This month we conclude our virtual ‘walkthrough’ of the Southern Gospel Music Hall Of Fame and Museum which, from 1999 through 2020, was located at Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.
The largest section of the museum was located on the north end – The Golden Age of Quartets. Guests could view memorabilia chronicling the rise of southern gospel music throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. This area was updated frequently, but some items on display through the years included dresses worn by Vestal Goodman, suits worn by Wendy Bagwell, the banjo that was given to ‘Little Roy’ Lewis of the Lewis Family, the highly-collectible (and rare) Blackwood Brothers tumblers, and countless records, songbooks, and promotional photographs of groups such as the Cathedrals, the Blackwood Brothers, Wendy Bagwell and the Sunliters, and the Hoppers.
The final area was entitled The New Millennium, also updated regularly. This small area was devoted to groups of the 1990s and 2000s. What’s interesting to note is that, beside The New Millennium display, tucked away in a corner, was a working recording studio. Early visitors to the museum could ‘sing-along’ to their favorite southern gospel songs (via soundtrack), and have a souvenir recording made (for a nominal fee, of course). This was discontinued in later years.
All guests exited through the museum’s gift shop, which stocked a wide selection of southern gospel CDs. All proceeds benefited the Southern Gospel Music Association (SGMA), the non-profit organization that was ultimately responsible for the museum.
For just over twenty years, the Southern Gospel Music Hall of Fame and Museum called Dollywood home. The agreement between Dollywood and the SGMA was that Dollywood would construct the facility, and the SGMA would be tasked with furnishing the interior displays. Once the museum opened in 1999, the SGMA would then be responsible for paying yearly rent on the facility.
Yes, there were mixed feelings about placing the museum inside Dollywood. Many were not satisfied with the notion that one had to pay the park’s admission fee in order to visit the museum (which was free of charge). Granted, the SGMA was quick to point out that, if the museum were not at Dollywood, an admission fee would most certainly have to be posted. On the other hand, many saw the museum’s location as a wonderful opportunity: thousands would pass by each day, many of whom might have little to no knowledge of southern gospel music. One could walk into the museum simply looking for a few minutes of air conditioning, only to leave with a southern gospel CD or two in hand.
Fast-forward to 2020, and here is where the story gets a bit interesting. Throughout the 2020 season, Dollywood was operating under strict health and safety guidelines due to the coronavirus. These included the temporary closures of the park’s indoor theaters and the park’s two indoor museums: Dolly’s museum (Chasing Rainbows), and, of course, the Southern Gospel Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
Since the museum was unable to open at all during the 2020 season, it was announced on October 7, 2020, that the museum would be relocating. A specific reason was never given, although it was noted that, “the lease on the building…will not be renewed in 2021 because of the current operating environment”.
The museum’s future remained uncertain, until December of 2021 when it was announced that the museum would be relocating to the Biblical Times Dinner Theater on the Parkway in Pigeon Forge. An official ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new location was held in September of 2022.
As for the museum’s former home at Dollywood, it was announced in 2023 that the facility would be converted into a museum dedicated to Dolly Parton’s wardrobe, set to open in 2024.
With December just around the corner, I’ve been working hard behind-the-scenes at WBTX to prepare our Christmas music for the upcoming season. We’ll gradually switch-over to Christmas music in late November, right around Thanksgiving. As in year’s past, you’ll be hearing plenty of great southern gospel Christmas selections, including some brand new recordings. Plus, you’ll also want to be listening Sunday mornings, as we’ll also be bringing back many of the inspirational classics that we have not aired for a good many years.