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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Guitars hang in cases at the Songbirds Foundation on Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

As Reed Caldwell made his way around the completed and partially completed display cases inside the old Songbirds Guitar Museum on Station Street, he described how the foundation he runs with the mission of teaching children to play guitar has continued to grow and thrive over the past almost six years, and how moving into the space makes so much sense.

While it might be confusing to some because the names are so similar and it is essentially the same space, the new Songbirds, which will open for business Sept. 18 after undergoing about $350,000 in renovation work, is now home to the Songbirds Foundation, which always has been connected but separate from the museum and is focused on education and its nonprofit mission.

"This is the next logical step, and I think it has worked out extremely well," Caldwell said.

Caldwell is executive director of the Songbirds Foundation, a nonprofit organization whose main mission is a program called Guitars for Kids.

For every $100 it raises, it can provide a guitar and free lessons for a student. To date it has done so for almost 5,000 kids across Tennessee and other parts of the South.

The Songbirds Foundation was created shortly after it was announced six years ago that the Songbirds Guitar Museum would open in 2017 at the Chattanooga Choo Choo in the former miniature railroad museum space.

The museum featured the world's largest collection of rare and vintage guitars. It closed in August of 2020 for a variety of reasons, including the COVID-19 pandemic. The foundation announced in September 2020 that it would be moving into the old museum space.

Before it closed, the museum also hosted live music in the upstairs museum space and downstairs in the former Revelry Room space. Part of the downstairs space is now home to the Blue Light bar, and Caldwell has been hard at work reconfiguring the upstairs space into an 8,200-square-foot space designed for learning and live music.

Much of what was there before remains, including the cabinetry, sound system and stage. But Caldwell said much of it has been repurposed for hands-on learning about science, technology, engineering, art and math. It has a particular focus on being fun for people of all ages and interests.

"We want people to come here and be able to touch things and learn how sound works, how a guitar pedal or an amplifier work," he said.

Guitar aficionados still will have plenty to look at as dozens of instruments, including a 1961 Gibson Les Paul owned by the late Duane Allman, adorn the display cases. But they also are now equipped with signage detailing their history and even a QR code that allows viewers to listen to a sample of the former owner's work.

As before, the display cases can be moved to allow more room for performances and event rentals such as meetings and weddings.

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Songbirds Foundation

In the case of the pedals and amps, Andy Wood recorded samples. Patrons can simply push a button and hear what sound each piece of equipment produces. Professional Sign Services, Michael Mahaffey of Tiny Giant and Tara Hamilton of Wonderpress helped with much of the design work, and Caldwell said staff, including artist John Dooley, did much of the build work themselves.

Also, a large portion of the space will be dedicated to local history and local artists as part of a rotating exhibit. For many years, Ninth Street was the center of Black culture in Chattanooga, and The Big 9 exhibit focuses on some of the famous and should-be-famous people who performed or came out of the area. Visitors can learn about people like Clyde "The Funky Drummer" Stubblefield, for example.

Perhaps best known for his work with James Brown, Stubblefield's drumbeats have been sampled by artists such as Run DMC and Public Enemy more than 100 times.

The Impressions got their start in Chattanooga before moving to Chicago, and there is an entire section dedicated to their work.

"These exhibits will stay here for about a year and then hopefully go to the airport [for display] and then around the state," Caldwell said.

The stage has been rebuilt and redesigned to provide more space for performances, and Caldwell said he enlisted the services of Mike Dougher to book the bands that will play there. Dougher did the same job for the Songbirds Guitar Museum, as well as Rhythm & Brews and the Sandbar before that.

"He is a Chattanooga icon, and I'm so excited he is doing this," Caldwell said.

"I'm thrilled to be invited back to Songbirds, where we had built such a wonderful venue," Dougher said. "I look forward to being really creative with the acts we can bring in."

Caldwell said the recent uptick in COVID-19 cases has put a bit of a pause on booking shows, and he said safety measures will be a part of the venue for all visitors. Patrons can go online and book the time for entry, for example, to limit the number of people inside at one time.

The first show will feature Eric Gales on Sept. 23. Future lineups will include Victor Wooten on Sept. 25. Wooten will also do a master class.

Caldwell said the popular Vault Sessions, which feature short videos of musicians playing and talking about their music, will continue.

Caldwell said moving the entire operation into the space allows the foundation to increase reach, and it utilizes a beautiful space already dedicated to music, sound and guitars. He credits Songbirds Guitar Museum Executive Director Johnny Smith and staff for creating a first-class space, and he is glad the name will live on.

Caldwell said the goal is to spread the Guitars for Kids program across the country, and the new Songbirds space allows for students to take a field trip to the space for further learning and inspiration. It also gives the foundation a permanent space for fundraising.

"Now, the money from every beer, admission ($15 for adults, $12 for kids), performance or T-shirt sold will go directly to the program," Caldwell said.

Contact Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.

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