What’s tall, blond and currently experiencing high visibility at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum? Okay, it’s a trick question—there are two answers: Alan Jackson and Taylor Swift. Jackson has been selected as the Hall’s 2014 Artist-in-Residence (performing two unique, personally curated shows at the CMA Theater in October), and he is also the subject of an exhibit that opened Aug. 29. Earlier this year, the newly renovated and expanded Hall of Fame debuted its Taylor Swift Education Center, providing an environment for learning that exceeds the facility’s former potential sevenfold.
On the surface, the two stars—one a pillar of traditionalism, the other at the pinnacle of pop success—seem to represent opposite polarities. Both of these internationally known names, though, live in unforced unity under the roof of the Hall of Fame, an institution that, more than ever, is working to encompass every aspect of the sprawling art form called country music. The number of Hall exhibits reporting on current developments in country is on the increase; seemingly, so is the number of fans who differ on what constitutes country music. Still, as VP of Museum Services Carolyn Tate maintains, it isn’t possible to view an art form in correct perspective without taking an objective look at the panoramic picture.
“People have a mentality that they’re going to see really old, ancient things in a museum, and we’re making a conscious effort to really appeal to every age group that’s out there,” says Tate. “There are some of the more stalwart fans . . . you know, they want their Loretta Lynn and their Merle Haggard, Jim Reeves and that’s it. But for the other half of the world, [the contemporary] is really appealing,” says Tate, adding that the demographic of the museum’s visitors has at least doubled in the direction of younger attendees. “I think that it is helping to illustrate the very cyclical and generational message that’s in country music, because you don’t find a Taylor Swift or a Zac Brown who hasn’t been influenced by some of these great icons.”
If it’s too early to fully evaluate Taylor Swift’s ultimate influence on the country genre, it’s not too soon to assess the impact of the education center that bears her name (for which the artist donated an unprecedented $4 million). Says the CMHoF’s Director of Education and Public Programs, Ali Tonn, “Taylor has definitely contributed to our expanding visitorship. Her music alone turns audiences on to the genre—and that brings curious and passionate fans to our galleries.” Tonn, noting that education is central to the CMHoF’s mission, affirms that programs at the new center “frequently explore how the present connects with the past. But certainly,” she adds, “the TSEC presents an image to the visitor that we are a museum that is keeping up with the times—which move really fast!”
New, youth-oriented interactive exhibits that opened in the TSEC in April allow visitors to walk through a 52-foot-high guitar and see a magnified view of its inner workings, or board a replica of Taylor’s tour bus, where they can record their own vocal performance over a pre-recorded music track (with diverse choices including not only Swift but Bob Dylan and James Brown). Those interested in pursuing music-related careers will find a particular wealth of resources, such as a personality test designed to indicate their ideal match with one of 16 possible music-industry occupations. “The deliverable,” offers Tate, “is that not everybody has to be drop-dead gorgeous and be able to sing like an angel. [If] you don’t have an obvious gift, your talents manifest in other ways.”
Numerous programs centered around music-making include songwriting workshops that serve individuals and family groups as well as teachers, who receive training on using lyric writing as a valid part of a language arts curriculum. Student efforts are compiled and set to music by a pro songwriter, providing “an authentic learning opportunity for students,” says Tonn, “since they get to interact with a professional in Nashville’s songwriting community.” Performance-based programs offer similar exchanges with pro musicians, she says. “You can’t overestimate what simple exposure can do to open up and change the awareness of a young person.”
The experience of all this likely sparks some starry eyes in kids dreaming of the big time, but that isn’t the museum’s objective. Songwriting workshops, for example, emphasize the value of songs as outlets for self-expression and a means of preserving stories. “Songwriting,” says Tonn, “can be a lifelong pursuit that adds enrichment and perspective to our lives. We don’t see our role as grooming the next country music superstar.”
