Magazine article The Saturday Evening Post

Nashville's Art and Soul

Magazine article The Saturday Evening Post

Nashville's Art and Soul

Article excerpt

New attractions blend down-home country with uptown culture and offer enough variety to keep visitors entertained without leaving the city's center.

The vertical windows that wrap around Nashville's new Country Music Hall of Fame look like the black keys of a grand piano. The concrete wall that juts out from the building's corner resembles the tail fin of a '57 Chevy. In the lobby, the snack bar tempts the lunch crowd with items like "Hummus a Tune," "I Fall To Split Pea Soup" and "I Never Promised You A Rose Garden Salad."

On display upstairs is Webb Pierce's outrageous Pontiac convertible with handguns serving as door handles and silver dollars embedded in the upholstery. Parked close to Webb's Bonneville is Elvis's solid gold Cadillac.

Country music has never counted subtlety among its virtues.

In a town where the dress code still includes sequin leisure suits and matching cowboy boots, residents are good sports about the glitz. They joke about living in "Twang Town" and patiently correct northerners who mangle their city's name. "It's Nash-vull," they insist; and downtown Nash-vull has always been the heart of country music. This is where generations of unknown singers have come to duck into honky-tonks, take the stage, and pass the microphone in the hope that a record-company honcho might be lurking somewhere with a contract in his hip pocket.

"It takes the right song, the right look, the right personality, and a little bit of luck," says Ed Benson, executive director of the Country Music Association (CMA), who admits even his well-trained ear doesn't always pick up on a rising talent. "For example, I didn't spot Tim McGraw," he says of Music City's reigning superstar.

The move by the Country Music Hall of Fame from corporate Music Row to the downtown district has been a boon for the city as well as for the Hall. The imposing building is located on the west bank of the Cumberland River, just a few steps from the historic Ryman Auditorium, the honky-tonks of Lower Broadway, and a cluster of new or refurbished hotels. More than twice the size of the original museum, it's an impressive addition to the city skyline and easily can entertain visitors for three hours or more. Where else can a fan see Naomi Judd's wringer washing machine, Roy Orbison's 1954 high-school yearbook, or Patsy Cline's homemade cowgirl outfit? More than a million artifacts are in the collection, although only a small percentage is on display at any given time.

"Most of these artists come from pretty hard scrabble," says Kyle Young, director of the Country Music Foundation that runs the Hall of Fame and Museum. Young became hooked on the music and the music makers after he hired on as a museum ticket taker 25 years ago. He hopes the Hall's new home will cause huge numbers of local residents and out-of-town guests to celebrate the music that the industry calls "the soundtracks of our lives." With the heightened visibility of the Hall, Young dreams of it serving as backdrop to gospel-music brunches, concerts before Tennessee Titan games, and other special events. "I'm convinced we have all the assets; now what do we do with them?" he muses.

The Hall is one in a growing number of attractions that have the capacity to beckon people downtown and keep them there. Nashville used to be a city that tourists needed wheels to enjoy. Without a car and a road map, visitors could easily miss the main points of interest scattered beyond the city's center. But times change, and a renaissance is under way. Visionary city leaders are collaborating with area businesses to find ways to honor tradition without falling victim to it. In spite of its Twang Town image, Music City is more than music. This is no Dogpatch; it's a cosmopolitan city with all the trappings that vacationers covet.

"I never thought we'd see a National Football League team here, but now we have it," says the CMA's Benson, a native of the area. …

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