A new museum in the works for Nashville will aim to expand the public's idea of what makes the town Music City. The National Museum of African American Music may sound counterintuitive for a city most closely associated with country music, a genre dominated by white performers. But supporters of the new project say the city played an important role in fostering African American music, which in turn influenced the roots of country and many other American genres.
"With the focus on music and the more than 40 genres of music that African Americans contributed to in a meaningful way, it really becomes a museum of American music and allows us to tell the story of American music," said board chairman Henry Hicks, who also is president of the sightseeing tour bus company Gray Line Tennessee. Nashville is an integral part of that story, he said, from the Fisk Jubilee Singers, who toured the world to support their historically black university; to Jimi Hendrix, who lived in Nashville early in his career; to Ray Charles, who both influenced and was influenced by country music. "Even when Motown was approaching its heyday, most Motown records were actually pressed at United Records in Nashville," Hicks said. Tim Sampson, who is a spokesman for the Stax Museum of American Soul, in Memphis, said he expects the National Museum of African American Music to be a great addition to the South's musical tourism offerings, calling it "one of the smartest things Nashville is doing." "It's real common for Europeans to come to the U.S. ... and visit Nashville, Memphis, Clarksdale, Miss., and New Orleans," he said. "The South's just hot right now for tourism. You can't give them enough, especially the Europeans." The museum would be the only one in the country focusing on the contributions of African Americans to music. "Once we are open and rocking and rolling we will apply for a Smithsonian affiliation that would allow us to share exhibits," said executive director Paula Roberts. The idea for the museum originally came from a Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce study that concluded Nashville needed more diverse offerings for tourists, Roberts said. The plan transformed from a civil rights museum to one focusing on African American arts and culture before solidifying its focus on music after a market research study last year. The museum's board already has an agreement to build on a piece of state-owned land at the corner of Jefferson Street and Rosa Parks Boulevard. The site is in the historically black neighborhood of North Nashville, but next to the Bicentennial Mall and just a few blocks from downtown. The museum is expected to cost $47.5 million to build, Hicks said, and the fundraising effort is making good progress. They hope to open sometime in 2013, but the timeline is still flexible.