Similarly, neither does the CMHoF make popularity the ultimate compass for choosing the artists who find a home there; rather, it’s a matter of overall impact, and including everyone who is part of the music’s still-unfolding and interwoven saga. It’s a delicate dance—fame, understandably enough, is often attached to those artists who make a sizable impact. Indeed, it’s part of the Hall of Fame’s very name. But while celebrity alone would be reason enough for a focus on Alan Jackson, his Hall residency and new exhibit are founded upon his weighty, influential body of work, which he’s thus far spent 25 years creating. In an impressively coordinated one-two punch, the press conference announcing his planned 25th anniversary tour and concurrent Hall of Fame honors took place just hours after Jackson was named the inaugural recipient of the CMT Impact Award at the country video network’s annual awards show.
Jackson accepted the award from presenter Carrie Underwood, who cited the veteran artist as the first she’d seen in concert and one who made a major impact on her, as is the case with many of her fellow artists. The award, according to CMT’s SVP of Music Events & Talent John Hamlin, was recently created “to honor some of the artists that came before this generation of country music, who’ve paved the way for them and made country music videos what they are today. Alan Jackson was really one of the first people that came to mind,” says Hamlin, one of the executive producers of the CMT Music Awards. “There are few artists in country music who have been able to elevate the songs they record with images as well as Alan Jackson has done.” In Hamlin’s opinion, the star’s active role in the quality control of his music videos—which number an impressive 55—comes across in their taste and consistency.
Jackson, as the CMHoF’s Tate confirms, is “a very, very hands-on artist, as far as how his career goes and the kind of music that he makes. So he had to be really on board,” she says, with the mounting of a full-scale exhibition. “He also had to be in the mood to let me go out and scavenge through his house, through his very personal man cave. We have gone over there and put tags on everything, and he hasn’t fainted yet,” says Tate, chuckling. “We’re going back over a 25-year career, and going back over costumes and memorabilia and photos and fan art that are telling all of this [story].”
The exhibit, not surprisingly, will also include “a lot of awards. When you look back at his albums, and how many had number-one hits or Top 10s,” says Tate, “it’s a phenomenal number of industry awards.” Jackson, known for being particularly modest, says that taking inventory is a mind-blowing reminder of his incredible good fortune and lengthy, still-vital career. “I used to think if you could have a hit or two and your career lasts three or four years, you’re very lucky,” says the star. “In the beginning, you think, ‘Well, I won this award . . . you probably won’t win any more awards,’ and the next thing you know,” he says, “it just keeps coming and coming and coming. It’s overwhelming for me to go look at it all.” In addition to the most prestigious music industry honors, Jackson says he’s received “everything from pieces of the Pentagon when it got hit . . . pieces of steel from 9-11 . . . sheriff’s badges from every county in the country, just about, and keys to cites and, I mean, just so many small and large honors that just keep on coming.”
Personal items such as these will be on display, as will the fairy-tale 1955 Thunderbird that a young Alan restored along with his dad. Many years after parting with the treasured vehicle to obtain a down payment for a house, Jackson again became the owner, thanks to his wife’s diligence in tracking it down as a surprise. Wardrobe items will also be featured. “He made an art form of torn jeans, and I’m putting together a 25-year retrospective of those torn jeans,” says Tate with a hearty laugh. “I mean, the design work on those, and such a considered part of his look, is incredible. We have a lot of milestone clothing, but especially the jeans.”
CMT’s Hamlin recalls that, as a teen, he was drawn in by the distinctively damaged denim Jackson sported in the video for “Chattahoochie,” his autobiographical 1993 chart-topper. “Those maybe look like country hillbilly jeans, but to me,” Hamlin recalls, “those were rock ’n’ roll jeans. They were all cut up, and he was water skiing in his blue jeans!” The video, says Hamlin, “opened the gates” to his interest in country music. Those jeans might just have a similar effect today on teenagers exposed to the Jackson exhibit; that’s often how these things work, says Tate.
“My personal philosophy is, even if you don’t think you like country music, or even if you got dragged into this museum, and you think you don’t like it, that something will touch you or make life a little better by the time you get out. Museums are living, breathing places,” Tate asserts, “and they’re not just for the dead and dying. Everyone should find something that helps them make sense of the human condition.”