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VOL. 42 | NO. 15 | Friday, April 13, 2018

Stones exhibit shines a light on Musicians Hall

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Smilin’ Jay McDowell stands by the slap bass he used while playing on Lower Broadway and touring with BR549. He is now a curator at the Musicians Hall of Fame in the lower level of the Municipal Auditorium.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

The tall, smiling fellow dressed in black – and with a slight, rockabilly hair-flip tickling his forehead – stops and points at a black guitar in a display case and nods.

“I’ve been instructed that if all hell breaks loose and fire burns up everything else, I’m supposed to grab that guitar and get it out of here ….

“That’s Keith’s.”

With characteristically good humor and broad grin – after all, he is or has been known as “Smilin’ Jay McDowell” as he slapped his upright bass in honky-tonks and on concert stages worldwide – is infectious … even as ‘‘Sympathy for the Devil,” perhaps the darkest, most intoxicating of all pop songs, plays from the speaker system in the heart of Municipal Auditorium’s lower level, where “Exhibitionism” (aka “The Rolling Stones Exhibit”) is leading tourists and even people from Nashville to discover The Musicians Hall of Fame.

Despite his show biz moniker, the 48-year-old veteran of BR549 – whose churning mix of rockabilly and honky-tonk sensibilities had them pegged for several years as “the next big thing” to come out of Nashville – is deadly serious when repeating his “marching orders” from The Rolling Stones’ team when they left the black Gibson Les Paul in his care.

If he’s able to save nothing else from the embers, he’d better save Keith Richards’ favorite guitar – one of a herd of Rolling Stones’ instruments on display in the heart-lifting exhibit.

Wanna see Charlie Watts’ drum kit, complete with the damaged cymbal caused by an M80 explosion tossed at the boys? Charlie thought he’d been shot until he looked down at his kit. It’s here too, just one of the asterisks of Stones’ history told by this exhibit.

While it shares floorspace with the Hall of Fame, the Stones exhibit is a separate ticket. “You can buy a ticket for one or for both,” Jay says.

He adds that so far – and the exhibit only has been open since March 29 – “65 percent of the people who come down here go to both.”

In other words, after being immersed in relics, music, video and even a 3-D version of “Satisfaction” from a London concert to celebrate the more than half-century existence of The Glimmer Twins – “Keef” Richards and Mick Jagger – and their little blues band, visitors are almost flocking to the Musicians Hall of Fame, where Jay is curator.

“Blame it on The Stones” – as Kristofferson long-ago snarled to “Mr. Marvin middle-class” in one of Kris’s sly, sober slaps at society. But the fact is that because of those guys – sometimes referred to as “Strolling Bones” – folks are finding out that the glorious Musicians Hall of Fame exists and what it does.

Pleased to meet you, indeed.

Sure. Go to see the career-spanning exhibit of one of the two best rock bands in history … but, did you know that in the Musicians Hall of Fame you can see things like the little gizmo that allowed Chet to practice his finger-picking style, even while disease consumed him? That little piece of wood with strings attached is important to me as I sit here looking on my desk at Chet’s personally hand-carved nameplate given me by his widow.

Course, that gentlemanly, hand-crafted picking device is just one of hundreds of artifacts and audio-video opportunities inside the Musicians Hall.

You can see a whole wall filled with artifacts of the Los Angeles recording scene’s fabled “house band,” The Wrecking Crew, a collection of musical wizards who appeared on albums from The Beach Boys to The Monkees to Sinatra and far, far beyond.

And if you look closely at the stuff from the Stax vaults in Memphis, you can see a photograph that includes Booker T. Jones (of Booker T. & the M.G.’s) playing sousaphone rather than keys, as you might expect.

Course in Jay’s case, Keith’s guitar may be the first thing saved from the hypothetical inferno, but there are plenty more he’d rescue. Instruments and knickknacks of music’s wide world of immortals – guitars from the likes of Cash, Hendrix, Duane Eddy, Glen Campbell, Chet and their stellar brethren – all tell their stories.

But there are so many more instruments and so much priceless memorabilia from behind-the-scenes session players, the basically anonymous pros we’ve all heard on thousands of recordings of all genres.

