Remembering Joe Chambers: Founder, Fighter for Musicians Hall of Fame

“You can see the hood ornament on the car when you go to the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. But if you want to look at the engine, and see what’s making it go, go to the Musician’s Hall of Fame.” 

–Neil Young

In all of music, but in country music especially, the musicians and songwriters who work behind-the-scenes commonly with little or no recognition from the public at large are often the ones who truly make the magic happen. Without them, some, if not many of the stars of music would collapse like hallowed-out husks from a lack of depth and talent, especially in today’s talent pool.

For all of its other flaws as an industry, country music and Nashville have always tried to give songwriters their due, establishing the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970, and making sure songwriters share in awards given to songs. But until Joe Chambers came along, musicians continued to play a role as second fiddle.

There would not be a Musicians Hall of Fame if it wasn’t for the undying commitment of Joe Chambers to the institution, along with his wife Linda. Despite being located in Nashville and having significant ties to country music, the dedication of Joe Chambers was to showcase the work of the studio and touring musicians from all across the United States, and from all genres of music. Opened in 2006 and facing significant adversity in its early years, the Musicians Hall of Fame is now a Nashville institution.

Joe Chambers was a musician himself, and a connoisseur of important instruments from the start. Originally from Georgia, he came to Nashville in 1978 as a member of a rock and roll band. He soon fell under the tutelage of Nashville Sound producer Billy Sherrill, and superstar Conway Twitty as an understudy. Mesmerized by the talents of the studio musicians playing on so many of country music’s hits, this is where Chambers found his passion for highlighting and preserving their contributions.

In 1985, Joe Chambers opened Chambers Guitars, and started dealing in instruments from across the country. He was successful enough to be able to open multiple locations, and it was through this venture that he made connections with musicians throughout the music business.

Interestingly though, the most lasting contributions of Joe Chambers to the music itself came in the form of songwriting. The title track to the 1988 album Old 8×10 from Randy Travis, the 1990 hit “I Meant Every Word He Said” by Ricky Van Shelton, and “Beneath a Painted Sky” by Tammy Wynette were some of the numerous cuts Joe Chambers earned in his career, along with songs from Conway Twitty, George Jones, Johnny Paycheck, Joe Diffie, and others.

In 1998, Joe Chambers began looking into producing a TV special that would help expose many of the musicians behind hit songs from the rock and country realm. The special never came about, but the passion Joe Chambers contained eventually morphed into what became the Musicians Hall of Fame. First established in a 30,000 sq. ft. building the previously housed an electronics business, it was near the Country Music Hall of Fame, Ryman Auditorium, and Lower Broadway, making it an important part of the Nashville downtown tourism district.

But the Musicians Hall of Fame always felt like the odd man out in Nashville since it wasn’t strictly affiliated with country music. Along with the musicians and instruments from Music Row’s iconic studios, Chambers also featured the musicians from Muscle Shoals, Motown in Detroit, and the Wrecking Crew in California, as well as musicians from New York, New Orleans, and other locations. In 2009 when the City of Nashville was looking to construct its massive Music City Center convention complex, the Musicians Hall of Fame fell right into its cross hairs, and it received an eminent domain notice.

Chambers and the Musicians Hall of Fame was the last holdout in the new convention center footprint. An independent appraiser valued the Musicians Hall property at $9.8 million, but Nashville only wanted to give Chambers $4.8 million. At that price, Chambers was concerned rebuilding the Musicians Hall of Fame in a new location with the same scope would be impossible in Nashville. When he lost the legal battle, the city gave him only seven days to vacate.

Also, during negotiations with Chambers on what to do with the property, the city of Nashville made offers of housing the Musicians Hall of Fame within the new convention center, and finding a temporary home for it during construction. But apparently when Chambers began to stand up to the city, they became much less willing to work with him. Instead, in 2012, the Songwriters Hall of Fame was moved to the Music City Center property.

To add insult to injury, in May of 2010 when Nashville experienced historic flooding, it damaged many of the instruments that were in the Musicians Hall of Fame collection since they had been forced into storage and had yet to find a permanent home after being moved from the original property.

It would have been just as easy for Joe Chambers to close up shop permanently, or perhaps move to another city that would be more hospitable to his idea of featuring the musicians behind the music. Eventually the Musicians Hall of Fame landed at the Nashville Municipal Auditorium about a mile north of the original location where it remains today, though they lease the property from the city instead of owning it.

Nonetheless, the Musicians Hall of Fame has become a destination spot for tourists and musicians from all across the country who come to Nashville every year. Joe Chambers also was the narrator for an excellent series of interviews and features posted on the museum’s YouTube Page on a regular basis. Highly respected among musicians and performers, Joe Chambers was able to get some of the best stories and personal revelations out of major music contributors.

It seems unfortunately fitting that when Joe Chambers passed away last week on September 28th, few if any media outlets paid attention, because just like the musicians he championed, the Musician’s Hall of Fame has always been considered the other Hall of Fame in Nashville, and under-reported on. Joe Chambers refused to follow the script, or fit the mold. But what he did to preserve the moments, the instruments, and the players who helped make the hits of American music was invaluable, and the musicians of American music always remembered him, loaning and donating their time, their attention, and their instruments to the institution.

In lieu of flowers, mourners are being asked to donate to the Musicians Hall of Fame.

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