broadway to its own space in-house. The museum’s artifact collection continues growing and features over 2 million items, including instruments, clothing, periodicals, film and videos, photographs, letters, journals, and over 200,000 sound recordings, many of which have been digitized for online access.

    As for “The Hall’s” continued success through all its incarnations, Ivey says: “Looking back over the decades, I think the key reason for the success of the Hall of Fame/ CMF was the fact that we built the institution from the inside out. That is, our library holdings, museum collections, and staff capabilities were developed before the physical plant. Most modern museums — think Rock Hall, Experience Music Project, Grammy Museum — are built from the outside in: hire a big-name architect; construct an eye-popping shell; try to figure out content. The Country Music Hall of Fame had great programming, great collections, highly competent staff early on, and whenever the physical plant grew, the institution was more than capable of making new space great. To me this truth is really important.”
         “Our main mission is telling the story of country music, not judging it or evaluating it,” Young says. “A balance of depth and texture is always important whether we’re telling a little-known historical story or spotlighting a modern artist. Last June, our Blake Shelton exhibit tied with the Dylan, Cash, and the Nashville Cats exhibit in our surveys on why people came to the museum. But all those Blake Shelton fans discovered things they didn’t know before and learned that if all this other music hadn’t come first, this would not be the ‘It City.’ ”
         Despite the thrill of successes and accomplishments over the last five decades, the former ticket taker still acknowledges the small moments and memories as the sweetest. “We recently received a letter from a woman whose grandfather played country music on the radio,” Young says. “She was browsing our digital sound archive online and discovered a radio transcription. It was the first time she heard her grandfather play. How can you place a value on that? It truly is priceless.”