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Wham, Bam, Thank You MAMH

The proposed Museum of American Music History could be the solution to our "image problem"

Houston's been hard at work on its image ever since we dug the Ship Channel. Mostly we've tackled the problem by importing culture from afar. Thus we have the symphony, the opera, that tarantula-like Miró sculpture downtown and the art museums. Such institutions are commendable, of course, but for Houstonians to suppose that they're going to attract tourists or win us style points is ludicrous. Art museums and the like are merely the default setting for culture in a modern metropolis. You have to have them, but they're not going to impress a visitor from Paris, or even Dallas.

But plans are in the works for a unique attraction that would wow 'em in France and the Big D. And best of all, we would be highlighting not 17th-century German fugues or the religious statuary of medieval Afghanistan but the blues, rock and roll, zydeco and country that bloomed in part right here in Houston.

A group of Houstonians led by financial planner Stephen Williams and Lizette Cobb, daughter of homegrown jazz legend Arnett Cobb, has recently unveiled plans for a 300,000-square-foot, $85 million-dollar Museum of American Music History to be located in downtown Houston. The plans include a 2,000-seat music venue, four virtual experience culture and heritage galleries, gift shops, rehearsal space and classrooms. About a quarter of the exhibit space at the proposed museum would spotlight Texans' contributions to American music. Such a museum, according to University of Houston economist Thomas DeGregori, would bring in $30 million to $35 million a year in tourist receipts.

Rather than dryly recite the history of American music, says Cobb, the museum would tell the history of America through the music that mirrored it. "Think about World War II," she says. "If you listen to the music of that era, they're singing about keeping your spirits up and winning. And then think about the influence the music of our servicemen had on the world. The French went crazy over jazz, and remember how the Nazis used to persecute kids who liked to listen to swing?"

Though the group has yet to make an official fund-raising announcement, the plans are already available at www.americanmusichistory.org. Right now, Cobb hopes that people will drop by the Web site and become contributors, but her main focus is collecting materials for exhibits. "People should become aware of the artifacts they may already have," she says. "Programs and albums… If they have some family members that have wardrobes and instruments and report cards…Anything they may have that would tell the story of this person's life, they need to start gathering 'em up and contacting us."

The plans recently won endorsement from the Smithsonian Institute, and the Texas legislature is interested in seeing such a museum built as well. In November 2001, House Speaker Pete Laney proposed a Texas Music Trail along state highways that would link up various attractions that dot the state, such as Lubbock's Buddy Holly Center and the Museum of the Gulf Coast in Port Arthur. But the trail needs a hub, a main attraction, and that's what a major museum could provide.

Of course, museum supporters can't go looking to the legislature for money: The State of Texas is broke. Kevin Christian, chief clerk for the State, Federal and International Relations Committee, which would oversee the trail, recently told the Austin American-Statesman that "the music community is really going to have to decide for themselves where [the hub] needs to be. I'm sure the state's going to follow the lead of the private sector. Cities are going to have to jump out and take the lead on this."

That's right, folks. Houston's not the only city gunning for the project, but we are in the lead. Austin has no plan to compare with that of Cobb and Williams. That doesn't stop Austinites from thinking their city deserves the museum because, well, it's Austin. Despite all the hard work that Williams and Cobb have put into the project, the Live Music Capital of the World thinks that Houston landing such a museum would be a tragedy on the order of Barton Springs running dry.

"Do I think it should be in Houston?" asked Asleep at the Wheel's Ray Benson in a January 18 story in the Statesman. "No, I think it should be in Austin."

Racket would like to remind Benson that we're talking about a Museum of American Music History, not a Museum of Self-Promoting American Music Scenes.

Let's compare the two city's musical heritages, shall we? Austin contributed nothing to the American music scene whatsoever until shortly after LSD arrived on the UT campus in 1963. Seriously. A couple of years later, the first truly innovative band emerged from Austin: the 13th Floor Elevators -- also the last truly innovative rock band to emerge from Austin, until the Butthole Surfers came along in about 1982. (For the record, the Elevators recorded for a Houston-based label.)

Willie Nelson moved to Austin from Nashville in 1972, and the Cosmic Cowboy movement gave Music City a scare in the early '70s (just as Pasadena's Urban Cowboy craze did later in the decade). Austin's city fathers set up Sixth Street, and Austin City Limits set about propagating the myth that every cool Texas artist perpetually frolicked alfresco under the Austin skyline.

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