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It's a Twang Thang

By Joe Heim
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 12, 2002; Page E01

Drop a guitar pick on a U.S. map and it will likely land on a city, town or hamlet loaded with meaning for music lovers. Rock fans fly to Seattle just to pay tribute to Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain. Blues enthusiasts roll down the Mississippi Delta on Highway 61 searching for Robert Johnson's infamous crossroads or the Clarksdale hospital where Bessie Smith died. And no passionate jazz fan would come to Washington without genuflecting in front of 1212 T St. NW, one-time home to jazz great Duke Ellington.

And country music fans? They head for Nashville. Not because that's where all the great country artists came from – most didn't. No, Nashville is pilgrimage-worthy because it is the collision point of so much country music history and mythmaking, legend and lore. It is the city that gave the music its identity. By the middle of the 20th century, if you wanted to be a country music star, all of America's back roads and blue highways led to this middle Tennessee city on the Cumberland River.

A plaque commemorates the late Waylon Jennings at Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. (Mark Humphrey - AP Photo)

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And with the opening of the gleaming new Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum last May, it's a good time to visit. The $37 million building is nothing like the country cousin it replaced. The old hall, built in 1967 on Nashville's Music Row, had grown grim and forlorn over the years – stuffed with mementos and memories but rarely visitors. As the building boom exploded in Nashville in the 1990s, the city's music aristocracy began the push to have the hall replaced.

Banjo virtuoso Earl Scruggs, who with his late partner Lester Flatt was inducted into the hall of fame in 1985, was among those who fretted a bit that country music's history wasn't receiving its proper due in its capital city.

"Whoever named Nashville 'Music City, USA' hit it right on the head, but there was no darn thing to show for it," he said during a walk-through the hall last summer. "But this new building, well, I'd say it sure is a fine, fine place."

Indeed it is. But it's also rather bizarre-looking. One corner rises up like the prow of a giant concrete battleship, and the rotunda looks like a cross between a grain silo and a prison guard tower. And yet, despite its many peculiarities, the building fits in nicely in downtown Nashville, which lately has developed a thing for odd-looking structures. The nearby 20,000-seat Gaylord Entertainment Center looks like a flying saucer that has crash-landed in the middle of downtown. And locals refer to the 26-story BellSouth building as the Batman Building, because of its surreal resemblance to the superhero's cowl.

The hall of fame's designers solicited ideas from all quarters for country concepts to incorporate into the building. In addition to the expected musical components, they received suggestions ranging from grain silos and Cadillac tail fins to pickup trucks and prisons. Looking at the final result, it's pretty clear that no idea was rejected.

But while the hall's adventurous modern design may not capture the rural essence and simplicity of country music, there is no quarrel with the magnificent job that has been done inside the walls. Even several hours isn't enough time to absorb the astonishing assortment of music, film, clothing, instruments and memorabilia.

At one of the hall's many multimedia stations, you can listen to a 1927 recording of DeFord Bailey, the Grand Ole Opry's first African American star (indeed its first bona fide solo star), singing "Pan American Blues," then watch a young and raw Johnny Cash perform "Folsom Prison Blues."

Thick glass casing protects Ted Daffan's original handwritten lyrics to "Born to Lose," as well as a copy of one-time San Quentin Penitentiary resident Merle Haggard's full pardon from then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan. Secretly, I was pleased that it got the same treatment as an original copy of the Constitution. Thomas Jefferson would approve, I'm sure.

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