NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Every day country music fans sob and cry in the Marty Robbins Museum Chapel as the voice of the popular performer who died four years ago is heard in the background singing "El Paso" and many of his other hits.
Other fans head for Minnie Pearl's Museum in the yellow gingerbread house on Music Row. She is often inside waiting to greet them.
Teen-age girls and middle-age women "oh" and "ah" at the nightgown worn by Barbara Mandrell on her wedding night, at her first mink coat, first Rolls-Royce, at her bedroom and bathroom moved intact to the museum.
In the last three years, a proliferation of shrines to living and dead country stars have sprung up all over "Music City." Seems like everywhere you turn there's another museum for a country singer, owned and operated by the personality it enshrines.
Hank Williams Jr.'s is the latest, filled with memorabilia of Hank Jr. and Hank Sr. At the recent dedication Hank Jr. sat on the hood of the 1952 Cadillac "my daddy died in on Jan. 1, 1953.
"You know," said Hank Jr., 36, "I haven't seen a lot of the stuff in years. Some of the stuff here that belonged to my daddy I can't remember ever seein' before." His father's voice could be heard singing "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" in the background.
Williams' museum is in the same block with one of the city's two wax museums jammed with lifelike figures of country performers. And in the same block with a car collection filled with flashy automobiles that belonged to country folk heroes, like Roy Acuff's Super Delux 1941 Ford, Webb Pierce's Silver Dollar 1962 Bonneville convertible loaded with ornamental rifles and pistols and 1,000 silver dollars set in hand-tooled leather upholstery.
Cadillacs or Rolls-Royces belonging to country stars are featured in all the museums. In the Country Music Hall of Fame, Elvis Presley's solid gold 1960 Cadillac has six gold records embedded in its roof.
Nashville is dotted with stores owned by country singers like Loretta Lynn's Western Clothing boutiques, Ernest Tubb's Record Shop, Willie Nelson & Family General Store and several Barbara Mandrell's One-Hour Photo Stops.
In the Barbara Mandrell Museum is a recording studio where, for $19.95, anyone can walk in off the street, pick out a song sheet with lyrics and sing along with a recorded country music band. "Your chance to cut one in Nashville," shouts a barker at the door.
Streets and boulevards--Tex Ritter Road, Johnny Cash Parkway, Elvis Presley Drive--are named after the same crowd.
There's even a small town, Twitty City, named after Conway Twitty who adopted (by Harold Jenkins) his professional name by taking the first from Conway, Ark., and the second from Twitty, Tex.
In Twitty's showcase of his life a curtain suddenly rises and in the glare of klieg lights is Twitty's 1956 T-Bird. They do like those cars.
The museums are filled with TV screens replaying highlights of the performer's career. One shows Twitty being welcomed to the White House by President Carter with Twitty remarking: "It could only happen in America."
Ferlin Husky's Wings of a Dove Museum, named after a song he popularized, features, in addition to all the souvenirs from his past, several dioramas portraying the life of Christ with figures in the exhibits having, so the display cases note, "real human fingernails and human hair."
Cash House is the Johnny Cash museum. There's the Jim Reeves "Gentleman From Panola County, Tex." Museum, Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Hall of Fame and Museum, and the Kitty Wells and Johnny Wright Museum. Dolly Parton opened her Dollywood down the road in Pigeon Forge in mid-May.
Buses swing through nearby neighborhoods, taking the curious hoards on tours of homes that do or did belong to the likes of Waylon Jennings, Little Jimmy Dickens, Jim Ed Brown, Ritter, Parton and a raft of others. Roy Acuff's home is in Opryland. Webb Pierce has a guitar-shaped swimming pool.
The granddaddy of all country, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, houses the largest collection anywhere of historic country music recordings--more than 110,000--and extensive exhibits of guitars, fiddles and other instruments that belong to well-known country singers.
There are hand-written original songs, clothing and memorabilia that belonged to every performer that made a name for him or herself since Atlanta's Fiddlin' John Carson in 1923 recorded the first commercially released record, "The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane" for Okeh Records.
Two Ph.D.s, John Rumble and John Knowles, are on the staff of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum as curators of this fascinating slice of Americana, where 52 country singers, beginning with Jimmie Rodgers, Fred Rose and Hank Williams are enshrined in the Hall of Fame.