A George Strait jacket at Thomas Kreason's museum in Irving.EXPAND
A George Strait jacket at Thomas Kreason's museum in Irving.
Matthew Brown

Privately Owned Texas Music Museums Worry the New State-Run Version Will Put Them Out of Business

Yesterday the state representatives advanced a bill to the House Culture, Recreation and Tourism Committee seeking to establish a Texas State Music Museum and Texas Music Foundation, both to be based in Austin. The state Senate also has a companion bill.

These bills are bad news for Texas music museum owners like Thomas Kreason, who has spent a decade running the Texas Musicians Museum, which he operates with his wife Marianne in downtown Irving. Their collection, on display since 2007, includes the first song ever recorded by a Texas singer (Mary Carson, 1912) and the typewriter that folklorist Mack McCormick used to write about legendary bluesmen like Lightnin’ Hopkins, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Blind Willie Johnson.

The couple say they opened a museum dedicated to Texas musicians because they felt the government wasn't doing anything to preserve the rich music history of our state, which has produced legends from Willie Nelson to Beyoncé. It’s one of the reasons nearly 30 privately owned music museums have appeared over the years in Texas.

But now Texas music museum owners are worried the future of their museums may be at risk due to the bills seeking to establish an official state museum in Austin. They say they’ll have to compete for state resources, funding, collections and tourism dollars.

“If you have your grandfather’s rare [music instrument or collection], you’re going to drive right past Irving and take it to the ‘official’ Texas music museum,” Marianne Kreason said. “Everybody knows it will go to the official one.”

Tracy Pitcox over at the Heart of Texas Country Music Museum in Brady, Texas, said unlike the Kreasons’ museum, other museums may be more specialized in their content, “but we’re all vying for the same memorabilia.”

This battle with state legislators over a state music museum isn’t their first, but this time the governor is involved.

Senators Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, introduced Senate Bill 1147, and Rep. Charlie Geren from River Oaks introduced its companion bill (House Bill 2495) in the House. Both bills seek to establish an official state music museum in the Capitol Complex and the Texas Music Foundation, a board designed to manage, operate and provide financial support to the museum and one that the governor will oversee. The bill is currently in the Business & Commerce committee, where Sen. Hancock serves as chair.

“It’s our own legislator [Hancock] who represents our district,” Thomas Kreason said. “I’m wondering if he even knows we exist.”

Sen. Hancock wouldn’t speak by phone with the Observer, but did send an email response:

“Texas has a rich, unique musical history that deserves to be celebrated all across our state,” he wrote. “The Texas State Music Museum will be a state-of-the-art addition to the developing state museum district that already includes the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum and the Blanton Museum of Art, providing music education for thousands of Texas school children who visit the Capitol Complex in Austin each year. As a fiscal conservative, I’m pleased to report that this museum won’t require any state money. Instead, the nonprofit Texas Music Foundation would raise the money to build and operate the museum.”

Sen. Watson’s Policy Director Kate Alexander wrote in another email, “Sen. Watson is carrying that bill, along with Sen. Hancock, at the behest of Gov. Abbott.”

Gov. Abbott’s office didn’t respond to our request for comment.

Texas Musicians Museum director Tom Kreason
Texas Musicians Museum director Tom Kreason
Matthew Brown

If the Irving museum is worried that the state’s museum in Texas will get preferential treatment, it’s not alone. Other cities have encountered resistance from the governor’s office. Stephen Williams is a founding member of the Museum of American Music History, a coalition of more than 50 organizations, private collectors and families dedicated to preserving Texas music history.  

MAMH has been tangling with Austin for years, and has some deep roots to back its claim to early Texas music history. Williams said 40 percent of the available collections are located within a 100 miles of Houston because that city had the only available recording studio in Texas, founded in the early 1940s. (That place was called Quinn Recording, later Gold Star Studios and now SugarHill Recording Studios.) The studio launched the careers of Lightnin’ Hopkins, George Jones and Freddy Fender.

Williams said they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and designated a historic district in Houston (an $80,000 venture) to form a music museum. This plan ran afoul of an ongoing attempt from the state government to make its own music museum in the capitol.

