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Documentary Sparks Hope for Music Hall of Fame

A few months ago, visitors walking through Alabama’s Music Hall of Fame in Tuscumbia would be flooded with music. A look through the songs in the museum’s jukebox, for instance, and you could play anything you liked-for free.

But today, it’s a different story.

“The Hall of Fame is presently closed due to lack of funding," says Wiley Barnard. He's Executive Director of the Music Hall of Fame. "Our power is off. We’re in the dark.”

Barnard says the museum has been closed since Christmas because it owes money to the state-- about $26,000 to be exact.

“We report to the state as a state entity but we’re not funded by the state,” says Barnard. “And I’m probably the only state employee that is presently not being paid. But I do it for the love.”

Today, Barnard is joined by a few museum supporters at Fame Recording Studios, just a few miles from the Hall of Fame. The recording studio in Muscle Shoals is legendary in the music world.  It’s where artists like Aretha Franklin recorded hit songs, including “I Never Loved a Man.” The list goes on with stars like Etta James, Percy Sledge, and Otis Redding.

David Hood is one of those museum supporters joining Barnard at the studios today. He got his start at Fame Recording Studios as part of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, also known as “The Swampers.” We met Hood last August when he was preparing to play in the Muscle Shoals Tribute Show in Franklin, Tennessee.

Those were better times. Hood is a little more somber today when he talks about the Music Hall of Fame.

“As a musician, I’ve played every one of the induction banquets, I have donated instruments to the Hall of Fame and now that instrument is sitting there in a cold, dark, damp building that’s not being taken care of,” says Hood. “I’ve been honored by the Hall of Fame, yet that honor is tarnished because the state doesn’t support something that is part of our heritage.”

The Music Hall of Fame has had a bumpy past couple of years, starting in 2011. That’s when Governor Robert Bentley first proposed to completely zero out the museum, which is a state agency, from the General Fund Budget. Over 90% of the Hall of Fame’s budget relies on state funding. It’s also the year the state tourism department focused on Alabama’s music history to draw people to the state.

Here’s a commercial from Alabama’s Year of Music.

Hall of Fame supporters like Wiley Barnard and David Hood called the timing “ironic” because of state funding cuts. They say leaving the museum out of the budget this year is just as shameful as a popular documentary is making its way through the national film circuit.

“Muscle Shoals” is a documentary that focuses on how this small, Alabama town burst onto the world stage of music. It received a standing ovation at the Sundance Film Festival last month. It also won Grand Prize at the 2013 Boulder International Film Festival in Colorado. Wiley Barnard says he hopes the film’s success will re-launch the museum.

“I truly believe it will spark,” says Barnard. “This is the catalyst that we need to really garner the attention that people all over the world have been trying to give us.”

Barnard and other supporters say they feel as if their pleas are falling on deaf ears in Montgomery. But, that’s not entirely the case.

“The music hall of fame is a way in which we can showcase our heritage,” says State Representative Johnny Mack Morrow. He’s saying he’s stepping up to try and help the museum.

“It’s a hypocrite to say ‘we like you, we want you, we need you, and we’re going to take credit for you and use you, but when it comes to supporting you with financial assistance, we’re not going to do that,” says Morrow.

Morrow says he wants to see the Music Hall of Fame brought back into the General Fund Budget and he’s going to put an amendment before the state legislature to try and do just that. Barnard, Hood and other supporters simply want to tell state lawmakers if there’s no money, let the museum become a private, non-profit. In other words, if you’re not going to fund us, free us.

There will be two screenings of the Muscle Shoals documentary during the George Lindsey UNA Film Festival this week. The first is February 27 at the Marriot Shoals Hotel Conference Center. The second is Friday, March 1 at the University of North Alabama Norton Auditorium. Click here for more information.

Maggie Martin was the host of Morning Edition at Alabama Public Radio. The popular news program airs every weekday morning starting at 5:00 AM. For over three decades, Morning Edition has taken listeners around the country and the world with news stories, interviews and commentaries. Maggie highlighted the wide range of programming featured on Morning Edition, from the informative to the quirky.
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