Back in 2016, I was asked to join Johnny Smith and Monica Kinsey at Smith's office space across from the Chattanooga Choo Choo on Market Street to talk about a new museum planned at the tourist complex that would feature guitars. Lots of guitars.
At the time, Smith was (and still is) president of the McKenzie Foundation and Kinsey was the owner of Track 29 and wife of Adam Kinsey, general manager of the Chattanooga Choo Choo. The two were involved in a new venture and wanted to talk about it for a story for the paper.
I have to confess here that while I love music as much or more than most people, I have no musical talent and to this day I can't tell the difference between a Fender and a Gibson. So it took me a while to catch on to what Smith and Kinsey were talking about. Initially, I had a tired image in my head of what a guitar museum would entail: a glass box holding some small broken guitar once held by Elvis and surrounded by a lot of black-and-white pictures and surface-level text.
This was not at all what they were talking about. By the end of our conversation, I remember telling them that it would one day become a magnet for people in the music world, bringing in people like Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Jimmy Page. I also remember saying that it would take a while to make people understand that this was a world-class collection unlike anything else.
The museum, of course, became Songbirds Guitar Museum and would also eventually become home to Songbirds North and South, hosting concerts by such luminaries at Dick Dale, Stanley Clarke, Joe Bonamassa and so many others. As predicted, however, getting people to understand just how amazing the museum was could only be accomplished by seeing it in person.
Now that Songbirds has closed, my first prediction won't come true, but the museum did draw praise from all who saw it, including some truly great musicians.
There were hundreds of examples, but my favorite involves G.E. Smith, the former "Saturday Night Live" band leader. A friend of his reportedly suggested the two stop by the place on their way from Nashville to Atlanta, to which Smith supposedly replied, "Why would I want to see a guitar collection when I have my own?"
They did go, and the very first guitar Smith saw was one he'd owned himself years ago. He became an instant fan and had plans to do several projects with the museum.
The museum was about the history of the guitar and its place in our culture, and the people who worked there did a terrific job of expressing that every time I went. They loved telling stories about how the early guitars came in such vibrant, recognizable colors because makers used auto body paint. The same stuff used to paint GM cars was used on the guitars because it was tough and durable.
The story of the how the Telecaster became the Nocaster and then the Stratocaster because of the invention of the television and later the space program is also interesting.
I had the opportunity to take Richard and Sheila Lloyd to the museum one afternoon. Guitar geeks will know that he was with the band Television when it was the house band at CBGB in its early New Wave heyday, and is regarded as one of the best players ever.
We went without an appointment, but assistant curator Irv Berner immediately took us around and into The Vault, telling Richard story after story and handing him a couple of guitars. At one point, Sheila looked at the smile on her husband's face and then said to me, "I've never seen him like this in my life."
Losing Songbirds is a huge blow to our city for many reasons. It was a great live music venue which will never be replaced, but it was also a huge bragging point. And it was just becoming a magnet for big-time artists as word began to spread.