February 2021 - The Birthplace of Country Music
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The Root of It: Brad Leftwich on John Dykes and the Magic City Trio

Radio Bristol is excited to share “The Root of It,” a new series connecting today’s influential musicians to often lesser known and sometimes obscure musicians of the early commercial recording era. The sounds and musicians we hear today on platforms like Radio Bristol can often be traced back to the sounds of earlier generations. What better way to discover these connections than to talk to the musicians themselves about some of the artists that have been integral in shaping their music. These influences, though generally not household names, continue to inspire those who dig deep to listen through the scratches and noise of old 78s, field recordings, and more, finding nuances and surprises that inevitably lead them on their unique musical journeys. 

For our first installment of “The Root of It,” we spoke with legendary Oklahoma fiddler Brad Leftwich. Brad has long been considered the gold standard for old-time fiddling and banjo, learning directly from some of the masters who came before him like Tommy Jarrell, Melvin Wine and the Hammons Family, and more. Brad has been a performer and educator for over 40 years and continues to record projects with his group Brad Leftwich & the Humdingers; he has also crafted genre-defining teaching materials and continues to tour internationally. Brad shared with us his interest in the music of old-time pioneer John Dykes and the Magic City Trio, a celebrated local Tri-Cities band that recorded in the late 1920s.

Brad Leftwich performing at Wheatland. Courtesy of Brad Leftwich

Brad Leftwich:

I still remember when I met John Dykes. Well, I didn’t “meet” meet him, because he died a couple of decades before I was born, but from the moment I first heard his fiddling I felt like we had a connection that bridged space and time.

Linda and I were visiting our friends Gail Gillespie and Dwight Rogers. This was in the days before CDs and the internet, when it was actually difficult to get hold of recordings of old-time music; musicians who wanted more than the few Folkways and County LPs that were available resorted to swapping cassette tape copies of field recordings and old 78s. By the time they’d been recopied several times, the sound quality (usually not good to begin with) was pretty awful.

Dyke’s Magic City Trio, pictured left to right: John Dykes on fiddle, Myrtle Vermillion on autoharp, and Hubert Mahaffey on guitar. This legendary local group was named after Kingsport, Tennessee, which was coined the “Magic City” as it flourished as one of the key Appalachian “planned cities” built on industrialism in the early 1920s. Photo from rllane.com

While we were there, Gail put on a recently acquired cassette and asked with a sly smile, “Do you recognize this fiddler?” Linda and I had to admit it sounded like a distorted, muddy recording of me – or at least what I hoped to sound like. Except it couldn’t be me because I didn’t know the tune, and I certainly never recorded a 78. She made us a copy (maybe seventh or eighth generation at this point), and when we returned home I set about finding as many (and clearer) recordings of Dykes’s Magic City Trio as I could.

“Tennessee Girls,” recorded in 1927 by Dyke’s Magic City Trio, is often credited as one of the groups most influential recordings.

I originally learned to fiddle mostly from visiting Tommy Jarrell, but although his bowing structure formed the bones of my fiddling, I never really sounded like him (who does?). After several years on the road learning from many more fiddlers – from the Appalachians to Oklahoma to the Ozarks – I felt like I had taken the bits and pieces that appealed to me from those sources and built my own distinctive sound. But listening to John Dykes was different: I thought, “I know you!” Even now when I listen to him I feel not just that I understand every bow stroke, but that I would put together tunes in pretty much the same way. His fluid, driving sense of rhythm and the clarity of his sound are the ideals that I strive for, not only when I play his tunes, but in my fiddling in general.

“Dusty Miller” performed by Brad Leftwich & the Humdingers.

To me, John Dykes is among the greatest fiddlers I’ve heard, and certainly the Magic City Trio is one of my all-time favorite bands. I love to play with guitar players who can lay out a hypnotic, elegant bass line like Hub Mahaffee, and although Myrtle Vermillion’s autoharp merges with the guitar and thus is not clearly audible on the recordings, I like to think she is filling out and driving that band like Linda’s banjo uke does in ours. The Magic City Trio has been an inspiration and model for my band, the Humdingers, in both its old and new incarnations.

* To learn more about Brad Leftwich or to purchase his band’s latest record Rise and Bloom Again, visit www.bradandthehumdingers.net.

