Since not everyone gets to see the Buddy Magazine publication, I decided to post a recent article I wrote after my trip to Nashville. So far, it’s getting some good attention and feedback!
A Tale of Two Music Cities Divided
By Jan Sikes
On the heels of the Ken Burns sensational documentary about the evolution of country music on PBS, the one undisputable fact is that country music has been and is a large part of American history.
At one time during that history, Nashville was the only place to go if an artist wanted to break into the business. However, over the years, that changed and Texas played a large part in that change.
It is no secret that there has been a complicated rift between Nashville and Texas music artists ever since Waylon bucked the establishment, insisting on making music his own way and Willie took his music home to Texas.
I compare it to the famous stand-off between the Hatfields and McCoys. Shots were fired, and many folks threatened, but now the dust has cleared, and hands shaken. Judging by the recent spate of Texas Musicians who’ve made the trek to the famous city to perform on the Grand Ole Opry, I’d say there is at the least, a truce.
Could it be that the Nashville heads are watching the flourishing Texas music industry with some envy? Or perhaps they are only seeing dollar signs.
Whatever the reason, I recently had the distinct honor of witnessing something that I believe will have lasting ripple effects for years and artists to come. I traveled to Nashville along with approximately 500 other avid Texas music fans to see our legendary Texas performer, Gary P. Nunn, make his debut on the iconic Grand Ole Opry. And, it came as no surprise that Nunn performed his two mega-hits, “London Homesick Blues,” and “Last Thing I Needed The First Thing This morning.”
But the crowning moment was when Gary P. Nunn strode onto the Grand Ole Opry stage and stood in the legendary “circle” while his fans jumped to their feet to welcome him with a Texas-size display of love for their favorite artist. The significance of performing at the mother of all country music venues cannot be understated.
While it was my first real visit to the city, I enjoyed exploring the places that created and now preserves country music history from throughout the decades.
Later that evening, Nunn had this to say about the experience.
“It’s always been on my bucket list to play the Grand Ole Opry and I never really thought I’d get the chance. It’s overwhelming.”
Add in the massive amount of folks that traveled to Music City to see him, and there was no denying that Nunn was deeply touched.
“When I looked out into the audience and saw all the Texas music fans that had traveled to Nashville to share this experience with me, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I was completely blown away,” Nunn said with misty eyes.
Texas artist, Ray Wylie Hubbard, made his debut on the Grand Ole Opry on July 17 just before Nunn’s appearance on August 3.
Hubbard said, “There are certain moments in time more powerful than others. Walking onto the Grand Ole Opry stage is one of the most powerful.”
Cody Jinks made his debut on the Grand Ole Opry on August 28. He had this to say. “I was as nervous about playing the Opry as I’ve been about any show. It’s an amazing experience that’s hard to sum up. It’s just special.”
So, why is Nashville suddenly opening its arms to Texas Music artists?
I think the answer to that quintessential question is complex and can’t be answered in a few simple words.
However, The Country Music Hall of Fame Museum in Nashville could be partially responsible for the shift.
Imagine 5,000 sq. ft. of nothing but Texas music history. That’s larger than an NBA basketball court, and that is precisely what you’ll find with the “Outlaws and Armadillos – Country Music’s Roaring 70s” exhibit which resides on the third floor of the hall of fame building in downtown Nashville.
I had the honor of sitting down with exhibit co-curator, Michael Gray, in his office at the museum to talk about how this exhibit came into being.
“There is a perceived division between Texas and Tennessee. But that relationship between Nashville and Austin is maybe a little more surprising and complicated than people realize,” Gray said. “It started before the seventies when we began to see artists insist on taking charge of their music rather than having a label executive tell them what to do. But the seventies really brought it to a head when Willie left Nashville and went back home to Texas. We all know the story of how he began to play at the Armadillo World Headquarters, then contacted his friend, Waylon and invited him down. But, also at the time, even though these rebelling artists had taken their music out of Nashville, they often had to return to Nashville to record because, at the time, there were little to no studios in Texas.”
