In early September, we visited the birthplace of country music.
We’re thinking you are thinking Nashville, the Tennessee capital city that calls itself “Music City,” although perhaps “Country Music City” would be more accurate.
Nashville is home to the Grand Ole Opry, the Country Music Hall of Fame, the famed Ryman Auditorium and numerous recording studios, while serving as the hometown of numerous country music artists.
Although universally considered the starship of country music, Nashville isn’t country music’s birthplace and isn’t the town we visited.
The officially recognized birthplace is approximately 300 miles east of Nashville in Bristol, a town that straddles two states. Walk down the middle of Bristol’s State Street and one foot will be in Tennessee and the other in Virginia.
Bristol’s claim to country music’s birthplace stems from a series of recordings known as the “Bristol Sessions” that took place in 1927 when a New York record producer arrived in Bristol seeking “hillbilly” talent.
Ralph Peer, working for Victor Talking Machine Company (acquired in 1929 by Radio Corporation of America), set up a portable recording studio in a vacant Bristol warehouse to record local and regional musicians.
During a two-week period, Peer recorded 19 different acts including the Carter Family (Alvin, Sara and Maybelle that became known as “the First Family of Country Music) and Jimmie Rodgers, the “Father of Country Music.”
Although the warehouse is long gone, the music recorded there proved timeless with the Library of Congress naming the Bristol Sessions as among the 50 most significant sound recording events of all time.
Bristol celebrates country music and interprets the Bristol Sessions at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, a 24,000-square-foot facility that opened in August 2014.
The museum, an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, is home to four theaters, artifacts and interactive exhibits that tell the story of country music while concentrating on the Bristol Sessions of Ralph Peer.
Shortly after entering the museum, we met curator Renee Rodgers who pointed us toward the special exhibit room with photos of past Rhythm & Roots Reunions, the museum’s annual festival.
Exhibits in the room change two to three times per year. After browsing the photos, we headed to the nearest of the museum’s four theaters to view “Bound to Bristol,” a 20-minute video offering an overview of the Bristol Sessions.
The film is narrated by John Carter Cash, the only child of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash.
The museum is filled with informative panels, exhibits and theaters that tell the story of early country music.
One exhibit contains a Johnny Cash signed guitar. Another offers film clips of Bristol native Tennessee Ernie Ford in a display made to appear as an old television. The video ends with Tennessee Ernie offering his unique TV signoff, “Good night and bless your little pea-pickin’ hearts.”
Perhaps the most enjoyable interactive exhibit is a small recording booth where visitors can dub their singing over instrumentals of several tunes from the Bristol Sessions.
The recording can then be played back for listening. We were pretty pitiful, but at least we tried. Nearby, a mixing station allows visitors to remix recorded songs.
A small operating radio studio on the museum’s second floor broadcasts country and bluegrass music and occasional live performances on low-power FM station WBCM, Radio Bristol. A disk jockey was working in the studio during our visit.
The museum supports a number of educational programs and events including full- and half-day summer camps, student field trips and a monthly community jam session.
Each September, it is a sponsor of the three-day Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion downtown (on both sides of the state line) music festival that includes nearly two dozen outdoor stages and indoor music venues.
Prior to departing the museum, we viewed a short video of various recording artists singing parts of “Will the Circle be Unbroken.”
It was a great way to bid goodbye to the interesting and entertaining Birthplace of Country Music.
David and Kay Scott are authors of “Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges” (Globe Pequot). Visit them at mypages.valdosta.edu/dlscott/Scott.html. View past columns at www.facebook.com/DavidKayScott. The Scotts live in Valdosta, Georgia.