Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Music of Music City -- Verse 2

In my last posting I was reporting Nashville news that I'd intended to post on Friday. So what was I doing yesterday that had me so distracted? Well, one factor -- 'tho I really do not care to blame it -- is that I was listening to music.

Imagine that, in "Music City"!

After eating a delicious lunch with J.R. (a fellow resident of Mercury Courts) and Tim of Building Lives (vets aid group) at Tex's World-Famous Barbecue on Foster Ave. off Murfreesboro Rd., I prepared to go out again and run errands. One involved a visit to a library -- so the question remains, why did I forget to also visit my blog site while there?

While preparing to go, awaiting the MTA bus, and then riding the same, I was listening to WSM-AM 650. That time of week day Keith Bilbrey is serving as deejay. I'm not going to say that Keith is my favorite WSM personality, because I treasure them all! What does set him a bit apart, I suppose, is being the "dean" of WSM deejays/Opry emcees. Besides, his voice and demeanor are those of a genuine Tennessee "country boy" (he's from Cookeville): friendly, hospitable and warm. How could anybody NOT like a guy like Keith?

Well, as I was listening around midday Friday Keith enhanced my "fan-ness!" For among his superb repertoire of songs aired was my favorite of all country songs of all time: "Love Without End, Amen". Aaron Barker wrote this celebration of a true daddy's unconditional love and George Strait recorded it. This was a Number One song in country music in 1990, and it remains #1 in my heart to this day!

Keith also aired a song by Kitty Wells. The Queen of Country Music isn't an artist with whom I'm really familiar. But she could sing a good song, such as this one; the acoustic beat of the upright bass added even more pleasure to the listening. My deejay friend also played the current hit "In Color", recorded by Jamey Johnson. The lyrics present a dialog between the singer and his grandpa about b & w photos from the latter's youth -- Depression, WW II, wedding -- "you shoulda seen it in color."

Also, Keith aired a former hit of several years ago, when I first ever came to Tennessee. This is "Kay", recorded by John Wesley Ryles. It's a revelation of the seedy side of life here, that it's NOT all shiny guitars, rhinestones and sequins in America's Music City. But dear reader, don't take "Kay" as a slam on Nashville. The lyrics will fit any urban entity in these United States. "Kay, I'm livin' yet I'm dyin', staring out at Music City from my cab." The singer could be staring at ANY city. Like any genuine country hit song it tells the unvarnished reality of life.

As Harlan Howard once said, "Country Music is three chords and the truth."

That quote is displayed in no less a place than the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. I read it today; it captivates me with its accurate appraisal of the music I loathed as a lad -- did I also loath truth? -- and came to adore as an adult!

I read it today because as Keith Bilbrey and others announced, admission was free. Thank you, Ford Foundation (sponsor of the freebie)! I'd been to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum many years ago, when it sat at the downtown end of Music Row, in a building with a barn-like roof. In the 1990s it moved into a newly-built home downtown just two blocks from historic Ryman Auditorium. I'd been in this new location, which is much larger than the old and outwardly features architectural elements that resemble a piano keyboard and other items of music and broadcasting -- but entered only as far as the information desk or the gift shop.

Today I saw all of this new home/house museum for Country and Western music. It would have been well worth regular admission, had I needed to pay it. Thank you, Ford Foundation!

After being in a long line to receive the comp ticket (lots of my neighbors as well as tourists apparently had learned of the freebie) I queued up in another line to ascend the elevator to the top (third) floor and the start of the museum tour. The Harlan Howard quote adorns a first-floor wall opposite the elevator.

The exhibits, all fascinating, chronicle the history of country music from its various roots, which melded to give birth to the genre about a century ago. The third floor includes a few big screens which show interview-type presentations by such stars as Loretta Lynn, Charley Pride and Patty Loveless speaking about various country music topics.

Interspersed on the third and second floors are listening stations. Alas! the printed instructions and selections were so small and dim (lacking sufficient contrast with the background) that I could only plainly read one of the first. My selection at this station was Deford Bailey's "Pan American Blues". This Afro-American harmonica wizard's rendition served an integral role the evening of the late 1920s, when the "WSM Barn Dance" got a name change to "Grand Ole Opry" thanks to an ad lib remark.

The second floor, continuing the music genre's progression thru the mid and late 1900s into the current century, has a small semi-enclosed auditorium with a video showing country music on TV shows. Shows such as "The Beverly Hillbillies" (Flatt & Scruggs recorded the theme song and actually cameoed an episode or two), "Andy Griffith" (with Mayberry's resident folk-country group The Dillards), "The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour" and or course "Hee Haw".

Confession: the latter show began its run when yours truly still loathed country, so I avoided TV's cornfield for years. Having later warmed to the music I also found the televised show in syndication to be just as delightful for the watching as the music is for the listening!

Farther along -- entering the era when I became a country music fan, late 1970s and into the '80s -- I arrived at an exhibit case which holds among its artifacts one for my "main man", George Stait. It's a saddle given him to honor his CMA and ACM top accolades. How fitting! for "the Strait man" is hardly "just" a singer wearing a Stetson. Nosireebob! George is the REAL DEAL: a ranch and rodeo cowboy in South Texas whenever he isn't on the road strumming and crooning his latest hits. No mere "hat act", he even sponsors and competes in a horseback roping contest in Kingsville, near Corpus Christi.

My tour concluded with a stroll into and around the very Hall of Fame itself. The round, vaulted shrine presents the bronze plaques which honor each inductee, from the first three in 1961 (Jimmy Rodgers, Fred Rose & Hank Williams) to last year's (Tom T. Hall, Emmylou Harris, The Statler Brothers & Ernest "Pop" Stoneman).

The names I just listed indicate that the honor of Hall of Fame membership not only goes to singing stars but also to key movers "behind the scenes" (Rose was a songwriter and co-founder of Nashville's first music publishing house). It's awarded not only posthumously (e.g. Hank) but also goes to currently-performing and recording artists (Emmylou).

The wall being round and the plaques set in three irregular levels on it in no alpha or chrono order, no one inductee gets greater honor than the rest. I saw in this democratic display the plaques of so many folks who mean much to me: Emmylou, Minnie Pearl ('75), Ray Price ('96), Roy Rogers ('88 -- my boyhood hero), "Bud" Wendell ('98 -- as Opryland's boss my boss a few years prior), Alabama ('05), Charley Pride ('00) to name just a few of so-o-o-o many. Of course I saw and delighted in the plaque for my "main man" George Strait ('06). He's the singing REAL cowboy from Texas who "rode in" to help save REAL country music when in the 1980s it threatened to get lost forever in its own "pop"-ularity!

Thank God that George and other neo-traditionalists -- yes, and the "hat acts" who emulated him -- rescued the genre. Thank God the new Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum preserves and promotes the genre. And thank you for the free-admission day, Ford Foundation!

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