Exhibit Highlights Nashville’s Pioneering and Influential R&B History
The Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum has unveiled its newest online exhibition, Night Train to Nashville: Music City Rhythm & Blues, 1945-1970, which is available to access for free on the museum’s website. The multimedia exhibit explores the significant story of Nashville’s vibrant and pioneering R&B scene and its important role in helping the city to become a world-renowned music center.
Made possible by a major grant awarded from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the online exhibit revisits, updates and preserves the museum’s award-winning physical exhibit of the same name, which was featured in its 5,000-square-foot temporary gallery space nearly 20 years ago (March 2004 to December 2005).
Night Train to Nashville explores Nashville’s R&B activity in the decades following World War II. As Nashville’s country music industry was just getting started, the city was also a hotbed for R&B in the late 1940s,’50s and ’60s, with celebrated performers — Country Music Hall of Fame member Ray Charles, Arthur Alexander, Ruth Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Etta James and Little Richard, among others — contributing to the city’s rich musical heritage. During this time, R&B reigned alongside country music in the city’s clubs and studios, on radio and on nationally syndicated television.
The multimedia exhibit showcases a vast array of historic photos, performance videos and audio recordings, as well as instruments, show posters, stage wear and other rare items featured in the original exhibit. The museum will also mount a physical Night Train to Nashville exhibit in its galleries in January 2024, coinciding with the 20th anniversary of the original exhibit.
“The Night Train to Nashville story provides important context about how R&B played a vital role in Nashville becoming ‘Music City,’” said Kyle Young, CEO of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. “Similar to the original exhibit in 2004, the online version offers a multidimensional vantage point from which to consider the era’s race relations and the city’s Black musical culture, and how they affected the making of this incredible music and Nashville’s evolution. As the city developed into a major recording center, it did so against a background of urban change and at a time when racial barriers were tested and sometimes broken on bandstands, inside recording studios and on the airwaves.”
To mark the launch of the online exhibit, the museum will host a free conversation and performance with key members of the historic Nashville R&B music scene in partnership with the National Museum of African American Music (NMAAM). The program on Wednesday, Jan. 25, at 6:30 p.m. in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s Ford Theater, will feature performances by Levert Allison (of the Fairfield Four), Jimmy Church, Peggy Gaines Walker, Frank Howard, Charles “Wigg” Walker and other participants. The museum’s Michael Gray and NMAAM’s Dr. Bryan Pierce will join the discussion. Tickets are now available to reserve here.
The Night Train to Nashville online exhibit’s narrative is organized into distinct themes:
- The roots of Nashville R&B, which evolved primarily from pre-World War II jazz, blues and gospel. In segregated Nashville, jazz and blues flourished in Black nightclubs and theaters, gospel influence took hold in churches, and musicians learned their craft in educational programs of the city’s Black high schools and colleges.
- The city’s live music scene, focusing on venerated Black music venues such as the New Era Club, Club Del Morocco and Club Baron. Cultural icons like Little Richard and Jimi Hendrix apprenticed on Nashville bandstands.
- Nashville’s influential R&B radio, including the 50,000-watt powerhouse WLAC, which blasted R&B across late-night airwaves, and stations WSOK and WVOL, which were among the country’s first to adopt an all-Black format.
- R&B on television, including syndicated television shows “Night Train” and “The!!!!Beat,” which were produced in Nashville. The shows featured some of city’s top musicians and singers alongside R&B’s top stars.
- The city’s R&B recording industry, which included renowned producers and a variety of hit R&B recordings originating in Nashville. Etta James recorded her scorching live album Etta James Rocks the House at the New Era Club, and Arthur Gunther recorded the R&B classic “Baby Let’s Play House” for the renowned Nashville blues label Excello Records.
- R&B’s legacy and lament, which examines key developments of the late 1960s, from the soaring height of Robert Knight’s R&B-pop crossover hit “Everlasting Love” (recorded in Nashville), to the depths of so-called “urban renewal” and the routing of Interstate 40 through Jefferson Street, which eventually devastated the city’s vibrant R&B nightlife.
- R&B songwriters’ and performers’ strong ties to country music, which carried through to the stages and studios of postwar Nashville. These include R&B singer-songwriters like Nashville native Bobby Hebb, who wrote and recorded the million-selling crossover hit “Sunny,” and performed on the Grand Ole Opry in the early 1950s as a member of Country Music Hall of Fame member Roy Acuff’s band.
Online visitors can also access a full video archive of public programs hosted by the museum in relation to the original Night Train to Nashville exhibit and Nashville’s R&B history, including concerts, panel discussions and more. The online exhibit and upcoming physical exhibit will also be supported by new public programs.
During the physical exhibit’s original run, Night Train to Nashville earned the museum a Bridging the Gap Award (2006) from the Nashville chapter of the NAACP for the promotion of interracial understanding. The exhibit’s companion album of the same name received a GRAMMY award for Best Historical Album (2004).
The museum’s other online exhibits include Suiting the Sound: The Rodeo Tailors Who Made Country Stars Shine Brighter and Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats: A New Music City, each of which received NEH CARES grant funding awards. Also available is the museum’s immersive website Historic Music Row: Nashville’s Creative Crossroads, which received a major supporting grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission.
The Night Train to Nashville online exhibit was made possible by a grant through NEH’s Sustaining the Humanities through the American Rescue Plan, which aims to support the critical role the humanities play in our nation and assist cultural institutions affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The nonprofit museum is one of eight cultural and educational institutions in Tennessee to receive funding. Approximately 115 museums, historic sites and historical societies nationally were awarded grants.