September 2018 - The Birthplace of Country Music
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When All the Parts Become a Whole: Working Together to Create a Museum

I believe in the power of collaboration, a constant factor in the long process of bringing the Birthplace of Country Music Museum to life and to its grand opening in 2014.

Recently a segment I heard on an NPR program caught my attention and got me thinking again about collaboration. I must have been listening “out of one ear,” because I can’t remember the topic of the segment. What I do recall is the parable the speaker employed to illustrate his topic. It involves a group of men describing an elephant by touch in a dark room, although even here my memory is muddled. So I have turned to Google (as one does) for help. It turns out that there are many versions of the parable, but a poem by Rumi, the 13th-century Persian poet, scholar, and mystic is closest to the story paraphrased on NPR.

Here is Rumi’s poem, as translated by Coleman Barks:

Elephant in the Dark

Some Hindus have an elephant to show.
No one here has ever seen an elephant.
They bring it at night to a dark room.

One by one, we go in the dark and come out
saying how we experience the animal.
One of us happens to touch the trunk.
“A water pipe kind of creature.”

Another, the ear. “A very strong, always moving
Back and forth, fan-animal.”

Another, the leg. “I find it still,
like a column on a temple.”
Another touches the curved back.
“A leathery throne.”

Another, the cleverest, feels the tusk.
“A rounded sword made of porcelain.”
He’s proud of his description.

Each of us touches one place
and understands the whole in that way.
The palm and the fingers feeling in the dark are
how the senses explore the reality of the elephant.

If each of us held a candle there,
and if we went in together,
we could see it.

A page from a manuscript showing several villagers examining an elephant by touch with script below the picture.
A 17th-century Persian manuscript illustrating Townspeople, Who Have Never Seen an Elephant, Examine Its Appearance in the Dark. Source: Walters Art Museum, acquired by Henry Walters

The elephant identification story predates Rumi by millennia, and occurs in many variations, cultures, and religions, but the moral is similar in all versions. According to Wikipedia, “at various times the parable has provided insight into the relativism, opaqueness, or inexpressible nature of truth, the behavior of experts in fields where there is a deficit or inaccessibility of information, the need for communication, and respect for different perspectives.”

In my decades as an architect, I have valued the principles of open-mindedness, good communication, and the certainty that there are more ways than one to solve a problem. These principles are the essence of collaboration.

My firm had the privilege of working with a remarkable “brain trust” assembled by the Birthplace of Country Music to help bring the museum to fruition. A plaque in the museum lobby recognizes these creative individuals and firms, each contributing in their own way to the whole. In addition to an exhibit content team of musicologists, academics, and musicians, the group included exhibit designers and museum planners, lighting and acoustical consultants, media producers, and the construction manager. Each of these was on a mission to make their particular area of influence the best it could be, and each knew that the realities of budget, scheduling, space limitations, historic preservation, and other constraints would require concessions and cooperation. These interactions were the norm, not the exception. We spent a lot of time talking and planning, debating different points, sometimes disagreeing, but always finding the best path together.

The museum signage listing all of the team members in the museum construction.
The signage in the museum listing the collaborators on the museum’s content and construction teams. Courtesy of Toni Doman

A few of those collaborative efforts, visible now to our visitors and central to their experience, come to mind. For instance, in an early design concept, the area outside of the Orientation Theater in the upstairs atrium was conceived as a front porch in a rural setting. However, as the content team developed the “story” to be told by the museum, the romantic notion of a hillbilly strumming a guitar on a cabin porch gave way to something more related to 1920s Bristol: a train station setting. We gave exhibit architect Joe Nicholson of studioMUSarx a tour of the Bristol Train Station, which was built in 1902 and in use in the 1920s, and worked with his design team to style the space as a passenger waiting room, with references to the materials and details found in our local landmark. This space illustrates the mode of travel for some of those who participated in the 1927 Bristol Sessions, but it also acts as a marker to tell the wider context of the recording sessions that came before those held in Bristol.

Left: Train station waiting area with wooden paneling and floors, "windows" with a view out to the trains, and the arrivals board listing several pre-1927 recording sessions. Right: Front porch area with white clapboard, a phonograph, and signage related to the hillbilly term and gathering spaces.
The train station “waiting area” gives visitors the impression of looking out at the arriving and departing trains, while the arrivals board lists earlier recording sessions of hillbilly music and, on the back of the board, discusses this context pre-1927 Bristol Sessions. While the porch concept changed through content team conversations, we maintained a small porch exhibit as a place to address the hillbilly term and to ask visitors to consider where they gather together for community – and music! © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Neil Staples

Another great example is the wood that was used in various areas in the museum. Several years before we began our detailed design work, a local purveyor of curly maple used in solid body guitars (Gibson guitars, in fact!) offered a gift of “seconds” of this wood for use in the museum. Fortunately, his offer was still on the table when we began to specify finish materials, and there was enough material for flooring in The Museum Store. Architect Michael Haslam, my former associate, developed a scheme to use curly maple and other “tone woods” – species used in the creation of musical instruments such as walnut or ash – for flooring and other finishes throughout the museum. While on the outside this design may just look attractive, the connection to woods used for musical instruments means that these details have deeper meaning, and our visitors are always interested to hear about these elements in the museum design.

