The Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol, TN

Last night we watched The Mountain Minor, a recent Indie movie celebrating Appalachian culture and music that won awards in several film festivals. The mountain scenery and bluegrass music reminded me of a recent day trip to Bristol, Tennessee, about a half-hour from Johnson City or 1-1/2 hours from Asheville.

In 1998, the U.S. Congress designated Bristol as the “Birthplace of Country Music”. This is where the 1927 Bristol Sessions happened, called “the Big Bang of Country Music”. To put 1927 in perspective, the first newscast radio broadcast was in 1920, the Grand Ole Opry started its radio broadcast in 1923. Lindberg made his flight from New York to Paris and The Jazz Singer marked the end of the silent film era in 1927. World War I and the influenza pandemic were recent memories and the stock market crash that started the Great Depression was two years in the future. Radios and record players were increasingly popular.

Birthplace of Country Music Museum

The Birthplace of Country Music Museum celebrates “The Big Bang of Country Music”. Photo by Connie Cottingham.

To find new music, Ernest Peer set off on a two-month rail journey with his wife, two engineers and portable recording equipment. It wasn’t the first excursion to find regional music, but it was the first to use a microphone instead of a horn, which produced clearer recordings and allowed more instruments to be heard (like the softer dulcimer). The first stop of this journey was Bristol. Seventy-six songs were recorded in two weeks, including the first recordings of Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family. Many of the 19 recording groups sang gospel music. Fifty dollars was paid for original songs. The Library of Congress included the Bristol Sessions among the 50 most significant sound recording events of all time.

 

The warehouse where these recordings were made is long gone, but The Birthplace of Country Music Museum is nearby. This Smithsonian affiliate museum is filled with theaters, artifacts and interactive displays, as well as a working radio station which can be streamed.

Country music often played in my father’s orchid greenhouse and in his truck as I was growing up in the 60s and 70s. Can’t say I am a major fan of Jimmie Rodgers, but I am certainly familiar with his work. I was surprised to see an interactive exhibit at the museum featuring “Single Girl, Married Girl”. That is a song I often heard sung by the Athens, GA, folk group The Solstice Sisters. Turns out, it was one of the songs recorded by The Carter Family during The Bristol Sessions. The exhibit lets you hear the song in three tracks, demonstrating what it would sound like with different mixtures of tracks or only one track.

Another exhibit offers the same song recorded with the old recording method of singing into a horn verses recording with the new Western Electric microphone. The difference in clarity and the exhibit text make it obvious why the recording method was one of the key reasons that the Bristol Sessions were a game changer.

Eighteen year old Maybelle Carter was seven months pregnant with her first child when she traveled from Poor Valley, Virginia. With her were her inexpensive guitar that she taught herself to play, her cousin Sara, and Sara’s husband (who promised to weed a corn patch if Maybelle would join them). Maybelle added mainly harmony and her unique style on guitar. The Carter Family would end up releasing over 300 songs in the 16 years they stayed together. Later Maybelle performed with her three daughters as Mother Maybelle & the Carter Sisters. As the first prominent female instrumentalist in commercial country music  and one who mentored may country music stars (including her son-in-law Johnny Cash), she was inducted in the Country Music Hall of Fame in1970 and Bluegrass Hall of Fame in 2001.

That year also started a music festival in held every September in downtown Bristol TN/VA (the state line runs right down the middle of State Street. In 2021, the 20th Anniversary Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion lasted three days, with over 100 bands on 13 stages.

Thanks to the festival and museum, plus a unique two-state town with double the state, city, arts districts, etc. working together, downtown Bristol is vibrant, and well worth visiting.

I also heard many recommendations to see the holiday light show at the nearby Bristol Motor Speedway during this trip hosted by East Tennessee TourismVisit Johnson City and Southern Travelers Explore.