Heck there’s even one display case that contains the slap-bass Smilin’ Jay toted around the world as a member of BR549, a pre-hipster Nashville outfit that spawned a form of music – a little bit country and a whole lot of rock ‘n’ roll, now innocuously called Americana – after they had already saved Lower Broadway from itself back in their mid-to-late 1990s heyday.

“See how worn that thing is?” he asks, pointing to the rather stately instrument with the wear and tear on its neck caused by his hardly delicate playing back when he and his mates decided that the Lower Broadway magic they had sought when they arrived in Nashville had deteriorated into rot, sending them forth on a mission that saved that fabled section of town long enough for it to become the ever-expanding neon-lit playground and tourist magnet that now sucks in people from around the world.

“When I moved here, that (Lower Broad) scene was the coolest thing I’d ever seen,” Jay says. It wasn’t what he had hoped it would be, but “it was dangerous, weird, funky … heaven.”

“There were a lot of peep shows, adult bookstores, working women. We stayed mostly to Tootsie’s and Robert’s (just about the only music venues at the time). It was real. People having sex in bathrooms.”

All the members of BR549 – a moniker that originated as Junior Samples’ phone number in a recurring used-car salesman skit on “Hee Haw,” the country variety show that fueled band members’ dreams and their individual pilgrimages to Nashville – became almost despondent by Lower Broadway’s gritty reality.

The Rolling Stones Exhibitionism show includes two of Charlie Watts’ drum kits. This one, in the “Met the Band” room of the exhibit, is a 1965, 4-piece Ludwig in a Sky Blue Pearl shell finish.

-- Submitted

“This was long before NashVegas,” Jay adds, again with a smile that this time has a rueful tilt.

The band had heard tales of Lower Broadway’s 1970s high times, when the Ryman dumped country fans and musicians into the night after each Opry performance, before that grand dame of a musical venue became as dilapidated as the BR boys’ dreams.

Hank hadn’t really done it this way at all…. Before the Opry moved to the suburbs, next to its now-defunct (but truly cool) theme park, in 1974, there was more musical activity than just Tootsie’s and Robert’s.

I remember long-ago nights at The Wheel across the street.

But those two most-famous clubs’ draws came with the likelihood that fellas with names like Lefty, Tubb, Earl and Monroe would sneak across the now-sterilized alley from the Ryman and into Tootsie’s or Robert’s for a beer or two between shows and Martha White commercials.

Good chance they might venture from Tootsie’s to other venues, like The Wheel, to temporarily take over a house band to show off a hit or to try out a new tune.

The Midnite Jamboree at ET’s Record Shop spilled audiences from its shotgun-style storefront out onto Broad on warm Saturday nights, as folks swarmed there to see the likes of Loretta, Tammy, George, Skeeter, Dottie West, Tubb himself and so many more who wandered over there to perform once the Opry’s second show concluded.

Bobby Bare and Shel Silverstein might just amble out of the steamy night to help an aspiring, long-haired journalist and anti-war demonstrator load some bricks into the trunk of his ’65 Falcon Futura before going over to the honky-tonks. I mean, this was an act of mercy. The downtown streets were paved with bricks and the city was beginning to cover them with asphalt. The journalist and his two volunteer sidekicks just liked tradition and a bit of good-hearted purloining.

But once the Opry moved, so did the fans. So, did the musicians. The Ryman deteriorated (until it was rescued by Emmylou Harris … another story, another day perhaps).

While most of the other music venues shut down, the survivors, like Tootsie’s and Robert’s and a few others suffered from neglect. And that general rot set in.

That deterioration – either an invitation for wrecking balls or red lights – was very real when Jay and the guys hit town. Sure, it was, as Jay acknowledges, a bit “dangerous” and “weird” down there, but that didn’t stop them from playing at Tootsie’s or Robert’s and feeding Lower Broad’s comeback hopes. It became the “in” thing in Nashville to go down to those clubs to see the furiously performing BR549.

“Everybody came down,” Jay adds. “A lot of frat boys from Vanderbilt, truck drivers and tourists came to see us.”

