Doug Van Buren leads me through Lettersong Calligraphy Studio, past two tables stacked high with piles of Louisville music paraphernalia. There are old 45s, some Rosemary Clooney photographs, a poster for Gene King’s record shop, even some Edison-era cylinders.
These are just some of Van Buren’s collectibles.
“Well, 57 years of collecting, I started collecting 45s when I was 14,” he says. “I’ve got three quarters of a million songs. Hell, I’ve got 50,000 Christmas songs.”
It’s fair to say Van Buren is a little obsessed. Not only does he have a massive collection — you can point to anything on the table and without hesitation he’ll tell you the history of it. But Van Buren tells me, as he smooths his black suit jacket and white moustache, that his collection isn’t just a hobby gone wild.
He hopes it’s the beginning of something much bigger: a Louisville music museum.
“At 71, I want to see an actual, physical museum. Whether we call it the Kentucky Foundation, or the Louisville and Kentucky Music Museum — which is long but it gets the point across,” he says. “You know, one of the unique facts is that it’s been estimated about 28,000 Louisville families have been involved in music.”
It’s a topic Van Buren could talk on for hours, which he did recently. He and Lettersong owner Jen Grove — a history buff and music fan — held an open house at the studio to discuss the idea.
“The other interest we have that is really strong is to be an educational force,” Grove says. “And also to have a live theater. It’s not just looking at a bunch of dusty records — which is exciting to me — but to have live tributes.”
They’ve already established a nonprofit called The Kentucky Music Heritage Foundation; now they need to convince the public that Kentucky needs another music museum.
The Music Museums of Kentucky
“The three are Owensboro, Prestonsburg, Renfro Valley — they all pretty much cover country and bluegrass,” Van Buren says.
And according to him, that’s the problem. He says there are at least 25 musical genres that have been represented prominently in Louisville and the surrounding areas — from vaudeville stars “Buck and Bubbles” to alt rockers My Morning Jacket.
Some had their start in Louisville, some chose to stay — but all the people Van Buren is talking about have a local connection. And he wants people to know that while the city might sound like a banjo trio plucking out “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” it might also sound like “Sincerely” by The Moonglows.
That R&B group’s two founding members got their start in Louisville. After a lot of prodding by the Kentuckiana Blues Society, they were inducted into the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame in Renfro Valley.
But Van Buren feels like the action was long past due.
“The only reason they included them and finally brought them in in 2014 is that they had already been inducted into the Cleveland Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in ‘09,” he says. “In 2009!”
Van Buren says race is also part of it. In an email, he wrote that the three existing museums are “severely lacking African-American contributions.”
He says this makes sense considering the music they represent — both country and bluegrass are overwhelmingly white — but a more diverse view of Louisville and Kentucky music history would set his museum apart and provide a home for these artifacts.
Like the mementos of Mary Ann Fisher, the first featured female singer to be onstage with Ray Charles. Fisher, who was African-American, was born in Hendersonsville, Kentucky, and was discovered at the old Orchid Bar in downtown Louisville. She died in 2004, and a lot of her personal effects went to her friend Marjorie Marshall.
“So once I got introduced to her she was such a beautiful, wonderful woman, we became fast friends,” Marshall says. “And so I began to travel with her, and she became my mentor.”
Marshall is standing across the room at the studio’s open house wearing dangly earrings and a hat made entirely of silver sequins. She’s a local R&B singer who frequently performs musical tributes to Fisher, whom she met in Louisville about 20 years ago. Through this museum, she wants to see Fisher’s legacy honored.
As for Van Buren, the museum is about celebrating the lifelong impact music has had on him — music of all kinds, he says. And he wants future generations to feel the same.