Images courtesy of Brad Leftwich

Speaking Up! Advocate to Highlight Your Museum’s Impact on the Community, State, Nation, and Beyond

Each year the American Alliance of Museums organizes Museums Advocacy Day, an event aimed at preparing and enabling public history professionals and individuals who are passionate about museums to speak directly with their Congressional representatives about policy issues that directly affect museums. This year, the event starts today – February 22 – with several sessions focused on the issues and how to advocate, which will then be followed tomorrow by a day of Congressional meetings to talk to representatives and/or their staff about why they should support museums and their work. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the whole event this year will be virtual, which may seem like a disadvantage, but actually it makes speaking with elected officials and advocacy easier and more accessible. In fact, it is the first year that members of our curatorial staff have been able to attend!

But, what makes museums so important? Why should we advocate for museums? And what can you do today to support your local museum?

Why Are Museums Important?

In all probability, if you’re reading this blog post, you already have a love for museums. So I want you to think about the first time you went to a museum. Did you feel giddy with excitement and wonder as you looked in the beautiful glass cases that housed items ancient and seemingly ripped from our collective imagination? Did you tell your friends and teachers about all of the neat facts you learned and all of the cool objects you saw? Did you perhaps decide to go to your local museum’s summer camp or their other public events after this initial visit? I always come out of museums refreshed and grounded by a deeper understanding of the represented community and also a deeper understanding of myself. And then I want to see and learn more.

Photo of blond woman holding a baby and pointing at an image on the museum's wall. Both of them have expressions of wonder on their faces.

Visitors engage with the Things Come Apart special exhibit, which was featured at the museum in 2017. One good experience can lead to continued support of your museum in a variety of ways, including advocating for your mission and work. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Billie Wheeler

These feelings are not unfounded. The American Alliance of Museums has done extensive research on the impact museums have on the individual, community, education, and the economy. Here are just a few of their findings:

  • Museums support more than 726,000 American jobs.
  • Museums contribute $50 billion to the U.S. economy each year.
  • Children who visited a museum during kindergarten had higher achievement scores in reading, mathematics, and science in third grade than children who did not. Children who are most at risk for deficits and delays in achievement also see this benefit.
  • Americans view museums as one of the most important resources for educating our children and as one of the most trustworthy sources of objective information. According to a study by Indiana University, museums are considered a more reliable source of historical information than books, teachers, or even personal accounts by grandparents or other relatives.
  • In determining America’s Best Cities, Bloomberg Business Week placed the greatest weight on “leisure amenities [including density of museums], followed by educational metrics and economic metrics…then crime and air quality.”
  • More people visited an art museum, science center, historic house or site, zoo, or aquarium in 2018 than attended a professional sporting event.
  • Museums also provide many social services, including programs for children on the autism spectrum, English as a Second Language classes, and programs for adults with Alzheimer’s or other cognitive impairments.
  • Since 2014, more than 500 museums nationwide have facilitated more than 2.5 million museum visits for low-income Americans through the Museums for All program.

To learn more about the awesome effects of museums at the individual, communal, and global level, visit the American Alliance of Museums’ website here – it’s full of great information!

Graphic with a map of the United States on one side that includes a focal point of Washington DC and then several colored lines reaching out in different ways to symbolize reaching people and advocating. To the left is a graphic of the Capitol dome with the words Museums Advocacy Day 2021 superimposed on it, along with the dates of this years Museums Advoacacy Day.

The AAM website graphic for Museums Advocacy Day 2021.

Why Advocate?

What does it even mean to advocate? On the most basic level to advocate is to publicly recommend or support – this definition of advocate could cover everything from recommending a friend to your current employer for an open position within the organization to supporting a local artist you love by sharing their work on your social media pages. On the political level, to advocate means to actively support a change to an issue or creation of program or solution on a local, state, or federal level. Political advocacy includes emailing, writing letters to, or calling your lawmakers; voicing your opinions or sharing other calls to action on your social media pages and tagging lawmakers in those posts; or participating in or supporting advocacy or action groups who are dedicated to specific issues.

