A while ago, as the title may have hinted, we made our pilgrimage to the Country Music Hall of Fame, a museum where the adulation for genre is so thick you practically smell the bluegrass.
Established in 1967 by the Country Music Foundation to archive, preserve and document the rich history of Honky-Tonk, their 130,000 square foot building is unlike anything you have ever seen. Basically, it’s been constructed to resemble a ginormously oversized keyboard, with vertical rectangles of glass segmenting the modernist facade like gleaming piano bars. The actual hall of fame itself is a slender dome attached to the left wing of the main structure; an antennae juts skywards from its centre, a symbolic thanks to the radio stations which popularized Country music across the USA.
The interior is equally jawdropping; the ceiling of the monolithic main lobby is taller than most cathedrals. We enter the museum via a lift, wherein someone recognises our accents and makes the inevitable Brexit joke.
Too soon, man. Too soon.
Mercifully, the lift doors open, and the group floods out into a gallery of polished glass displays and large screens showing scratchy documentary footage of hirsute violinists and ukele-plucking farmhands. This is the top floor where all the permanent exhibitions are kept and lovingly tended to. Look no further than Elvis’ Cadillac, a improbably wide car which was apparently buffed in a shimmeringly extravagant mixture of crushed diamonds and fish scales. It’s almost half a century old but looks fresh off the bespoke production line.
Even an indie rock infidel like me couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by their vast collection of country artifacts, by all accounts the largest and most varied in the world. There’s even a Taylor Swift Education Center, funded by the pop queen herself, to help engage the millennial whippersnappers in the legends of Hank Williams and Jimmy Rodgers.
A spiral staircase leads down to the second floor, which this month is home to a limited time exhibition called Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, and the Nashville Cats. “Nashville Cats” was a 1966 chart hit by Lovin’ Spoonful and quickly became a loving nickname for the city’s rich reserve of talented session musicians. Their industrious work ethic and seemingly limitless adaptability was the piston that drove 50’s Country music, but somehow lost favour with the contemporary protest singers of the early 60’s.
Naturally, it took a man with a voice like “sand and glue” to rebuild the Music City to it’s former glory. In 1966, Bob Dylan decided to record his steamrolling masterpiece Blonde on Blonde at Nashville’s CBS studios, and in doing so resurrected the city as the premium arena to produce challenging and dazzlingly sophisticated work.
This led to a fast friendship with fellow iconic wanderer Johnny Cash, who thanked Dylan for his stewardship of Nashville music by asking him to perform at the inaugural episode of the Johnny Cash Show, a musical variety programme which ran from 1969 to 1971. What stayed with me was a grainy monochrome snapshot of Dylan and a producer being photobombed by a slightly startled Cash. It’s one thing to trace the steps of titans, another thing entirely to recognise they trod the same earth as you.
Later, we hopped on a tourbus to RCA Studio B, the modest recording studio which birthed 1,000 hits like the timelessly toe-tapping Jolene and Heartbreak Hotel. Our guide was a sharp tongued goateed man named George, who casually revealed mid-sentence that he played bass in a band helmed by John Carter Cash. Yes, there was indeed a relation.
We came to a halt by a stout uptown bungalow and were ushered into a wood panelled room. A grand piano stood in the corner. Apparently, Elvis played it. George pointed to a peeling cross of blue tape that marked out the spot in the studio where the vocal sounded the best. Realising I was treading on it, I sheepishly shuffled my heathen feet aside and listened as George gave a lecture about the innovative lighting rig Elvis installed during July sessions for a Christmas album. To create a festive atmosphere, the lights would bathe the studio in a sensual crimson, whereas the moody ballads would be drawled in a haze of becalming blue. Using lighting to create a musical mood is a common technique today; in the 1950’s, it was nothing short of groundbreaking.
The tour ended soon after that, but not before my sister copped a feel of the piano. She hasn’t washed her hands since.