NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The country stars you thought were dead are still living, and the ones you thought were still living are dead.
That’s true for at least some of the familiar names on the wall at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, a place I’ve always intended to visit but am only now getting around to.
I walk through and marvel at the lives and music represented by plaques and guitars and sparkling Nudies suits and pointy-toed boots and other glamorous memorabilia. I resist the urge to genuflect at the likenesses of Johnny Cash and Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb and Loretta. Lovely tributes abound.
But, I am sad to report, something’s amiss in this badly needed country music archives and beautiful fortress of memories.
There’s not enough music.
Every now and again along the museum tour you can duck into a kiosk and hear a classic record, and there is amazing footage of classic performances. But there’s no place to sit and drink and think about it all, and some other tourist is forever walking in front of you or poking his head into the music booth and interrupting your revelry.
There’s a museum for everything in the world by now, including Pez candy dispensers, barbed wire and bad art. But I’m not so sure real country music can be as easily catalogued and showcased as, say, dinosaurs or Tupperware. It’s a challenge.
Country music to ring true requires a Naugahyde-covered booth in the corner of a poorly lit roadhouse, air that smells of unfiltered Camels and last night’s beer, a barmaid whose heart is broken and mind is elsewhere, a jukebox holding up a cowboy who is half lit, a truck driver hoping to get lucky with the aforementioned barmaid – an entire cast of characters sharing a camaraderie born of booze, hard luck and desperation.
None of the above is the stuff of museums.
I don’t know how to fix what’s wrong here, and sound presumptuous even complaining. If you could bottle heartbreak and mist it through a sprinkler system, you might get closer to the truth. If you could dim the lights and strew peanut shells and cigarette butts on the floor and get some tired old fool to tell you his life’s story, then you’d have a start.
But you cannot.
Since that’s impossible, I’d suggest pumping up the volume on the classic songs and letting them play in an endless soundtrack that permeates the building and gives all of us pilgrims the fix we need. Most of us who love true country music aren’t here so much because of facts and statistics or even to see Hank’s Pulitzer and Sara Carter’s autoharp.
We’re here because of a feeling.
We’re here because we’ve known a loss, had a tear in our beer, wanted something badly we weren’t ever going to get. We have known loss, which doesn’t make us losers, exactly. It makes us fans of this brand of country music, the true kind that doesn’t play on the radio anymore.
So turn it on and up here, where our heroes rest in peace and our pulses quicken to be in such proximity to greatness.
Rheta Grimsley Johnson is a syndicated columnist. She lives in the Iuka vicinity. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852.
Rheta Grimsley Johnson