Country Music at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

I recently had the chance to go to Cleveland and one of the top items on my agenda was paying a visit to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

The “Early Influencers” exhibit was one of the high points, at the start of the main hall. I liked this for a bunch of reasons. In general, it was a great reminder of the organic development of music and how though we necessarily classify music into genres, individual artists branch out in all kinds of original ways leading others to follow and eventually spawning what in retrospect is identifiable as a different kind of music. More specifically, I think the exhibit did a nice job of showing some of the strands of music that were woven together to create R&R and some of the key early figures in this development.

R&RHOF - Hank Williams

I also really liked the special exhibit on John Mellencamp. He was one of my favorite rock artists growing up and, in contrast to the way the rest of the HOF was laid out, it was great to get a little more depth even if only on one artist.

R&RHOF - Mellencamp Small Town Lyrics

The Allman Brothers received a little bit of attention, including in this big room where they had full sets of band instruments and costumes (as well as some original lyrics). But I was a little surprised at the lack of coverage of other southern rock bands – I don’t recall seeing anything significant on Lynyrd Skynyrd, Marshall Tucker Band, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Band or The Doobie Brothers. And I didn’t see anything in the way of groups trending more towards country – like say Alabama or Charlie Daniels Band – whose inclusion in rock fold would have been far more natural than some of the groups that the HOF did include.

R&RHOF - Allman Brothers Band

While it’s not as substantively important, I was also underwhelmed by the plaques commemorating each of the artists that have been inducted into the R&R HOF. Recalling the Cooperstown-like bronze plaques in the majestic rotunda at the Country Music HOF, a bunch of small names on plastic laminate in a remote corner of the museum didn’t seem to do the artists justice.

One of the things about rock and roll I think is so interesting is how the music was situated in its time. Music produced in any genre has elements of reflection on and reaction to its time, but rock and roll seems unique for a few reasons. The time period in which I think we’d say the genre was conceived and came of age was marked by rapid social change and the genre itself pushed boundaries so far in so short a period of time. For rock, a core part of its raison d’etre was and is rebellion and nonconformity. I would have loved to learn more on how rock fans and performers thought about this at the time, though admittedly this sort of perspective that I think is interesting is probably hard to capture in a museum.  The HOF at least nodded towards this sort of thing in some of the video exhibits (e.g. on Elvis and American Bandstand clips of all different artists), an exhibit on opposition to rock and roll (it wasn’t as interesting as it sounds, basically politicians talking about how terrible rock is) and a bit on the Summer of Love.

Even if a downside was not getting into so much depth on individual artists or a broader social perspective on the music, overall the HOF was well worth the visit.  Most of the museum was just a collection of cool and interesting artifacts – old concert posters, original lyrics (probably my favorite of all), artists’ instruments and all sorts of knick knacks from the past 75 or so years of rock history. Great visit!

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