Long Gone Lonesome Blues

Curatorial rigor amid the tchotchkes at the Country Music Hall of Fame. 

In the middle of a sentence about the poor condition of some of the antique sound-recording artifacts he works with, Alan Stoker, audio restoration and film-video engineer for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, Tenn., interrupted himself, sprang up from the couch he was sitting on, and said, “I’ll show you what I mean.” We were talking in his semi-fishbowl studio in the brand-new Hall of Fame and Museum the afternoon of its opening day, a few weeks ago, with thousands of visitors thronging the exhibits in the airy, almost ecclesiastical spaces created by Ralph Appelbaum, who designed the Holocaust Museum. Stoker, a slender, boyish man in his 40s, had swept-back, western-style gray-black hair and was dressed informally, and that day, like everyone else connected with the CMHOF, he was frazzled. The CMHOF itself was frazzled—wires hung out of wall panels where pay phones ought to have been, and behind the scenes loomed as many still-packed cardboard boxes as you’d find in a college dorm in October. But it’s a thoughtful building, evoking, from different perspectives on the outside, a ‘50s automobile tailfin, a piano’s black keys (tall windows in a two-three-two-three pattern), the prow of a ship, and an old-fashioned radio broadcasting tower, and, from the inside, a cathedral. A bit too eclectic for its own aesthetic good, maybe, but it works as a tourist attraction and as one of the 750 museums in the nation accredited by the American Association of Museums.

Stoker returned holding a 5-inch metal disc partially covered by finely grooved black acetate. A lot of the acetate had flaked away—that is, a lot of whatever country music had once been set down in those grooves (a J.E. Mainer mountain song? A bluegrass instrumental by the Stanley Brothers? A Kitty Wells demo?) had disappeared into eternity. Stoker sat back down and regarded the disc with the sort of philosophical melancholy with which a librarian might gaze upon a tattered first edition of Main Street. “This is what I mean,” he said.

Such discs, particularly radio-transcription discs, form a large portion of what Stoker has to transcribe and preserve for twangy posterity. In the very early days of broadcasting, they were the only technology available for setting down live radio shows—in the case of country music, early Grand Ole Opry and Louisiana Hayride shows, for example. Musicians’ families would often make the discs at home, using an amateur radio-and-burner set, store the discs in attics, and pass them down to their heirs, and when Stoker acquires them, he says, “They’re often moldy or broken or covered with gunk.” Some of the discs were made out of cardboard with thin varnish coatings, and some (during World War II, when metal of any sort was scarce) of glass. Some of the labor that Stoker performs is, appropriately enough, manual—for instance, taping broken glass discs using a magnifying glass to make sure the grooves are aligned. With any recording antiquity—78s, metal discs, cardboard discs—he says, “I only need one good pass. If I can get one good pass on tape, the job is done.”

Stoker prefers tape. He doesn’t trust digitization as a storage technique for the sound of music. He considers it unproven. “The quality of sound on tape degrades in a fairly predictable way,” he said. “And it’s essentially recoverable. With digitization the storage is good up to a certain point and then it falls down like a brick wall.” Really? “We’ve had CDs for—what? Only about 20 years. Who knows how long digitized CDs are going to last? Who knows what format is going to be next?”

Like the animators’ consoles at Disney World, Stoker’s sound studio is largely gawkable for Hall of Fame tourists who want to watch the big tape reels spin as he gets his one good pass of, say, Webb Pierce’s eponymous voice and transfers it onto analog tape, removing egregious auditory blemishes but being sure to leave enough of the original signal to keep the tape from sounding extraterrestrial.

Stoker is diplomatic about this compromise of his professional privacy (which is only partial, inasmuch as the patrons can’t hear what he’s doing in his audiqarium). “The lighting is such that I can’t see them very clearly,” he said, “and anyway the facilities here are so much better than they were at the old Hall of Fame. I worked in the basement of the building. It was like having an outhouse for 20 years and not even knowing about marble bathrooms.”

Stoker was a percussion major and a voice minor at George Peabody College in Nashville before Vanderbilt University absorbed it. “For a while I wanted to be an artist, a percussionist,” he said wistfully. But then he got a part-time job at the old CMHOF, and in l975 he went to work for the institution full time. He is the only person to hold this position so far. He loves it. He describes a pinnacle of his career with practiced but obviously authentic relish. “The Acuff-Rose publishers had rows and rows of acetate discs and they called us over to look at them, and there, right in the middle of one of those rows, we found about 15 Hank Williams demos. One of them said ‘Honky-Tonk Blues’ in handwriting—probably Hank Williams’ writing. They were songwriting demos that he used to try to get other artists to record his music. I nearly jumped out of my skin. We made two LPs out of those discs and then a CD, First to Last, out of those LPs.”

Another peak: Ed Leeks, a high-school friend of a certain singer, found an old metal disc that the singer had made for his mother’s birthday in 1954 and gave it to Sun Records in Memphis. The disc was brought to Stoker, accompanied by three lawyers and a few other observers. Stoker was able to play it—it contained “My Happiness” and a truncated version of “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin”—truncated probably because the singer knew that the disc space was running out. The singer was Elvis Presley, and the disc, seriously insured, is now on display at the Hard Rock Cafe in Philadelphia. When the professional version of “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin” was recorded, Presley’s backup group was the Jordanaires, who accompanied Presley for almost 20 years. One of the Jordanaires was Gordon Stoker, Alan Stoker’s father, who to this day is singing with the Jordanaires.

Nicholson Baker, the patron saint of primary-material preservation, would like not only Stoker’s mildly Luddite recording philosophy—his distrust of digitization—but the Hall of Fame Museum in general. Its archives include hard-copy card catalogs galore, with drawers for categories like “Sheet Music Composers” and “Song Titles Print Materials Blues” and “Award Winners” and “Billboard 78 Artist Index.” And I came across a loose-leaf binder of songbook title pages—Xeroxes, some a little askew or distorted in their reproduction, of the contents pages of old, obscure collections of songs: “Songs from the Hills,” “Songs of America’s Womens’ Colleges,” ” Songs of the Mountains and Plains.” (The last listed a song called “If You See a Still, Keep Still.”)

Of course, the CMHOF has a huge supply of tourist-oriented tchotchkes—Elvis Presley’s solid-gold Cadillac (an ur-mega-tchotchke) and Patsy Montana’s boots, to name two of tens of thousands—and its exhibits are for the most part not wildly scholarly. There are walls of gold and platinum single-record plaques, for example, and you can open the plaques, like the doors of little refrigerators, and the songs play. (When I opened “Coal Miner’s Daughter” ‘s door, I had an impulse to try to reach inside and rummage around for the Loretta Lynn homunculus that surely lived inside.) And the exhibits stay primarily on the surface of big hits and big stars, though you can do some interactive delving at some of the consoles. But through a literal glass darkly you can always see Alan Stoker and the library archivists going about their serious curatorial and preservationist work. This is the largest popular-culture research organization in the world, and it’s bracing—bracingly American, in some good sense of the word—to think of a music whose history is so demotic and whose nature is so unpretentious being kept and cared for with such professional rigor.