If you’re running a museum that specializes in, say, dinosaurs, Studebakers, or perhaps the history of the 8-track tape, it’s probably safe to make no plans for future expansion. Country music, on the other hand, is as alive and vibrant as any popular American art form has perhaps ever been. So, while the 210,000-square-foot expansion currently underway at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum is in itself impressive, the simple truth is that such growth is necessary, as the history of country music shows no signs of striking a final chord.
In order to tell country’s unfolding patchwork quilt of a story as comprehensively as possible, the Hall of Fame has begun bringing in contemporary exhibits such as the recent Carrie Underwood: The Blown Away Tour, a collection of concert tour artifacts. Smaller “spotlight” exhibits examine aspects of the currently popular TV show Nashville and singer Kellie Pickler’s recent win on NBC’s Dancing With the Stars.
One of the primary facets of the Hall of Fame’s soon-to-be-completed phase of expansion, in fact, is a new gallery designed largely to showcase more present-tense country—tomorrow’s history today, as it were. As Curatorial Director Mick Buck explains, “We’re trying to stay abreast of current events and things in country music—not just documenting the history, but trying to keep tabs on it as it happens, as history is being made. So we’re continually adding to the story of country music as it develops.”
Buck adds that whenever possible, he and his colleagues attempt to show the connections interwoven throughout country’s multi-hued fabric. The fact is that country’s saga starts at banjos and bib overalls, moves to Stratocasters and spangled suits, and has gone on in the 21st century to embrace everything from hip-hop to high fashion . . . and once again, banjos. The museum’s core exhibit, the two-story-encompassing Sing Me Back Home, features items dating back to country’s rip-roaring rural origins and proceeds chronologically through the genre’s many adaptations. Buck affirms that this decades-long tale contains “a lot of cyclic activity, with country music going through phases where it’s trying to broaden its appeal to a larger audience, and maybe embracing more pop or rock elements, of course alienating some of its older audience. And inevitably,” he says, “the wheel spins back around . . . [and there’s] a return to roots. It’s happened quite a few times.”
Buck, an Arkansas native who has been in his current position at the Hall since 2004, works with a team of roughly a dozen people who collaboratively plan, curate, design, and mount each museum exhibit. It’s a job that can take as much as two years from conception to completion. When considering exhibit subjects, the final choice largely comes down to one question: Are there enough artifacts and materials available to effectively tell the story of an artist or a musical movement?
The Hall’s currently running exhibit on the California-bred Bakersfield Sound—a honky-tonk-birthed reaction to the easy-listening style of country that emerged from 1950s/’60s-era Nashville—is one example of how an opportunity can present itself. “We had been talking about and wanting to do that exhibit for a long time,” the curator says, “but didn’t necessarily think we had access to enough materials to really do the story justice. And a few years back, the estate of Buck Owens got in touch with us and made it known that they were willing to let us borrow a lot of Buck Owens memorabilia: stagewear, guitars and a lot of other items.” With that collection as a starting point, the team then set about acquiring items relating to other important parts of the story, most notably major Bakersfield Sound proponent Merle Haggard. The exhibit will continue throughout 2014.
One of the exhibits running at any given time, says Buck, is designed to honor a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame. Last August, the Hall debuted Reba: All the Women I Am, detailing the life and impact of the singer/actress, a Hall of Fame member inducted in 2011 whose last name most of us already know. As curator, Buck couldn’t have been more pleased: “Reba, in her own words, is a pack rat, which is perfect, because she’s kept everything going back to her childhood. Not only has she kept it and taken care of it,” he says, “but she just basically gave us access to any and all materials that we thought would work to tell her story.”
Confirming that the red-headed superstar is as unpretentious as she appears, Buck says, “I couldn’t imagine a star of her celebrity and stature being more down to earth.” He relates an instance in which Reba and her family were being given a preview of the exhibit and were viewing a film covering highlights of her nearly 40 years in country music. “I overheard some comments she made to her grandkids as she was watching herself on the big screen . . . just like listening to any grandparent talking to their grandkids, like if they were looking at an old photo album and saying, ‘Oh, look, there’s Grandma doing so and so.’”
Buck, whose work brings him into close contact with country artists of significant reputation, says that in his experience, “the celebrity factor tends to go out the window. I get the sense that these are real people, and of course we are certainly aware of who they are and their accomplishments and status, and are respectful of that, but being able to make a more down-to-earth, human connection with them really helps us to tell their story. It’s exciting for them,” he adds, “to go back and revisit those parts of their lives, to get our perspective on it and see that it’s something that we consider important, and a story worth telling.”
The Reba exhibit is scheduled to run through early June 2014, though museum staff is keeping news of its upcoming exhibits largely under wraps until closer to March, when the facility plans to premiere its more than doubled size: 350,000 square feet, including the newly built spaces that interconnect with the sparkling new Omni Nashville Hotel. Veering from the country mainstream somewhat is a planned exhibit honoring Americana singer/songwriter John Prine, allows Buck, but even the Hall’s soon-to-be-unveiled new gallery lacks a definite name at this point. Buck is quick to explain, however, that this delay is actually indicative of the museum’s forward-looking focus. “Since we’re trying to reflect a story that’s happening now, we can’t get things too set in stone just yet. It defeats the whole purpose of trying to stay current.”
This story is available thanks to the sponsorship of Grand Avenue Worldwide