Story by John Cantor / Contributing Writer
Photos by Toriana Williams / News Editor
On a frigid and gray Wednesday morning, a sparse crowd gathered for the grand opening of a new building on campus— “new” as in recently remodeled. Amassed of roughly 30 people, the crowd included local media, various campus officials and the guest of honor: country superstar Chris Young.
The Murfreesboro native was there to officially open the slick and modern new student venue, the Chris Young Café. Though small in size, the collective excitement of those present was a sign of the many fantastic experiences in store for students who will use this trailblazing new space.
True Blue TV host Andrew Oppmann kicked things off at 10 a.m. “Good morning everybody, this is Andrew Oppmann…with me, John Merchant, Chair of the Department of Recording Industry, my co-host for this special broadcast of the dedication of the Chris Young Café,” said Oppmann.
Facing the student operated camera crew, the two explained how the event would be broadcast to any who wished to view the event while maintaining COVID-19 safety precautions. They then introduced University President Sidney McPhee to kick off the event.
“Welcome to the beautiful campus of Middle Tennessee State University. As you heard, I am Sidney McPhee, and for the last two decades I have had the honor to lead this remarkable institution of high learning and service to the state, the nation, and— yes indeed— the world,” said McPhee.
The president continued by saying, “This will be yet another memorable day in the history of our university as we celebrate the continued success of one of our remarkable, outstanding alums: award-winning songwriter, world class, Chris Young. We will later today dedicate a very special facility named in his honor.”
The café also joined as the newest addition to the official Tennessee Music Pathway locations, an organization that designates and promotes landmarks around the whole state of Tennessee. The organization “inspires visitors to discover the places and stories and seven different genres of music that make our state the Soundtrack of America,” as said by Mark Ezell, the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development Commissioner. A few speeches were made at a clear podium stamped with the school logo. Next to it was the “Pathways,” sign near the venue’s entrance.
Barbara Wolke, Senior Vice President at the Rutherford County Convention and Visitors Bureau, spoke of how the unveiling ceremony would mark the fourth Tennessee Music Pathways location in Rutherford County.
“We also have the ‘Center of Popular Music’ marker,” said Wolke of another marker here at MTSU. “We are proud to be ranked within the top 10 counties across the state. And we’re looking forward to promoting the ‘Chris Young Café’ and the Chris Young marker to increase our tourism numbers,” said Wolke.
“It’s really an honor to be a part of today’s festivities and celebrate Chris Young and your tremendous accomplishments with the unveiling of a new marker on the Tennessee Music Pathways,” added Ezell. “You know, to get to celebrate this in your hometown, Chris, right here in your alma mater Middle Tennessee State University, it’s a really special day for us to participate,” he continued, as Young stood a safe distance behind the commissioner.
Young appeared calm and collected, standing tall with his hair slicked back in an all-black outfit. Wearing a jacket fit for any rocking musician, a silver bracelet on his right wrist, a matching silver watch on his left and a black mask, Young maintained a crisp look. As he patiently waited to speak, he kept both hands tucked into his pockets, thumbs hanging out casually.
“Today is about getting to honor Chris Young, and it’s really my privilege to talk for just a moment about him as not only a… singer and a songwriter, but also as someone is giving back to their community,” said Ezell. “That’s what has made Tennessee so special is that when we have such celebrities that know the responsibility they can assume and take to serve other people,” continued Ezell.
“It’s appropriate today that we get to have this marker as part of a big day where you are celebrating famous friends, and you shout out and paying homage to your Rutherford County roots,” said Ezell, referencing Young’s new duet with fellow star Kane Brown: “Famous Friends.”
“Your voice is about as Tennessee as it can get, and we love that. And we hope this marker will inspire fans, students, visitors from around the world to explore and find inspiration in your story Chris,” said Ezell before turning over the podium to the man of the day himself.
After striding up to speak and promising the crowd— who were still standing attentively in the cold mud of the earthy patch outside— that he wouldn’t “take too much time,” Young said, “So many things have happened in my career that I never would have expected. And really and truly this is one of those things that’s on that list. It’s almost a bucket list you didn’t even know you could have when you get started as an artist.
“It’s just incredible to think about this being something I get to be a part of…and just the huge honor that it is. Thank you guys very, very much. Everyone involved that wanted me to be a part of something that is this incredible,” continued Young.
With the end of each speech, a quick student worker would swoop in to switch out the microphones, to keep the event as safe as possible. Then, all of those involved posed for several masked or socially distant photos with Young, the new marker, and the vibrant mural, with its rainbow of colors that depicted a wide array of past MTSU alum and people from Murfreesboro who contributed to the development of Young as a person and an artist. Among these people were his famous friends that influenced him very deeply before he became a world-renowned star.
