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Diving Deep at the Musicians Hall of Fame

Olivia Ladd
Multi-media curator Jay McDowell of the Musicians Hall of Fame & Museum


A Santana drum kit and a pivotal mobile recording studio are among the new items at Nashville's most geeked out music museum.




The Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum might be the most out of the way, centrally located attraction in Nashville. Six blocks from the tourist throngs on Lower Broadway, next door neighbor to the Tennessee State Capitol and the Davidson County Courthouse, it’s easy to miss.


But seriously, you can’t miss it. It’s on the lower floor of a 1960s flying saucer of a building known as Municipal Auditorium, Nashville’s oldest and quirkiest concert and roller derby venue. So finding it is possible, and for any music fan - hard core or casual - it promises a surprising and revealing journey.


Its mission, conceived as a passion project ten years ago by veteran Nashville guitar dealer and songwriter Joe Chambers, is to shift the spotlight from stars to musicians. The instruments and memorabilia on display prove the point that without session or road musicians on bass, keys, horns and more, songs would remain static sketches and great records would never get made. They say "Come See What You've Heard."


Since moving to this historic space four years ago, the Hall has been in constant change, upgrading and solidifying its permanent place in the new downtown.


I hadn’t been in a long time myself, so I called up my friend Jay McDowell, Multimedia Curator, to see what’s new and what’s coming up under the Municipal Dome. He takes me right away to a set of drums sitting next to an oversized poster of a certain historic music festival.


"This is Michael Shrieve's drum set," McDowell says. "It's his 1967 Ludwig kit that he used at Woodstock. It's on the first two Santana albums, so you've heard these drums on "Oye Como Va" and "Evil Ways" and "Black Magic Woman." They were on the Ed Sullivan show when Santana made their first appearance. They were at Altamont when they opened for the Stones. And now they live here in Nashville, Tennessee.


"It's amazing to see how many people were affected by this drum set. Not just the baby boomers, but kids who come through here and ooh and aah over it. I had a kid in his early 20s the other day going on and on about how this was the reason he plays drums today. He saw that Woodstock movie and that crazy drum solo that Michael did."


("Soul Sacrifice" by Santana)


The museum is divided not by genre or chronology but by places - music cities and centers with recording studios that became magnets for musicians - Muscle Shoals, Motown.


Jay McDowell: "And this is the Wrecking Crew and Los Angeles. And like I said we kind of started with Hal Blaine's drums."

("Mr. Tambourine Man" by The Byrds)


And that is Hal Blaine playing on one of his scores of hit records, the famous Byrds cover of Bob Dylan’s "Mr. Tambourine Man." Hal Blaine and the Wrecking Crew made up an exclusive cadre of studio musicians who dominated Los Angles pop recordings in the 60s and 70s.


"Again that was a magnet. It made these other musicians say: "Wow I could be in the same museum as Hal Blaine?" Whether it's Glen Campbell or Tommy Tedesco. That's the guitar that was on the theme from M*A*S*H, to Mike Deasy to Larry Knechtel to Joe Osborn and Carol Kaye. All these amazing musicians."


Elsewhere in the Los Angeles cases a visitor will see a hand-painted road case from the Desert Rose Band, quaint old analog effects pedals used by Nashvillian David Hungate in his years with Toto. A guitar and sport coat from Glen Campbell are here, because before he was a star he was a go-to guitar player in the Wrecking Crew. And in a corner, a piece truly for the gear heads.


"This is the reverb unit that was on the song 'Wipeout' by the Surfaris," McDowell says.




"Bob Berryhill said he was walking along outside the studio and found some old driftwood and that's what he cracked at the beginning of that song through all the reverb and then a guitar comes in. No other sound like it. You can't miss it when I comes on the radio."

The item itself, he says, is an "unassuming little box. It looks like a Fender amplifier head. My favorite thing about it is the visitors to the museum have one of two reactions to this. Either they pause for a few seconds and look at it and move on or they freak out and can't believe that that's the reverb unit from 'Wipeout.'"


Jay McDowell must be one of the only curators in the world who is also the subject of one of the exhibits in his museum. He spent a decade in one of the most exciting and influential honky tonk bands in the modern history of Americana music, BR549. The band has its own corner of the Musicians Hall of Fame.


Credit Olivia Ladd
Jay McDowell spends much of his days among the exhibits, guiding visitors through the museum's many stories.

