Preservation Station: Country Music Hall of Fame greatly contributes to preservation
By David Ewing
No organization in the world has done more to preserve, document and properly tell the story of the artists, music, studios, recording and people of the country music industry than the Country Music Hall of Fame. The greatest and most famous buildings on Music Row have been saved because of The Country Music Hall of Fame and Curb Records founder and Chairman Mike Curb. Nashville continues to grow and demand on real estate close to downtown increases. Non-music related buildings such as condos, apartments and hotels are being built on Music Row. The recent challenge has been to continue to preserve the great history of Music Row and keep its unique identity.
During a spring 1961 meeting of the Country Music Association, the idea of a Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville was approved. At the time, the CMA did not have the funds to purchase land and build a permanent building, but the organization still wanted to move forward to create a Hall of Fame and induct members before a home was found. The model for the Country Music Hall of Fame was the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. A large committee of 100 would vote on new members, and like major league baseball, no more than four people who be inducted each year. Each member would be required to receive 75 percent of the vote, and the new class of members would be announced in November during WSM’s annual Country Music Festival to celebrate the founding of WSM. Like baseball, members of the Country Music Hall of Fame would be honored with a large bronze plaque featuring their likeness. The Country Music Hall of Fame wanted to charge admission and sell souvenirs like the Baseball Hall of Fame, but they worried that they did not want this to be “too commercial.”
The first location of the Country Music Hall of Fame opened in 1962. Its temporary home was in the Tennessee State Museum, which was in the basement of the War Memorial building. During this time, the board continued to raise money to build a building where the best of country music could be honored and their individual stories could be told.
In 1964, a new not-for-profit organization was chartered in Nashville called the Country Music Foundation, Inc. The mission of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum today is very similar to when the foundation started— “to collect, preserve and interpret the evolving history and traditions of country music. Through exhibits, publications and educational programs, the museum teaches its diverse audiences about the enduring beauty and cultural importance of country music.”
In 1966, Nashville Mayor Beverly Briley provided the biggest boost to Music Row and its identity by allowing the use of city-owned property on the corner of 16th and Division to build a permanent building for the Country Music Hall of Fame. The building, designed to look like a barn on the outside, provided a place where the artifacts could be stored in a museum environment and where hundreds of thousands of tourists could visit every year. Grand Ole Opry tours started during this period, as visitors wished to see Music Row, drive by the famous studios and see the homes of the stars in Nashville. The Grand Ole Opry and Country Music Hall of Fame brought thousands of country music fans to Nashville weekly, and tourism started to increase in large numbers for the first time in Nashville’s history.
Decades before The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame opened in Cleveland Ohio, Nashville was home to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, which has been a model for all the future music halls of fame that have been established since it first opened.
When the Country Music Hall of Fame opened on Music Row in 1967, the Country Music Foundation started to collect interviews and tapes. In 1974, the Country Music Hall of Fame launched an oral history project interviewing artists, songwriters, executives and others involved in the country music industry. Today there are over 650 oral history interviews that have been preserved and transcribed and available for students, researchers and authors to listen to or read.
Before the Hall of Fame opened, the foundation of what is known today as Music Row was begun in 1954 when Owen Bradley, a successful piano player, and his brother Harold built the first recording studio on Music Row. Recording studios in cities like New York, Los Angeles and now Nashville were becoming more popular as radio stations and jukeboxes across the country demanded more recorded music. The children born to the soldiers who returned from World War II were interested in music, especially rock ‘n’ roll and also country, during the ‘50s and ‘60s. Nashville’s Castle Studio downtown in a 19th century hotel recorded Hank Williams and other country stars, because it was close by the Ryman Auditorium where the Grand Ole Opry was performed every week.
Studio time was expensive and in demand, so in 1954 the Bradley brothers looked past downtown to create a place that quickly attracted some of the biggest stars in music. Located at 804 16th Avenue S., they remodeled a residential home, which had most recently been used as a rooming house. The Bradleys moved a military Quonset hut to the rear of the building, which was made into a studio and quickly became very popular. The Quonset Hut is the studio where most believe the “Nashville Sound” originated.
In 1957, one of Nashville’s most famous recording studios – RCA Studio B – was built by Dan Maddox. Nashville was growing, and the area of Music Row, essentially a residential neighborhood that allowed commercial buildings, started to attract more people in the music industry. Artists that performed in RCA Studio B include Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton, Roy Orbison, Charley Pride, Waylon Jennings and Chet Atkins.
In 1978, the Country Music Hall of Fame had at that time a record attendance of 556,095 and 47,000 of those were children under the age of 12. That year, the Hall of Fame partnered with and operated RCA Studio B as another tourist destination. RCA Studio B attracted 78,315 visitors during their first year, open to the public with the help and promotion of the Country Music Hall of Fame. In 1978, 70 percent of the annual income was spent to operate the museum, 20 percent for the library and acquisitions and to build a new audio lab and 10 percent for publications and the education department. In 2015, the Country Music Hall of Fame welcomed their one millionth visitor in a single year, another remarkable attendance record.
