Ten years ago, soul singer and longtime Nashville banker Frank Howard found himself at the Country Music Hall of Fame in some stellar company. "I was over there for a special dinner, and I was sitting with Bobby Hebb and Eddy Arnold," Howard says. In between discussions of Hebb's 1966 Top 10 R&B and pop hit "Sunny," which Country Music Hall of Famer Arnold covered in 1968, Howard had the chance to express his appreciation to one of his earliest musical heroes.
"I could not believe that I was sitting there," Howard says. "I said, 'Mr. Arnold, I used to listen to you all the time. I grew up on country music. I'd come out of the field with my grandfather at noon every day, and we'd go home and listen to you on the Purina Chow radio show while we ate.' "
It's a story that speaks to the permeability of the musical color line in America, an interchange that came to full flower in Nashville during the middle decades of the 20th century. In 2004, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum upended established perceptions of musical history with Night Train to Nashville: Music City Rhythm & Blues 1945-1970. The major exhibit focused on the once-thriving Nashville R&B scene and the musical integration that flourished in the dying days of institutionalized segregation. The museum is marking the 10th anniversary of that exhibit with a month of special programs and a Night Train edition of the Music City Roots live radio show. The co-curator of the original exhibit, Michael Gray, recalls how the exhibit first came together.
"Nashville's first record companies, like Bullet, Dot and Excello, all released R&B music," Gray says. "Radio station WLAC was just as important to R&B as WSM was to country. And the live music scene on Jefferson Street was as significant as Beale Street in Memphis or Bourbon Street in New Orleans. But over the years, Nashville's R&B story had become a lost history.
"Dan Cooper and I had been interested in that history for years," Gray continues. "When we pitched the idea to the museum, I was really excited about it, but a part of me was thinking there was no way we would get to do it. The museum had just moved downtown, and here we were suggesting that we devote 5,000 square feet to R&B. Our director Kyle Young and our vice president Liz Thiels got it immediately. They were supportive from the get-go."
With the green light, Gray and Cooper began contacting veterans of the Nashville R&B scene, and the trail soon led to Howard, who became essential to the exhibit. As the frontman for the soul-shoutin', high-steppin' Frank Howard and the Commanders, he had been in the thick of Nashville's black music scene throughout the 1960s and preserved many artifacts.
"I loved what I was doing," Howard says, "and I kept everything. I never thought it was going to be anything. I just wanted to pass it on to my kids. I had stuff on just about everybody. When I sat down with Michael and Dan, I could see they wanted it to be first-class, and I said, 'Whatever I have, you've got it.' "
Opening in March 2004, Night Train to Nashville ran for almost two years, garnering international acclaim, its accompanying compilation record winning a Grammy for Best Historical Album in 2005. But the most important accolades came from the subjects of the exhibit.
"When I saw the exhibit, man, I was blown away," Howard says. "Here was my music in the Country Music Hall of Fame, of all places. Until that exhibit, most people didn't have a clue that Jimi Hendrix played in this town. They didn't know about the bands that were here — Jimmy Church, The Imperials, Johnny Jones and the King Casuals, Earl Gaines, The Hytones and The Avons. It was about us and our music."
Ten years later, the legacy of Night Train to Nashville rolls on. At the age of 71, Howard works as a vice president with Pinnacle Bank, but he has also returned to performing on a regular basis as a member of the Nashville-based soul group The Valentines, who will be performing at Music City Roots on Wednesday at The Factory at Franklin.
"There were people that needed to hear about our music," Howard says, "and the Country Music Hall of Fame made a real difference in the way that people looked at the history of black music in Nashville. This is my seventh year with The Valentines, and we play two or three times a month, mostly private functions. We do a few steps. Not as much as we used to, but everybody still has their voice. What the exhibit did for us, money can't buy. It made us a new life."
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