If music and musical roots inspire your journey from time to time, I know a place where you can literally “walk the line” – much like Johnny Cash sang. It’s a place where many of country music’s first and finest musicians got their start – and no, this isn’t about Nashville. I’m talking about Bristol, baby!
Bristol, long known to NASCAR fans as the home of “The World’s Fastest Half Mile” at Bristol Motor Speedway, is also known as a small town that lives large between two states: Tennessee and Virginia.
The dividing line of Bristol’s main downtown street, State Street, literally marks the line between the two states, dividing the town into two distinct municipalities which are located within two distinct counties (Sullivan County, TN and Washington County, VA). This division is commemorated by a huge sign in front of the Bristol Train Station on State Street.
Though physically divided in half, the town of Bristol thrives as a town with one big heart, which makes sure residents and visitors alike feel loved and welcomed no matter which side of the road you happen to be visiting. And just so you’ll know, there’s plenty to see and do on both sides of the street.
On the “Tennessee side” of State Street you’ll find yourself meandering through a myriad of antique shops, bars, and dining establishments, such as KP Duty and Macado’s. The Tennessee side is also home to The Paramount Center for the Arts. Built in 1931 and restored to its original splendor in 1991, the Paramount is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and exemplifies the art deco motion picture palaces built in the late 1920’s and early 30’s. With its opulent yet intimate atmosphere, you’ll feel like you are part of each production, including the many musical events and concerts which take place here on a regular basis.
On the “Virginia Side”, you’ll find trendy boutiques and clothing stores, and yes, a few more eateries, such as The Burger Bar and the brand new Quaker Steak & Lube. The Virginia side is also home to the Bristol Train Station, once a busy travel hub, now a beautifully restored and unique location now used to host conferences, banquets or special events.
But if you head down one of the side streets just a couple of blocks over into the Virginia side, you’ll find yourself on the corner of Cumberland and Moore Streets, now known as “520 Birthplace of Country Music Way,” at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. This recently-opened interactive showplace is a beautiful collaboration of efforts in which one town, shared between two states, celebrates the crossroads that commemorates the “1927 Bristol Sessions,” or what has come to be known as “The Big Bang of Country Music.”
Famed country music star, Johnny Cash, whose wife June Carter Cash was born of the distinguished Carter Family musicians whose unique vocal and musical sounds were a part of the 1927 Bristol Sessions, had this to say: “These recordings in Bristol in 1927 are the single most important event in the history of country music.”
What were the “1927 Bristol Sessions?”
In 1927, Ralph Peer, a record producer from Victor Talking Machine Company and pioneer of location recording of music, traveled to Bristol at the urging of Ernest V. “Pop” Stoneman, a recording artist from Galax, VA in the 1920’s, and set up a portable recording studio in the Taylor-Christian Hat Company building on State Street. He advertised throughout the area, inviting musicians to come and record into this machine. His intent was to capture the unique sound from this region in a quality recording, known as “orthophonic technology” – the best technology of the day.
The advertisement attracted so many acts, Peer had to extend his stay. Never had so much talent in one place at one time been captured before, including Ernest Stoneman, who is on the recordings. Peer ended up staying for two weeks and recorded a total of 19 acts and 76 songs.
Many of the recordings were Gospel music. Gospel was a part of the standard repertoire of the folks of this region – it’s simply the “Good News” set to music and it gave the people of the region something to sing about. In fact, some who recorded were preachers, such as Alfred G. Karnes and Earnest Phipps (a Baptist preacher) & his Holiness Quartet. El Watson was the only African American to record.
Also among those recording were Jimmie Rodgers, whose style was part blues, part country, and The Carter Family, from Hiltons, Virginia, who would soon become stars. Rodgers, “The Singing Brakeman,” was the first big superstar of this genre of music.
The Carter Family became known as country music’s most influential group. The trio, made up of A.P., his wife Sara, and her cousin Maybelle, recorded a total of six songs and made $300 from Peer. They went on to record over 300 songs and produce an amazing number of hits.
