November 30, 2021

Cortland’s country hall of fame a gem

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Merle Matts is the director of the New York State Country Music Hall of Fame.

Merle Matts said Johnny Cash was a “nice fella. Real nice.”

“I opened up for him at the Utica War Memorial.”

This was in the ‘60s, Matts said. “I was just the local guy. I hadn’t done much,” said the Norwich man, who later was a full-time country musician in the Route 66 Band.

Matts said after his act, he went out in the audience. When Cash came out on the stage, he had Matts come up and give a bow.

“’Nice show,’” Cash told him.

Matts never forgot it. “He impressed me. He didn’t have to do that.”

Cash’s photo is one of thousands of mementos at the New York State Country Music Hall of Fame, at the Cortland County Music Park on Route 13, Cortlandville.

The museum preserves classic country musicians’ memorabilia so people can remember the entertainers they enjoyed through the years, Matts said. “And keep country music alive.”

There’s a Sho-Bud steel guitar made in Nashville that used to belong Don James of Syracuse. Which is rare, said Matts.

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

A Sho-Bud steel guitar once owned by Don James.

There’s a Jeannie C. Riley dress for the woman who made “Harper Valley P.T.A.” a hit.

Another steel guitar is in the collection, once owned by Stan Fish of Utica. “He used to have a TV show on Saturdays in Utica,” Matts said. “He used to play steel guitar for Gene Autry.”

There are drum sets, a Gibson at top guitar, dramatic country music pantsuits and dresses, cowboy hats and boots, photos and posters owned by the musicians and donated to the park.

One of the most exciting items in the collection is Tammy Wynette’s black beaded dress, a $9,000 gown made in Nashville.

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Tammy Wynette’s dress

“She was here in the ‘80s. She did a great show. We admired her dress. She went on the bus, took it off, and gave it to us.”

“There’s so much in here, you can go through a dozen times and see something different,” Matts said.

The hall is in an unassuming building with a space 300 feet long and 75 feet wide for the hall. Packed with memorabilia, it sees about 3,500 people a year.

“We get the bus trade in the summer. This is the dead season, January to March,” Matts said.

People come from Rochester, Binghamton, Syracuse, Oneonta and more.

A visit to the museum is part of their package, along with a meal and a country music concert. There’s a $3 entry fee to the museum.

“It’s cheap for what you get. If you go to Nashville, people pay $10 or more. This pays for the heat and the lights,” Matts said.

The Hall of Fame is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursday and by appointment by calling Matts at 607-334-8109.

“It’s unique in that it is the only New York State Country Music Hall of Fame in the state,” said Meghan Lawton, executive director of the Cortland County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. “We have that here.”

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Flyer from 1986 line up at Cortland Country Music Park.

She likes how the volunteer-run Cortland Country Music Park promotes country day in and day out, with country acts being staged weekly.

“I am very happy with the country music park,” said Matt Chase, a musician in the band, Double Chase. “They are keeping the tradition of country alive and well … They are very good to us. We have been playing there a couple of years.”

Matts is the director of the Hall of Fame museum, a post he’s had for about 12 years. He retired from his full-time job as a musician in 2010, although he still plays once a month at the park.

“Just enough to keep me happy,” he said.

The state Country Music Hall of Fame has been in existence since 1976.

Ken Whitney of Greene, a country drummer who has played at the park, is a former Route 66 Band member and has helped Matts take people through the museum and has conducted tours himself.

“I am struck by the size of the museum and the collection of New York State history assembled in the Hall of Fame,” he said.

“We have thousands of things from New York State entertainers, memorabilia, as well as the Nashville entertainers that played here. They always gave us something when they played here,” said Matts, who’s played at the park since 1984.

There’s an Ernest Tubb outfit, a Roy Clark signed guitar and shirt and a Kenny Rogers suit.

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

A guitar signed by Roy Clark

There are painted portraits of champion fiddlers Hal Casey of Syracuse and Alice Clemens of Osceola.

“Elvis was never here, but Graceland sent us this jacket,” he said.

The museum also has a special section to honor its New York Hall of Fame and Lifetime Achievement winners. Three are inducted every October into the hall of fame. In 2019, Jason Crapo, Barry Oliver and John Demaille were inducted.

Loretta Lynn did appear at the Cortland Country Music Park and there is memorabilia from her gig.

“I opened up for that show,”said Matts. He had a specially made jacket with symbols of the Country Music Park sewn on it and donated the jacket to the park.

Many of the country music suits are elaborately decorated, with symbols and sequins, beading and embroidery.

That’s a stark contrast to today, much to the dismay of Matts. People pay good money to see a country singer. They want to see something, he said.

“You want to come and see these new guys in their hole-y jeans and raggedy shirts?” Matts said.

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

An outfit from Rex Cole.

The days of the big country stars making an appearance at the Cortland Country Music Park are over.

“Today, the only ones you can get are some of the old ones, from the Grand Ol’ Opry. You take someone like George Strait, he’s $200,000 a show. There are others like that that are maybe more. Garth Brooks or Allen Jackson, you can’t touch them.”

And they command ticket sales of $80 to $90.

The last big name the Country Music Park had was Bill Anderson from Nashville, about seven years ago. “He’s been around for a long time. He’s on the RFD channel on Saturday nights … We got him for $8,000.”

This summer, they’ll have a Hank Williams impersonator who’s a regular on the RFD TV channel on Saturday nights.

In the late ‘80s, George Jones played at the park for $50,000, Matts said.

The Loretta Lynn show brought in 3,000 people at the outdoor stage, so they could generate the income to pay her.

Matts wants people to know: “We’re here … You get people out of Cortland, they will come in and see it and go crazy for it.‘We didn’t know it was here.’I don’t know why.”