Historic Places Tied to Music Strike a High Note
In 1935, Merle Haggard’s father paid $500 for a Santa Fe Railroad boxcar and moved it to a vacant lot in Oildale, California. Haggard’s parents tacked on two extra rooms, adding plumbing, a stove, and floral wallpaper. The future country singer himself was born two years later. Maybe it wasn’t the most conventional of childhood homes, but by most accounts, the family was happy.
Haggard carried memories of the boxcar into his career as a renowned and beloved country music star, alluding to it in songs like “Oil Tanker Train.” When he died in April of 2016, fans in Oildale had already become concerned about its dilapidated state. In a bid to save it, local group Citizens Preserving History adopted the slogan “Save Hag’s Boxcar” and struck a deal with the Kern County Museum in nearby Bakersfield to move the structure to the museum and restore it to the way it looked in the early 1950s.
In April of 2017, a year after Haggard’s death, the boxcar opened to the public as part of the museum’s Pioneer Village, situated near a steam engine and caboose. With financial backing from the Cynthia Lake Charitable Trust and direction from Haggard’s sister, Lillian Haggard Rea, the museum worked with architect George Taylor Louden and contractor Whitezell Construction to replace rotting wood on the exterior and faithfully recreate the interior.
“The Merle Haggard song ‘Mama Tried’—this is the house where mama tried,” says Zachary Gonzalez of the Kern County Museum. “So that was a very big deal to everybody involved in this project. The most challenging aspect was getting it right.”
Haggard didn’t much hold with the “Nashville sound,” a primmer, more produced and polished version of his own country twang, but on the city’s Music Row, a National Treasure of the National Trust, the Nashville sound is still strong. In July of 2016, the National Trust, in collaboration with the Music Row Neighborhood Association, announced that several historic music studios would be opening their doors for prescheduled tours for the first time. Each of these eight studios has deep roots on Music Row, such as OmniSound Studios, which is located in a building that dates from 1955 and has hosted everyone from Little Richard to Beyoncé, and the Black River Sound Stage/Ronnie’s Place, where Haggard himself recorded in the 1980s.
Carolyn Brackett, a senior field officer for the National Trust in Nashville, sees music heritage tourism as a major boon to Nashville’s legacy in the shifting climate of the contemporary music industry. “Part of what we wanted was to think about the economic development component, what could help them stay there,” she says of the Trust’s work with its Music Row partners. “The tourism piece is not going to transform it into a tourist district, but with advance notice … the [studios] can offer a unique visitor experience and also generate some revenue.”
Like Music Row, downtown Atlanta’s Tabernacle music venue has been successfully bridging past and present for decades. Believed to have been constructed in 1910, it was known as the Broughton Tabernacle, for Leonard Gaston Broughton, a Baptist minister and medical doctor. It boasted more than 4,000 churchgoing members at the height of its popularity. The redbrick and granite Neoclassical structure served as a church until 1991, when the shrinking congregation moved out of the space.
In preparation for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, investors bought the structure with the intention of turning it into an Olympic entertainment venue. These plans faltered, but it was converted into a House of Blues in time for the games, and has operated as a music venue ever since. (It is now run by Live Nation, the live events company that owns the House of Blues chain.) The building’s success is credited with helping to revitalize Atlanta’s downtown over the past 20 years, but according to Mark C. McDonald, president and CEO of the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation, the Tabernacle is that rare historic place whose worth has always been recognized.
“That’s the best way to approach a historic building, I think,” McDonald says. “We like the glamour of the ‘before’ and ‘after’ shot, but really, the better preservation [projects are] the ones that don’t require the ‘before’ and ‘afters.’”