Ten years ago, the “Night Train to Nashville” exhibit pulled into the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, bringing a mother lode of memories of Music City’s African American roots in rhythm and blues. The double-CD commemorating the exhibit was a combo of the best air checks from Nashville’s legendary radio station WLAC and the talking walls of such clubs as the Del Morocco, New Era, Baron and Maceo’s: wafting the music of Etta James, Little Richard, Clifford Curry, Robert Knight, Bobby Hebb, Hank Crawford and many others.
On July 30 at Music City Roots, Nashville celebrated the anniversary of “Night Train to Nashville,” bringing together such acts as the Fairfield Four, Clifford Curry, Robert Knight and Marion James—along with such subsequent artists as the McCrary Sisters and Charles Walker who have been influenced by them.
But trains come and go, and Music City Roots changes line-ups every week. To paraphrase the classic gospel song of Curtis Mayfield, “People of Nashville, get ready. Something better than a train’s a’comin’.” Nashville soon will be home to the National Museum of African American Music (NMAAM).
Beecher Hicks III, NMAAM’s president and CEO, hopes people leave the museum “feeling like they just had a multi-sensory experience, one that is not just looking through something at glass and not just one that is experienced through technology, but also something that [they] feel, touch, move, dance and experience in tears and laughter throughout their visit.”
“I hope they also have an experience that the story is bigger, broader, deeper—more complicated than they thought. I hope that the combination of those things makes them want to come back, because there’s so much they can learn. I hope they leave feeling like this . . . was a great experience and it was an awful lot of fun,” Hicks said.
Museum-goers will have “60,000 square feet of permanent and temporary exhibit space to explore, “[with] state-of-the-art-technology throughout, a performance theater, classrooms, offices, and a museum store,” said Perri duGard Owens, spokesperson for NMAAM. “The main galleries will focus on religious music, blues, jazz, popular music, hip hop, and the music of resistance and struggle. Mention will be given to several other genres, including opera, classical, country and Latin music plus others.”
Damien Horne, a member of MusikMafia and the trio The Farm, said the NMAAM also will show how different styles of music inform each other. He is a member of the museum’s advisory council.
“To me, it’s important to be a part of an organization like this that’s pushing music forward—that brings out a lot of the stereotypes,” he said. “That’s one thing I like about music is that it is so balanced. In the industry, you have a tendency to be put into a specific area that you can be a part of, but I know a part of the vision of this museum is to showcase artists in all different kinds of music genres.
“When I was growing up, all we listened to was R&B and hip hop, and now we’re in the iPod era where you have all kinds of people listening to that style of music, and then you have kids listening to rock and pop music. When I was growing up, that was unheard of. So now it just makes it that much broader; it gives a different kind of creativity to the music. I know how strong and how important music is, what music can do as far as bringing people together,” said Horne. He also said that the museum’s incorporation of multiple genres “washes away [the] lines” that “music is supposed to come from certain groups of people.”
NMAAM developers hope that the museum’s offerings in pure music history also will inform the general body of history—and, in doing so, they hope that the museum will become a place of interest for all visitors.
“African American music is such a significant contributor to global culture that it’s not just about the music piece of it,” said Anasa Troutman, another member of the NMAAM Advisory Council. “Seeing the history of that music is seeing the history of America. You cannot talk about American history without talking about the evolution of black music, and you cannot talk about global culture without talking about the evolution of black music. If you are a person who’s interested in politics, interested in culture, interested in history or the evolution of society at all, the story of black music is a significant chapter in those conversations. If you miss out on the museum and the information that’s there, as far as I know, there’s no other place that’s going to rival the museum in terms of telling that story.”
It is through Troutman’s leadership as president of Soulbird, LLC (managing and directing India Arie’s career) and her company Eloveate, through which she creates spaces that merge creative arts with culture and politics, that she approaches her commitment to NMAAM.
“The world is kind of going crazy, and if you look at the history of black music and how powerful it’s been, it seems to me we have an opportunity to learn lessons . . . and use some of those lessons to be strategic about how we’re going to shape culture and politics in the future and do that in a way that would enroll artists and audiences alike,” she said.
As Nashville’s mayor, Karl Dean continues to lead the city’s efforts to support the museum’s development for visitors with a variety of interests.
“I believe there is strong interest in and demand for this type of museum, and the planned location is in a vibrant section of our downtown. Conventioneers will naturally find their way to the National Museum of African American Music, and tourists and music enthusiasts will make it a destination,” said Dean.
“I think Nashville rightfully claims its place as Music City, and I think given that, we’ve got to make sure that the full story is told,” said Hicks. “Long before country music was cool, you had R&B and jazz music being played all along Charlotte Avenue and on Jefferson Street, and people like Jimi Hendrix, Ray Charles, Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and many, many others ([like] DeFord Bailey) were spending time playing in the clubs there.”
“[T]he Fisk Jubilee Singers and their trip to Europe in the 1800s is really what first gave the notion to Nashville being Music City, so I think we need to tell that story in the city. We need to fully claim our place as Music City and make sure that we not only tell the story of all the country legends and the rock-and-roll-stars who made Nashville their home, but we need to make sure that we tell the rest of the story and that includes [all] genres of music and art that have made Nashville a place around the world that is Music City.”
To support the museum, Metropolitan Nashville government “has appropriated $10 million to the project, including $1.8 million made available immediately for engineering, design and other preliminary work. The balance will be made available once fundraising is completed and construction starts,” according to spokesperson Bonna Johnson. “Additionally, Metro is requiring that redevelopment of the Nashville Convention Center include space for the National Museum of African American Music.”
“NMAAM is pleased to have the support of the Metro Government and Mayor Karl Dean,” said Owens. “At present, we are discussing a very realistic option to move the museum concept from the slated location at the corner of Jefferson Street and Rosa Parks Boulevard to the downtown location of the former convention center.”
At this time, officials have yet to determine an opening date for the museum, but in addition to planning being well underway, private fund-raising efforts have gained momentum toward an overall goal of $25 million: nearly half the original projected costs of launching the museum. Such recent events as the Legends Luncheon and a screening of the James Brown biopic, “Get on Up,” have raised funds for the museum and awareness of its programs—both the facility and educational endeavors.
“Ensuring that this project is done right is paramount, and that also includes ensuring its sustainability,” said Owens. “To date, we have the support of the State of Tennessee, Metro Nashville Davidson County, the Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, AT&T, Curb Records and Gaylord Entertainment, along with various other corporate donors.”
Part of the museum’s sustainability extends beyond its walls. NMAAM’s mission includes education, and the museum already has launched outreach programs to youth—including events in schools and at Family Day at OZ, introducing them to basic instruments musicians used to create music (spoons, cigar box guitars and the washboard bass) and at the MET Choral CAMP (with Choral Links, Inc., and the Barbershop Harmony Society), held at Tennessee State University this summer.
“I definitely think that part is the biggest part of this organization—being about to go out and work with the youth, because that’s the future of our music; this is what will keep the music going—after people like myself and the Big Kennys of the world have moved on,” said Horne. “It keeps that alive—and it keeps it innovative.”
The National Music of African American Music soon will attract “passengers from coast to coast” to a grand central station. In the meantime, watch for ongoing special events and learn about related educational programs by visiting the National Museum of African American Music website: nmaam.org.