As they became more popular in the 1930’s, other members of the family joined the group, including A. P. and Sara’s daughter, Janette, and Maybelle’s daughters Helen, June (who would later marry Johnny Cash), and Anita. Though many break-ups and reunions ensued, in 1970, The Carter Family became the first group to be elected into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
The Carter Family Fold, a musical performance and concert venue located in Hiltons, Virginia at the site of A.P. Carter’s store, opened in 1979 and also celebrated its 40th anniversary the same weekend as the opening of the museum. Founded by Janette Carter and dedicated to the original members of The Carter Family, the venue continues to present live music weekly, usually on Saturday nights. It is a “destination attraction” in Southwest Virginia and has continued to be a strong presence and influence in the music world, and upon the music of this region. It is now located on Virginia’s Crooked Road heritage music trail, which also includes highlights such as the Ralph Stanley Museum in Clintwood, Virginia.
Now, more than 80 years after the “Big Bang,” some of Nashville’s top recording artists, along with Grammy-award-winning producer Carl Jackson, are honoring these original sessions with the “Orthophonic Joy” project. This project will feature music legends such as Dolly Parton, Vince Gill, Marty Stuart, and Emmylou Harris, along with new acts, recording these songs once again. Orthophonic Joy: The 1927 Bristol Sessions Revisited will be released in October, 2014.
The history of how the Birthplace of Country Music Museum came to be is literally one of rhythm, roots, and reunion. In fact, the Rhythm & Roots Reunion is a music festival that was birthed in 2001 in historic downtown Bristol. It was this event that set off the renewed interest and pride in the region of its rightful heritage in the birth of country music.
The Reunion takes place every third weekend in September. Last year, 2013, the Reunion celebrated its 13th anniversary with more than 55,000 festivarians, artists, volunteers, and vendors, and 21 outdoor and indoor stages boasting more than 100 acts of live music.
“When we started out, we really had no idea how much it would grow,” said Leah Ross, executive director of Birthplace of Country Music, the parent organization of Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion & the museum. “We have so many artists who want to participate… We’ve got more than 150 bands playing over 200 sets of music this year. That’s a heck of a lot of music and it’s also very diverse. If you’re a music lover, it’s like utopia.”
Ms. Ross said that the fund-raising effort for the museum began about ten years ago, when they joined forces with the Rhythm & Roots Reunion. Soon, both cities, Bristol, Tennessee and Bristol, Virginia, got behind it, soon to be followed by the support of both states in the effort. Support grew, volunteers jumped on board, millions of dollars were raised, and the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, which officially opened on August 1, 2014, is now an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution and the heartbeat of Bristol.
I had the privilege of attending the opening day ceremonies for the media, and was not disappointed. It was a very personal and heart-felt experience for me, having been born, raised, and now living in this region. In fact, I am distantly related to some of the country music legends who are now memorialized in this great museum. It’s kind of difficult to put the experience into words, but I’ll do my best to describe it.
This museum is not just a collection of flamboyant costumes and six-string guitars. It is a truly interactive experience. The experience tells a story – the story of how the success of these recordings, the 1927 Bristol Sessions, came to be, how they were affected by sound technology, and how this technology has evolved. It also explores the rich musical heritage from this Appalachian region, and how it lives on in today’s music.
Educational opportunities abound to be enjoyed by children and adults, alike. A self-guided tour and interactive displays bring the musical experience alive. For instance, you can create your own sound at the mixing and sing-along stations. Programs and performances are scheduled regularly. And be sure to make time for heart-stirring film and sound experiences in which you will imagine you are a part of the great family of country music, such as “Bound to Bristol,” narrated by John Carter Cash (son of June Carter Cash), and “The Unbroken Circle,” billed as an “immersion experience.”
During the events of the day, I attended the unveiling of the P. Buckley Moss Birthplace of Country Music Museum Grand Opening poster, created just for the occasion. Yes, I bought a framed giclee’ and had my picture made with the great artist, one of my favorites, after she signed the glass, “For the Holmes Family.”
After taking the museum tour and experiencing so much, but definitely not all, the museum has to offer, I had the pleasure of attending a live taping of the WCYB Farm & Fun Time Radio Show, hosted by Johnny Wood and John Goad, with special guests, Dr. Ralph Stanley, Jesse McReynolds, and the Blue Ridge Entertainers, a local, eclectic “old-time” duet.
