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Keeper of the nation's arts

Arriving in his fastidiously neat BMW through the morning traffic on Music Row, Bill Ivey _ the longtime director of the Country Music Foundation and Hall of Fame and Museum _ is pondering his future in the hot seat as the probable head of the embattled National Endowment for the Arts.

"It kind of feels surreal," he says, passing by the country music fans who have already started lining up outside his offices to see Patsy Cline's Dixie cigarette lighter, Elvis Presley's gold-plated Cadillac and Hank Williams' guitar. "I put my house on the market yesterday, and it sold immediately. I've rented a place in Washington but can't move in just yet. So I'm kind of a guy without a home right now."

But he certainly isn't without fire in the belly, or the impending sense that he's about to do something, well, important.

"I think maybe this is a chance for a new beginning for the NEA," he ponders out loud, then later is apologetic for showing too much enthusiasm. "Maybe it's my Scot-Presbyterian heritage _ don't assume you can be making to-do lists or something's sure to happen that you can't."

For the past four months, Ivey's life has been in limbo, ever since President Clinton announced that the 53-year-old Nashvillian was his choice to head the federal agency. He's been interviewed, probed and prodded by the FBI and at least two dozen congressmen in charge of the selection process. After six trips to Washington, where he sat for hours in offices sharing his vision of the federal role in the arts, it looks like Ivey has stirred up little controversy and will probably be handed the job soon, without even the need for a public hearing.

The appointment is considered a brilliant chess move by many Washington observers. Ivey's ability to walk the line between high art and entertainment could be a catalyst for diffusing critics of the organization, who still seek to cut into its $98-million annual funding.

After years of criticism and budget cuts and even threat of extinction, it looks as if the NEA is about to get a new caretaker _ one who, as rhinestone-studded country singer Marty Stuart puts it, can "hang with queens and kings and talk to us good ol' country boys, too."

Maybe that's exactly what the president has in mind.

Judging strictly on looks, you'd think Ivey was a college professor, which, in fact, he once was _ at Nashville's Vanderbilt University. He wears the look of academia _ crisp oxford cloth shirt, studious brown-rimmed glasses, short-cropped silver hair. He listens to classical music, quotes Carl Jung and talks about his doctoral dissertation. But in the 26 years he has headed the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, he has been lovingly embraced by the earthy country music community as "one of us."

At a fund-raising dinner on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry House, he stands in his black tux surrounded by famous, folksy faces _ Emmylou Harris in her hippie shawl, country legend Eddy Arnold, Kix Brooks wearing his trademark black cowboy hat.

"Oh, Lord, we're sure proud of him," gushes Hall of Famer Brenda Lee. "We hate to lose him, but it's great we're gonna have somebody up there (in Washington) who speaks for us. It's about time."

Ivey is notoriously self-effacing when it comes to his contributions within this close-knit music community. But consider this track record: During his long tenure, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum has become one of the top attractions in Nashville, drawing millions of visitors a year. The research wing of the institution is considered one of the best examples of historical and musical preservation in the country, providing vaults full of recordings, artifacts and essays on the role of Southern roots music in the arts. This year, the organization kicked off a $15-million capital campaign to move to a new facility, whose exhibit area is being crafted by Ralph Appelbaum, the man who designed the exhibits for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the renovation of Ellis Island. For years, Ivey has served on the board of the Country Music Association, building a reputation for his unemotional, no-nonsense approach.

"I've seen him in action at these board meetings and been so impressed at his ability to grasp the situation," says Robert K. Oermann, a noted country music journalist and author. "You must remember, this is an artistic community full of very volatile personalities and tons of egos, and you must walk through it carefully. You can always count on him to stay the course, to cut through all this and make sure things stay on track. He is very measured, very approachable, but not Chatty Cathy. Really, he's kind of shy."

Ivey's background bears this out.

The director, who is twice divorced, was an admittedly quiet kid, who was heavily influenced by the years he spent growing up in the poor mining town of Calumet, Mich. A once-prosperous community, Calumet had fallen on hard times by the time Ivey came along, but its history came alive as he spent hours listening to his charismatic father tell stories about the German, English and Italian immigrant culture.

"He had a great mind for detail and accent and was a great storyteller," Ivey recalls of his dad. "I didn't pick it up from him; I'm no great storyteller. But I realize in retrospect that I spent a lot of time around someone who really understood the importance of the spoken word and folk tradition."

At Indiana University in the early 1960s, he fell in with the striped-shirt, Tom Dooley crowd, learning to play guitar in a folk group. (In fact, he still whips out his guitar at small parties to pick old Carter Family tunes). Ivey majored in folklore, studying "the expressive life of immigrant cultures," interviewing the people he had grown up around in Calumet.

"To be immersed in that environment gave me a tremendous affection and respect for the fact that America is really a nation of nations. We have all these people from different backgrounds with different expressive traditions, all of which have stature in a democracy."

As a result, Ivey seems to feel that the camera-wielding tourists slowly milling past Porter Wagoner's garish Nudie suit on display at the Hall of Fame and Museum are as much a part of the American arts scene as any Greenwich Village loft painter. They just haven't been treated that way.

If you took a quick poll of these salt-of-the-Earth folks, odds are most of them don't feel they are viewing art. After all, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum isn't exactly the Louvre. If you asked them about National Endowment for the Arts, the term probably conjures up controversy, funding battles or maybe mental snapshots of the startling nude photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe _ something removed, distant and not particularly part of their lives.

Ivey says it is his mission to change all that.

"I think the endowment, because it is our federal agency, should speak to the sense of what we are as a people, and what art means to all of us and how it connects to all of us," he says, sitting on a sofa in his modest office. "We have some distance to go in telling our story to the American people. The NEA is one of the top-10 federal brand names. I don't think it's as clearly understood as the FBI or the IRS, or quite as loved as NASA. The American people need to understand its services."

And it's true _ many NEA projects are far from the elite, highbrow or controversial. The agency provided money for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial design, helped launch Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion, supported the development of the play, Driving Miss Daisy, and sponsors a chamber music group in Moultrie, Ga.

But Ivey's grass-roots background is no dumbing down of the nation's keeper of culture.

He displays a rich awareness and appreciation of all forms of art, from broadcasting to publishing to the classics. He personally commissioned (with an NEA grant) the artist Thomas Hart Benton's last work, a mammoth oil painting called Sources of Country Music, which is housed in the Hall of Fame and Museum. He decorates his favorite place _ a corrugated aluminum airport hangar _ with a print of a painting by Edward Hopper.

Perhaps the greatest insight into Ivey's style comes when he pulls into this spot at John Tune airport, just outside town, and parks beside his baby _ a completely restored, 1939 Piper Cub airplane. He has been flying for more than 20 years and is even certified as a gliding instructor. The bright yellow, two-seater aircraft is immaculate, right down to the varnished wooden propeller and original red Cub logo on the tail.

This is how Ivey gets away from it all, heading the nose up through the morning mist that still lies like a white carpet between the rolling hills of middle Tennessee. Following the curving Cumberland River to the west, he is methodical and steady. One can't help but think that Ivey's determination to stay the course isn't a metaphor for his own, carefully managed style.

"This is who I am," he says. "To find what's right at the heart of what people share, connect and use. We are a country of powerful regional cultures. If we can ultimately see both the negative problems we have to overcome and the great potential in this kind of interaction, we get much more of the sense of the cement that holds Americans together.