In the circle of country
In the end, Nashville’s neo-trad young guns — BR5-49, Greg Garing, Paul Burch, and their many collaborators — may have done little to change the face of country music, but much to alter the architecture of Lower Broadway.
Nothing cements the presumably unintended symbolism of the old neighborhood’s transformation more than the May 17 opening of the new Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, moved a few miles from its original Music Row site to a brand new $37 million building just off Broadway on Fifth Avenue.
When BR5-49 began their stand at Robert’s Western Wear in the mid-’90s, Lower Broadway was a neighborhood shunned by respectable folks, unless they happened to be paying homage to the restored Ryman Auditorium or showing tourist cousins around to Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, Ernest Tubb’s Record Shop, and Hatch Show Print. Mostly the street was adorned with dive bars, girlie shows, and unloved old brick buildings. And the unwashed poor, whose presence is now more actively discouraged.
The scene at Robert’s may be utterly unconnected to the urban renewal that has followed those halcyon days, but BR5-49 and their friends certainly drew national attention to Lower Broad, and made it hip to hang in downtown again. Wherever artists dare to tread, real estate development surely follows.
Between the April 16, 1998, tornado and more standard approaches to demolition and reconstruction, Broadway is slowly being transformed into the kind of business district tourism boards adore. The NASCAR Cafe unaccountably failed, and Planet Hollywood unaccountably survives, but in the main, the city has done a surprisingly good job steering the redevelopment of this part of its downtown.
The new Frist Center For The Visual Arts will open April 8 in a refurbished art deco Post Office building just over the crest of the hill. Title-sponsored by a family of medical millionaires (one son is the only doctor presently serving in the U.S. Senate), the Frist will be a comparatively new kind of museum, housing no permanent collection of its own but hosting touring shows and serving as a teaching institution.
Down Broadway lurks a new arena where the NHL Predators and Arena Football League Nashville Kats play, built so its entrance faces the Ryman. Across the Cumberland River, the NFL Titans kick field goals in their recently erected football palace. A pedestrian bridge still under construction will link the venues.
But it is the nearly completed Hall of Fame that will give the neighborhood its most visually pleasing anchor. Given old Nashville’s historic antipathy toward hillbilly music, the presence of a country music museum within walking distance of the banking district and the state capitol says much for changes within and without the music industry. Museum staff insists that symbolism is unintended.
Originally the Hall of Fame was to have been right on Broadway, but when the Hilton Hotel chain wished to build there, offering in exchange to construct an underground parking garage and a public park, the museum took a step back, edging into the surrounding warehouse district.
Hometown architect Seab Tuck has done a splendid job with the site, incorporating Tennessee-specific building materials and a century of country music symbolism into a thoroughly engaging and appropriate structure. And in the end, the open space afforded by the Hilton only lends more drama to the museum’s entrance.
From the sky, the building’s footprint appears as a bass clef. A circular rotunda, designed in part to remind one of drums — or of the various configurations records came in — is decorated by granite slabs that create tablature for the Carter Family’s “Will The Circle Be Unbroken”. The Hall of Fame itself, on one floor (with that song title explicitly circling the room in large letters), and the Ford Theater, below, are housed within that rotunda.