At first blush, the idea of a Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum might seem impossibly broad -- like trying to cram exhibits on the notable chefs of all the world's cuisines under one roof. But once you get inside the place, a remodeled expanse within Nashville's Municipal Auditorium, it doesn't take long to pick up on an organizing principle.
After you pass through a room displaying vintage radios, turntables, jukeboxes and even a 24-track recorder that, according to museum founder Joe Chambers, was donated by CMT, there's a brief video narrated by guitar twanger Duane Eddy. He introduces himself as the rare instrumentalist to have his name and likeness slapped on many an album cover.
Then come the interviews with universally recognized frontmen Garth Brooks and Neil Young, who emphasize the importance of the players who've backed them. Finally, Eddy explains that the museum space isn't devoted to pop stars but to introducing the musical heavy-lifters who helped shaped recognizable sounds in the major American centers of studio recording. You'll know their musical licks, if not their names.
The museum itself is laid out by city, Nashville being the first, followed by Memphis, Muscle Shoals, Detroit, Atlanta and Los Angeles. The first few display cases hold such important tools of the recording trade as the smaller-than-you'd-think Fender amps Steve Wariner played on his 1987 No. 1 hit "Lynda," the Dobro that Jerry Kennedy used on Jeannie C. Riley's 1968 classic "Harper Valley P.T.A.," the Telecaster that was in the hands of a pre-fame Charlie Daniels during Bob Dylan's Nashville Skyline and Self Portrait sessions and the piano on which Pig Robbins executed the elegantly cascading intro of Charlie Rich's "Behind Closed Doors," a celebrated recording that won a Grammy in 1973.
Right in the middle of the aisle is the hulking recording console on which Brooks and his studio band, dubbed the G-Men (who also donated instruments to the exhibit), cut his '90s blockbusters. Around the corner, in the Memphis section, is the direct-to-disc recorder that first captured Elvis Presley in the days when aspiring musicians paid four-or-so bucks to make custom recordings in Sam Phillips' Sun Studio, as well as the well-traveled guitars of Johnny Cash sidemen Marshall Grant and Luther Perkins.
There's lots more gear to see, but the artifacts that provide the most intimate insights into how their musician owners worked and what sorts of worlds they inhabited are often the smallest and least glamorous.
Like the gracious yet pointed letter Chet Atkins wrote to Guitar Player magazine in response to the assumption that he couldn't possibly pull off his sophisticated instrumental tricks without overdubs. Or the set list that same master of country, jazz and pop scribbled on a men's room paper towel.
There's also the handwritten list of tunings steel player Pete Drake kept in his pocket and the missive from the Country Music Association requesting that session guitarist-turned-actor and entertainer Glen Campbell be allowed to leave the set of True Grit in order to attend the organization's awards show.
Barbara Mandrell is in the class of inductees going into the Musicians Hall of Fame on Jan. 28, but it isn't the glitzier parts of her career that earned her that honor. It's her tremendous musical facility. She is, after all, the first woman ever named to the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame. To round out the picture, among her fellow inductees are session steel great Ben Keith (who donated the very instrument he played on Neil Young's "Heart of Gold"), Jimmy Capps (a studio vet recognized for his silken touch on acoustic and electric guitars) and Velma Smith (Nashville's first female session rhythm guitarist).
On one wall of the cavernous lobby are rows of posters bearing women's photos and professional bios, some of them familiar but far more of them obscure. Jo Walker-Meador, Marijohn Wilkin, Louise Scruggs and the couple dozen others immortalized here are recipients of Source Foundation Awards -- women who helped build Nashville's music business as song publishers, publicists, production assistants, songwriters, executives, journalists and artist managers. The fact that so many of them played essential roles behind the scenes is clue number one as to what the museum's all about.
It's the rare place that spotlights work that's been heard but not seen.
See photos from inside the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum.