Country Music’s Most Important & Valuable Artifact (Country History X)

Arguably the most important artifact in country music—and most certainly the most valuable one—is not an instrument as one might assume. Instead it is a work of art, and one that holds special importance, has an incredible story, and was never officially finished. This is the story of Thomas Benton’s “The Sources of Country Music.”

Editor’s notes:

The Country History X Podcast looks to tell the history of country music, one story at a time. It primarily lives here on Saving Country Music, on YouTube (see below and subscribe), and is also available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Pocket Casts, and Anchor.

Along with being a great story, highlighting “The Sources of Country Music” is a good way to illustrate the African American influence in country music, as well as how some of the criticisms towards country music for striking the African American influence out of its history is unfair, and unfounded.

A full transcript and sources for the story can be found below.


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Transcript:

The Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. A shrine to country music, which not only houses the hallowed names of those who’ve been fortunate enough to be deemed Hall of Fame inductees, it also boasts the biggest archive of country music memorabilia and artifacts in existence. Along with the Mother Church of Country Music, a.k.a. The Ryman Auditorium, and of course The Grand Ole Opry, the Hall of Fame is one of the most important locations and institutions in all of country music.

Within the Country Music Hall of Fame’s walls rest some of the most important pieces of country music history, capped off by a collection of instruments affectionately known as the “Precious Jewels.” This includes the father of bluegrass Bill Monroe’s 1923 Gibson F-5 mandolin, the 1928 Gibson L-5 guitar owned by Mother Maybelle Carter, the 1930 Gibson RB Granada banjo owned by Earl Scruggs, Lester Flatt’s 1950 Martin D-28 guitar, and perhaps most importantly, the Martin D-28 guitar owned by none other than Hank Williams.

The accumulative history and wealth just of these artifacts can leave one awe stricken when standing in front of them. But despite these instruments being the main attraction for many who visit the Country Music Hall of Fame annually, believe it or not, they are not the most valuable artifacts in the Hall of Fame’s possession, at least when taken individually. In fact the most expensive and highly-regarded asset the Hall boasts isn’t an instrument at all. It is a piece of art that doesn’t even reside in the medium of music. That’s right, arguably the most important artifact in country music, and most certainly the most valuable one, is a painting of all things, and one you may have never even heard of, let alone seen or noticed. This is the story of Thomas Benton’s “The Sources of Country Music.”

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From the beginning, the founders of the Country Music Hall of Fame wanted to make sure the institution wasn’t just a place for plaques and guitars behind plexiglass, but a living, breathing entity, with a library where people could go and learn about the genre, and an archive to preserve the history of the music. Though the Hall of Fame is distinctly a Tennessee landmark, it was a couple of Texans that helped found it, and really helped set its course into the future. They were also the ones that envisioned the centerpiece of the Hall of Fame being a work of art—specifically a mural.

DJ, producer, and songwriter Joe Allison originally from McKinney, Texas was one of the Hall of Fame’s early proponents. Along with being known as “Uncle Joe” to many from his work in radio—including through the huge Armed Forces Radio network—he was the producer of Willie Nelson’s first record in 1962, and also worked with Roy Clark, Hank Thompson, The Carter Family, and others.

Joe Allison was one of the co-founders the Country Music Association, or CMA, which is the organization that commissioned the Hall of Fame and fields the committee that decides the inductees annually. He also helped found the Hall of Fame itself, which was first adopted in 1964, and opened a brick and mortar location at the head of Music Row in Nashville in 1967 in a small city park. Fashioned after the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, the original Hall of Fame looked a little bit like a church from the outside with a fountain out front, and above the first floor exhibits was Joe Allison’s library where country music history was kept.

It was Uncle Joe Allison that first envisioned a mural as being a significant part of the Hall of Fame experience. On a trip to Missouri one time, he’d been highly impressed with a mural outside of President Harry S. Truman’s library called “Independence and the Opening of the West,” painted by a Regionalist artist named Thomas Hart Benton. Regionalism is a distinctly American version of art made popular in the early portions of the 1900’s that often looked to portray average people in everyday scenarios in a way that canonizes them, instilling common people with a sense of grace, value, and beauty. Farmers and ranchers, construction and factory workers, cowboys and musicians were the characters found in these paintings and murals. And Thomas Benton was one of the most prolific of the discipline, and one of the best.

