Saturday, March 28, 2015

'Dylan/Cash/Cats' is a 'Hall of Fame' Hall of Fame Exhibit

By Peter Rodman

If they ever decide to build a Hall of Fame Hall of Fame, the Country Music Hall of Fame should be ‘first in.’ 

The Country Music Hall of Fame~Nashville, Tennessee
Photograph Copyright 2014 by Peter Rodman.

Leading the way in every aspect--from sheer growth to technological innovation, to scholarly application--the CMHOF continues to outdo any other hall of fame/museum in America...from Cooperstown to Canton to (most pointedly) Cleveland, hands down.

The fact that it’s probably the best financed hall/museum around--well that doesn’t hurt, either. But this isn’t so much an economical place as it is an ecumenical one.  In recent years the CMHOF has made a concerted effort to bridge the gap between fans from casual to connoisseur; contemporary to classic; outlaw to upstart. 

Toward that end, they've scooped up every scholar and/or renowned music writer they can, either to guest (Peter Guralnick, Chet Flippo) or to collect and curate (Michael McCall, Jay Orr, Peter Cooper)--with the mission being total accuracy, attention to detail, accessibility, and best of all: No Pandering. 
Photograph Copyright 2015 by Peter Rodman.

Instead of being dominated by Reba’s outfits (though they have those) this Hall of Fame seems obsessed with enriching the lives of its music fans, the most avid of whom are always ready to learn (and hopefully love) something new.  
It all comes back to the history of the music here--as opposed to the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame, which is nothing but an overblown Hard Rock Cafe minus the good pulled-pork sandwiches. As a result, even the most casual tourist dropping in to the Country Music Hall of Fame will usually leave the place with something to talk about besides just artifacts.
The ‘Dylan, Cash, and the Nashville Cats’ exhibit takes this ethic to a whole new level.

That's me, on the right...a happy man, to see this newly unearthed
photo of Dylan, Cash and producer Bob Johnston, obscured here by
...well, me.  It's inscribed by Dylan as well, and was found in a stack
of papers donated by Johnston to the University of Texas, by
guest curator of the CMHOF exhibit, Pete Finney.
Even just walking into the Hall earlier this week, the first thing I heard over the speaker system was Eric Anderson’s “Blue River.” (That’s when I knew I was in for a treat!)
It was a signal moment that once again, this place got it right, for a major new exhibit. 

The entire program illustrates a mandate of excellence and accuracy, which explores not just the melding of country and rock, but the cultural building of trust between those two worlds--at a time in our history (read: Vietnam) when they truly seemed to be planets apart.
Tracy Nelson, who fronted the 'underground'
blues band 'Mother Earth,' back in the '60s.

I won’t recite the whole narrative here, since I don’t have the energy--nor could anyone do better than they have. Curator Michael Gray and ‘Guest Curator’ Pete Finney have meticulously documented and researched seemingly every scrap of findable paper and ephemera necessary to draw the visitor fully in, to another time (the ’60s and early ’70s) and another whole place (Nashville, then) altogether. 
Though too text-heavy to avoid delving, even the most casual visitor will certainly ‘get the gist’ in short order.
Did you ever imagine you'd see a whole display surrounding Paul McCartney's
brief stay in Nashville, 41 years ago...and focusing on a favorite collectors'
'B side' in particular, "Sally G?"?  If ya live long enough, everything happens!
Photograph of CMHOF exhibit display by Peter Rodman.
At the opening reception, I saw visitors from Texas posing in front of Lloyd Green’s Sho-Bud steel guitar. (That’s the one he used on Paul McCartney‘s “Sally G.”) There’s something very right about that. It sort of reminds me of the first time I ever heard the Grateful Dead sing “Okie from Muskogee.”    
Whether you're a tourist, dipping your toe in the water...or an ‘expert level’ liner notes will surely find stuff to love (and learn) at the Country Music Hall of Fame’s latest exhibit.  Better still are the programs surrounding it. This week alone, they’ve hosted some fascinating ancillary events.
A larger view of the original 1932 poster by Jo Mora, from which the
Byrds' 1968 Sweetheart of the Rodeo album cover was fashioned.
One detailed the acquisition process, fascinatingly recounting flights of fancy to faraway places, just to uncover artifacts like the Dylan photo above.
Another event saw dozens of mothers with  their children, crayons in hand, “reimagining” (get this!):
...the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo album cover.
Talk about stuff I never thought I’d see! (Artist Jo Mora just chuckled again, from six feet under.) There may have been  more people in that room workin' on their 'new' covers than bought the record during its first few months in existence, back in '68!  And weirdest of all, this little exercise surrounding the once-obscure classic took place a half century later...and well into the next millenium!  Who’d a-thunk?
'The Nashville Cats' perform ~ (from left:
David Briggs, Charlie McCoy, Norbert Putnam)
Photograph Copyright 2015 by Peter Rodman. 

