Last month, rock singer Steven Tyler came to this Tennessee-Virginia border town to sing at Bristol Motor Speedway during race week. It was part of the Aerosmith frontman’s ongoing rebranding efforts, trying to cross over from rock to establish himself as a country star.
He’d come to the right place, the veritable birthplace of country music – there’s even a museum called that here. Tyler was on a tight schedule and didn’t have time to visit Bristol’s Birthplace of Country Music Museum, but executive director Leah Ross made sure he got a history lesson anyway.
Ross dropped in on Tyler and gave him some sage advice, and a few records to listen to, including the museum’s recently released tribute compilation “Orthophonic Joy: The 1927 Bristol Sessions Revisited” (Sony Legacy Records).
“I gave him a copy of that, and also the Bristol Sessions box set,” Ross recalled. “And I told him, ‘I understand you’re getting ready to put out a country album. So you really need to know this history!’ ”
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There’s a lot of history to know in Bristol, which is where the country-music industry essentially began back in 1927. That year’s Bristol Sessions, commonly known as “The Big Bang of Country Music,” was where the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers were discovered, launching careers that landed both in the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Echoes of the Bristol Sessions are present pretty much whenever and wherever country and roots music is played and listened to. But between various happenings at IBMA onstage, as well as the film festival and trade show, they’ll be especially overt at this week’s World of Bluegrass in Raleigh.
“A lot of things led to the beginnings of country music, and we get pushback from some people about calling Bristol the birthplace,” said Jessica Turner, director of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. “I get it, because that’s rhetoric. But Bristol is called that because … it is.”
In the summer of 1927, producer/talent scout Ralph Peer had recently been hired by RCA Victor Records to bulk up its offerings in the growing field of “hillbilly” recordings. He rolled into Bristol in late July, putting out the word in the local paper that anybody could show up to audition to record.
Show up they did. Peer set up shop on the third floor of a hat factory on State Street, on the Tennessee side of the line. Over a 10-day period, a total of 19 acts came in and recorded 76 songs that would be released to great popularity.
A few of the acts Peer recorded were previously known, like Ernest Stoneman. But the most notable acts to emerge from the Bristol Sessions were new, especially the trio of A.P. Carter, his wife Sara and Sara’s teenage cousin Maybelle – better-known as the Carter Family – and Jimmie Rodgers, “The Singing Brakeman,” a performer whose old-time style was deeply rooted in blues.
The actual building where the Bristol sessions took place burned down long ago. So the Birthplace of Country Music Museum is on the Virginia side of the line dividing Bristol, two blocks northwest in a building formerly housing a truck dealership. Fund-raising and construction of the $12 million project took more than a decade before it opened in 2014.
Our primary artifact is the music itself, the sound. We have a lot to share with that sound and its history.
Jessica Turner, director of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum
It’s a spectacular museum, blending quirky old-time touches (like an oversized handmade quilt hanging above the stairs) with the latest technology. Walk into the lobby and you’ll hear music, but you won’t see speakers; instead, it comes from resonating acrylic panels in the lobby’s centerpiece artwork.
The video and audio displays throughout are fantastic, giving a good sense of larger cultural and social events happening elsewhere in 1927. One particularly revealing exhibit illustrates in precise sonic detail the then-new changes in recording technology that made the Bristol Sessions as much a technological as musical revolution. The compilation title, “Orthophonic Joy,” was a phrase used in 1920s-vintage advertisements touting the fidelity of the Bristol Sessions recordings.
Something you won’t find much of, however, is any original artifacts from the sessions themselves. The museum has almost none of the original instruments used, which was by design.
“If instruments are still in their families and being played and cared for, that’s where they belong rather than in a museum case or archival storage,” said Turner. “That’s counter to how people think about artifacts, but not to instruments as things with lives of their own. Our primary artifact is the music itself, the sound. We have a lot to share with that sound and its history. Collecting the ephemera is not as important to us.”
One way the museum is sharing the sound of its vintage country music is over the airwaves. The facility includes a 100-seat theater with video capacity; plans to broadcast performances are in the works. Already on the air is “Radio Bristol,” WBCM, which broadcasts on a low-power FM frequency (101.1-FM) and online.
