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From Willie Nelson's cowboy boots to Taylor Swift's guitar: Austin museum showcases music history

A woman in a red tunic holds her hands behind her back as she looks down to read a plaque containing information about costumes from 1980s American musicians that are in a glass case in front of her.
Renee Dominguez
KUT News
Ruthie Foster helped kick off the start of the "Music America: Iconic Objects from America's Music History" exhibition at the LBJ Presidential Library on Thursday. The exhibition features more than 100 objects representing the best of American music.

Music fans in the Austin area now have a chance to take a trip through decades of American music with the opening of "Music America: Iconic Objects From America's Music History." The interactive exhibit opened Saturday at the LBJ Presidential Library and includes iconic music memorabilia from many of the country's musical legends, including Austin icon Willie Nelson and pop star Taylor Swift.

The exhibit was curated by the Bruce Springsteen Archives & Center for American Music in association with the New Orleans Jazz Museum and Hard Rock International. Bob Santelli, the executive director of the Bruce Springsteen Archives, said he wanted to collaborate with the LBJ Library to kick off the exhibit which is a celebration of America's 250th birthday in 2026. After its debut in Austin, the collection will move to other cities across the country.

Santelli emphasized music's cultural importance in shaping individual lives and American culture.

“Families will walk through here and each member of the family will have a different connection,” Santelli said. “What you have here is an opportunity to share stories, and mom and dad can talk [to] their kids [about] how this particular music was very important to them."

The exhibit features artifacts from artists in an array of genres spanning 250 years, even music from the 1700s. Visitors can walk up to the exhibit's “Song Bar," put on a pair of headphones, and watch recorded performances of featured artists like the Bee Gees’ “Night Fever."

A man in a black dress shirt and black leather jacket looks down at an American music artifact encased in glass at the LBJ Presidential Library.
Renee Dominguez
KUT News
Jimmie Vaughan looks down at one of more than 100 artifacts from American music on display at the LBJ Presidential Library as part of the "Music America: Iconic Objects from America's Music History" exhibition.

The museum curators and directors hope to inspire attendees to learn more about the intersection of music and American history.

"The story that this exhibit, I think, tells is one of the complexity of American musical history," said Mark Lawrence, director of the LBJ Presidential Library and Museum. "The range of genres, the way in which those genres interacted with each other and fed into each other is something I think that really comes through here."

Lawrence said the items in the collection, and music in general, can get people interested in more aspects of American history.

"You see certain artifacts that speak to triumph, that speak to innovation and creativity, and you also see artifacts that speak to oppression and injustice," Lawrence said. "One of the themes that really comes through to me is how much musical innovation was driven by protest by rebellion, generational rebellion or rebellion against ... the politics of the moment. That's what makes American musical history so fascinating."

From Billie Holiday's fox fur stole and a handmade velvet shirt worn by Elvis Presley to a guitar and a colorful sequin bodysuit used by Taylor Swift at her "Reputation" Tour, people can learn how America's musical past inspired and progressed to the music of today.

Blues and gospel artist Ruthie Foster performed at the library Thursday during a concert to celebrate the exhibit opening. Foster grew up around music and said her dad introduced her to diverse genres and blues musicians such as Lead Belly and Mance Lipscomb. When creating her music, she said she channels the musicians from her childhood and those featured in the exhibit, including Holiday.

“Billie had so many things that she went through, and she put it all in her music," Foster said. "I really connect with that and having grown up in a small town here in Texas ... [in a] Black family and trying to make it in the big world of music."

Some of the featured artifacts are:

  • Leonard Bernstein's baton
  • John Coltrane's saxophone
  • Chuck D's handwritten lyrics to "Fight the Power"
  • Gloria Estefan's sequined dress from her 1996 tour
  • Woody Guthrie's signed "This Land is Your Land" lyrics
  • Billie Holiday's fox fur stole
  • B.B. King's guitar "Lucille"
  • Madonna's wedding dress from the "Like a Virgin" video
  • Willie Nelson's cowboy boots given to him by Gene Autry's widow
  • Elvis Presley's 1956 Tupelo, Mississippi, concert shirt
  • Prince's "Purple Rain" shirt and "Cloud" guitar
  • Bruce Springsteen's outfit worn on the "Born in the USA" album cover
  • Taylor Swift's guitar and costume from the Taylor Swift "Reputation" Stadium Tour
  • Stevie Ray Vaughan's "Number One" guitar

The exhibit opened Saturday and runs through Aug. 11. Tickets can be purchased at the library's website.

Curators hope that the exhibit will resonate with Austinites and bring music lovers of all generations.

"[Music is] the one art form that reflects us most as Americans, and it's the one that we embrace in such a way that it continues to identify who we are," Santelli said.

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