Saving the best for last, on Saturday afternoon the actual (surviving) “Nashville Cats” (deriving their name from the John Sebastian hit for the Lovin’ Spoonful) performed a two-hour, once-in-a-lifetime concert. Led by the astonishing harmonica genius and 'ringmaster' Charlie McCoy, fellow session giants David Briggs, Norbert Putnam, Wayne Moss, Lloyd Green, Mac Gayden, and Kenny Malone breezed through versions of countless hits you’d know, that they played on. “The Boxer,” “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” “Everlasting Love,” “Down in the Flood,” “I Want You,”(featuring Wayne Moss recreating his amazing guitar licks) and more made eyes mist over with nostalgia and delight. Gayden even replicated his 'wah-wah' slide guitar work, from J.J. Cale's "Crazy Mama." In short, it was unbelievable. 
Country star Deanna Carter, representin' for her
 Dad...the late Fred Carter--a key 'Nashville Cat.'
Photograph Copyright 2015 by Peter Rodman.

Sadly, it’ll never quite happen this way again. In recent years, the herd has thinned considerably, as fellow “Cats” Fred Carter, Ben Keith, Hargus ‘Pig’ Robbins and more have passed on. And since nobody’s getting any younger, it was particularly heartwarming to see that many of the players had brought family members to witness this group playing together, perhaps for the very last time. They’d been together in various combinations before--The Escorts, Area Code 615, and Barefoot Jerry among them--but the legacy isn't in the names they adopted. It's in the piles of records we all used to have...songs on which even ‘experts’ sometimes can't identify the players for sure, but these guys can...because it was them! In too many cases,  only they know it's them, on the radio.

An overview of the 'Nashville Cats' finale at the
Carnegie Hall-like 'CMA Theatre,' newly added
to the Country Music Hall of Fame~March 28, 2015
Photograph Copyright 2015 by Peter Rodman.

The next best thing to seeing them live is still right there, in the Country Music Hall of Fame's 'Dylan/Cash/Cats' exhibit. They deserve a lot of credit for doin’ us all proud, on this one. 

I decided to wear my old Sweetheart of the Rodeo album cover t-shirt, which took a little while to even find after so many years, and I’m glad I did. 
In 30+ years, that shirt has never gotten as many compliments or appreciative glances as it did there today. Tourists, ushers, clerks, waiters, elevator name it, they said something. Just thinking about all those people loving that particular music so much...well, it's an indescribable feeling.

 Kenny Malone-- one of the 'Nashville
Cats' being celebrated in the exhibit,
and one of the most recorded drummers
in history--from "Don't It Make My
Brown Eyes Blue" to "Drift Away."

Photograph Copyright 2015 Peter Rodman
Fact is, an amazing amount of regular staffers at the CMHOF are music experts themselves. 
Robert, a clerk in the book shop, regaled me with his knowledge of The Band--even though he could not possibly have been alive, when Big Pink was hatched. 
A well respected Nashville bass player (and fine artist) I know loves his 'day job' at the CMHOF, helping design exhibits--and seems especially proud of the role he played in helping perfect this one. 

Earlier in the week, a very young museum greeter enthusiastically spoke of her love for Chris Hillman, and his contributions to country rock.  
Steel guitar legend Lloyd Green meets Jeffrey Dunn,
a true fan of his work on The Byrds' 
Sweetheart of the Rodeo
, after the show.
 Photograph Copyright 2015 by Peter Rodman.
And Jeffrey, the CMA Theatre usher pictured here at left, fairly glowed when he met his Sweetheart of the Rodeo idol, steel guitar legend Lloyd Green, after the show. It wasn't just 'impressive' to find all these avid music lovers among the CMHOF staff; it was completely inspiring, and spoke to the totality of the museum's mission. Like me, and like many of you, these folks have found a way to combine their passion for music with their life's work.  
That, I believe, is some kind on heaven on Earth.

There's an awful lot of bad news these days, I know...but to me, this means a whole lot more feels right in the world, tonight.

The only thing I missed at the exhibit itself was the Lovin' Spoonful song "Nashville Cats," which rang in my ears the whole time I was in the museum.  Understandably, the particular conceit that excludes it is the fact that the track--which popularized the term 'Nashville Cats' in the first place--wasn't actually recorded here with Nashville cats. good 'exception' for it would have cleverly signified yet another positive reach across any remaining breach. And isn't that what it's really all about?
Setting that tiny quibble aside, Michael Gray, Pete Finney and the CMHOF have done an outstanding job here.
As have around 1,352 guitar pickers.  Go check this thing out, if you can. Who knows?
Maybe you’ll even come away feeling as good as I did!   
"...and I sure am glad I had a chance to say a word, about the music and the mothers in Nashville."


This article and all photographs herein are Copyright 2015 by Peter Rodman.
All Rights Reserved.


1 comment:

  1. Great article,Peter! However, Mr. Hargus Robbins is still with us, thankfully. Thank you for your kind words about the Country Music Hall Of Fame and staff. Please come see us again soon!

    Jeffery Dunn
    Nashville, Tn.