The Website Commemoration Curated by the Country Music Hall of Fame Raises the Bar for Digital Preservation
While Nashville’s widely known as the home of country music, the city’s R&B community also made a historic impact on the evolution of modern culture.
That’s the goal of the latest online exhibit that we helped develop for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum: Night Train to Nashville: Music City Rhythm & Blues, 1945–1970. The museum’s staff originally curated the exhibit as an in-person experience open in 2004 and 2005, earning the NAACP Bridging the Gap Award for the promotion of interracial understanding.
“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,” said Kyle Young, CEO of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
To coincide with the original exhibit’s 20th anniversary, the museum will open a physical Night Train to Nashville exhibit in its galleries in January 2024, while the online exhibit memorializes the stories so that the public — no matter when, no matter where — can appreciate this important history.
To mark the online exhibit’s launch, the Country Music Hall of Fame partnered with the National Museum of African American Music to present a conversation and performance with key members of the historic Nashville R&B music scene, including Levert Allison of the Fairfield Four, Jimmy Church, Peggy Gaines Walker, Frank Howard, and Charles “Wigg” Walker. Frank Howard appeared on the Grammy award-winning compilation album coinciding with the original exhibit.
Given the overwhelming interest, the museum moved the program to a larger venue.
“You could tell the emotion that hit them and how cool it was just to talk about this story — they lived it,” said Justin Twerdy, the Lifeblue producer who oversaw the project for months. “It was emotional, for sure, but it was also happy — remembering these times that they had with all these other musicians. And then, thinking back on how important it is today — the impact that they’ve had.”
The event marking the launch of the online exhibit with key members of the historic Nashville R&B music scene. Courtesy of the Country Music Hall of Fame
The online exhibit starts with the history of how prewar jazz, blues, and gospel melded into rhythm & blues:
“In segregated Nashville, jazz and blues flourished in Black nightclubs and theaters, while the gospel influence took hold in churches. Many who played the music learned their craft in the rigorous education programs of the city’s Black high schools and colleges.”
Images of old brick buildings scroll past — echos of Nashville’s Black entertainment district later destroyed in the name of “urban renewal.”
Throughout eight chapters, readers journey through the decades, seeing Black musicians — from Jimi Hendrix to Little Richard — contribute to Nashville’s growing reputation as Music City.
As the exhibit enters the ’50s, we see R&B gaining popularity and moving into larger venues that kept Black and white fans segregated under Jim Crow. In 1960, Black college students in Nashville organized sit-ins at downtown lunch counters, helping to end segregation.
Meanwhile, live R&B shows flourished, as you can hear in songs peppered throughout the exhibit:
“Centrally located in the heart of the mid-South, Nashville saw virtually every major R&B act of the time step across its stages. … Etta James recorded this live album at Nashville’s New Era Club in 1963. According to her producer, the Nashville venue was chosen ‘because of the atmosphere generated by the public who patronize this club.’”
From studios in Nashville, R&B swept across the country through the airwaves. First, through radio, starting with WLAC — the most powerful force in R&B broadcasting in America. Then, on television with two extraordinary syndicated R&B TV shows: Night Train and The!!!!Beat.
Illustrating the influence of R&B, the exhibit offers a myriad of the same songs in both R&B and country versions to compare and contrast.
“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,” said Kyle Young, CEO of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
Behind the scenes, the Lifeblue team worked to make the online exhibit as easy for museum staff to manage as its in-person exhibits are.
That’s the level of service we wanted to deliver for a preservation effort that the Journal of American History originally described as “a project that has definitely raised the bar regarding what people will expect of their public history.”