In the circle of country

In the end, Nashville's neo-trad young guns -- BR5-49, Greg Garing, Paul Burch, and their many collaborators -- may have done little to change the face of country music, but much to alter the architecture of Lower Broadway. Nothing cements the presumably unintended symbolism of the old neighborhood's transformation more than the May 17 opening of the new Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, moved a few miles from its original Music Row site to a brand new $37 million building just off Broadway on Fifth Avenue. When BR5-49 began their stand at Robert's Western Wear in the mid-'90s, Lower Broadway was a neighborhood shunned by respectable folks, unless they happened to be paying homage to the restored Ryman Auditorium or showing tourist cousins around to Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, Ernest Tubb's Record Shop, and Hatch Show Print. Mostly the street was adorned with dive bars, girlie shows, and unloved old brick buildings. And the unwashed poor, whose presence is now more actively discouraged. The scene at Robert's may be utterly unconnected to the urban renewal that has followed those halcyon days, but BR5-49 and their friends certainly drew national attention to Lower Broad, and made it hip to hang in downtown again. Wherever artists dare to tread, real estate development surely follows. Between the April 16, 1998, tornado and more standard approaches to demolition and reconstruction, Broadway is slowly being transformed into the kind of business district tourism boards adore. The NASCAR Cafe unaccountably failed, and Planet Hollywood unaccountably survives, but in the main, the city has done a surprisingly good job steering the redevelopment of this part of its downtown. The new Frist Center For The Visual Arts will open April 8 in a refurbished art deco Post Office building just over the crest of the hill. Title-sponsored by a family of medical millionaires (one son is the only doctor presently serving in the U.S. Senate), the Frist will be a comparatively new kind of museum, housing no permanent collection of its own but hosting touring shows and serving as a teaching institution. Down Broadway lurks a new arena where the NHL Predators and Arena Football League Nashville Kats play, built so its entrance faces the Ryman. Across the Cumberland River, the NFL Titans kick field goals in their recently erected football palace. A pedestrian bridge still under construction will link the venues. But it is the nearly completed Hall of Fame that will give the neighborhood its most visually pleasing anchor. Given old Nashville's historic antipathy toward hillbilly music, the presence of a country music museum within walking distance of the banking district and the state capitol says much for changes within and without the music industry. Museum staff insists that symbolism is unintended. Originally the Hall of Fame was to have been right on Broadway, but when the Hilton Hotel chain wished to build there, offering in exchange to construct an underground parking garage and a public park, the museum took a step back, edging into the surrounding warehouse district. Hometown architect Seab Tuck has done a splendid job with the site, incorporating Tennessee-specific building materials and a century of country music symbolism into a thoroughly engaging and appropriate structure. And in the end, the open space afforded by the Hilton only lends more drama to the museum's entrance. From the sky, the building's footprint appears as a bass clef. A circular rotunda, designed in part to remind one of drums -- or of the various configurations records came in -- is decorated by granite slabs that create tablature for the Carter Family's "Will The Circle Be Unbroken". The Hall of Fame itself, on one floor (with that song title explicitly circling the room in large letters), and the Ford Theater, below, are housed within that rotunda. Throughout the building's four-story interior, that circular metaphor resonates, including a spectacular suspended spiral staircase that connects the third and second floors (and hangs above the first-floor gift shop). And throughout, Tuck manages the very difficult trick of melding new and old sensibilities coherently, even elegantly. His design seems likely to wear well with time. The entry, which will house a restaurant and include alfresco dining, incorporates exposed steel girders (reminiscent of a train station), while a wall to the right has been built to echo a classic Cadillac's tailfin. Small windows, placed in dark, vertical lines that flow down the entry walls, are to remind viewers of both piano keys and prison bars. These architectural details (and there are more) are a far cry from the original Hall of Fame. The Country Music Association began honoring inductees in 1961 (beginning with Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers and Fred Rose), and opened a barn-like building on Music Row in 1967 to house artifacts, plaques and collections. Tourists found the adornments of fame -- legendary instruments, stage clothing, etc. -- enticing, and there is something inescapably powerful in a display of Hank Williams' handwritten lyrics. Still, the collections in the basement have long been the Hall of Fame's chief virtue. There one may find, by appointment, many of the words written about country music, photographs, films, and an enormous collection of recordings. The new building makes those resources more obvious to non-scholars. An elevator will deliver tourists from the lobby to the third floor, opening to a room designed to resemble a backstage area and revealing a wall decorated with Hatch Show Print's century-old tradition of letterpressed posters. Visible pulleys shift exhibits, with glassed-in library stacks visible across a chasm. The intent is to remind visitors that this is a working museum, and so the restoration of instruments, costumes and recordings will be done, in part, so that the public may watch. Visiting scholars will work on the fourth floor, as will the museum staff, both in markedly more comfortable surroundings. Walking through the building in late March, it is impossible to guess what the finished exhibits will look like, but the space has been tripled, and seems well-organized. Many of the exhibits have been moved, but remain uncrated. Owen Bradley's office will be reconstructed in one cubicle, just as he left it, down to his glasses and a post-it note to call Marty Stuart. For the moment, it's only raw space. Part of Stuart's massive collection of memorabilia will also be on permanent display nearby. The rest is rather a tease, this day. Huge wooden crates hold Elvis Presley's solid gold 1960 Cadillac, which will now face Webb Pierce's 1962 Pontiac Bonneville, their headlights joining in an entry to the next chamber. One is reminded that Pierce's car is in the Hall, but that he remains unrecognized; and that Elvis nearly killed country music, once. Round enclosures everywhere promise recorded music, newly created films, and live performances. A 213-seat theater is on the ground floor, while a smaller songwriters-in-the-round room is upstairs, and both are to be regularly booked. Along the way, every gold or platinum country release of the twentieth century will be hung. For a glimpse of the future, satellite broadcaster XM has a studio near the gift shop, and stars may stop there to chat. The tour ends where it began, inside the rotunda gazing at the plaques that make up the Country Music Hall of Fame itself. The intent is to offer a three-to-four-hour (or longer; two-day passes will be sold) multimedia history of country music, mostly in chronological order. A kind of veteran's committee will expand the Hall's membership by ten as part of the opening ceremonies, theoretically redressing long-simmering disputes. Typically somewhere between one and four new members are inducted each year. Charley Pride and Faron Young were added this March as the class of 2001 in one of the new building's first ceremonies. At the moment, it's controlled chaos. Workmen, sawdust, and Creedence Clearwater Revival hits move briskly through the space, and the chill spring day seems full of promise. One only hopes Music Row will not choose to completely forget its past, now that its executives are no longer obliged to drive past the Hall of Fame regularly.