I know that you’re always looking for a good investment, a promising start-up to transform into a success. You do it on Shark Tank, poking holes in business pitches to see who is worthy of your money. I couldn’t find the time to audition for your TV show (the magazine won’t write itself), but I figured I’d try to get your attention the old-fashioned way and write you a letter. I have a proposition for you.
I don’t know if you’re a big music fan, but I’ll venture that you have the same attitude that all of us non-billionaires do: You love Texas music. We’re a little bit prejudiced here at Texas Monthly. Last year we did a music issue, which began with a manifesto: “American music came from Texas,” we wrote. “Texas musicians had more to do with our national music than anyone else.” We noted how Texas has as good a claim as Mississippi as being the birthplace of the blues and how rock and roll would not be what it is today without our musicians.
Texans relate to our music in a way that Ohioans, Alabamans, and even your native Pennsylvanians don’t. Partly it’s because of all the different regions: West Texas has its fiddle music, South Texans dance to accordions and conjunto, people in Fayetteville love polka, Corpus Christi reveres Selena and cumbia, Houstonians worship Beyoncé. Okay, everyone worships Beyoncé. And Willie. Is there any musician who connects with people the way Willie Nelson does?
Texans will do anything to hear Texas music. We’ll also do anything to keep it alive. And, Mark, we need you to help save it. This is not just a philanthropic pitch, it’s an entrepreneurial one. It’s a chance to build an institution that would be the talk of the nation, something that would draw millions to our state, that would preserve and celebrate some of what makes us great.
We need a museum worthy of our music.
Before I go any further, I want to make sure you’ve heard about an intriguing exhibit opening Friday at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, in Nashville. It’s called “Outlaws and Armadillos: Country’s Roaring ‘70s,” and it features things that any country music fan would love to see: one of the black velvet capes that adorned Willie’s flamboyant drummer Paul English; fatigues Kris Kristofferson wore when he was in the Army; the electric guitar Doug Sahm used on “Mendocino”; the door from the Luckenbach General Store that makes up the cover of Jerry Jeff Walker’s epochal Viva Terlingua album; the original paintings by Susanna Clark that became the album art for Willie’s Stardust and Guy Clark’s debut Old No. 1.
The museum is also hosting a sold-out concert Saturday night with an amazing lineup, including Billy Joe Shaver, Joe Ely, Gary P. Nunn, Michael Martin Murphey, Willis Alan Ramsey, Delbert McClinton, and Amanda Shires. Then, over the weekend, the museum will host a bunch of performances, panels, and movies. Ely will do a songwriting session, Kinky Friedman will be interviewed onstage, and there will be a panel on the Armadillo World Headquarters.
Mark, you might notice a theme running through this Tennessee museum: Texas. The exhibit centers on the Outlaw Country movement, when iconoclastic (mostly Texas) singers, songwriters, and guitar players rebelled against mainstream country Nashville sound and—through talent and pure orneriness—forged a new way of playing and recording that reverberates to this day in barrooms and radio stations across the country. It’s about how Texans saved country music—and, maybe not incidentally, the reputation of the very city that is hosting the exhibit.
So why, you might be asking yourself, isn’t this happening at a state-of-the-art music museum in Texas?
The simple answer: we ain’t got one. Oh, we have music museums, some three dozen of them spread all across the state, as well as a bunch of academic archives. But we don’t have anything like the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, which, despite its inelegant acronym (CMHOFM), is a mind-blowing 350,000-square-foot facility that houses three million pieces. It’s got more than 200,000 sound recordings, 500,000 photos, and walls and walls of gold records. The museum has 466 guitars, including Mother Maybelle Carter’s original Gibson and one of Hank Williams’s Martins. It has a theater and an education center where kids can learn to write songs and play guitars. Last year the CMHOFM drew more than a million people. It also netted more than $10 million.
Now, let me tell you about our Texas music museums. First off, they’re all run by extremely passionate people who are desperate to protect our music history from the ravages of time and neglect as well as from opportunists who might snap up artifacts and take them out of the country or sell them on Ebay. I am in awe of their commitment. But the truth is, our music museums are mostly small facilities in far-flung towns. Take the Heart of Texas Country Music Museum, in Brady, halfway between Killeen and San Angelo, a quaint space with some very cool displays on George Jones and Tammy Wynette, Jeannie C. Riley, and Loretta Lynn. They have Groovy Joe Poovey’s guitar strap, Jim Reeves’s 1956 tour bus, and one of Bob Wills’s fiddles.
If you go to Carthage, in the northeast corner of the state, you’ll find the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame/Tex Ritter Museum. Tommie Ritter Smith and her husband, Bill, have run it for more than twenty years, along the way acquiring a Tex Ritter silver-studded saddle, one of Jim Reeves’s minor-league baseball uniforms, and a Gene Autry Sears “Round Up” guitar. In the museum’s little theater, Bill dresses up like Tex and sings some of his songs.