Later I sat down with Jay in a quieter environment to ask about his transition from musician to caretaker of musical history. Here’s a portion of our conversation:


"Yeah, I'm the luckiest guy in the world." McDowell said. "I lucked into a great band and got to play and live out my dreams with that. Then when I wanted to start a family and stay home in Nashville I just transitioned into the video world with the help of Sony Records, our label at the time. Now I have three kids and I stay off the road. And the video work through Sony led me to Joe Chambers who was starting the Musicians Hall of Fame. And he needed someone who could help him.

"He had interviewed a lot of the key players for the museum. He would enjoy talking with them and shooting the interviews but then didn't want to spend any time messing with the tape or the footage. So he kind of brought me on board to go through a mountain of footage. Which I loved. Yes! Put me in a dark room watching these interviews and cataloging them and getting them in shape and using them for exhibits."

Q: How actively interested had you been in the history of American music when you were a musician. I imagine that played a role?

"Absolutely. Being in a band like BR 549, what we were about was championing the roots of country music and feeling like Nashville had lost its way musically and wanting to do something about it. And you take on that fight. There are times when you feel like you're having success and you're making a difference and people are listening. And then there are times when you feel like 'why do I bother? It's not gonna change what's happening.' So I still go with that ebb and flow of feelings. We have to protect the heritage of Nashville and we can't let it all slip away and then there's days I think well, it's going to change and it's going to do what it does. In that regard it's all still the same. I don't feel like anything is changed in my life. I'm still fighting that fight."

Q: What part of the story of music has been most opened up to you that you've learned the most about from scratch by being here?

"Oh that's easy. The Philly soul stuff. The Gamble and Huff things. Growing up it's all around us so I'd heard those songs my whole life, but it wasn't my bread-and-butter. I didn't know that stuff inside and out. And I'm such a music fan. Like I said growing up when that music was happening in the 70s I was spending my energy digging back into the Carl Perkins and the Gene Vincent stuff.

"You hear those songs around you and they were hits. Whether it was Lou Rawls or Teddy Pendergrass or The Stylistics or The Spinners. So now at the museum when we got that piano from Sigma Sound Studios in Philly, it wasn't on my radar. I didn't know that stuff. And so to dig in learn it. I hear that stuff and it's undeniable. It's good stuff."


("Amarillo" by Emmylou Harris)


Before I go, Jay takes me to see what’s next in the Musicians Hall of Fame. It’s part of a large new section that’s under construction. And it’s one of the most important vehicles in the history of American music.


"This is Brian Ahern's Enactron studio truck that recorded 40 gold and platinum records," says McDowell. "It was involved in mixing and different projects that are into the hundreds for sure. But most of Emmylou Harris's early records. Stardust by Willie Nelson. The Rose by Bette Midler. His concept was to be able to drive this truck around anywhere in North America and not only record live events but it could be used as a control room. He could pull it up to Emmylou Harris's house and they could be recording in the living room and run the cables out and use it as a control room. But there's also records that were entirely recorded within this truck is well from start to finish."


From the outside it looks a bit like a boxier version of a silver airstream camper. When it opens in early 2018, visitors will be able to walk through its close quarters and see its rooms and storage lockers and a similar mixing console to the one used to make those albums. And in the back, a tiny studio with a false wall. And the kind of discovery that makes a museum curator’s heart skip a beat.


"Now the most exciting thing happened the other day. Brian said we had to put up this cabinet here, but before we did that, he said Johnny Cash signed the wall over there. So Joe had me and his son start ripping out the wall to see if we could find this Johnny Cash autograph, and it was funny to us because were pulling out stuff and ripping out nails. You're wondering is it behind glue? Are we even going to come across it? Anyway we got that barrier out and there was some butcher paper taped up to the wall. It was dusty and there was all kinds of stuff floating in the air. We ripped back that butcher paper and there's like 40 signatures. And there is Johnny Cash. And there's Buck Owens, Kris Kristofferson, Rodney Crowell, Ricky Skaggs, Hank DeVito and Emory Gordy Jr. A ton of other names that I don't even know. And I'm anxious for Brian to give me some backstory on who some of these people are. It felt like following a treasure map, ripping out the stuff and it was dirty and messy the whole time we didn't even know if it will be a pay off and when we found it, it was amazing. Just a little time capsule here tucked away in the corner of the studio."


Jay McDowell will almost certainly be here for many years to come digging up similar treasures.



This story was produced as part of The String, WMOT's interview and features show which airs Sundays at 8 am and Mondays at 9 pm. Follow host Craig Havighurst on Twitter @chavighurst.