When visitors begin to experience the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s new “American Currents” exhibit on March 17, they’ll see artifacts of country’s 2016 newsmakers — including Jason Aldean, Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini — housed just a few steps away from memorabilia associated with Roy Acuff, Johnny Cash and Bill Monroe.
The museum, which opened its doors 50 years ago in April, serves essentially the same role as Broadway’s Hamilton, documenting an essential piece of American history, but using modern tools and vernacular to make the case.
“We’re reporters, really,” says museum executive director Kyle Young. “We’re reporting on this music, where it came from, what it is now, how the past relates to the present, how the past might inform what’s going on now.”
And like the music itself, the hall has undergone quite the transformation in its five decades. When such A-listers of the time as Webb Pierce and Eddy Arnold attended the grand opening of the original museum, at the corner of 16th Avenue South and Division, they walked into a barn-shaped structure with one floor for display cases. It eventually included basement offices that housed the bulk of the organization’s collection and what would become an education/research center.
The reasons for the inaugural building’s farm-like exterior are — ironically, for a museum — lost to history, though designer Earl Swensson was likely swayed by the origins of the music itself. Country first caught hold in rural America, and many of its early radio shows, including WLS Chicago’s National Barn Dance and KWKH Shreveport, La.’s Louisiana Hayride, burnished their brands through agricultural imagery. Even the Grand Ole Opry was known as The WSM Barn Dance when it was initiated in November 1925 on WSM-AM Nashville, and it still maintains a barn backdrop for its stage in 2017.
But the genre’s audience, like the nation itself, has moved to more centralized communities, with suburban listeners now the predominant part of the fan base. Thus, it’s appropriate that the Hall recast itself in 2001, shifting to downtown Nashville for a sleeker, more modern structure with a piano-keyboard street face, an antenna that pays homage to the Opry and steel embellishments that mimic the formal notation for The Carter Family‘s iconic “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”
In its original location, the quaint old barn stood across the street from a row of tourist traps, and while its purpose was appreciated, it began to feel as dated as some of the pioneers it celebrated. With more space in its new digs, the hall became more aggressive in its programming, replacing spotlight exhibits on a regular basis — in turn creating more events and thus generating more attention.
The focal point began to change, too. In addition to showcasing such foundational characters as Hank Williams, Gene Autry and Bob Wills, the facility had more room to tell country’s current story. Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert and Luke Bryan have all been the subject of recent exhibits, while Tim McGraw, Faith Hill and Shania Twain have 2017 displays on the way.
“We’re engaging this institution in a very real way with the artist community that’s out there making a living,” says Young. “They do think of us more often, and that helps us in all kinds of ways.”
One obvious way is financial. The involvement of those younger acts has been key to the museum’s growth. Keith Urban and Vince Gill regularly throw an All for the Hall concert at nearby Bridgestone Arena, typically raising $500,000 or more. The guest list invariably includes such Hall members as Charley Pride and Ronnie Milsap, but it also relies on current arena headliners like Brantley Gilbert and Florida Georgia Line.
With the industry’s goodwill behind it, the museum raised $75 million in the post-recession economy to expand the building by 210,000 feet in 2014. That investment, on top of the $37 million required to construct and open the facility in 2001, dwarfs the $450,000 required to build the original barn back in 1967. The investment seems to have paid off, too. With a 355-person staff (including 190 full-time employees) the Hall is “looking at financial stability for the first time since I’ve been here,” says Young, who joined the organization in the mid-1970s.
While the museum naturally documents the progress of the genre, its rotating displays have also helped current acts gain perspective on their own accomplishments. For example, when a Zac Brown Band exhibit opened in 2016, Brown was moved by the museum’s effort in telling the group’s story with the same care that it treats its historical figures.
“We spend all of our time building things and growing, and we don’t often look back to see what we’ve built,” said Brown that day. “Seeing everybody’s personal things and all the memories that are attached to all of them, it’s kind of emotional.”
Part of that emotion is the recognition that the band is now part of -country’s lineage. Just as it’s meaningful for an individual to understand what he or she inherited from parents and grandparents, there’s value for country’s artists to see their connection to their predecessors. At the exhibit openings, the artists typically speak at a party in their own honor in the Hall’s Rotunda, surrounded by plaques of Merle Haggard, Patsy Cline, Garth Brooks and Dolly Parton.
When Brad Paisley‘s exhibit opened in November, he noted how four of those inductees — Little Jimmy Dickens, Bill Anderson, George Jones and Buck Owens — had all become recording partners and friends. “I didn’t just get to meet these guys,” said Paisley. “I got to create with them over the years.”
Now seamlessly connected to the Omni Nashville Hotel, the Hall registered annual attendance of 1 million for the first time in 2015.
Young hints that its education program, which had 175,000 participants in 2016, is likely to expand in 2017. That’s appropriate, since education has been at the forefront of the museum’s goals since its foundation.
One important way to educate people is to take history out of its time capsule and put it into context with modern life. Ultimately, that’s why leaving the old barn and heading downtown has been a boon to the Hall of Fame, providing more space to tell more stories about more generations of country. It is, like Hamilton, finding a way to link history with the current environment.
“I don’t think the mission changed,” says Young, “but we’re fulfilling it in a broader way.”