But why get involved? AAM outlines several great reasons to advocate:

  • It is your right (and duty) as an American citizen to advocate for what you believe in.
  • It can bring about policy change that will make others’ lives better.
  • You can help speak up for those who may not be able to speak for themselves.
  • It is evidence of our political system at work – it helps fulfill checks and balances on the government.
  • It underlines that you are an active member of the community – politicians may be too far removed to really understand the issues and what is going on in communities.
  • It can actually accomplish something!
Image of several buttons that state: Ask me about my museum, with the AAM logo on them.

Buttons provided by AAM for a past Museums Advocacy Day encouraged those representatives and aides met on Capitol Hill to learn about individuals and their museums. Source: https://blooloop.com/museum/news/aam-museum-advocacy-day/

Finally, remember to keep an open mind about advocacy. It is no different than an institution participating in donor cultivation – museums are community centers that preserve, celebrate, and engage a community as a whole and as such it is acceptable to share that impact and advocate for these organizations.

What Can You Do as an Individual?

So…you think museums are amazing, and hopefully now advocacy doesn’t sound so intimidating, but what are some tangible action items you can do to help your local museum on the individual, rather than the institutional, level? Again, the American Alliance of Museums has a list of do-ables to help you advocate for the museums you love:

  • Contact your Congressional representative (contact information and templates can be found here) and tell them why your local museum is important to you and your community. And don’t just look at the national level – you can also contact your state and local representatives, where your words might have even more impact.
  • Learn from others about why they advocate and what issues they think are important.
  • Make advocacy a habit, not just a one-off action.
  • Stay informed on the issues important to your community.
  • Visit your local museum to learn more about their work and their contributions to your community.
  • Ask your favorite museum or historic/cultural organization how you can help!

For more information, check out the sources used for this post:

Safer Travels to Bristol, Above and Below!

Exploring the Birthplace of Country Music & Beyond

In our previous blog post, Walk the Line in Bristol, TN-VA, we offered an itinerary of must-sees if you’re looking for a safe weekend getaway to the birthplace of country music. In that article we hit a lot of highlights, but there is definitely more to see in Bristol and the surrounding area! Read on to discover what else there is to see when visiting:

A young girl with long braids stands up in her seat to take in the view of a NASCAR race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Racing at Bristol Motor Speedway is a bucket list event the whole family will enjoy!
Photo courtesy of Bristol Motor Speedway

Bristol Motor Speedway

NASCAR drivers and fans alike will tell you that there is nothing so thrilling as a race on the high banks at Bristol Motor Speedway. Known as “The Last Great Colosseum,” BMS has been a main attraction in Bristol since its very first race in 1961 – and there isn’t a bad seat in the house! BMS has taken enhanced safety measures for fans, drivers, crew, vendors, employees, and other guests to help keep everyone safe from COVID-19. Check out their policies by clicking here.

A black Corvette competes in Bristol Motor Speedway's Thunder Valley Street Fights event.
Street Fights at Bristol Motor Speedway’s Thunder Valley.
Photo courtesy of Bristol Motor Speedway

Bristol hosts races in several NASCAR touring series, including two major NASCAR Cup Series. Legendary drivers like Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip, Richard Petty, Jeff Gordon, and many more have all earned victories at the track, and – whether you are a sports fan or not – we highly recommend adding a night race at Bristol to your bucket list. If you have a camper, there are campgrounds all around the track where you can tailgate and celebrate or commiserate with fellow fans. The track hosts amazing vendors and special events all around the facility throughout race weekend to keep the family entertained. Between NASCAR events, BMS’s Thunder Valley dragway hosts NHRA Drag Racing, dirt track racing, and street fight racing events that are high-octane adventures all their own!

A stunning view of the Underground River inside Bristol Caverns.
The breathtaking Underground River inside Bristol Caverns.
Photo courtesy of Bristol Caverns

Bristol Caverns

If you think Bristol is amazing on the surface, just wait until you explore what’s underneath at Bristol Caverns! Formed by the ancient Underground River 200 to 400 million years ago, Bristol Caverns is one of the oldest and most beautiful attractions in Northeast Tennessee.

A lit and gated pathway inside Bristol Caverns.
A lit walkway inside Bristol Caverns highlights the beauty underground.

Legend has it that Native Americans used the caverns as an escape route during clashes with settlers. Cameras are welcome, and you’ll definitely want to glimpse back upon the wonderous and dramatic sights found inside all three levels of the colorful chambers that wind 180 feet below to the cavern floor. Bristol Caverns is opened year-round, seven days a week (except certain holidays). Call ahead to book a tour and inquire about health and safety rules for social distancing in the wake of COVID-19: 423-878-2011.

