My wife was working in Nashville, meeting a client, and bought me a ticket to join her since we’re both music fans and hadn’t been to Music City before. We got to the Country Music Hall of Fame first thing Saturday morning to beat the crowds and realized the challenge facing America today stood out in stark relief.
How do we reconcile the competing visions of what America was, should and will be?
The One Side
We thought the Hall of Fame was amazing. Time had worn away the superfluous and left behind the most enduring and significant icons of Americana. You could reach out and touch (if the glass wasn’t there) Minnie Pearl’s straw hat with the price tag still attached, the Blue Suede Shoes of lore, and Elvis’ gold-plated Cadillac complete with television and telephone.
Constructing the narrative of Americana through these images and artifacts told the story of a gritty, hard-working, determined, and moral people. The picture wasn’t always pristine. They made their share of mistakes and maybe even drank a little much at times but always found redemption by returning to their core beliefs in family, church, and community.
That’s part of what made them so great, they struggled like real people do but they overcame.
Songs like Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man” and Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter” embodied all that was good and admirable about America. You didn’t have to be perfect, come from a wealthy family, or have a fancy degree because values and personal qualities are the true characteristics that make someone great.
At one point on the tour, I watched a montage of famous country music moments. In one, Alan Jackson was debuting a new song at the Country Music Awards. It was about his faith in God and Jesus and a reminder that of the great gifts of faith, hope, and love bestowed upon humanity, “the greatest is love.”
He wrote the song to help him and us make sense of the terrorist attacks on 9/11. And while cynics might accuse him of capitalizing on tragedy, he sang with such sincerity that I had no doubt of his authenticity. He was simply reminding us that in times of darkness, we must hold fast to the moral center of who we are.
It’s good my wife didn’t ask me anything because I teared up, choked up, and probably would have cried if I tried to talk. The message and delivery were that beautiful.
Seeing that montage and walking through the exhibits painted a portrait of an authentic, resilient, and moral people. That we tried our best to overcome our human flaws and stuck by family, friends, and neighbors to build a community to be proud of.
Seeing this image of Americana made me realize how great and unique this time and place in America was. Beautiful, gritty, and authentic.
The museum made it abundantly clear why so many people would want to keep this spirit alive. To make it the soul of contemporary America and not leave it a relic to sit on a shelf behind glass. It’s easy to see why so many would be filled with pride in this vision of Americana and want to use it as our moral compass.
If this is America at its greatest, then yes, it’s easy to see why people would want, as some would say, to make America great again.
The Other Side
But as clearly as the beauty and light of America stood out so clearly, so too did its darkness.
I was really enjoying the tour until I came to the Charlie Pride exhibit. It was a modest display with a few personal items shown alongside items of some other artists.
What was jarring was that I couldn’t remember seeing another African-American.
There was an exhibit at the start of the tour discussing the role African-Americans played in the early formation of country music but the discussion was general and focused on their influence as a people. It didn’t highlight any specific individuals.
I Googled, “African-Americans in the Country Music Hall of Fame.” The results said three. Besides Charlie Pride, one was harmonica virtuoso DeFord Bailey but none of the search results told me who the third was.
Included in the video montage was a rendition of the song “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” sung by some ensemble cast of stars. It’s a classic folk song first recorded in the 1920s that won a Grammy and CMA single of the year after being rerecorded for the movie soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou?
The irony of white, millionaire country stars singing about the depths of sorrow would have been laughable if it weren’t so tragic.
Instead of seeing authenticity, all I could picture was what a black man in the 1920s might say to these performers. He’d probably say, “Let me tell you about sorrow.”
Sorrow is public lynching. Neighbors burning down your home while hiding behind KKK masks. Your children being denied education and a future. And voting laws that stole your ability to do anything about it.
That is sorrow.
To sugarcoat it as anything but reprehensible would be immoral.
From the perspective of black America, the great Americana idolized in this museum’s imagery is an indecent façade. If ever there was a modern society built on villainy, it was the planation South.
From their perspective, we shouldn’t idolize this white Americana imagery, we should reveal it for the evil that it was, burn it down, and hope it never comes back.
Adding to this issue were the voices completely absent. Native-Americans and Asians were nowhere to be seen at al.
Reconciliation and a Path Forward
The problem is that both perspectives are right. There was simultaneously great beauty and great evil.
So how do we reconcile starkly opposing understandings of the same history?
How do we craft a way forward that gives voice to both perspectives?
The tour ends in a rotunda with plaques showing the faces of Hall of Fame inductees under the saying, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” It’s an homage to family written by the Carter Family.
Since the phrase repeats in a circle, it can be interpreted as an homage to an Unbroken Will. But the question is who’s will? The will to what end? And for whom?
I didn’t see Charlie Pride’s face in the rotunda. Or any of the other African-Americans. Although I’m sure they are there somewhere. All I saw was a continuous wall of white faces telling me their will remains unbroken.
Which, if I considered myself included as part of this family narrative, would fill me with hope. But if I saw myself as an outsider, it would probably fill me with dread.
There’s no simple way to reconcile these two contrasting images of history past and future.
I think the first step is truthfully acknowledging that multiple sides do simultaneously exist. Like humanity itself, our history can be both terrible and wonderous. To make an effort to acknowledge that all voices are equally valid though contradictory.
Acknowledging our multi-dimensional past is a necessary first step but without follow-on action, understanding is vacuous and hollow.
We need to somehow create a future identity that lights the path out of the quagmire of history without simply swapping the roles of the oppressor and the oppressed which would only serve to reinforce division.
What we must do is to take action that creates the equality of opportunity heralded in these songs.
Not equality of outcome but of opportunity. To take active steps to ensure that everyone has equal access to vote and that each vote carries the same weight in electing representatives. That all children have equal schooling so that their future success is a function of their own talent and hard work and not a function of the characteristics of their parents or neighborhood.
In short, it means taking action to make real the promises of equal treatment written into the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. To make real the promises of redemption and opportunity sung about and idolized in that Americana folk lore enshrined in the Country Music