Declaration of Independence Visits Nashville

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The box looked a lot like a heavy-duty road case that touring musicians use to transport their guitars and other instruments. And although the tour stopped in Nashville, the main attraction was something that few had ever seen up close and in person. Inside the case was an original copy of the Declaration of Independence.

Under police escort, the document was delivered by the U.S. Postal Service for an exhibit at the Nashville Public Library’s downtown location on Church Street. The copy was purchased in June 2000 at a Sotheby’s online auction by television producer Norman Lear, best known for his work on All in the Family, Sanford and Son, Maude and The Jeffersons. Lear paid $8.14 million for the document, one of 25 surviving copies printed on the evening of July 4, 1776. It will be on display in Nashville through Nov. 21 as part of the national tour that runs through November 2004.

Lear was welcomed by Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell and other local officials during a Friday afternoon (Nov. 8) reception that included a performance of “America the Beautiful” by Alison Krauss and a choir of elementary school students from the Jones Paideia Magnet School. The exhibit includes several multi-media elements, including a video of “America the Beautiful” that Lear commissioned after purchasing the document. The video, produced at Nashville’s Scene Three soundstage for the July 4, 2001 celebration, features performances by Vince Gill , Amy Grant, Kenny Rogers , Lyle Lovett , Toby Keith and others.

Recalling the recording session, Lear said, “It was one of the most wonderful nights of my life. It was warm and sentimental. I don’t have words to describe it, but I can tell you this: I have all my life described people or thought of people in two categories. There are wet people and there are dry people. Dry people are flaky. They don’t hug well at all. You cut yourselves on them if you try to hug them. But wet people are moist and tender and understanding and giving and they hug well. You guys in Nashville are sopping wet.”

The recording session was organized by veteran producer James Stroud, who also heads DreamWorks Records’ country division. Lear was referred to Stroud by a mutual friend. Describing Stroud, Lear told CMT.com, “I knew a little about his reputation, but I didn’t really know much until I heard his voice. With the warmth of his voice, I felt I knew the man.”

The exhibit also features a 14-minute film produced by Lear and Rob Reiner that includes a recitation of the Declaration of Independence by a group of actors, including Mel Gibson, Morgan Freeman, Whoopi Goldberg, Kevin Spacey, Michael Douglas, Renee Zellweger and others.

Following the exhibit in Nashville, the Declaration of Independence will be on display in Oxford, Miss., (Dec. 3-4) and in Jackson, Miss., (Dec. 7-15).

Calvin Gilbert has served as CMT.com’s managing editor since 2002. His background includes stints at the Nashville Banner, Radio & Records and Westwood One.