How Do You Tell The History Of Country Music With Puppets?

A longtime member of the Grand Ole Opry, Ernest Tubb was among the most influental performers in country music history. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1965. Credit: Donn Jones PhotographyAlabama has sold over 65 million records. Credit: Donn Jones PhotographyMarionettes of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash sing Bill Monroe, considered the father of Bluegrass. Credit: Donn Jones PhotographyDeford Bailey grew up listening to what he called Renowned puppeteer Phillip Huber created this marionette of Dolly Parton. Credit: Donn Jones PhotographyDolly Parton, in marionette form, sings Eddy Arnold was one of country music’s most prolific hit-making artists, regularly placing songs high in the charts from the 1940s through the 1960s, and scoring Top Ten hits as late as 1980.  Credit: Donn Jones Photography
Shadow puppets of The Staple Singers kick off String City. Credit: Donn Jones PhotographyClay faces of Eddy Arnold and Johnny Cash sit on tables at the Nashville Public Library's puppet workshop. Credit: Bradley George/WPLNPuppet artist Brian Hull and Wishing Chair Productions developed

Deep beneath Church Street, behind a secret door, is the Nashville Public Library’s Puppet Workshop. It looks any garage or basement shop, except mixed in with saws and stacks of wood are little plastic skulls.

Clay faces made from casts sit on tables at the Nashville Public Library's puppet workshop. Credit: Bradley George/WPLN

Clay faces of Eddy Arnold and Johnny Cash sit on tables at the Nashville Public Library’s puppet workshop. Credit: Bradley George/WPLN

“There’s Eddy Arnold,” says puppetmaster Brian Hull, who is putting the final touches on a set of puppets resembling country music’s biggest stars. “We cover them with this green plasticine clay and then sculpt them as best we can to look like the artists.”

There’s a miniature version of Johnny Cash – a spitting image complete with the pompadour and iconic nose. Patsy Cline was a little tougher, Hull says.

“Maybe it’s because she’s so beautiful,” Hull says.

Cline and Cash are among the characters in “String City.” It’s a musical review of eight decades of country music. The hall of famers appear in the form of marionettes, hand puppets and even shadow puppets. They dance, strum guitars and pluck banjos.

Super-group Alabama is a more static display. The members were turned into a figure like Mount Rushmore, which Hull says was intended to be symbolic.

Songs And Staging But No Dialogue

“Mountain music was something that was a very evident puppetry thing we could do,” he says. “Turning them into Mount Rushmore and having their mouths move and sing Mountain Music was a very strong image we could recreate.”

“String City” premiers at the Nashville International Puppet Festival Thursday night. The hour-long show contains no dialogue and no narration.

Music drives the story, starting with instrumentals and hoedowns, moving to Eddy Arnold and Bill Monroe. Then in comes Hank Williams, George Jones and Johnny Cash.

“You get this progression that’s interesting, I think. You get to see how the music changes, but also what connects it,” says Michael McCall of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. He helped pick the songs featured in “String City.”

Aside from the songs, the staging keeps things interesting.

Making Country Music Lovers

Garth Brooks flies through the air like he did at his concerts back in the ‘90s. Dolly Parton wears the coat of many colors. George Strait literally kicks his exes out of Texas.

Brian Hull is a puppetmaster who produced "String City," which makes its debut at the Nashville International Puppet Festival this weekend. Credit: Bradley George/WPLN

Brian Hull and Wishing Chair Productions developed “String City,” which makes its debut at the Nashville International Puppet Festival this weekend. Credit: Bradley George/WPLN

Eventually “String City” will become one of the regular puppet shows offered by the Nashville Public Library.

Creator Brian Hull says he hopes the show helps the audience appreciate the city and country music, like he did when he moved to town to work at Opryland in 1985.

“I was familiar with country music, but I wouldn’t call myself a super country music fan,” he says. “So, falling in love with Nashville and with country music and the industry and the people and that sort of thing. I have a great affection for Nashville.”

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