During a recent trip to Nashville, Tennessee Livings People and Places editor Tommy Black dropped by the Country Music Hall of Fame.
I’ve had a few bad days now and then, but I don’t think I’ve ever had one as bad as Don Gibson had on June 7, 1957.
The North Carolina singer-songwriter was living in a rented trailer outside of Knoxville when a repo man showed up to take away his vacuum cleaner and television set. With nothing to watch and not much else to do, Don sat down and started strumming his guitar. By the time the sun came up the next morning, he had written two new songs, “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” and “Oh Lonesome Me.”
He never had to worry about the repo man again.
That story haunted me as I wandered around the Country Music Hall of Fame rotunda. Part of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum (www.countrymusichalloffame.com) in Nashville, the soaring circular room holds more than 100 bronze plaques each dedicated to a singer, songwriter, musician, or group who helped move country music from the front porch to the world stage.
Don was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2001, and his plaque adorns the hall’s curving wall alongside others honoring legends such as Bob Wills, Minnie Pearl, Johnny Cash and Roy Rogers (who made it in twice, once with the Original Sons of the Pioneers and then again by himself).
The fruits of their labors line the Museum’s walkways and fill its exhibit cases. Hundreds of gleaming framed albums cover the “Gold Record Wall.” Crowds gather around Elvis’s gold plated piano and gadget-filled limousine, and snap pictures of Hank Williams’ guitars and cowboy hats in the “Family Tradition: The Williams Family Legacy” exhibit.
Scheduled to run through 2009, the exhibit features the largest collection of clothes, instruments, furniture, photos, and genuinely weird knick-knacks ever gathered from the Williams family. There’s the white tuxedo Hank Jr. wore when he performed as a teenager on the Ed Sullivan Show; a group of stuffed squirrels holding tiny instruments and arranged like his father’s “Drifting Cowboys” band, and flower cards and condolence notes his mother Audrey saved from Hank Sr.’s funeral in 1953.
Like many native born (and naturalized) Southerners, I grew up hearing Hank Sr.’s and Don G’s songs, and their tunes still provide the background music for much of my life. Everybody from B.J. Thomas to Nick Cave has tried their hand at Hank’s heart rendering “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” and an episode of the television comedy Scrubs once featured his bouncy hit “Hey Good Lookin’” sung in Japanese. As for Don, Ray Charles (and about 700 other singers) eventually recorded their versions of “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” A few years later, he got another tune stuck in his head, wrote it down, and the song “Sweet Dreams” was born.
Walking around the Museum, I finally figured out why this brand of distinctly American music holds such a worldwide appeal. Beyond the glittering rhinestone suits and gleaming gold records, the songs reflect our everyday joys, pains, happiness and heartbreaks. Sit back, have a couple of beers, and listen as Ray Charles moans his way through “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” and you’re back in a trailer on the edge of Knoxville, sweating in the Tennessee summer heat, waiting for the repo man.