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NASHVILLE — Walking into the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s new “Outlaws & Armadillos” exhibit is like entering a time warp back to 1970s Austin.
Posters from the Armadillo World Headquarters and Willie Nelson’s early Fourth of July Picnics line the walls. Video screens loop footage of Joe Ely, Guy Clark and other Texas greats when they were young and on fire, first making names for themselves. Murals both from the era and recently commissioned help to establish the mood of what Austin was like “back in the good old days,” as the ’70s are often pegged now.
And then there are the artifacts. The door from the Luckenbach dance hall that graced the cover of Jerry Jeff Walker’s landmark 1973 album “Viva Terlingua”? Check. The Randall knife that Guy Clark wrote about in perhaps his finest song ever, a touching tribute to his father? It’s here, along with its sheath. The jumpsuit Joe Ely wore when he tended animals for the circus just before he embarked on a solo career post-Flatlanders? Got it.
On Thursday, the exhibit was unveiled to media and attendees of an invitation-only preview reception, before a grand-opening weekend commences with an all-star concert on Friday night at the museum’s 800-capacity CMA Theater. In the works for several years, “Outlaws & Armadillos: Country’s Roaring ’70s” will remain on display until early 2021.
The concert kicks off a weekend of activities that will involve several Austinites. Sessions featuring Ely, Kimmie Rhodes and Bobby Earl Smith will focus on the music Austin produced in that golden decade of cosmic cowboys and country outlaws. A Saturday afternoon panel moderated by Wimberley author Joe Nick Patoski will discuss the significance of Armadillo World Headquarters with key figures Eddie Wilson, Mike Tolleson, Jim Franklin and Gary P. Nunn (writer of the song “London Homesick Blues” and its definitive “home with the Armadillo” refrain).
Sunday, Austin filmmaker Eric Geadelmann and country star Jessi Colter will present an installment of a documentary series that Geadelmann, a co-curator of the museum exhibit, has been working on for years. Colter, the widow of outlaw icon Waylon Jennings, also was in attendance at Thursday’s preview, as was their son Shooter Jennings, who teamed with Nashville producer Dave Cobb to organize the Friday concert.
As she viewed a couple of dresses she donated to the museum for the exhibit, Colter recalled how special her visits to Austin were during the 1970s, citing performances at Willie’s Picnic and Armadillo World Headquarters as particularly memorable. “I always felt like it was the prettiest city,” she said. “And the audiences were so much fun to play to.”
Across the way, Ely was checking out a handful of items he’d donated, including a guitar he used to write most of his earliest songs and a rare 8-track tape of the 1972 Flatlanders album he made with Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock. Most intriguing, though, was that circus jumpsuit, which he wore in 1973 shortly after the Flatlanders album was made but before he began playing music on his own.
It was sort of by accident: He went to check out the circus when it arrived in Lubbock, but employees mistook him for a crew member. He played along. “They gave me this outfit and about $60 a week. So I jumped on in what was called ringstock, which is pretty much just taking care of the llamas and the world’s smallest horse.”
RELATED: Our 2015 interview with Joe Ely
The museum’s Peter Cooper, who worked with Michael Gray and Geadelmann in curating Outlaws & Armadillos, pointed out a couple of items he’s most proud to have in the exhibit.“ The first thing we collected was the copper still where Tom T. Hall and the Reverend Bill D. Campbell made whiskey,” he said, noting that while Austin artifacts are central to “Outlaws & Armadillos,” its theme ultimately is about the push-pull partnership between Austin and Nashville in the 1970s.
To that end, he added, “Somebody who’s shared by Austin and Nashville is Guy Clark, and so Guy Clark’s Randall knife and Susanna Clark’s artwork are incredibly special.” A painting by Susanna, Clark’s wife and a heralded songwriter in her own right, was used for the cover of Guy’s 1975 debut album “Old No. 1” and is among the most striking pieces in the exhibit.
Speaking to about 1,000 attendees of the preview reception in a grand room overlooking the Nashville skyline, museum CEO Kyle Young further suggested that although the relationship between the Austin and Nashville music communities is often considered contentious, he sees a lot of symbiotic ties.
“Nashville needed Texas,” he told the crowd. “We needed Guy Clark and Susanna Clark. And Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson. And Waylon Jennings and Rodney Crowell. And Delbert McClinton and Townes Van Zandt. And hundreds more who first embraced and then enhanced this town’s depth and texture.”
In turn, he continued, “Texans needed Nashville. Musical Texas wasn’t set up in opposition to Nashville. If it had been, there would have been a preponderance of studios and entertainment lawyers and infrastructure. Kinky Friedman and Michael Murphey, and Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jerry Jeff Walker, and Nanci Griffith and Lyle Lovett, and George Strait and Jack Ingram, and so many more all came here to record, to commune and to create. We all needed each other.”
MORE PHOTOS: From the Outlaws & Armadillos exhibit