Saturday, 5 April 2014

Preserving traditional country music in the heart of Texas

There is no time for jet lag on this fieldwork trip to the United States of America. I flew into Dallas Fort Worth on Wednesday and then onto San Angelo Airfield before finally arriving late evening into Brady, Texas (by a stretch limo, no less) - Brady being the home of the Heart of Texas Country Music Museum, a museum dedicated to "preserving and promoting traditional country music".

Every DIY archive and museum I have been to so far for this project has been incredibly welcoming of me and giving of their time. However, the volunteers of the Heart of Texas Country Music Museum have been exceedingly so. Tracy Pitcox, the founder of the museum (and associated initiatives like Hillbilly Hits, Heart of Texas Country Music Association and Heart of Texas Records), ensured I had the most wonderful hosts in volunteer couple Clyde and Betty Sue McCarley. Betty Sue began my warm welcome by leaving a big basket of fruit in my hotel room ready for my arrival and also ensured a full schedule of interviews two days running. The pair also had me well fed during the lunch breaks with Tex Mex on day one and Texan BBQ on day two, and Betty Sue even fitted into the schedule a quick drive out to Mason so I could see the Texas Bluebonnets, a state flower currently in bloom.

This museum is a great example of the power of volunteers and enthusiasts to bring a vision for grassroots music heritage management to life. As the external plaque states, for example, "construction was made possible by our members, friends and volunteers". During dinner on Friday night founder Tracy Pitcox told me of the beginnings of his country music memorabilia collection and its gradual metamorphosis into a museum. Over the Thursday and Friday I interviewed a total of 31 volunteers, all who in various ways enabled that metamorphosis to occur. 

I spoke with the ladies who were behind early fundraiser initiatives - bake sales, garage sales, recipe books; men who built the building; the most wonderful Billy Jackson whose family donated the lot on which the museum was built; volunteers who work on the front desk, get newsletters ready for posting, and/or cater events; volunteers who give their time regularly and those who are 'on call' and contribute whenever and wherever they are needed; volunteers who were there from the very beginning (including Hazel Maner who I interviewed at the local Nursing Home, aged 104) and those who have only recently joined. I also spoke with Tracy's parents and his grandmother and with artists who have donated artefacts to the museum and who support the museum in whatever other ways they can - Pretty Miss Norma Jean, Darrell McCall, Mona McCall.

A lot of rich and interesting stories came out of these interviews. Brady is a small town and it has made for a strong, loyal community of volunteers. When asked about their motivations for volunteering at the museum, my interviewees noted a few different things. Some volunteers have known Tracy since he was a boy and treasure him and his contributions to the town; others emphasise the importance of the museum to the broader community of Brady - it is a tourism site that draws people to the town; many others have a long love of traditional country music and volunteering for the museum is a logical extension of their fandom; and for some the motivation is the act of volunteering itself. 

All of these different and, to various degrees, overlapping motivations ensure a large volunteer base for the various activities of the museum. Questions of sustainability remain, as the majority of the volunteers are over the age of 65, however Tracy is considerably younger than this and so it is hard to see the passion abating any time soon. Indeed, the museum, which turns 14 this year, recently saw its third expansion (which has made way for a size-able gift shop on the ground floor and a performance space upstairs). 

Country Music performer T Graham Brown recently described the Heart of Texas Country Music Museum as "the coolest thing this side of the Country Music Hall of Fame Museum in Nashville" - a sentiment to which I wholeheartedly agree. Tracy and the early volunteers made a visit to a variety of music museums in Tennessee in the lead up to building the Heart of Texas Country Music Museum and this gave them a good idea of what works and what doesn't in the display of music artefacts and memorabilia. The result are well curated exhibits of music memorabilia - everything from records to instruments, costumes to artists' personal objects (eg. eye glasses). Some artefacts have been purchased by volunteers to donate to the museum - just another way in which volunteers are contributing to the growth of this museum.

Two days really wasn't enough here; there were many other volunteers and artists I could have interviewed if my visit were longer. Hopefully I can make it back to Brady before too long. I know I'd be welcome --- there is a lot of heart in the Heart of Texas.