Why The Most Iconic Painting in Country History Was Never Finished

“The Sources of Country Music” by Thomas Benton

Standing in the middle of the Country Music Hall of Fame rotunda in Nashville, Tennessee, it’s hard to not feel the gravity of country music history impressing itself upon you. Beyond the plaques of the inductees and all the greatness their music embodies, the symbolism of the Hall is quite strong, from the bold lettering asking “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” encircling the space, the antenna denoting country music’s history with radio descending from the ceiling and pointing down to the floor, and a corresponding antenna beaming up to the sky, and the cylindrical form of the chamber itself imparting the cyclical nature of country music, helping to convey how country music has always been about carrying on what always has been, and what always will be.

But standing apart from all of this symmetrical symbolism, and the very first thing that greets your view as you walk into the rotunda, is a painting called “The Sources of Country Music.” The six-by-ten mural commissioned by the Country Music Foundation in 1975 depicts all of the disparate but interconnected influences of country music coming together in one place, from Gospel hymnals being sung by a choir, to mountain music being played, to square dance tunes, cowboy singers from out west, the blues and the banjo influences from African-Americans, to the train and steamboat whistle, it’s all encapsulated in this iconic painting that defines country music better than any words or phrases ever could.

The painting is the work of Thomas Hart Benton from Missouri, who was part of the Regionalist art movement most popular in the mid 30’s. Benton painted many well-known pieces, including other murals that depicted multiple characters in his very sculpted, rounded-off style that was his signature, and was well-regarded in his time. Thomas Benton is responsible for numerous famous paintings, including Achelous and Hercules that he finish in 1947, and now hangs in the Smithsonian Art Museum in Washington.

By 1975, Thomas Benton was 85-years-old, and didn’t know if he wanted to undertake another major project. But at the encouragement of country star Tex Ritter, he set to work on “The Sources of Country Music” in his carriage house in Kansas City. Partially commissioned through an arts endowment, Thomas was paid $60,000 to complete the painting. None of the 17 nearly life-sized characters portrayed in the mural are supposed to be specific performers, except for the cowboy. That is Thomas Benton’s rendition of Tex Ritter.

But Thomas Benton never finished the painting, officially. And it arguably remains unfinished to this day. On January 19th, 1975, the 85-year-old told his wife he was going out to the carriage house to decide if he was finally done with “The Sources of Country Music.” And if he was, he would sign it at last, and send it along to the Country Music Foundation. 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 collapsed on the floor, dead of a heart attack, with the painting still unsigned.

“The Sources of Country Music” commissioned for $60,000 is now valued at over $1 million, and is the most expensive asset owned by the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum aside from the building and property itself. The painting is even valued above many of the legendary country music instruments and other memorabilia the museum boasts in its vast archive. 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.

In the Country Music Hall of Fame rotunda, nothing really begins, and nothing really ends. It is all a collaboration of continuous lines and features that symbolize the cyclical nature of country music. “The Sources of Country Music” could be seen as the sole exception, and an exceptional one since it commands such attention as a centerpiece of the space. But remaining unfinished, it leaves the work open ended and neverending, just like the history of country music itself.