You want to see Selena’s stunning outfits, Buddy Holly’s black glasses, or a life-size statue of Lefty Frizzell? Go to museums in Corpus Christi, Lubbock, and Corsicana, respectively. You like accordions? Head to either the Polka Lovers Club of Texas Museum, in LaGrange, or the Texas Conjunto Music Hall of Fame, in San Benito, down near the border. If you drive to the Roy Orbison Museum in Wink (population: 940), you can check out a pair of his prescription sunglasses as well as high school photos and other boyhood memorabilia, but be sure to call ahead and set up an appointment. If you love Waylon Jennings (and who doesn’t?), you can go Waymore’s in Littlefield, a liquor store in an old gas station run by his brother James. He’ll show you his brother’s first guitar as well as some of his platinum and gold records; then he’ll tell stories about Willie and Waylon and the boys.
Austin has a pretty cool archive too, the three-room Texas Music Museum near our office. It’s run by a retired University of Texas social work professor, a kindly, slow-moving, extremely dedicated man named Clayton Shorkey. He started the TMM in 1984 and runs it from an office crammed with file cabinets full of decades of research on Texas jazz, polka, blues, swing, and conjunto. The TMM has an entire room devoted to the African American musical history of Austin, including musicians like Damita Jo, PeeWee Crayton, and Teddy Wilson.
Like many museums, the TMM is a nonprofit, but it’s staffed by volunteers. There’s a donation box up front, and visitors can slide $5 or $10 inside. But like all the other mom-and-pop museums, the TMM, which gets a small block of money annually from the city, stands little chance of growing into something bigger, or of even surviving. Many of these institutions are run by older men and women whose passion has worn them out. Their facilities are precarious too. Earlier this month the Texas Musicians Museum was kicked out of its space by its landlord, the city of Irving. Owners Thomas and Marianne Kreason are looking for a new home, the museum’s fourth in fourteen years.
I love the fact that we have so many scrappy music museums preserving our incredible history all over the state. But if we are truly serious about retaining the past and showing it off in the present, we need something more.
As you might know, over the past twenty years there have been several attempts to actually have the government of the state of Texas run a central music museum. These forays have led to ugly political battles—between cities vying for the museum (Houston and Austin, mostly), and between the smaller museums and the very idea of a big one.
The first try came in 2005 when state Representative Mark Strama introduced a bill—which went nowhere—to create a Texas Music History Museum. Two years later Austin state senator Kirk Watson made another attempt, even though he knew he faced an uphill battle. “The idea for a state music museum isn’t new,” he said at a hearing. “It hasn’t come to fruition, mostly due to fighting among members of the Legislature who wanted it in their district.” Under Watson’s proposal, the governor would get to choose the location of the museum, which would be based on the model of the state-owned Bob Bullock Museum. The Bullock has no permanent collection but puts on exhibits with artifacts borrowed from other museums and archives. Several people from smaller museums showed up at the hearing to voice their opposition. “The state doesn’t need to be in competition with private industry,” said D. L. Bearden, of the TMM. “Texas is too big to have one music museum,” said Stephen Williams, of Houston’s planned American Music History project. “There are too many different genres.” Again, the bill died.
Watson tried again in 2017, this time with Governor Greg Abbott’s full support. And this time the museum already had a reserved space in a planned state office building going up next to the Bullock and the Blanton Museum of Art. Again, the proposal ran up against protesters at a public hearing, who felt that Watson was just politicking when he assured them that the state music museum would collaborate with them (according to Shorkey, the senator wouldn’t come visit the TMM, which is less than a mile from the Capitol, even when he was invited directly). “Our privately funded museum is our life,” testified Marianne Kreason, of the Texas Musicians Museum, fighting back tears. “I sincerely doubt a government-run facility can reflect such passion and dedication. Dozens of museums across the state celebrate the lives of local musicians—why is there no opportunity for any of us to apply for this?” Her husband, Thomas, added, “Give other cities a chance, or find a way to spread it around the state. Create music trails, create economic diversity . . . The bill needs to represent all the museums in Texas.” The bill failed again. No one involved in the process will say exactly why a bill with so much support was doomed, though Watson had a sense of humor about it. “I must admit I haven’t figured out why,” he told me, pausing before adding a Fenderian flourish. “I worked until the last teardrop fell.”
Mark, the office building is still going to be built, and the state will almost certainly try again next year to install a museum. Watson, who sincerely loves Texas music, told me, “It’s something I feel strongly about. The majority of Texans would love it. Think about how cool it would be if kids got to know something about Freddie Fender or Roy Orbison.”