Benton painted many well-known pieces throughout the era in his very sculpted, rounded-off style that was his signature. He is responsible for numerous famous paintings, including Achelous and Hercules that he finish in 1947, and that now hangs in the Smithsonian Art Museum in Washington.

But at the time that the CMA’s Joe Allison thought about approaching Thomas Benton to paint a mural at the Country Music Hall of Fame, Benton was well past his prolific heyday in the Depression era and 1940’s. Thomas Benton was basically retired. He was also known to be a bit of a surly individual if you weren’t careful, so convincing him that country music was a worthy subject matter for a mural to undertake into his 80’s wasn’t going to be easy.

Joe Allison knew he probably didn’t have the charm himself to convince Thomas Benton to take the commission, but he knew someone who might. A couple of decades before, Joe Allison had worked as the emcee on a tour for singing cowboy Tex Ritter, and in 1946 wrote Tex Ritter’s hit “When You Leave Me, Don’t Slam The Door.” Though Tex Ritter was originally from Texas, he came up first in New York in Western plays on Broadway, and then moved to California to become a cowboy of the silver screen similar to Roy Rogers and Gene Autry.

Tex Ritter was very much part of the Western influence in country that often gets overlooked for the mountain music influence, and the blues. He acted in over 70 movies, and sang on some 76 movie soundtracks, scoring #1 hits in the 40’s with songs like “I’m Wasting My Tears On You” and “You Two-Timed Me One Time Too Often.” Of course Tex also sired a prominent acting family, with his oldest son John Ritter probably best known for playing the animated Jack Tripper on the sitcom Three’s Company.

Similar to Joe Allison, Tex Ritter was also a super important person behind-the-scenes in the 60’s creating the organizational foundations behind country music that would make it such a successful genre and industry for decades to come. Tex was a co-founder of the CMA as well, and one of the spearheads of the Country Music Hall of Fame. Tex Ritter was also just the type of larger-than-life character who could perhaps convince Thomas Benton to take on the Hall of Fame mural project.

The other critical component was of course money. As one of the most highly-regarded artists in American history, Thomas Benton wouldn’t come cheap. The CMA and the Country Music Hall of Fame were still fledgling organizations. To outlay the estimated $60,000 dollars in 1970’s money that it would take to get Benton on board for the mural seemed like a gratuitous expense at the time. Luckily though, the CMA found out they could get the National Endowment for the Arts to pay for a third of it, or $20 grand. Ultimately, commissioning the mural would be a very incredibly savvy business investment for the Hall of Fame.

So with a plan in place, Tex Ritter set off for Kansas City to see if he could steer Thomas Benton into traveling to Nashville to paint the Hall of Fame mural. First, some negotiations had to take place, often between sips of whiskey. The original idea for the mural was to be “The History of Country Music,” with perhaps portrayals of some of the genre’s early stars and founding fathers and mothers like Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, The Carters, and others filling the space. But Thomas Benton’s Regionalist roots told him that something less specific would hold more meaning, and be less of a time capsule, and more a foundational rendering of country music’s history that would hold up over time.

Thomas Benton’s idea was to portray the roots of country music with common, everyday people illustrating the various influences that would go on to shape the genre. Also, since Benton was now at an advanced age, he didn’t want to travel to Nashville to paint the mural. He was much more conformable in the studio in his carriage house in Kansas City, where he could work on the painting at his leisure on a canvas, and eventually ship it to Nashville when completed. This ended up being a much better outcome for the Hall of Fame too as time would reveal.

And so with those wise revisions to the plan, Thomas Hart Benton got to work on his country music mural—a grand, six foot high and ten foot wide painting that portrayed a chorus of Gospel singers, two fiddlers for the mountain music influence, two women to represent the female impact on country with one playing a dulcimer, multiple couples near the back dancing, a towering cowboy picking out a Western tune on guitar, and a black man sitting on a stump, playing a banjo.