In 2003, 2005 and 2007, the state attempted to create its own official music museum. Williams calls this an attempt to “steal the industry and bring it to Austin.” Using that rallying cry, senators who represented areas with Texas music ties killed the bills. “We’re hoping to do it this time,” he said.

In 2005, Senate Bill 1 passed to allow competitive bids for $10 million in federal funds from the Department of Transportation to establish an official state music museum that highlighted how transportation spurred Texas music. But the state didn’t use the money in time and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita wiped out the funds.

Williams said the money reappeared in 2010, and the 81st legislative session reinstated the bill. But there was a new hurdle: The state established a statute for music history programs that required them to receive an official state designation to receive the funds from the Federal Highway Administration.

As odd as it may sound, there are definite links between the history of American music and the evolution of its transportation. The museum staff in Houston collects artifacts related to how the Boogie Woogie musical genre started in Texas. Piano players entertained at logging camps in Marshall, Texas, but were constantly interrupted by trains passing by on the tracks, Williams said. They decided to incorporate the passing train sounds as part of their rhythm sections.

Williams began working with the Houston-based Texas Music Library and Research Center and the Texas Department of Transportation and resubmitted their application for the money. The museum worked in conjunction with TxDOT and met all the requirements, but then-Gov. Rick Perry wouldn’t give the available funds to reimburse them for the expenses spent with TxDOT. Museum staffers gave Gov. Greg Abbott a presentation about everything that had occurred and sent him a letter in January 2016 requesting the official designation.

Instead, Abbott introduced a bill seeking to create his own music museum and appears to be hoarding $10 million in available public money for their project. “He’s going to suck the life out of the music museums,” Williams says. “We all have to compete with him now.”

The U.S. Department of Transportation sent another letter to the Texas Music Library and Research Center in June 2012 indicating that they were eligible to receive the funds, but the governor’s office wouldn’t allow the Texas of Department of Transportation to release those funds. Williams said they filed a motion to compel.

The motion compelled a sworn affidavit from Casey Monahan, the director of the Texas Music Office. In September 2013 he claimed in a sworn affidavit that his office had never received an application or any correspondence requesting the designation of the official Texas Museum of Music History.

Since his office never received it, the state couldn’t reimburse the Texas Music Library and Research Center for the money they spent trying to set up an official state music museum.

Williams sent the Observer copies of letters indicating they had submitted their nomination and received approval. In a Jan. 13, 2010, letter from the Texas Department of Transportation to the Federal Highway Administration, John Barton, executive director of engineering operations for the state, wrote, “The Texas Music Library and Research Center has submitted the attached detailed nomination. We ask that you consider the attached information to make a determination for this enhancement project.” The letter was also sent to former Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and the Texas Senate and Texas House of Representatives.

“Library’s proposal was obtaining federal approval,” the Texas Music Library and Research Center claimed in its July 2014 appeal to the 250th District Court of Travis County. “Inexplicably, however, at some point after that time, TxDOT changed its position 180 degrees.”

After the Texas Music Library and Research Center filed a motion to compel, the Texas Department of Transportation and its executive director Phil Wilson filed a lawsuit for jurisdiction. The state agency won the right to determine who receives the funding since the Texas Music Library and Research Center wasn’t the only one seeking it. In the 2014 appeal, the Library and Research Center argued that the court should not grant a plea of jurisdiction or dismiss its lawsuit against them for lack of jurisdiction.

The court disagreed and upheld the lower court’s decision. “Nothing in the record suggests that the [Federal Highway Administration] has provided [Texas Department of Transportation] with $10 million in federal funds or any other sum of money specifically earmarked for the Library’s project. Thus, the alleged duty not to divert federal funds away from the Library’s project is not actual but rather hypothetical and contingent,” the appellate court judge wrote.

There are other players making moves that may be prompting Sens. Hancock and Watson to introduce the bill to create the Texas Music Foundation. The Texas Music Library and Research Center is requesting designation as “the Official Texas Museum of Music History.”

This year the MAMH sent a letter written by Williams to state legislators complaining about the bills. “The governor will literally own an entire private sector industry [operating since the 1980s],” he wrote. “The governor should work for the whole of Texas not just for one city [Austin.]”

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