“It’s low-power but we’re fortunate to have a really clean channel,” said WBCM program manager Tony Lawson. “I got a call from a friend who was elated to be picking us up in Siam, Tenn. That’s down in Carter County, 30 miles away.”
For now, WBCM operates out of cramped quarters on the second floor of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. The station’s eventual destination is the building next door, which is being remodeled and will offer WBCM more room.
But tight work spaces are nothing new for Lawson. Before coming to WBCM, he started WDVX, an Americana station in Knoxville that broadcast its first five years out of a 14-foot camper.
WBCM went on the air at the end of August and its first on-air guest was the Steep Canyon Rangers, on release day for the Brevard band’s new album “Radio” (Rounder Records). Before the interview, the Rangers spent a few minutes admiring WBCM’s vintage control board.
Like everything else at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, it’s a combination of old and new – a 1946 Raytheon console that previously was used at Bristol station WCYB for many years. After a long period gathering dust, it was rebuilt to add the modern features needed for broadcast radio today while retaining its original old-fashioned look.
“Let me take a picture of that with ‘Radio,’” Rangers banjo player Graham Sharp said, propping up a copy of his band’s new CD in front of the board.
“Hey,” quipped Lawson, “that is radio!”
If modern country music was birthed in Bristol, you could say it gestated further west. No trip to this part of the world is complete without a visit to the Carter Family Fold – in Poor Valley, near the town of Hiltons, Va. It takes about 45 minutes to get there from Bristol, and it’s time well-spent as a bookend to the museum.
The Carter Family Fold stands on A.P. Carter Highway and it has a concert hall, converted from the general store that A.P. ran after his music career ended until his death in 1960. There’s a museum and the cabin where he grew up, and they have shows every Saturday night. But a solitary early-morning pilgrimage is actually the best way to appreciate it.
That cliche about a remote spot feeling like a trip back in time was probably coined to describe the drive on U.S. 421 north and west from Bristol. The road is narrow and winding through verdant, rough and wild hills. You’ll see a Confederate flag or two on the way.
When you cross into Scott County, where the Carters lived, the surrounding tree tunnels seem to close in. You might find yourself thinking about what an odyssey A.P., Sara and Maybelle endured to get to Bristol in a borrowed car, crossing creeks and blowing out tires along the way – and about how many other people might have tried and failed to get to the Bristol Sessions.
That’s the most poignant take-away from going to where the Carters actually lived, the palpable sense that they weren’t the only ones playing these old folk songs from the hills. It’s not that the Carters weren’t great and idiosyncratic. But it wasn’t something they invented, because they were carrying on an old folk-song tradition many centuries old.
There’s a ghostly, everyman (and everywoman) quality to the Carters’ music, which sounds like a portal back to a lost world. And yet that world is still here. Looking at A.P.’s gravestone in the Mt. Vernon United Methodist Church cemetery on a quiet, solitary morning, you can’t help but marvel at how country music started with the Carters singing for themselves but also speaking for so many others.
When I’ve sung my last song in the evening
And the sun sets in the golden west
All the scenes of this world I’ll be leaving
In the shadow of Clinch Mountain I will rest …
Bristol to represent at World of Bluegrass
▪ Bristol’s Birthplace of Country Music Museum will have a booth at the IBMA conference trade show in the Raleigh Convention Center. WBCM, the museum’s radio station, will broadcast from there during bluegrass week. The trade show is free to the public Friday and Saturday. See birthplaceofcountrymusic.org for more.
▪ “The Winding Stream: The Carters, The Cashes and the Course of Country Music,” a documentary centered on the Carters’ Bristol breakthrough, is a featured film in the IBMA Film Festival and will show for free multiple times during bluegrass week. See ibma.org for more.
▪ Music from “Orthophonic Joy: The 1927 Bristol Sessions Revisited” will have one of the performance slots on the Red Hat Amphitheater stage during Friday’s Wide Open Bluegrass program. Steep Canyon Rangers, Glen Campbell offspring Ashley and Shannon Campbell, bluegrass hall of famer Jesse McReynolds and others will join Grammy-winning producer Carl Jackson to play the album’s songs. See ibma.org for more.