There they were, all the primary influences of country music in one place. There was also a steamboat on a river in the background, which also lent to the sounds and lyrics of country. A jug can be seen on the wooden floor. A church stands atop a hill. On the left is a mountain flower symbolizing Appalachia, while on the right is a more desert setting symbolizing the West.

When it came to the portrayals of these people and things, Thomas was said to be meticulous in attempting to get everything to be as accurate as possible, even if the painting came with a bit of a dramatized and wind-swept perspective. He studied the specific instruments to make sure everything was aligned just right. The people, their clothing, and the perspective of everything had to be cast perfectly.

After the painting was nearly done, Benton and his cohorts at the Hall of Fame decided a locomotive needed to be added to represent the railroad culture that can be heard in so many country and folk songs. Benton was said to have tediously studied train engines to make sure he got the details just right, corresponding with railroad museums and choosing the right engine to represent the Casey Jones era of locomotive lore.

One aspect about the painting that is pretty important to point out was the inclusion of the African American character playing a banjo. For Thomas Benton and the Hall of Fame, there was never any question that the black influence in country music must be included in any portrayal of the genre’s origins. This is counter to a lot of the modern accounts about country music history that say the black influence was stricken from the historical record, with accusations of racism, and white supremacy sometimes accompanying those charges.

In fact, one of the often-overlooked features of the painting even by many historians and interpreters of the work are four more African Americans just over the shoulder of the black banjo player. They appear to be standing on the shore of the river, with their hands outstretched towards the steamboat. Unless you’re standing right in front of the impressive painting itself, you’re liable to miss them. But this was another homage to the African American influence in country.

Most certainly, country music has a checkered past when it comes to opening its arms widely to African American performers, with notable exceptions such as Charley Pride, who won the CMA’s coveted Entertainer of the Year award in 1971, and was just the 5th performer ever to secure the trophy. Pride was also inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2000.

There probably is a prevailing mindset among the public that country music is predominately or exclusively a white art form. But despite the assertions of present-day think piece writers and cultural revisionists, when it comes to the texts and works involving country history itself, the African American influence was almost always included, and not after the fact. The Thomas Benton painting first envisioned in the late 60’s and unveiled in the mid 70’s is a perfect illustration of this. Black performers and the African origins of the banjo instrument were given their proper due.

Though Thomas Benton insisted in keeping the characters of the painting ambiguous, he did break his own rule when it came to to the cowboy included in the front right foreground. He chose to fashion the cowboy character as a young version of his friend Tex Ritter. When Tex had come to Kansas City to sell Thomas Benton on the idea for the mural, the two had hit it off over their mutual admiration for the outdoors and old folk songs. Despite being known best as a painter, Thomas Benton also liked to sing folk tunes, and was said to be pretty proficient on the harmonica.

Sadly though, Tex Ritter would not be around to see the finished product. He died of a hearth attack on January 2nd, 1974 as Benton continued his work on the painting. Tex was sent back to Texas to be buried. One of the pall bearers at his funeral was fellow Texan, fellow CMA and Hall of Fame founder, and the man who first had the vision for the Thomas Benton painting on country music, Joe Allison.

Just over a year later, on January 19th, 1975, the now 85-year-old Thomas Benton told his wife he was going out to the carriage house where he kept his studio to decide if he was finally done with the painting now officially called “The Sources of Country Music.” If he was satisfied, he would sign the canvas at last, and make arrangements to send it along to the Country Music Hall of Fame.

After some time had passed and Thomas did not return to the house, his wife went out to check on him. It is there she found him slumped over in a chair in front of the painting. He had apparently suffered a stroke or a heart attack, and had fallen, landing on his watch and breaking it with the time stuck at 7:05 p.m. before making back up to his chair, and gazing at what would be his final work before passing on. The painting would remain unsigned.

