Rural America Scholarship Program Supports Music History And Heritage Work On Main Street

Happy International Women's Day! And what a special day it is to receive and share exciting news exemplary of women helping women! This morning, I received notice from Executive Director Sherri Powell that I was awarded the Open Doors Scholarship from the newly established Rural America Chamber of Commerce. The scholarship includes a one-year membership with access to all member benefits that will help move my work forward.

And I'm doubly excited about the news because my twin sister Sheryl was also awarded a scholarship! Given the singularity of our work, I think it's safe to say that we're two of the first music preservationists to be recognized by (and members of) a Chamber of Commerce anywhere!

The origins and related histories of American roots music and successor genres like rock and roll are primarily rural. Many musicians hailed from small towns where they cultivated their musical gifts before relocating to cities like Memphis, Nashville, Chicago, New York City and Los Angeles. So it's not surprising that rural areas are where most of my projects have addressed artists and landmarks. One of my last field visits before the pandemic was to Tina Turner's hometown of Nutbush, Tennessee (population 259) for the annual Tina Turner Heritage Days.

Classical music history in rural America is even more obscure. For example, my work regarding Mozart's librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte has directed my efforts towards Sunbury, Pennsylvania where he lived for seven years. This period of Da Ponte's life in the Susquehanna River Valley has been long overshadowed by his professional accomplishments in New York City. But most aren't even generally aware that the man who collaborated with Mozart on three of his greatest operas (Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, Cosi fan tutte) spent the last three decades of his life in the United States.

When artists moved from Main Street to the mainstream, the places they left behind weren't equipped to record, preserve and advocate their life and music. This is still the case. And their stories are missed opportunities not only for music history and heritage, but for the communities themselves who could benefit from tourism and other economic, social and cultural advantages that this investment would deliver. It's a pressing, national infrastructure issue, both rural and urban, but a widening disparity leaves rural areas at greater risk.

When you visit an artist's home, hear their music, talk to a classmate or family member, see a special heirloom and walk the streets of their old neighborhood, you understand the power and poignancy of that experience. It's a connection that cannot be replaced nor replicated, yet remains endangered. Once it's lost, it's lost. Sadly, while some communities have found the support necessary to represent their native sons and daughters, they are in the minority.

Countless artifacts, buildings and stories are lost to the passing of time in places that aren't so lucky. And "luck" is the operative word. If you aren't lucky enough to have dedicated volunteers, knowledgeable professionals willing to work gratis or for low pay, affluent benefactors to contribute regularly and significant wins in the lottery game of competitive grants, you simply have no reinforcing foundation on which to stand. And given the barriers already faced by rural populations, the climb is even steeper and more unforgiving. In plain speak, it's bad out there.

One glaring issue is that our primary financier is nonprofit grant programs. Grants only pay for projects on shoestring budgets and short-term schedules. But to even get this far, you need a grant writer who can overcome an oversaturated pool of applicants. Grants cover mostly materials and supplies, not compensation for the actual work, so these initiatives often fail because they lack a long-term plan and vision with the proper personnel and funds in place to sustain them moving forward. We need a support system that invests in the longevity of not only our buildings, artifacts and other tangibles, but our professionals and the invaluable services they provide.

Should it really be this difficult for communities and their professional allies to find support? How can we allow the viability of our music history and heritage to depend entirely on the whims of chance and charity? We have a moral imperative to restore dignity by replacing an inadequate funding structure with stable and secure sustenance.

In recent years, ample research has been conducted by organizations like Americans for the Arts regarding the multi-faceted benefits of the arts: economic, social and cultural. The resulting ROI more than justifies the support it deserves. Music history and heritage can be implied in these reports, but they aren't addressed specifically so as to be recognized as a significant component of the arts and culture industry. Americans for the Arts provides informational tools for professionals and citizens alike to use in awareness campaigns including their "10 Reasons To Support The Arts."

I've organized two "This Place Matters" campaigns with my twin sister Sheryl at the Surf Ballroom and Everly Brothers Childhood Home for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. This organization focuses on a wide array of historic sites and landmarks, with music being only one subject area. Most preservationists work in regulatory or academic positions, and volunteerism is heavily relied upon to fill in the remaining gaps. These "gaps" represent a significant arm of the profession that has yet to be fully realized. My own. There's virtually no recognition or support for scholar-practitioners working in the field outside of governmental, architectural and academic institutions.

