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DAY TRIP: Brady, Texas, strikes the right chord

Carolyn Lindell, Special to the Austin American-Statesman
The Heart of Texas Historical Museum is worth a visit when stopping in Brady. [Contributed by Carolyn Lindell]

Country music fans ⁠— who love those twangs and yodels, strums and fiddles ⁠— should boot-scoot over to the small city of Brady, about 2 1/2 hours from Austin, and waltz right into the Heart of Texas Country Music Museum.

Of course, while in the area, visitors can also take a look-see at the many other delights in this city with a population of about 5,500. Located in McCulloch County, Brady is “24 miles southwest of the geographical center of Texas,” according to the city’s website at bradytx.us — a fact that helps explain all the “Heart of Texas” business names and signs.

But first, let’s git honky-tonking back to the music.

Brady could be a chart-topper when it comes to singing the praises of country music’s many beloved performers. And yes, ma’am, in that modest building along South Bridge Street in Brady, the museum showcases everything from guitars to Cadillacs. Yee-haw.

The place draws longtime fans, and perhaps those newly enamored with the genre after the multi-episode “Country Music” documentary by Ken Burns.

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Parked right out front of the museum is “Big Blue,” a 1956 tour bus used by Jim Reeves and the Blue Boys as they played across the country; among other things, in the museum parking area are Ferlin Husky’s 1975 Cadillac limousine and Tammy Wynette’s Lincoln, as well as an old Cadillac with Ernest Tubb’s name on the license plate.

That’s all before even strutting inside the museum, which charges no admission, to be charmed by all the memorabilia — from large (a bumper car that Elvis Presley liked to ride) to small (assorted makeup items of Loretta Lynn’s, such as a powder compact, an eyelash curler and nail clippers).

Every corner holds a surprise: a golf bag of Vince Gill. A jukebox once owned by Barbara Mandrell. Mel Tillis is honored with a display area that includes his Country Music Hall of Fame medallion, said volunteer Darrell Cowen.

All the while, museum visitors listen to the background music of singers such as Frankie Miller and Landon Dodd.

The museum got its start with a gold dress, with flashy adornments, worn on stage by Rose Maddox.

“This dress is actually the first piece we got” for the museum, said Cowen.

Tracy Pitcox, a longtime disc jockey and director of the nonprofit museum, said he interviewed Maddox, who had sold her costumes said she still had “one old dress I found in the back of my closet,” he recalls. When Pitcox asked about buying it, she said she had a pharmacy bill to pay; she told him, “If you’ll send me a check for $100, I’ll send you that dress,” Pitcox said. “So I did.”

Most items are donated by the artists or their families, he said, because “they want their stuff to be preserved.”

The museum, run by the Heart of Texas Country Music Association, contains items of more than 100 artists; the displays include costumes, musical instruments, posters and many incidentals, such as a typewriter of Floyd Tillman.

The museum gets about 150 to 200 visitors a month, said volunteer Renae Cowen, who married Darrell Cowen in the museum about two years ago. The busiest month is March, she said, when music lovers come to Brady for the annual Heart of Texas Country Music Festival. Museum visitors come from all over. “We had one from the Netherlands the other day,” said Renae Cowen.

Elsewhere in the museum, a mannequin wears a crocheted stage dress that belonged to Dottie West; “Her mother made that for her,” Renae Cowen said. “It’s nothing but doilies put together.”

A life-size wax statue of Kitty Wells helps prop up a shovel she signed.

“She helped to break ground for the museum,” said Renae Cowen.

Visitors need to only turn around to stumble upon more country music artifacts from many eras. A gold dress of June Carter Cash. A brick from the house of Hank Williams Sr. Custom-made boots of Hank Williams Jr. A fringed shirt of Roy Rogers. Even Lefty Frizzell’s garish “Nudie Suit” by the famed tailor Nudie Cohn, decorated with large musical symbols.

A stage dress made by Patsy Cline’s mother, as well as a necklace and shoes, are displayed. As well, visitors can see a monogrammed shirt and hat of Merle Haggard.

