Not Another Nashville Story
Brenda Colladay has spent a career documenting country music - and Nashville itself
If Country Music Hall of Fame’s Brenda Colladay were traveling the world and fighting Nazis in pursuit of precious country music artifacts (go with the Indiana Jones metaphor for a moment), there would be no giant, rolling stone trying to crush her. She would not have switched a golden idol with a bag of sand, and therefore would not be running toward a river trailed by a swarm of poison darts. Rather, the longtime East Nashvillian would be commissioning geologic surveys of the cave system. She would be living in the local village to understand its culture. She would license photos from the bullwhip manufacturer.
“It’s not really about the objects,” Colladay, former museum and photo curator for Ryman Hospitality Properties and now the vice president of museum services at the Hall, says. And it’s not even about the artists themselves: “It’s about making sure that we are getting the stories down,” she says, “that we are expanding the stories so that it’s more complete, so that we’re really understanding the history of the places.”
On May 1, Colladay assumed her new role with the Hall, in which she oversees its collections and exhibitions, its writing and editorial staff of 30, and a massive library and digital archive. Her job now, as it was with the Grand Ole Opry during her Ryman tenure, is not to track down obscure doodads from country music’s early days or beg Tim McGraw for an old pair of jeans. Colladay’s job is to tell stories. She’s done just that for the length of her career.
In one sense, Colladay, a Kansas native, has come full circle with her current employer. Moving to Nashville in May 1993 with then-partner and now-husband Chuck Mead of BR549, her second internship was with the CMHoF. A Middle Tennessee State University grad student studying public history with an emphasis in museum studies at the time, she hoped her summer temp position would turn full-time after graduation. It didn’t.
At that point, the tiny museum — “a post-modern glass barn” on Music Row — didn’t have the funding. But the space was magical even then. Colladay remembers coming across Hank Williams’ old ID from his days as an Alabamian shipbuilder.
That type of history wasn’t just in the Hall; it was Nashville itself. Demonbreun Street, now a strip of Midtown bars, was then a row of museums dedicated to foundational artists like Loretta Lynn, George Jones, and Barbara Mandrell. “The history was within the city a lot more than it is now,” Colladay says. “You become aware of it because you watch it disappearing before your eyes.”
Roll your eyes, but this is another story about a changing Nashville, because Colladay’s work has been to remind Nashville and its visitors of where it came from.
Starting at the Opry and later, the Ryman Auditorium, Colladay established, organized, and expanded their collections while working on books, videos, and with the artists themselves to cement legacies and establish histories. Most impressively, she did it by herself — an army of one.
After overseeing the remodel of the Ryman’s tour materials in 2014, she left the following year, working on a Mississippi museum for Marty Stuart, advising the Ken Burns documentary Country Music (to be released in the fall of 2019), and researching the Aubrey Preston-led restoration of RCA Studio A.
“Her work ethic is amazing,” says friend and longtime colleague Sally Williams, Opry Entertainment senior VP. “All of her knowledge about country music translates to stories, not only accurate but engaging.”
Despite these projects, Colladay never settled into the freelance life: “I’m someone who has somewhere to be at all times my entire life, so that unsettled, unanchored feeling was hard for me to enjoy,” she says. The near-daily emails from LinkedIn were by and large a waste of time, but the Hall position kept popping up. Friends from within the organization messaged her about it. And finally, the call came from an eventual boss, then-senior VP for museum services Carolyn Tate.
Colladay joins a museum that, by any metric, is in strong health. Since its move downtown in 2001, it currently sees more than one million annual visitors and maintains national accreditation for excellence. Her goals center around programming that engages Nashville locals, both native and adopted, who have never crossed the museum’s threshold.
“When people move to Nashville and aren’t really aware of the history of the city and of country music, I would hope that they visit the Hall of Fame to understand how important it is,” she says. “Cities all over the world are creating fake things to draw people, and Nashville has this amazing identity that has served it well. It’s important to preserve those things that make Nashville unique. Otherwise we just become Anytown, U.S.A.”