Songbirds Guitar Museum Flies Again In Chattanooga
When the first iteration of the Songbirds museum closed in the summer of 2020, it looked like the pandemic had taken down a unique and history-laden destination in the under-appreciated Chattanooga music scene. It was a venue, a charitable foundation, a community gathering place and a museum featuring one of the finest (and most accessible) historic guitar collections in the world.
With “heavy hearts,” the owners announced the closure of its “safe & inclusive space for people to gather and immerse themselves in music history and culture.” So that sounded pretty final at the time, but last September, Songbirds opened again with a new design and a renewed vigor behind its efforts in music education and therapy.
“They’re two different animals,” says Executive Director Reed Caldwell, referring to Songbirds then and now. “We still have cool guitars. If you’re an audiophile and you're super into music, super into guitars, we got plenty of stuff for you. But we also tried to make those things really accessible to everyone.” Meanwhile, the museum, formerly a for-profit business, has been assimilated into the nonprofit Songbirds Foundation, and its outreach and mission arm has stepped up, with more resources to reach more kids.
“Last year, in 2021, we gave away about 1,000 guitars across three states and about 180,000 hours of free guitar lessons and music therapy,” Caldwell says. “The investors in the museum (said) let’s give the museum to (the nonprofit) and let them reimagine what they want to do - and use it to kind of be the catalyst and the fundraiser for the Guitars for Kids program. So that's how we got to where we are now.”
The “investors” seem to be a core of several anonymous individuals who’ve collected guitars as a hobby over the years, plus a pool of foundations and corporate sponsors. Explaining the financial structure of Songbirds would take some doing and it’s not really going to make a difference to the visitor anyway. So a photographer friend and I visited Chattanooga recently to experience Songbirds in two of its three roles - music venue and museum - and to find out about its third - as a vehicle for improving young lives.
Impressive from the outset is the building itself. Chattanooga’s Terminal Station was opened in 1909 and served dozens of trains per day in its golden era before WWII. After the decline of passenger rail, the Beaux-Arts building with its 80-foot grand foyer was nearly demolished in the 70s. But it was rescued as The Chattanooga Choo-Choo Hotel (after the famous big band song) and a mixed-use urban complex, which it still is today.
We arrived on a Sunday evening when Molly Tuttle was touring through supporting her new bluegrass album Crooked Tree. Songbirds is in a brick and timber room with arched windows overlooking old train cars and the cityscape. Any Nashvillian would be reminded of the Mercy Lounge, a cozy setting for a show. The museum cases had been rolled from the center of the room to one side, which is how Songbirds converts the space from one use to the other. Full capacity is 350 people for standing shows. But on this night there were a couple hundred people in rows of chairs. The sound was very good and the band was clearly having a good time picking Tuttle’s new repertoire. The space is musically ecumenical, hosting local and national acts. The evening after Tuttle, Songbirds hosted a sold-out show by arty rock ensemble Of Montreal, and in the coming weeks they’ll present Son Volt, Scott Miller and a Grateful Dead cover band.
“It’s a unique space, because you’re surrounded by music history,” said Charlie Moss, the director of marketing and outreach. “You’re listening to a show, but you’re also able to look at exhibits that include little-known Chattanooga music history or the science behind the sound of the electric guitar. Before shows, it's interesting to watch people looking at the exhibits and learning something they didn’t know before, especially with 9th Street and the Impressions.”
Moss is talking about an entertainment district that thrived along 9th Street, especially between the 1920s and 1950s. Known as The Big 9 or Chattanooga’s Harlem, its many clubs played host to Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, plus the rise of locally born blues queen Bessie Smith. The Impressions was an important R&B group formed when two Chattanooga natives teamed up with future songwriting and producing star Curtis Mayfield. Moss’s early and original research on both local music stories helped lead him to his role as one of the museum’s storytellers and writers. Large displays at Songbirds go into detail about each.
Guitar players and curious fans can geek out over exhibits on the inner workings of effects pedals and electric guitar pickups, a world-changing invention that’s explained with a clarity I’ve never seen in an exhibit before.
But the heart of the Songbirds experience is the guitars, a collection that started more than 20 years ago between a New York dealer and a businessman with Chattanooga ties who remains anonymous in the story of the historic collection. Their story is told in detail here. Whereas version one of the museum displayed a vast number of these extremely rare and valuable guitars - Caldwell estimates 550 - with minimal identification or context, the new approach curates a more exclusive and manageable subset of instruments, with more content about the artists who owned them.
In one cabinet is Loretta Lynn’s 1968 Gibson ES-175D hollow body electric guitar. In another is a 1961 Gibson Les Paul gifted to Duane Allman by his guitar partner Dickey Betts. A Stromberg Master 400 archtop guitar shown here was owned and played by Nashville session player and jazz master Hank Garland. Other guitars on display were owned by Roy Orbison, Canadian country star Hank Snow, Who bass player John Entwistle, Beach Boys member Carl Wilson and pioneering female electric guitarist Mary Kaye. The cases offer nice capsule biographies of the artists, though those looking for specific context connecting these instruments to key moments in the owners’ careers may wish for more.
To see the Guitars For Kids program play out, one would have to travel pretty far afield, to some of the 55 schools in three states that have received instruments and instruction from Songbirds. For Caldwell, the missions are intertwined. “I think we're looking at the guitar as being this kind of a weapon of social change. The guitar has a big voice. It opens you up to really be able to fight the good fight.”