What Would Dolly Do? Public History in Music City

Gate at the Hatch Show Print shop and workspace. | Credit: Priya Chhaya

This past April I was in a small exhibit space at the Country Music Hall of Fame learning the history of country music through the years. There were CMA awards and costumes, record covers and photographs. In front of me was a screen cycling through the songs of the featured artist. As it shifted to a new song first my foot began to tap, then my head began to bob, and though I was dutifully avoiding eye contact with anyone else in the room I knew I wasn’t the only one.

And then we just started to sing:

You’ve got to know when to hold ’em
Know when to fold ’em
Know when to walk away
Know when to run
You never count your money
When you’re sittin’ at the table
There’ll be time enough for countin’
When the dealin’s done

Because when The Gambler comes on, you can’t help but surrender and smile.  Likewise coming to Nashville means settling in and embracing the music.

A look at some of the memorabilia of the original gambler himself at the Country Music Hall of Fame. | Credit: Priya Chhaya

This wasn’t my first time to Nashville

I was last here in 2009 staffing the National Preservation Conference and ended up super-sick and was unable to do much more than sleep (and attempt to do my job). This time I was an attendee of the Annual Meeting for the National Council on Public History (more on that next week).

While I didn’t get sick this year (huzzah!) I did take an hour break in the middle of the convening to watch the second official trailer of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. And perhaps more appropriately had a small moment, when I saw images of Chip Esten (you know, Deacon Claybourn from the ABC show Nashville) on a storefront on Broadway. I readily admit that the show is a giant soap opera, but seriously have you heard him sing?

Here’s the thing about Nashville. It is a city with a rich and vital history beyond the notes and strumming guitar’s. Just take a moment to drive through Franklin, or step into the Civil Rights Room at the Nashville Public Library — which I wrote about in 2009.

So much creativity happened here. My visit began with a tour of Nashville’s Music Row. This project is one of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s National Treasures, so I have heard a lot about its history and its importance in the Nashville historical landscape. My wonderful colleague Carolyn drove me through the area letting me see how everything connects. Creativity is often stronger when it pools together in one place.

Starting off my visit in Nashville where preservation is in process was the perfect way to go, as it helped me to put my next stop in context. Seeing where the music was made helped me undertsnad how it all fit together.

Where did I go next? The Country Music Hall of Fame. I’ll be the first to admit that I am not a die-hard country fan. The songs and artists I do like are the ones who take a feeling, an emotion, or an event and weave it into a story. It’s world-building in verse, chorus, and harmony.

At the museum I was able to see the evolution of the genre in one place–and I was struck by the materiality of it all. Seeing the instruments, the costumes, the ephemera (Webb Pierce’s car anyone?) built out an image of an industry that has transitioned with American culture and the times — though I will be honest, it is an industry that could use a little more diversity.

Webb Pierce’s Silver Dollar Convertable at the Country Music Hall of Fame. | Credit: Priya Chhaya

One of the exhibitions I attended was called Dylan, Cash, and the Nashville Cats. In this space we learned about Dylan and of course Johnny Cash, but my favorite part was the sound stations of all the Nashville Cats — the session players. These artists provided sound on many an star’s songs and when you hear their music together it is a great experience.

From a public history perspective I have to say the museum did a good job in their use of sound and film to weave together the history of country music. One thing I wish they did (and my friend Sarah pointed this out) was include music and instrument sounds in their audio tours i.e. when they talk about the different banjos and their sounds, let us hear how they sound different.

While at Hatch Show Print I spotted this print for the Tennessee Theatre, a place that was recently restored by historic tax credits. | Credit: Priya Chhaya

Preservation Through Production

After touring the main exhibition we took our tour of Hatch Show Print, a shop that practices “preservation through production”, essentially continuing to practice the letterpress trade that was started hundreds of years ago (though their particular shop is three generations old). Hatch Show is now in a bigger space, they moved after my visit in 2009, that replicates its original storefront, so the tour we got was able to actually show us the process of letterpress while letting us practice the art ourselves. The tour underscored the nuance of hand-crafts and traditional trades and emphasized that it’s not just about the charm but about protecting a process that has visually documented so many important moments in our history. Hatch Show has printed not just all the promotional posters for country music venues, but also for political candidates and rallies.

The Mother Church of Country Music

It’s only fitting that I went from the print shop that promoted so many of country music concerts to the Ryman Auditorium, home of the Grand Ol’ Oprey from 1943-1974. So much happened in that space that its unbelievable that it was almost torn down. Luckily preservationists and supporters in Nashville protected this piece of Nashville history allowing it to adapt and grow with the times while maintaining the rich cultural and historical fabric of its past.

Inside the Ryman Auditorium. | Credit: Priya Chhaya

Live from Nashville

Of course the full Nashville experience includes fighting the crowds of Broadway to hear some magnificent live music. No matter where you are in the city (well at least downtown) everywhere you walk you hear the strumming of a guitar and a humming of a note. On my first night I settled in to listen to a band at Acme Feed & Seed, a rehabbed seed warehouse with some excellent food.

Here are a few seconds of that band.

And of course all of this fits together with this one poster from my Hotel Room. I am assuming its a Hatch Show Print but it emphasizes the importance of music in our lives because after all, who hasn’t asked themselves at one point or another — What Would Dolly Do?

If you want to learn more about the work of the National Trust and our local partners in Nashville head on over to savingplaces.org.

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