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What Would Nashville Do?


The road trip, led by the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce, wasn't all pickin' and grinnin', you should know. Richmond's finest bureaucrats and deal-makers came back with serious ideas and genuine inspirations — some of them truly unique.

Like this one: Richmond needs more wild-eyed downtown boosterism!

And this one: Minor-league baseball can really stimulate the economy!

A question was also posed: "How do we celebrate who we are and insist on more?" That was written by Councilman Bill Pantele. "We have to stop looking for the negatives and reasons to not do things and remember Richmond has a lot of assets in spite of our problems," Pantele told the Richmond Times-Dispatch after the trip.

Pantele mentioned Richmond's failed performing arts center as one example of this, and it was an interesting observation considering the one attraction not on the official schedule of the Nashville Junket-Taking Tour: that city's successful new Schermerhorn Performing Arts Center, built after nightlife had already revitalized Music City's downtown, and completed with private money that far outweighed public tax dollars. Have I mentioned that it's a functioning arts center and not a tax-sucking hole in the ground?

Nope, Richmond's brightest couldn't possibly learn anything from studying the Schermerhorn while they investigated Nashville.

But the Junket-Takers didn't need to go out of the area code to hear at least one proposal that fully answers Pantele's flighty query.

For some time now, a Richmond business owner has been meeting with folk-life archivists and regional musicologists about the viability of a Virginia Music Hall of Fame and Museum in the city. The plan seems to get similar reactions: Great idea, but how would you ever convince the people who run Richmond to take it seriously, and to do it right?

Studying Nashville is one thing; let's be honest about the remedial work our town fathers would have to do to bring some of the same successful concepts home to Richmond. One huge difference between that city and ours is that we're in Virginia. Tennessee long ago began embracing its music industries (let's not forget Memphis) as the considerable economic engines they are and celebrating its collective musical heritage as a tourist gambit.

By comparison, Virginia's less-celebrated musical traditions have been largely fractured and shunted aside, save for a recent music heritage trail. As for Richmond's efforts to honor indigenous song, city boosters (working with experts assembled by Joel Katz) deserve credit for snagging the National Folk Festival. But after that prestigious music and folk-life event exits the city in 2007, we'll be left with our nice statue of Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, a historic black theater called the Hippodrome that no one has any interest in, and the same hefty meals tax.

How about this as a permanent follow-up to the Folk Festival: Richmond as the home of a Virginia Music Hall of Fame and Museum, an institution designed to spotlight the region's formidable musical past, as well as to highlight today's contemporary hit-makers and tradition-bearers. Heck, you can throw in Elliot Yamin of "American Idol" too (the T-D will no doubt insist on it).

Even a select short list of Virginia music reveals timeless American sounds: Jubilee gospel quartets; Piedmont blues; country and string band music; Clinch Mountain bluegrass; the Carter Family; the jazz of Ella Fitzgerald; Ruth Brown's sassy R&B; Winchester's Patsy Cline; Gene Vincent's rockabilly; Gary U.S. Bonds and The Norfolk Sound; "The Old Dominion Barn Dance"; Staunton's The Statler Brothers; Richmond's Harmonizing Four, Jarmels, and Lonnie Liston Smith; beach music...! You can follow the line right up to the hip-hop of Missy Elliot, D'Angelo's soulful croon, the pop of Jason Mraz and the jam groove of the Dave Matthews Band. Oh yeah, and we can't forget GWAR.

Not too many states can claim that kind of diverse and ongoing musical history. So where's the love?

OK, I can just see eyeballs rolling: "How much will all of this cost?"

I believe that a Virginia music museum, as envisioned, could get off the ground for a relatively small sum, if planned with suitable outreach to the right archives and academic communities, and if the project avoided the drawn-out political posturing that continues to deny Virginia an official state song. State and federal grants for both folk-life preservation, and music-based educational programs, could be explored.

Too pie-in-the-sky? That's fine. It might not be the best idea out there (but we'll never know, will we? The public has never been permitted a say in what kind of arts complex should be built in Richmond; it has either been the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation's plan or a downtown hole in the ground). We have a bankrupt Carpenter Center and a forsaken Landmark Theater to show for that scheme. So ask yourself: Is the idea of a Virginia Music Museum any crazier than building a $100-plus-million symphony hall that is too small for an orchestra to perform in?

A Virginia Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Richmond would ensure that all music trails in the future lead right back here to Richmond. This would be an inclusive and commercial venture for a city on the mend, a common-sense, grassroots notion that has long been passed over in lieu of bigger, splashier, more wasteful endeavors. A Virginia music museum would celebrate the best of who we are — all of us.

And doesn't that directly address the question being brought back to us by our Junket-Takers? Even they would have to admit that it's just the kind of thing that Nashville would do. S

Don Harrison is a freelance writer based in Richmond and the co-founder ofwww.saverichmond.com.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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