The ceremony proceeded to a raised outdoor stage nearby, where Dean of the College of Media and Entertainment, Beverly Keel, spoke. “Today’s grand opening represents a dream 10 years in the making,” said Keel.
President McPhee came up to speak once again. “Today we are pleased to officially celebrate this grand opening of the Chris Young Café. Now, when we met about 18 months ago at the Country Music Associations headquarters, ‘social distancing’ was not a part of our vocabulary. A pre-Covid world was significantly different— certainly, a different place,” said McPhee.
“And so, the opening of the Chris Young Café comes at a particularly opportune time. This café will serve as a catalyst for bringing people together and building community. After all, a venue named for this global ambassador of country music, must have an adventurous and welcoming vibe. Indeed, this is a very special time for all of us Chris,” continued McPhee.
McPhee expanded on the exciting opportunities future students would have with this brand-new café and claimed that its “namesake provides an inspiring model of determination, persistence and all circumstances.
McPhee continued, “The Chris Young Café will encourage our students to dream bigger. Every time they see his name on this café, their aspiration will seem a little more attainable. And if they follow in his footsteps and work as hard as he has, indeed, they will have success. Chris has been a steadfast in giving back and providing opportunities for the next generation at MTSU.”
The event proceeded inside where the real transformation of the space could be seen, and the first performances would take place while other awards would be given. Once a dingy late-night hangout with disgruntled Subway employees, the café had transformed into a beautiful venue, fit with a wide stage and a huge screen one would expect to see at a big concert. In the corner was a chic lounge illuminated by a futuristic blue neon sign that flashed “Chris Young.”
Dean Keel started the performances off by introducing Young to the stage. “If this were a new ship, we would christen it with breaking a bottle of champagne, but since this is a music venue, we would like to begin it with a song. And who better to perform the first official song from the stage of the Chris Young Café at MTSU than Chris Young,” Keel said.
The musician started off with a joke, mentioning how amazing it was to be playing where he went to school in a building named after him. Quite fittingly, his song choice was “Famous Friends,” the single about his hometown roots. It also happened to be the first time he had ever played the song live. His stripped-down version of it was the first sound of music to enter the officially opened venue.
Young was followed by two student performers, Chase Cimala and Jaelee Roberts, who are both aspiring songwriters. As Young watched with his own eyes off stage, the two students individually covered two of the celebrated artist’s hits as a tribute to him.
“The opportunities MTSU has provided me in such a short time just blows my mind,” said Cimala, a freshman. “You’d thing going to such a large state school that you wouldn’t get opportunities like this as an individual…getting to perform and follow up someone like Chris Young, it’s so humbling and an amazing experience I will never forget,” continued Cimala.
Jaelee Roberts was just as amazed by her opportunity to perform at the event. “I jumped on the opportunity…I think it’s really cool that it got to be Chris Young, because I feel like I’m following in his footsteps. He’s done exactly what I’d like to do. He’s from Murfreesboro, I’m from Murfreesboro, it’s a surreal feeling,” said Roberts.
When asked about his thoughts on seeing students who come through the venue in future years becoming successful, Young said he could “absolutely see that happening,” and referenced the many success stories MTSU has already had with alum. “I think this is an incredible school, it’s an incredible place for music, it’s an incredible place to learn and I’m just glad that they let me be a part of this and this space is going to be something that helps that,” said Young.
Young also plans on popping back into the café to witness the student talent for himself in the future. “The relationship I have with MTSU isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. The fact that they put my name on this building…I’ll definitely be coming back through again. It won’t just be a ‘hey we did a ribbon cutting and that’s it,’” said Young.
Professor John Merchant, who was a part of the work that went into making the Chris Young Café, expressed how valuable this place will be for students many years to come. He has greatly expressed gratitude— not only for the generous donation from Chris and his mom Becky Harris, a university trustee and one of the music industry’s most sought after business managers, but for the use of his name for the café as well.
“Bringing some of the spotlight to the university and the program is overwhelmingly generous,” said Merchant.
Dean Keel expressed similar sentiments about her vision of a bright future for students with the addition of the café. “Today was a very emotional day for me. It was really a full-circle moment to see Chris Young come back to the campus where he was once a student to be recognized and there is no greater honor on earth than to help a student’s dreams come true,” said Keel. “The café will be a constant reminder that students are exactly where they should be if they want to have successful entertainment careers. So, on this day that is a homecoming for Chris Young, let me say Chris welcome home and welcome to your new café,” said Dean Keel.
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