The story that came with “The Sources of Country Music” only enhanced its mystique, and its value. It also saw Thomas Benton’s career in art come full circle. The first ever drawing Benton made at the age of nine was said to be of a locomotive. His last ever artistic contribution was the locomotive in his Country Music Hall of Fame painting.

“The Sources of Country Music” commissioned for $60,000, with the National Endowment for the Arts paying for a third of it, is now valued at well over $1 million dollars—far and away the most expensive asset owned by the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, aside from the building and property itself. The painting is so valuable, it has been used as collateral over the years to secure loans for improvement and expansion projects for the Hall of Fame and Museum.

Of course “The Sources of Country Music” eventually made its way to Nashville and was put on proud display at the original Country Music Hall of Fame location on Music Row. Since Tex Ritter had been so critical to its creation, the Board of Directors at the CMA voted to dedicate the painting to the Western singer. As for Joe Allison, his vision had finally come to life, though the delivery of the painting was bittersweet. Uncle Joe had such reverence for Thomas Benton, but he never got to meet him in person. The plan was for the two to finally convene when the painting was officially put on display at the Hall of Fame. Allison always regretted not traveling to see Thomas Benton in Kansas City before he died.

The painting remained at the Hall of Fame on Music Row until the institution moved to it’s current location in 2001 in the southern portion of downtown Nashville. Good thing it was rendered on canvas, and not on a wall that’s now been demolished with the rest of the original Hall of Fame building, though I’m sure if it was on a wall, they would have figured out a way to transport it across town and incorporate it into the new construction.

Meanwhile just as the music has grown in prominence and popularity, so has the Country Music Hall of Fame, blossoming into a massive shrine to the music. It comprised some 140,000 square feet when it first opened its new location, and now with multiple expansions, it has swelled to some 350,000 square feet of display space, archives, education classrooms, event venues, and a gift shop, aided in part by the material value of Thomas Benton’s painting backstopping the museum’s financials.

Similar to many of the artists and bands who are enshrined at the Country Music Hall of Fame, “The Sources of Country Music” has gone on tour itself to be seen by the masses, and has also been displayed at The Smithsonian in Washington along with other Thomas Benton works. But of course it’s permanent home and where it always returns is the holy of holies in the Country Music Hall of Fame, a.k.a the Hall of Fame rotunda itself.

The rotunda is all a collaboration of continuous lines and features that symbolize the cyclical nature of country music. Just above where the plaques of the inductees are displayed it reads “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” in big gold letters wrapping around the rotunda, taken of course from the old spiritual tune. On the roof is an antenna reaching to the sky emblematic of country music’s historic ties to radio programs like The Grand Ole Opry, with a corresponding antenna pointing straight down to the dead center of the room, where a solemn circle is displayed in the center of the floor.

“The Sources of Country Music” painting could be seen as the sole exception to all the cylindrical symbolism present in the Hall of Fame rotunda, and an exceptional one since it hangs as a centerpiece of the space and sits dead center at eye level when you first enter the room. Even in its prominent location, not everyone recognizes it as an important artifact, even fewer know its story, or its value, and many of the Hall of Fame’s annual 1.3 million visitors pass right by it as perhaps just a random art piece to compliment the space instead of a bedrock of the building, more compelled by finding the plaques of their favorite country artists on the Hall of Fame rotunda walls than pondering over some painting. But officially remaining unsigned, and thus unfinished, this symbolically leaves “The Sources of Country Music” as open ended and neverending, just like the legacy of country music itself.

Maya Angelou once said that you can’t really know where you are going until you know where you have been. “The Sources of Country Music” isn’t just a work of art. For country music, it’s a moral compass. They also say a picture is worth 1,000 words. In this case, it’s a painting that’s worth well over a million dollars. But nobody’s selling. Thomas Benton’s “The Sources of Country Music” is arguably country music’s most prized and cherished possession, and now you know its story.


Sources

Hidden History of Music Row – Brian Allison – 2020

Country Music – An Illustrated History – Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns – 2019

Saving Country Music: “Why The Most Iconic Painting in Country History was Never Finished”

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