The “Farm and Fun Time” country music radio program originally aired on Bristol’s WCYB radio in the 1940s and 1950s to a wide audience in the East Tennessee/Southwest Virginia region. The station went live in December of 1946 and had a clear broadcasting channel across parts of Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky. This show featured some of country music’s biggest stars regularly, such as the Stanley Brothers, Flatt & Scruggs, Jim & Jesse, and more. It also helped to establish the careers of many legendary bluegrass performers.
“Following in the footsteps of this acclaimed broadcast, WBCM, the Birthplace of Country Music Museum’s FM radio station, will introduce a new generation of listeners to this historic program. Their updated, fresh interpretation of Farm and Fun Time will include the highest caliber of country music talent, sketches and anecdotes of people within the region, jingles and light-hearted breaks to recognize our underwriters, farming and fishing reports, and much more. By highlighting the distinct music and culture of our region in a creative—and most importantly, fun—format, WBCM’s “Farm and Fun Time” is sure to gain listenership across the country and beyond.”
To say I was a little star-struck during the recording of this pilot episode was putting it mildly. Dr. Ralph Stanley stood less than five feet in front of me and sang “O Death,” which you may recall him singing in the film, “O Brother Where Art Thou.” I had chills! And Jesse McReynolds, of the famed “Jim and Jesse” bluegrass duo, performed several selections for us. One of the highlights of the day was when Mr. McReynolds, known for playing the mandolin, entertained us by playing the fiddle his grandfather, Charles McReynolds, played at the 1927 Bristol Sessions with the Bull Mountain Moonshiners – another moment for chills!
My day ended with a question and answer session with Jesse McReynolds, who grew up in Wise County, Virginia, “between Coeburn and St. Paul, in Carfax.” He shared many memories of his career, and of his grandfather. He says he recalls “helping his grandfather skin possums to sell, raise corn, and cut hay.” He remembers how he played the fiddle daily after working in the coal mines, and how he and his brother, Jim, would sing together in brotherly harmony. He also remembers “paying 10 cents to get into to the Carter Fold” as a boy.
His grandfather didn’t teach him to play musical instruments, but rather listened to him and complimented him. Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs were his early influences in playing the mandolin.
Mr. McReynolds, when asked, told us with a grin that he was so glad they’ve done this (opened the museum in Bristol), because he doesn’t know “how Nashville got all that publicity.” He said “music is now merchandise, a product picked by a commercial organization, more a business than fun.”
When asked why it was important for new country fans to see a place like this, Jesse McReynolds said, “They weren’t in it for the money. It was a way of life, to have music to listen to.” He wants to know, he said, “Does the music do anything to you, or do you just see dollar signs come into your eyes?”
I think I know what he means. Growing up here, this kind of “old style” country and bluegrass music didn’t appeal to my young ears. However, as I’ve grown older (much older), I’ve come to realize how important my roots are, and this music has grown to be a sweet, sweet sound in my ears.
I’ve come to realize the unique heritage, my heritage, of this region carved out of the Appalachian Mountains. I’ve come to appreciate and respect how the people here lived and loved and shared what they had with one another. I’ve learned about the hard times they suffered, and how strong they were – how strong they had to be. I’ve learned about their dependence upon the Lord and one another to get through it all. And I’ve learned how such a purely sweet, soulful, and sad, and yet hard-working and upbeat sound – a truly unique sound – could only be born of this culture as they were looking for ways to offer their praise, and to express and entertain themselves and one another.
I can now see and understand how the “Big Bang of Country Music” happened in this unique town and region where we can “walk the line” of the straight and narrow, and yet also tread the “The Crooked Road.” And yes, the music here “does something to me,” Mr. McReynolds. It truly brings about a reunion of a unique, timeless rhythm and my Appalachian roots. My appreciation for all of it is much stronger, much deeper now. I have the Birthplace of Country Music Museum to thank for it.
Blessings, and “May the Circle be Unbroken”,