Willie World

Nashville museum is a deep-dive time capsule of vintage country music

Nashvillians don’t have to go “On the Road Again” to visit a “Willie” terrific collection of memorabilia and artifacts from country music’s golden era.

The Willie Nelson & Friends Museum features exhibits on Nelson and more than 30 other country stars. It’s just off Briley Parkway, across McGavock Pike from the entrance to the Opryland Hotel and the Grand Ole Opry, in a strip mall book-ended by Cooter’s and the Nashville Palace.

“We’ve got a really small space for a whole lot of stuff,” says owner Mark Hughes, whose mother, Jeannie Oakley, and her husband, Frank—longtime friends of Nelson and other country stars—started their collection in their Madison, Tenn., picture-frame shop 1979. The museum grew and moved several times over the years (off Music Row, then to Branson, Mo.) before settling into its current Music Valley Drive location in 1992.

Its 4,500-square feet of exhibit space details the world of Willie Nelson and many other entertainers who’ve intersected with his wide-ranging musical orbit over the years, including Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline, Porter Wagoner, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Mel Tillis, Faron Young and Dottie West. There’s a pair of Nelson’s running shoes, and the guitar he played on his first Grand Ole Opry appearance—and his paltry $15 paystub from the gig. Over here’s a mockup of the front of his tour bus; over there’s a custom-made billiard table that once sat in his parlor; walls and display cases hold dozens of photos; and yep, that’s a booth and seats from Tootsie’s Orchard lounge, where Nelson and other singer-songwriters used to hang, just feet away from the backstage entrance to the Ryman. The laminated top of the booth is covered in autographs and scribbled notes, like hillbilly-music hieroglyphics.

There’s a blowup of Willie’s high school yearbook pic, movie memorabilia and items from the first Farm Aid concert, in Champaign, Ill., in 1985, including a bandana signed by all the artists who came to perform—including Willie’s fund-raising partners Neil Young and John Mellencamp, plus Loretta Lynn, Bob Dylan, B.B. King, Billy Joel and Tom Petty. Look, that’s Willie’s 1979 Entertainer of the Year trophy from the Country Music Association, his only win in that category. And yes, that’s a handwritten note from Patsy Cline, thanking him for writing “Crazy” and letting her record it.

You can sit in a little theater alcove and watch a couple of documentaries featuring Nelson and other country performers reminiscing about bygone Nashville days. Or browse displays of stage attire from a country music who’s who of stars.

Another display, of framed photos, shows Willie’s wives, all four of them.

Hughes notes that Nelson’s granddaughter, Raelyn, was coming by the museum the next day to tape an episode of her Music is Funny podcast from the museum. Nelson used to drop by himself from time to time when he was in Nashville, but that doesn’t happen much anymore, now that he’s a bona fide global superstar who doesn’t spend a lot of time in Tennessee anymore. And even though he remains very active at 90, he’s not quite as wide-ranging as he used to be.

Many of the display items came from the Internal Revenue Service, which auctioned off Nelson’s property to chisel away at the $16.7 million they said he owed them, in the early 1990s, for unpaid taxes. “My mother was able to work out something with the IRS,” says Hughes, “and get first crack at some things.” Some things by the truck load, as it turned out.

Hughes says he often hears from museum visitors how surprised they are to see photos of Nelson well-groomed and clean-cut, without his long hair and signature braids, no beard, and wearing dapper, double-breasted suits—1960s Willie, as he was trying to crack into the Nashville music biz. “They say, ‘I’ve never seen Willie with short hair!’ They had no idea he existed before ‘Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain’,” he says, noting Nelson’s No. 1, written by Fred Rose, from his 1975 Red Headed Stranger album, which signaled the beginning of his “outlaw” phase—and the end of regular trips to the barbershop.  

Visitors enter (and exit) the museum through a well-stocked gift and souvenir shop, full of t-shirts and country music collectibles. You can buy a Willie Nelson bandana (complete with braids) or cannabis-themed koozies. And get your future foretold by a mechanized Willie-bot in a coin-operated fortune-telling booth.

The museum displays are mostly vintage, truly from another era, a snapshot of country music before the current millennium and its ever-rising tide of newer, younger acts. “We don’t have anything against so-called newer stars,” says Hughes. “That’s just not what we’re about.”

“There are very few artists who can span the number of years that [Nelson] has contributed, and still be the level [Nelson] is today,” he says, citing Wille’s recent pair of 2023 Grammy Awards. “There aren’t many places people can walk into and see such a diverse collection of specific country music memorabilia, and you can run a thread through all of it and see how everything’s connected”—connected to Willie, as a songwriter, a singer, a hit-making megastar…and good friend to just about everyone whose paths he crossed along the way.

And that includes Hughes, the former businessman who years later took over, and expanded, his mother’s Willie-centric collection.  

People think, “Long hair, smokes pot,” says Hughes of how many fans perceive Nelson. “Yeah, that’s true. But to me, he’s a very nice guy. I’ve never, ever seen him upset.”

—Neil Pond


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