The museum opened in 2000, and “we’re fixing to expand again,” said Darrell Cowen.

Fans can also browse through the gift shop area, which offers T-shirts and plenty more. When it’s time to go, folks can just two-step out the door, perhaps whistling their favorite country ditty. (More information about the museum can be found at hillbillyhits.com/museum.)

Brady’s other headliners

Fortunately for travelers, Brady is more than a one-note town. Brady is the county seat, and the McCulloch County Courthouse stands proudly in the center of the Courthouse Square. On the grassy grounds, a Texas-shaped statue with a heart in the middle acknowledges Brady as the “Heart of Texas.” The square is surrounded with enjoyable businesses, such as Joe’s Italian restaurant and D and J’s Good Ole Days Antiques and Oddities. The Palace Theater has a quaint facade.

History lovers might then stop at the Heart of Texas Historical Museum, which fills up a majestic red-brick building that formerly served as the McCulloch County Jail. The museum gives glimpses of Brady’s past.

Outside are a chuck wagon and a restored control tower originally from Curtis Field, located several miles away, said Kyle Moseley, president of the museum. “During World War II, they trained 10,000 pilots,” at Curtis Field, he said. To move the tower to the museum grounds, “We hauled it in one piece,” he said. “We made a military memorial out of it. There’s a lot of World War I, World War II, present-day and even Civil War” items, he added.

Along with military memorabilia, the tower has “one of the largest model airplane engine collections in the world, including diesel, glow and gas engines,” according to the museum website at heartoftexasmuseum.com.

“There’s over 500 of them. … They all run,” Moseley said. “It is extremely rare.”

Also, the museum grounds have “the remains of the POW Camp Guard Shack from Camp Brady,” according to the website.

“During World War II we had a prison camp (east of Brady). … Part of that prison camp held … German officers,” Moseley said. “It was already pretty much falling down. ... We picked up the materials and moved it (to the museum) and had a stone mason put it back to the same dimensions that it was.”

As an aside, he adds, “Joey Bishop from the Rat Pack, he was stationed at the Brady POW Camp.”

Inside, the museum’s collection includes a grinding stone from a gristmill as well as paintings of the city and county namesakes, according to its website. As well, the museum houses vintage dresses.

“My great-great-grandmother’s wedding dress is there. It’s black. … That was about the only choice of color they had. … They got married on May 20, 1880,” said Moseley, who loves telling the stories of Brady’s history.

“I ask people when they come in: Do you want the short version or the long version?” said Moseley, 64. “There’s jillions of these stories.”

How about an encore?

After a day of exploring the area, tourists might hear the sound of their stomachs growling. Beyond the fast-food places, visitors can fill up at some local restaurants, such as Brady’s restaurant. On a recent Saturday, folks were digging into plates of catfish and half-pound burgers. One diner, after taking a big burger bite, said, “They’re not cheating on that (half-pound).”

Side dishes include coleslaw, beans and extra-crispy hushpuppies. Yum to it all.

Then, as visitors wind down, they can always stay the night and find out exactly if the stars at night shine big and bright deep in the Heart of Texas. By the Courthouse Square, the Trucountry Inn combines comfort with elegance.

The hotel is a “diamond in the rough,” said event planner Lisa Davis.

Built as a hotel in 1923, it later was used for other purposes and fell into disrepair, said owner Heather Myles, a singer-songwriter. “I took a few years off to restore the hotel.”

The lobby has a grand piano and artistic floor design; the ground floor has a ballroom, bar and a pool table. The sweetly appointed guest rooms have names such as the Willie and Waylon suite, the Lonesome Dove suite and the Bonnie and Clyde room (with local stories that the outlaw couple had stayed at the hotel).

“Bonnie’s cousin actually … worked at the hotel,” Myles said. “She was a switchboard operator.”

Finally, anyone with a certain craving can always come back for a tasty visit at the annual World Championship BBQ Goat Cookoff, held on Labor Day weekends. Events for all ages usually range from horseshoe and washer pitching to an arts and crafts fair, live music and, of course, the goat cookoff meat judging and awards presentation.