Record label execs from all over the country also joined those crowds, anxious to capture the BR549 magic and bottle it. Other musical heroes, like Greg Garing, also invaded the area.

While the Country Music Hall of Fame recognizes the legends of country music, the Musicians Hall of Fame is dedicated to the musicians who have performed on many of the greatest recordings of all time.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

It wasn’t any grand design to rescue the district from the prostitutes and peep shows. “It was just people hoping to get their bands discovered,” Jay recalls.

The truth is that BR549 – by blazing the trail of their honky-tonk dreams – kicked open the doors for developers and honky cats to clean up Lower Broad.

“I am proud now when I go down there,” Jay says. “Must be 25 clubs now. I was down there a few months ago to grab a beer with some visiting friends. It was a Monday night and it was crowded!”

Nashville finally had a tourist mecca, as neon sprouted and men and women with guitars and dreams flocked to that stretch. As did tourists from Lima, Ohio; Poughkeepsie, New York; Ames, Iowa; Sheboygan Elks Lodge #299 and other middle-class Americans.

Yes, Jay admits that his old band did a lot to open the way for what has now become the neon heart of the “It City.”

Course it didn’t hurt that the city decided to build a hockey arena/massive performance center at about that time, Jay says, smiling, as you might expect.

“Little things” like an NHL team or Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers performing “Refugee” brought even more people to the district, where no longer were you propositioned while wandering down the sidewalk at high noon.

By helping, at least, to rescue Lower Broad, BR549 gave city convention recruiters something to peddle. Now, decades later, that neon is not just a tourist draw. It symbolizes the rebirth, then the growth of the city to the point where The Rolling Stones – who are country music fans and emulators (“No Expectations” and “Sweet Virginia” are examples) – chose Nashville as one of the four cities in the U.S. that would host this interactive exhibit. New York, Chicago and Vegas already have hosted this show. L.A. won’t get it, as the pulse-pounding exhibit is next bound for Australia.

And with this exhibit, Jay and his cohort Joe Chambers (the dreamer and believer who founded the Musicians Hall of Fame) are hoping that The Stones will do for the magical Hall of Fame what BR549 did for Lower Broad.

The Stones themselves had more awareness of the museum than did the everyday Nashvillians and tourists five blocks away on Broad.

“We’re so pleased that The Rolling Stones Exhibit is in Nashville and at a place as important as the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum” Mick Jagger says. “This exhibit is an event, an experience. It’s about a sense of The Rolling Stones – it’s something people will go away talking about.”

And while there to enjoy the life story of the little blues combo that conquered the world, discover this masterful adjoining museum which salutes the global brotherhood and artistry of musicians worldwide, a place where, for example, you can see the old Sun recorder on which Elvis cut “My Happiness” as a birthday gift for his mom, Gladys.

That recording grabbed the attention of wild-eyed, wild-haired musical mastermind Sam Phillips and – because of that – there’s still good rocking tonight.

(By the way, Phillips used to send my old friend, the late Scotty Moore – who invented rock ‘n’ roll guitar playing as one of the Blue Moon Boys, that also included Elvis and Bill Black – out into the country around Memphis and the Mississippi Delta to do some field recording with that very machine. Sam was looking to build a talent roster, Scotty was looking to get paid and go home.)

Soon, The Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum will open two large-scale exhibits showcasing a tandem of our town’s historically important pickers … former Jefferson Street guitar hero Jimi Hendrix and The Man in Black. I got a sneak peek and fans of all types of music – not just that of The Stones and of Chet Atkins and Merle Haggard – will be enthralled.

Should note that BR549, while essentially retired, does occasionally regroup “when someone offers a big pile of money,” Jay says.

Perhaps someone will put up enough to draw the boys out for a show upstairs from the museum, on the main floor of Municipal Auditorium, where the Stones played in ’72 and Elvis the next summer.

I was there for both those shows, though I couldn’t afford scalpers’ rates for Stones tickets, so I stood outside.

It was the middle of a Nashville summer and some of the doors of the auditorium were open. I stood there for the whole show – I know it’s only rock ’n’ roll, but, as the man says, I like it.

Afterward I went to Tootsie’s.