Initiatives established during the pandemic such as the "Save Our Stages" campaign by the National Independent Venue Association include historical venues, but once again, their identity and unique needs are lost under an enormous umbrella. It's a common problem. I mention all of these organizations and their limitations to demonstrate the fact that there's no organizational presence or concerted effort of any kind to quantify music history and heritage and its real-world application. And we desperately need this representation to make our case.

As I mentioned in my scholarship application, I believe that our lack of response to this ongoing crisis has been one of our great cultural failings as a nation. We need to shape preservation as a civic value and responsibility (social capital theory) aided by government subsidization to establish state offices and salaried positions for professionals working in communities. The private sector also has a role to play, although not as developers who compromise historical integrity, but as investors who support historical integrity through business sensibilities.

Although it wasn't a direct address of this issue, rural areas did benefit from President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Federal Music Project (renamed the W.P.A. Music Project). This initiative employed thousands of jobless musicians and brought concerts and music education to millions of Americans during The Great Depression. It also led to the creation of ethnomusicology, a profession that began to research and document American traditional music and folk songs.

"Live performances of African American and Hispanic music drew attention, as did efforts in several states to document musical traditions from ethnic minorities, spirituals, work songs and other folk music" (Quarterly Journal of the Music Library Association, September 2012, "The New Mexico Federal Music Project: Embodying the Regional Spirit of Roosevelt's New Deal").

Attending the inaugural Johnny Cash Heritage Festival in 2017 in Dyess, Arkansas gave me a singular experience with President Roosevelt's W.P.A. in the context of a musician's early biography. Dyess Colony was established in 1934 as a federal agricultural resettlement community that gave the Cash family 20 acres of fertile bottomland and a five-room house in which to live. During one of the panels, Rosanne Cash said that the this was the "hand up" that gave her father and his family the opportunity to be successful in their lives and careers.

Sheryl and I attended this event as representatives of the Everly Brothers Childhood Home and were also filmed at the restored Cash family residence for Rosanne's "The Walking Wounded." To watch the music video, see on-location photos and learn more about my adventure, read "Channeling Cash, Poet Laureate Of The Walking Wounded."

As a Music Historian and Preservationist in rural America, I face deficiencies that directly affect my ability to work and earn a living as a professional. And because of the pandemic, the sound of struggle has been replaced with a deafening silence. Will we survive this? Today, that "Main Street to mainstream" narrative remains: cities are full of transplants from small-town America trying to make a breakthrough in the music business. If we can't tell the story of our musical origins, how can we tell their story when the time comes? I believe that reviving and adapting a version of FDR's program to meet the current needs of our ailing industry, including a program solely for music history and heritage, is our path forward.

In 2016, I created the concept of Musicopolis, a public investment model that brings stakeholders from various sectors together in equal discourse to further a shared mission. The objective is to engage community members, small business owners, civic leaders, the creative workforce and other relevant practitioners in a collective holistic approach to provide the necessary capital, human and monetary, to support the work. It's not only preservation in practice but public service, to elevate communities through the unique narrative of their own story, to promote diversity and equity for social, cultural and economic revitalization and recovery (i.e. destination tourism, live performance industry, music marketplace, etc.).

While I've had success with efforts using this approach, it has become clearer to me over the past five years that the issues we face require sweeping intervention. Now is the time. We have a window of opportunity for music preservation to emerge as an integral part of our nation's post-pandemic recovery effort. And my hope is that, as was the case with the Federal Music Project, a profession will emerge where offices in each state offer salaried positions for professionals to work in the field alongside their neighbors in the largest cities and smallest towns.

We are all Musicopolis.

Where do we begin? By looking at the only state music office in the country: the Texas Music Office. Their Music Friendly Communities initiative, while oriented to music industry development, could easily be modified to include a component focusing on local music history and heritage, historic venues, legacy artists and more to connect the past with the present.

The Rural America Chamber of Commerce scholarship will afford me tremendous opportunity over the next year. I'll finally have the support to build a more extensive coalition through this new professional home with likeminded individuals who understand the challenge, but also the tremendous potential of living and working in rural America.



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