For the second year in a row, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum is shining a light on the state of country music with a special exhibit that focuses on how the genre is building bridges across stylistic divides. It's an ambitious undertaking, since what exactly defines "country music" these days is hotly contested.
American Currents: The Music of 2017, opening March 9th, seeks to put that debate in perspective, as it celebrates the country music of the previous year by placing it in the context of a family tree that dates all the way back to Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family in the 1920s.
Featuring personal mementos, instruments and stage wear from pop-influenced mainstream stars like Sam Hunt and Thomas Rhett, gritty singer-songwriters like Brothers Osborne and Luke Combs, Americana stalwarts such as Jason Isbell, bluegrass flamekeepers like Molly Tuttle, and songwriters, producers and legends from Randy Travis to John Prine, the new display lays bare the common bonds between country's wildly different members.
"At this museum we understand country music not as a narrow format, but as an expansive big tent genre," Hall of Fame CEO Kyle Young said during a preview on Tuesday night. "One inclusive enough to welcome contemporary radio stars, acoustic music virtuosos, bluegrass pickers, Americana heavyweights, songwriters, producers, and on and on."
With many of the featured artists in attendance, Young singled out two of country's opposing creative forces during his speech – the "radio dominating, rhythm driven" duo Florida Georgia Line and Isbell, "who follows in the traditions of Guy Clark, Tom T. Hall and John Prine." Young recalled a photo taken at last year's event of the unlikely trio smiling and getting along just fine, despite the way that musical differences are sometimes portrayed by pundits and critics.
"Now that's the kind of bipartisan agreement Washington, D.C., could take a lesson from," Young said.
FGL's Brian Kelley and Tyler Hubbard echoed the sentiment. Standing in front of a display that placed them alongside Jon Pardi, Taylor Swift, Maren Morris and Brothers Osborne – basically the entire range of commercial country – the duo said the genre has become more inclusive than ever in the last year.
"I think [country is] in a great place, and I think it's always been diverse," Kelley told Rolling Stone Country.
"It's a genre that we're really proud of," Hubbard added. "If you look through this [exhibit] at the music of 2017 – it was probably one of the most diverse years, with so many different lanes being filled so well at the same time. We're really proud to be part of a genre that's so open-minded and willing to accept good songs, regardless of if it fits in the exact mold you would expect or not."
Some of the artists with items on display are making their Hall of Fame museum debut. Combs, for example, had one of the best 2017s of any breakout star, hitting Number One at country radio with his first two singles, "Hurricane" and "When It Rains It Pours," and scoring a chart-topping album with This One's for You. It only took the newcomer a handful of years to go from learning guitar chords to the Hall of Fame museum, so he feels like he's experienced the open-minded culture that Hubbard described first-hand – especially in the wake of the year's biggest tragedy, the mass shooting at Las Vegas' Route 91 Harvest festival.
"In the end I think we all rallied together and we're a stronger community," Combs said. "I think there's less focus on whose music sounds like this and whose music sounds like that. Now it's just like we're a family, and I think the exhibit showcases that really well. You have somebody like Marty Robbins, and then myself and then Kane Brown, and we're all so different but we can all coexist."
Like Combs, Robbins is included as part of the American Currents "Unbroken Circle" display, which draws a line between classic artists and the hitmakers of today. Robbins' counterpart is the Grand Ole Opry's Chris Young, who grew up emulating the Western-singing star, and Brown is featured alongside Randy Travis, who both work in a deep, emotive vocal register. Meanwhile, fiddle-playing Americana standout Amanda Shires is highlighted next to them, with a page of hand-penned lyrics displayed alongside those of her songwriting idol, Prine, the ever-challenging literary prankster.
"It's really cool that the Hall of Fame is bringing together a lot of people that aren't normally allowed to stand next to each other, because people tend to put us against each other," Shires said, surveying a space that offers each artist equal recognition, no matter their level of mainstream exposure. For a moment in country history when that particular benchmark of success is shifting, the approach seems like a smart move.
"Everybody has different tastes," producer Dave Cobb offered. His work with Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton, Shires' husband Isbell and now with Prine on the upcoming The Tree of Forgiveness album has done much to bridge the gap between fans of roots music and contemporary country – or at least to lay that bridge's foundation.
"It's nice to see country music respect where it came from, but it's also nice to see where it's going," Cobb said. "And the Hall has done a really good job of that."
American Currents: The Music of 2017 will run through the end of the year.