In 1985 the Tennessee legislature established The Center for Popular Music at MTSU as a state “Center of Excellence,” now one of sixteen COEs in the TN Board of Regents system. This is significant in terms of funding and prestige, but it has also led me to think long and hard about what it means to be designated a center of anything.
Next year the Center for Popular Music will reach its 30th anniversary, a major milestone that I intend to celebrate with exciting public events. Indeed, there is much to celebrate about the remarkable institution which I am now fortunate enough to direct. The CPM is the oldest and largest archive devoted exclusively to the study of popular music in the world. Think for a moment about the gravity of that statement. Housing over a million items in its collection, the archive is an extraordinary repository, an immensely important storehouse of artifacts related to popular musical culture in its broadest definition.
In that sense, the Center for Popular Music is, and has always been, a point of convergence, a place where things come in (sometimes in staggering quantities). It is also a point of convergence in that students, researchers, and other curious people who want to know more about popular music and its history come here, either in person or as an electronic visitor, to marvel at and study what’s been collected so carefully over the course of almost three decades. As a scholar, I have profound respect and appreciation for archives, the people who maintain them, the collectors who supply them, and the purpose they serve in our society and culture. I know and understand that I have been entrusted with one of the world’s most important collections of musical sources, which is not a responsibility I take lightly.
Accordingly, one of my primary objectives as the CPM’s incoming director is to sustain the archive’s status as a world-class repository. I want to support and increase its areas of existing strength—early country, gospel, Western swing, ragtime, fiddle music, balladry, etc.—by adding to those collections and making them more easily accessible. I also want to see the collection bolstered in other areas, such as blues, Latin-American music, jazz, electronica, hip-hop, and post-1970s rock, to name but a few.
There is, of course, another, equally important meaning of the word center. In addition to being a point of convergence, center denotes a radial point, the location from which things emanate. With this in mind, the other major element of my vision for the CPM is to make it an even more vibrant, productive, and visible center of musical and scholarly activity, a place from which music and ideas about music flow outward to the campus, local, national, and international communities.
To be sure, the CPM has already engaged in some of this activity over the first twenty-nine years of its existence, organizing conferences, hosting speakers and performers, helping to issue musical recordings and publications. My goal is to do much more of this, and to do it in a way that takes advantage of 21st century media. I want to make the CPM known as a place where things are continually happening, not just where artifacts are being collected. My own work as a performer will fuel this, as will my firm belief in the intersections of musical scholarship and performance. Expect more CPM events that defy traditional boundaries between these endeavors. Expect more student and public involvement. Expect the CPM to lend its active support to the publication and dissemination of scholarship based on our world-class holdings. Expect greater exploitation of new media, including a dedicated tablet app and a dynamically conceived online journal that will allow not only for internet publication of important work, but scholarly and public discussion of that work and the ideas it puts forward. Stay tuned for increasingly exciting things to come from this center.