Tennessee Tourism Shines a Light On Many Pathways of Country, Blues and Rock Originators

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Nashville

When drivers park their cars in a beat-up lot at the corner of Eighth and Church in downtown Nashville, few of them even have an inkling that they're treading on hallowed ground.

For roughly nine years -- from the mid-1940s until 1956 -- the Castle Recording Studio occupied space in the Tulane Hotel at that location, hosting Hank Williams' recordings of "Hey, Good Lookin' " and "I Saw the Light," Kitty Wells' "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" and other hit-making sessions by Country Music Hall of Fame members Bill Monroe, Ernest Tubb, Ray Price and Little Jimmy Dickens. But without any official markers, the property's connection to Tennessee's best-known industry has all but disappeared.

The Tennessee Department of Tourist Development is on a path to correct that oversight at hundreds of music-related spots across its 440-mile span. The Tennessee Music Pathways program, initiated by outgoing TDTD commissioner Kevin Triplett, launched with a September 2018 concert on historic Beale Street in Memphis, where Dustin Lynch, Elle King, The Isley Brothers and producer Booker T. Jones (Willie Nelson, Booker T. & The MG's) performed in celebration of the initiative's website.

Triplett oversaw the development of the concept, which brings more comprehensive and cohesive awareness of the Volunteer State's significant music-related sites across multiple genres. The goal is to parlay that into greater state pride and longer visits by tourists who discover just how deep Tennessee's music roots extend.

"It's almost surreal when you're standing in a place where you know a song was written or recorded," says Triplett. "Music is a universal language. We all can hear a song that takes us to some point in our lives that we remember from high school or college. It's important to most of us."

Plenty of the most iconic music sites in the state are already designated in some form. The blues-centric Beale Street has a W.C. Handy statue and markers celebrating B.B. King, Rufus Thomas and Lansky Brothers, the first fashion store where Elvis Presley bought much of his stage wear. The Birthplace of Country Music Museum occupies the site in Bristol where Jimmie Rodgers, The Carter Family and Ernest "Pop" Stoneman recorded the sides that became known as the Big Bang of Country Music. And Nashville boasts a fair amount of museums and markers, though many of its most seminal locations remain undefined. Even TDTD employees are often unaware that their building stands in the same place WSM-AM Nashville used to call home and where Roy Orbison cut "Oh, Pretty Woman" at what was then the Fred Foster Sound Studio.

Preservation of music history has risen in importance in Nashville as new developers have bought properties in Music Row, taking a wrecking ball to buildings that were central to the creation of heartland culture. The movement was practically shocked into existence when RCA Studio A -- a former recording home for George Strait, Bobby Bare and Charley Pride -- was nearly torn down and replaced by an apartment complex.

"When something becomes endangered, people do get excited about that," notes Triplett. "What we want is for people to be excited about it consistently enough to where things don't become endangered."

Under Triplett's direction, TDTD secured a $4 million budget for the program's first two years, in which it identified hundreds of physical sites -- including recording studios, birthplaces, statues, live venues and cemeteries -- with connections to a variety of genres. Using the Pathways website, tourists are able to plot trips to locations of personal interest. Colin Escott (author of Hank Williams: The Biography and Good Rockin' Tonight: Sun Records and the Birth of Rock ‘N' Roll) was tapped to write synopses for the new markers, and efforts were started to obtain permissions to use copyrighted material in the signage, evaluate the best locations for markers and obtain property easements.

As many as 10 markers are ready for installation, with the first likely to involve a living honoree this spring. Triplett, who was appointed by Gov. Bill Haslam in 2015, announced his resignation when newly elected Gov. Bill Lee designated new TDTD commissioner Mark Ezell, whose first day in office was Jan. 22. A former Dean Foods executive, Ezell brings to the department a branding/marketing expertise, best illustrated by a role in the familiar "Got Milk?" mustache campaign. Despite the change in administration, the Pathways program is "not in any jeopardy of going away," says TDTD assistant commissioner of marketing Brian Wagner.

The program was inspired in part by tragedy. A memorial in Benton County designates the spot where a plane crashed in 1963, killing Patsy Cline, Hawkshaw Hawkins and Cowboy Copas, and people still regularly visit the location. Tennessee Music Pathways recognizes a host of burial sites  for artists such George Jones, Dottie West and Chet Atkins, but also acknowledges more upbeat locations including Memphis' Royal Studios, where Bruno Mars recorded "Uptown Funk!"; the Nashville Palace, a key developmental venue for Randy Travis and Alan Jackson; and the WIVK Knoxville, Tenn., studio where Dolly Parton made her radio debut.

By design, Tennessee Music Pathways is intended to help visitors create physical pathways to meaningful properties. But like any good marketing scheme, its deeper motivation is to create an emotional pathway that links visitors to Tennessee by helping them stand in the same spots where their heroes have tread -- whether that's at a functioning concert venue or at a parking lot that once was a space where "Your Cheatin' Heart" was captured for posterity.

"When [people] are happy, they play music," says Triplett. "When they're grieving, they listen to music. Music is the connector, and we want to connect people to it."