They are two of Tennessee's most iconic hat-wearers.
In a simpler world, the white-chapeaued Jack Daniel and the church-hat-loving Sen. Thelma Harper could at least agree that a well-placed topper is the perfect finish to any outfit.
But a love of millinery was not enough to keep the senator from derailing an intriguing downtown Nashville project involving Daniel's namesake distillery four years ago.
Brown-Forman, the parent company of Jack Daniel's, pushed for a $10 million museum – the Jack Daniel's Nashville Experience – and approached Sen. Jim Tracy, whose district includes Lynchburg, to shepherd the project through the necessary hoops to allow such a project. Essentially, the company needed permission to sell nothing but Jack Daniel's and to market commemorative bottles.
Tracy was happy to help, but Harper saw red – killing the plan in a Senate committee, saying she was miffed Brown-Forman did not approach her, since the museum would be in her district. Brown-Forman spiked the project, and that was the last anyone heard of it.
The project seemed a perfect fit for city and company. Brown-Forman eyed the empty Acme Building at the corner of First Avenue and Broadway – the last piece of the long worried-over puzzle that is the revitalization of the Lower Broad district. It would be a showpiece: Tennessee's distinctive brand with a museum in the state's capital city on one of its best-known thoroughfares.
Who'd be against that? Surprisingly, not Harper.
At the time, Harper told reporters that those who had brought the bill to Tracy had no respect for her position. She said she would have likely been more supportive if they had followed protocol and spoken with her first, since the museum would be in her Senate district.
That seems simple enough to redress – bring the bill back, bring Harper on board and bring the museum downtown. After all, it's a marketer's dream: Every year Jack Daniel Distillery gets a quarter-million visitors to Lynchburg – not the easiest place to reach. Make the distillery tour part of an all-day package that includes the Nashville museum – by and large, a city much more accessible than Moore County's seat. All of a sudden, one of the state's top tourist attractions has a presence in a major city.
The city wins – Nashville rids itself of a blighted, abandoned building marring its downtown tourism trade. (A couple thousand extra visitors doesn't hurt either.) The state wins – the liquor tax revenue alone seems to make this one a no-brainer.
But there's another powerful force at play here – the liquor lobby, long-regarded as the most powerful behind-the-scenes player on Capitol Hill. The lobby has a few reasons to be less than enthusiastic about the museum. There's the ever-feared slippery slope – what if allowing the museum to sell Jack Daniel's leads to other exceptions? And every sale of Jack by the museum puts a dent in the profits of wholesalers who have jiggered the state liquor laws in such a way to require that all brands that are legally franchised in the state be sold at all retail locations in the state (the reason all liquor stores in Tennessee have essentially the same selection of booze).
It's a lobby so powerful that the conventional wisdom is to never try something it opposes. But lately, such wisdom is being challenged, and there could be a thaw in efforts to bring Black Label to Broadway.
Big Liquor's biggest bugaboo has been – and remains – the selling of wine in grocery stores. That's still prohibited in the Volunteer State, but it's an issue gaining traction – a sign legislators are increasingly willing to run counter to the liquor lobby. In a state where changes to liquor laws are as frequent as Vanderbilt bowl games, the legislature has recently allowed the establishment of microdistilleries, opening up the booze production market beyond Jack, George Dickel and Pritchard's Rum.
The powers-that-be in city government would welcome the museum – Mayor Karl Dean says the prospect of bringing Jack downtown is something his wife regularly asks him about.
That leaves Brown-Forman, which maintains a still-icy relationship with the General Assembly. For its part, the Louisville-based company seems wary. Staying relatively mum, the corporation is sticking by the line that it is "exploring options" for a full-scale museum to complement the Lynchburg tour and that while Nashville is still on its list of locales, "there are other" places being considered.
The liquor lobby's best ally in battling a Jack Daniel's Museum redux could well be, ironically, Sen. Jim Tracy. The senator hasn't changed his stance, but rather he is taking his stances elsewhere. Tracy is running for Congress, looking to replace the retiring Bart Gordon in the U.S. House of Representatives. If he wins – and in a year that should be good to Republicans and in a primary where he has high name recognition, there's a good chance he will – Brown-Forman will have to find a new local champion to carry the bill.
Maybe they could come, hat in hand, to Thelma Harper.