As much as I love that idea, I also foresee some problems with the state running a music museum. The greatest Texas music came from men and women who worked the soil or jammed on their guitars and saxophones in crowded garages and living rooms; it was inspired by treachery and lust, life and death; it was written after-hours in lonely places. Our music today is performed in dark barrooms and on wide-open stages, around campfires and in the parking lots of ice houses. Do we really want that history to live in a bland state office building?
And while I admire the Bullock, its model is one based not on collecting and developing a stellar archive but on filling limited exhibit space as needed with, as Shorkey put it, “a little of this, a little of that.” To tell the true story of Texas music—the decades of blues, jazz, swing, polka, country, hip-hop, conjunto, and rock and roll—we need to gather the interviews, photos, posters, early recordings, scratchy 78s, sweat-stained shirts, ripped dresses, banged-up fiddles, and cracked accordions. We need to preserve them.
Finally, one thing we can learn from the mom-and-pop museums around the state: we need entrepreneurial music zealots in charge, not state employees possibly beholden to the governor. What happens when a curator decides to display an exhibit called “Texas Songs Celebrating Drug Abuse,” using songs like “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” by Willie; “Follow Your Arrow,” by Kacey Musgraves; or “Let’s Take Some Drugs and Drive Around” (I wrote that one, Mark)? I predict problems.
Outside of the Smithsonian, the most adventurous museums are run by nonprofits. The recently opened National Lynching Memorial, in Montgomery, the Museum of Pop Culture, in Seattle, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in Cleveland, and the CMHOFM are all good examples. A great museum has to have three things to succeed: a clear mission, passionate people, and serious funding. Look at the CMHOFM, which has been around for 51 years now. Taylor Swift gave the museum $4 million, and it opened an education center in her name that puts on thousands of programs for kids and grownups. There’s an artist-in-residence program; the latest, Jason Isbell, did several concerts in December. And the CMHOFM has no problem getting artifacts donated or loaned from people who have the sense that these things belong there. CEO Kyle Young has the right attitude about these pieces of history. “It’s all part of the public trust,” he told me. “It belongs to the public.”
Ultimately, if we want to save Texas music as well as celebrate the people who made it, we need one museum in a big city, a state-of-the-art facility where people will go, a destination museum, a shining repository of the greatest music ever made. And, Mark, this is where you come in.
Let’s just lay this out right here: the Texas Music Museum and Hall of Fame could be the greatest music museum of all time. Imagine the artifacts we could collect—borrowing from the smaller museums, buying from private citizens. Start with guitars: from Lightnin’ Hopkins, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Barbara Lynn, Gary Clark, Jr., Billy Gibbons, and eventually but please-god-not-anytime-soon, Willie. The fiddles—from Johnny Gimble, Cliff Bruner, the Dixie Chicks’s Martie McGuire. The outfits—Selena, St. Vincent, Ray Price. Original song manuscripts: don’t you want to see how ZZ Top came up with “LaGrange” and how Beyoncé wrote Lemonade? What about a wall of the tapes made famous by DJ Screw and sold out of his house on the south side of Houston? Simulations of the San Antonio hotel room and the Dallas warehouse in which Robert Johnson made some of the most important recordings of the modern age? Videos of Beyoncé’s evolution as a singer and dancer from her backyard in Houston to the stage at Coachella?
Think of the live shows the TMMHOF could do, the films it could show, the panels it could hold (how cotton farming inspired the blues in East Texas and country out west; how Austin poster artists influenced the psychedelic art of the sixties; how Texans influenced the Beatles—did you know that Delbert McClinton taught John Lennon to play the harmonica?). Think of how this museum could hook up with the smaller museums for guidance and wisdom from their decades of experience. Then it could establish some actual Texas music trails that guide music adventurers to Carthage, San Benito, and Brady.
And the Texas Hall of Fame—are you kidding me? The first HOF class in Nashville featured Jimmy Rodgers, Fred Rose, and Hank Williams. Our first might be Bob Wills, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Lydia Mendoza. Or Selena, Milton Brown, and Blind Lemon Jefferson. Or T-Bone Walker, Bobby Fuller, and Cindy Walker. You get the idea. A Texas music Hall of Fame would be the deepest ever.
If done properly, a Texas Music Museum and Hall of Fame in one of our major cities would draw more than a million people a year. It would do all the things a museum is supposed to do—edify, educate, entertain. Make no mistake: a Texas music museum would be fun. And it would eventually pay for itself.
A project like this would be a huge undertaking. It would take someone like you, who can get stakeholders to the table, organize a foundation, navigate the politics, bring together a board of directors, and solidify the funding by gathering philanthropists and business bigwigs, like your pals from Shark Tank.
As I said, a successful museum has to have three things: a clear mission, some serious funding, and passion. The mission is simple: to preserve and celebrate Texas music. You’ve got the funding. The people who run the museum and the people who come see it will provide the passion.