And the decades-long stand-off between Nashville and Austin grew exponentially with artists like Willie, Waylon, Bobby Bare, Gary P. Nunn, Jerry Jeff Walker, Michael Martin Murphey, Marcia Ball, Joe Ely, and many others who had a burning passion to create original music without boundaries.
Austin filmmaker, Eric Geadelmann, memorialized Texas music history in a series of documentaries, “They Called Us Outlaws,” which tells the story of Texas music directly through the artists themselves. The idea to create the “Outlaws and Armadillos – Country’s Roaring 70s” exhibit came from these documentaries.
Gray said, “Eric Geadelmann met with us about six years ago here at the hall of fame and shared that he was going to produce this documentary series about the outlaw movement in the 1970s. The Hall of Fame became an official partner with him on this series. We opened up our archives to him to help him make his film. We had an exhibit at the time in that exact same gallery that was all about the late sixties and early seventies in Nashville when Bob Dylan came to record along with all the folk and rock artists that followed him here and opened the city a little bit. So, as that exhibit grew to a close, we decided to do an exhibit that went along with Eric’s film. And that was how it all started.”
Gray went on to explain how trips back and forth between Austin and Nashville set it all in motion. And they weren’t just satisfied to explore and feature the music artists, but also the great visual artists who helped create a brand. Among those were Jim Franklin, known far and wide for his outrageous poster designs for the Armadillo World Headquarters, Micael Priest who designed the first poster for Willie Nelson’s 4th of July picnic, and Ken Featherston who created iconic posters for various Austin events and venues.
Franklin designed the logo for the “Outlaws and Armadillos Country’s Roaring 70s exhibit.”
Over time, the Nashville museum curators met with numerous people in Texas as they gathered donations from family members, friends of these legendary artists to be used in the display.
The result is a comprehensive tribute to that special period of time when music artists embraced a newfound freedom of expression. This was the true emergence of singer/songwriters. No longer was the artist required by label heads to sing someone else’s songs. They took this creative power to write, publish and produce their own music. You only have to look back to recognize that the music speaks for itself.
Not only is The Outlaws and Armadillos exhibit a fantastic display of artifacts, but it is educational as well. And it brings together the undeniable fact the impact the Outlaw Movement had on the direction of Country Music forever.
A large part of the exhibit is in photographs from music historians such as Chet Flippo, Ron McKeown, Joe Nick Potoski, Dave Hickey, Michael Bane, Jan Reid, and Kimmie Rhodes.
The exhibit is so large it is next to impossible to see everything in a few hours. I would like to have had the entire day to spend absorbing the rich and vibrant history of the Outlaw Movement.
The bottom line is that there is a shift. The tale between two cities seems to be morphing, and no longer are the Texas music artists looked down on by Nashville as the ugly stepsisters of country music.
In fact, the tale of two cities, in which music amounts to a way of life for a substantial number of the populace, is often reduced to a simple division of Nashville executives and Texas artists, when the story of the relationship is more complex and diverse.
While the ending to that story remains to be written, for now, the plot, premise, and characters are taking a new direction, carving out new roads, and taking millions of fans along.
Our beloved Texas music artists are getting to enjoy a monumental juncture in their careers by walking onto the Grand Ole Opry stage, as honored guests, and standing inside the historic and coveted circle. The place at the table has gotten much bigger, and I say it’s high time!
And, as each of the artists I spoke to expressed, there is nothing that compares. It is a dream come true. And for Texas music fans, it’s a great opportunity to explore Nashville and the rich music history it has to offer, like standing in the footsteps of so many greats who left a clearly marked path for others to follow.
An undeniable shiver ran up my spine when I stood in the middle of the famed circle on the Grand Ole Opry stage and imagined Hank Williams singing, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”
When Nashville invited, Texas responded. By taking Texas to Tennessee, and Nashville opening its arms to iconic Texas musicians, are we perhaps seeing the end of the musical gulf that has separated the two for so long? Stay tuned!