There is no larger collection anywhere going back to the earliest days of country music, which includes over 800 outfits – from Hank Williams’ suit with musical notes to a dress worn by Dolly Parton to over 600 musical instruments and 200,000 sound recordings. Other items in the Hall of Fame’s extensive archives include sheet music, songbooks, collections of concert posters, videotapes, scrapbooks, stage equipment, audio recordings and photographs.
The extensive collection of the Hall of Fame has attracted scholars, archivists and other writers who continue to document and cover the country music industry. Although photos, outfits and music help preserve the history of country music, the buildings where the songs were written and the music was recorded tell a unique story. If not for the Country Music Hall of Fame, Mike Curb and others, these buildings might have been torn down. The Hall of Fame has always been a good neighbor and partner to Music Row, even after their museum relocated to a new building downtown in 2001.
Today, Studio B is still operated and is now owned by the Hall of Fame. In 1965, a larger studio with improved recording technology called RCA Studio A opened around the corner from Studio B. Its central location on Music Row near artists, producers, songwriters and engineers and its excellent acoustics made it a popular place for top artists to record. The studio was sold in 2015, and the buyer planned to tear it down and build new apartments.
Musician Ben Folds, who had rented the famous RCA Studio A for 14 years, led the move in 2015 to save the building. On the last day that the building could be purchased before demolition was imminent, a group consisting of Mike Curb, Aubrey Preston and Chuck Elcan purchased the studio. Curb had now saved three of Music Row’s oldest and most famous recording studios, as he had also previously purchased RCA Studio B and Owen Bradley’s Quonset Hut.
None of the buildings on Music Row have any protection from being torn down. The National Register of Historic Places is the program administered by the National Parks Service and United States Department of the Interior to help work with communities to identify important buildings. This program creates and maintains a list of buildings that are worthy of preservation. The three main criteria the group examines to include a building in the list is the age of the property, its integrity and historical significance.
Normally, buildings cannot be considered for this designation if they are not at least 50 years old. Nashville and Music Row are unique because although not normally the age to be considered historic, a group of musicians, people who work on Music Row, the Country Music Hall of Fame and many others all rallied around the other RCA Studio built on Music Row in 1965.
This is not the first time that country music artists and the artistic community organized and fought to save a high-profile building which was slated to be torn down. After the Grand Ole Opry left their famous home of the Ryman Auditorium to their brand new home next to the Opryland theme park, the Ryman sat empty for 20 years.
The original plan by the owners of the Ryman was to tear down the 1892 building and reuse the bricks to build a small church at Opryland. However, concern over the potential loss of the Ryman was raised by artists. Stars such as Emmylou Harris held concerts and raised awareness of the dangers facing the Ryman, and these efforts paid off with the rescue and restoration of this historic venue.
While the Hall of Fame is charged with preserving the history and origins of country music, they have also made strides in ensuring that the legends of tomorrow are preserved today. The Hall of Fame has made it a priority to showcase current artists while also honoring the legends of the past. The Hall of Fame has crafted some of its most successful exhibits in the past few years that honor both current hit makers and the collaboration of country music with other genres of music.
For instance, the Hall of Fame in recent years maintained an exhibit of current artist Miranda Lambert, whose five major studio albums of her career have all debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Country charts. Exhibiting at the same time, the Hall of Fame also created an homage to the legendary performer Glen Campbell, whose career has spanned over 50 years and includes such famous hits as his 1975 No. 1 hit “Rhinestone Cowboy” and his 1977 No. 1 hit “Southern Nights,” among countless others.
Another example of the Hall of Fame’s efforts to display both past legends and current hit makers would be the overlapping exhibits of pop and country superstar Taylor Swift and iconic guitarist and producer Chet Atkins. Taylor Swift’s career, which has included such hits as her No. 1 songs “Shake it Off” and “Bad Blood,” was exhibited in fine form, while under the same roof, the Hall of Fame also maintained an exhibit of Chet Atkins, whose guitar prowess has influenced innumerable artists and performers today and is also considered one of the pioneers of the “Nashville Sound,” which was a production and instrumental style that introduced new listeners to the new country/pop hybrid of the 1960s and 1970s. It was fitting that the Hall of Fame honored both of these performers concurrently. It could be said that both of these artists have in their own generations charted new waters for Nashville’s sound, both in the 1960s and today.
The Hall of Fame’s efforts to intertwine legendary and current performers is admirable and has led to even greater success for the Hall of Fame and for introducing Nashville to the world. While the Hall of Fame is no longer located on Music Row, its efforts to honor and preserve both Nashville’s history and its own are still ongoing.
Music Row’s biggest attractions since the Hall of Fame moved downtown are its world-famous recording studios. These studios still stand and operate due to the dedication and vision of those who realize that it was the studios that first attracted the music industry to Music Row. Although the Hall of Fame is no longer there, the results of its efforts to preserve the invaluable history are still felt every day on Music Row.