Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum March 12, 2012Posted by wallofsound in Cultural critiques.
The idea of a Hall of Fame, and later a museum, for a style of popular music builds upon late nineteenth century idea of celebrating the achievements of great people in a space set aside to memorialise them. It is interesting that country music was one of the first genres of music, in 1961, to be championed in this way. Based in Nashville, and housed in a dedicated museum since 1967, the institution is an important landmark and visitor attraction in the city’s music district. Building from an initial trio of inductees – Jimmie Rodgers, Fred Rose and Hank Williams – the Hall of Fame has been expanded usually by two or three artists a year over five decades.
In itself this shows how important tradition and the role of individual artists are within country music, as well indicating the acumen of staff at radio station WSM who initiated the notion of a country hall of fame. The station is the home of the long-running country music programme, The Grand Ole Opry. The Hall of fame is, then, an excellent example of the way that country music has distilled the value of folk authenticity into a commercial popular music. The museum website uses a quotation from Garrison Keillor, an American humourist, radio presenter and author, to make the point very clearly:
Country music is still devoted to the lyric and to the telling of stories, which people love and people need. Country music artists took what they heard around them, material that was in the air and that was common currency, and they made something entirely new. This is a museum that preserves their memory so that they can continue to inspire creators in the future. It’s also a museum that honors the people who their music was made for. Those people are all of us, people who’ve ever been lost or confused or sad or felt excluded. This museum helps to preserve these tributes to our condition. (http://countrymusichalloffame.org/mission/)
Certainly, Keillor’s words capture the way American forms of popular music, and country music in particular are seen to have distilled the traditional ballad story form with the idea of populism to celebrate ordinary people. He also tries to resolve the paradox that these collective values are seen to be carried by strong individuals, by suggesting the museum honours both artists and audiences. Although country music is sometimes thought of as highly commercialised to those outside, for fans it is the epitome of American vernacular values. The museum building is modelled so that its widows look like piano keys, and a tower is shaped to represent CD and vinyl records and the transmitting antenna of WSM. Although it does not usually articulate the sorts of radical politics associated with other folk movements in North America, Europe and beyond, country music is nevertheless perhaps the most influential contemporary music rooted in ideas of European vernacular culture.