Beyond Bristol
To make the most of your experience, we highly recommend taking time to visit a few other sites in the region:

  • Bays Mountain Park & Planetarium
    Just down the road in Kingsport, Tennessee, Bays Mountain Park & Planetarium offers a plethora of nature- and science-focused adventures including hiking trails, a state-of-the-art Planetarium Theater, and animal habitats including wolves, bobcats, raptors, and reptiles.
  • Barter Theatre
    Barter Theatre opened in Abingdon, Virginia, in 1933 and is the longest-running professional Equity theatre in the United States. Also the State Theater of Virginia, the Barter got its name because theatergoers were able to pay for tickets to shows in vegetables, dairy products, and livestock. Known as a launching pad for the careers of many iconic actors and actresses and its award-winning productions, the Barter is making use of the outdoor Moonlite Drive-In to host shows during the pandemic.
  • Hands On! Discovery Center and Gray Fossil Site
    The Hands On! Discovery Center at Gray Fossil Site is an all-ages science center full of fun and interactive exhibits including a musical Tesla coil, giant building blocks, a three-story Paleo Tower, and an art studio. Guests are invited to engineer a rocket, create a masterpiece, and get up close and personal with an active fossil dig site dating back 5 million years. The facility is open with modified COVID-19 safety precautions and an adjusted schedule for your safety.

Want to know more about exploring Bristol, Northeast Tennessee, and Southwest Virginia? Visit our partner websites and plan your trip!

Discover Bristol 
Believe in Bristol 
Northeast Tennessee Tourism Association
Visit Southwest Virginia 

Radio Bristol Book Club: The Devil’s Dream

Welcome to Radio Bristol Book Club! Readers from BCM and the Bristol Public Library come together each month to celebrate and explore a book inspired by our region’s rich Appalachian cultural and musical heritage. We invite you to read along and then listen to Radio Bristol on the fourth Thursday of each month at 11:00am when we will dig deep into the themes and questions raised by the books, learn more about the authors, and celebrate the joys of being a bookworm!

The Devil’s Dream explores Appalachian culture, traditions, and family ties through the multi-generational saga of the Bailey family. Preacher’s son Moses Bailey believes that the fiddle is the voice of the devil and tries to quash his wife Kate Malone’s deep love of music. But there are some things that may be too powerful to deny… Avoiding Appalachian stereotypes, Smith tells the story – loosely based on the Carter Family – through strong characters whose voices are as distinct and as spiritual as the high lonesome sound.

Three covers of The Devil's Dream showing a woman playing guitar with a man behind here (left), an atmospheric photograph of a cabin in the woods (center), and a foggy wood with red leaves on the ground and a guitar learning against a tree (right).

The various manifestations of the cover of Lee Smith’s novel The Devil’s Dream evoke the story the book tells in different ways over the years.

Lee Smith is a native of Grundy, Virginia. She has written many novels, including the New York Times bestseller The Last Girls, along with Fair and Tender Ladies, Guests on Earth, Saving Grace, and Blue Marlin. She is a recipient of the Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the North Carolina Award for Literature, and a Southern Book Critics Circle Award.

Photograph of a woman with short blonde hair, smilling and wearing a turquoise shirt and earrings.
Lee Smith’s author photograph, taken from her official website.

Please make plans to join us on Thursday, February 25 at 11:00am! You can find us on the dial at 100.1 FM, streaming live on Radio Bristol, or via the Radio Bristol app. The book is available at the Bristol Public Library so be sure to pick up a copy and read it ahead of time. The librarians will be happy to help you find the book. We look forward to sharing our thoughts on this book’s interesting story, told in the Appalachian voices of the people themselves. And if you have thoughts or questions about this book that you would like to share with our readers, you can email info@birthplaceofcountrymusic.org (Subject line: Radio Bristol Book Club) – and your book insights might appear on air with us!

Looking ahead: Our book pick for March is Where the Dead Sit Talking by Brandon Hobson; we’ll be discussing it on Thursday, March 25. Check out our full list of 2021 Radio Bristol Book Club picks here, where you can also listen to archived shows!