Left: A view into The Museum Store showing the pale maple wood flooring and various retail displays. Right: A view into the Performance Theater showing the seating and different wood finishes.
The various tone woods used in The Museum Store and the museum’s Performance Theater can be seen in these photographs. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Neil Staples

The chapel setting in the permanent exhibits was originally conceived as a trompe l’oeil interior where a video projection created the illusion of a larger interior space showing congregants seated in rows facing a group of shape-note singers. A single pew would provide limited seating for museum visitors at the back of the setting. Two elements of the chapel design changed as the content conversations developed: the film and the setting. The creation of the film didn’t just involve filming the groups performing gospel and sacred music – the artists also shared their thoughts about how this music expresses and celebrates their belief in God, an important parallel to the sacred songs of the 1927 Bristol Sessions. Some of the artists, such as the New Harvest Brothers, also sat in on meetings once filming had ended to help us shape the film and its focus – a true collaborative effort. We wanted to share the voices of the musicians who are performing in this gospel tradition today in a respectful way and give them the opportunity to tell the story of their faith and music.

The chapel setting also changed. First, it evolved from a virtual space to a “real” one. The church that comes to mind for most people when they think about traditional sacred music is a small, white clapboard church with a steeple. There are many wonderful churches of this type in Appalachia. But this is not the only type of church architecture found in this area, and when we looked at some of the churches associated with different Bristol Sessions artists, we found a brick model that worked well for our exhibit. The Tennessee Mountaineers, a group made up of a church congregation, didn’t have their own home church at the time of the Sessions, but they later built a small brick church in Erwin, Tennessee, patterned after a brick church seen in Bristol, and it is that church that inspired the design of the museum’s small chapel exhibit. A serendipitous find by a member of the exhibit design team also resulted in the donation of antique church pews. One round trip to Philadelphia later, the pews were in Bristol ready for refurbishing, and once finished, the acoustic designer placed speakers under the pew seats to provide a physical as well as aural sensation from the soundtrack on the video.

Left: A view of the chapel exhibit from outside of it. Right: A view of the chapel exhibit from the inside with several patrons seated in the pews watching the film.
The chapel setting and its film. Left: © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Neil Staples / Right: © Hillmann & Carr

Another great detail, again pulled together after much discussion amongst the team, is the coordinated color scheme used throughout the museum. Developed by the exhibit designers for graphics, panels, and other exhibit components, the color scheme used for walls and other architectural elements was inspired by the ideas of home and comfort, an important facet of the lives of the 1927 musicians and their audience. The designer turned to reference images on American quilt making, seeing many quilts with amazing colors made from the fabrics related to the clothes, blankets, and meals (flour sacks with labels, etc.) of these quilt makers. From these connections to the past, she was able to create a color palette for use in the museum that addressed the needs of the architectural spaces in harmony with the exhibits. The Bristol TN/VA Chapter of the Embroiderers’ Guild of America also successfully employed the colors for the thread and fabrics in the beautifully crafted quilt that graces the main stairway, again tying the small details together.

Top left: Picture of the color swatches used in the museum; top right: View of the genre panel on a red wall; bottom right: View of the quilt hanging in the stairwell; bottom left: View of several panels using the blue and yellow colorways from the museum's color scheme.
The color scheme developed by the designer: the various colorways that she chose can be seen in the two exhibit spaces in the museum seen here and the quilt hanging in the museum stairwell. Top left: Courtesy of René Rodgers / All other images: © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Neil Staples

There are many more examples of fortuitous collaboration that helped create the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, and we are grateful to hear from our visitors every day that this hard work produced an amazing experience for the eyes, ears and heart. And we are grateful for the experience of working together as a team on such an interesting project. As Joe Nicholson said: “We really ended up with a seamless integration of the building with the exhibits and full owner participation throughout. I wish I could do one of these projects every year!” I couldn’t agree more.

Instrument Interview: The Creole Bania, the Oldest Existing Banjo

“Instrument Interview” posts are a chance to sit down with the instruments of traditional, country, bluegrass, and roots music – from different types of instruments to specific ones related to artists, luthiers, and songwriters – and learn more about them. Ten questions are posed, and the instruments answer! Today we talk with the Creole bania.

What ARE you?

I’m a banjo! I know I don’t exactly look like the banjos you think of today, but I’m actually the earliest known banjo that still exists. I was made sometime before 1777, and at that time, banjos were made of gourds and calabashes.

Since you’re so different from the banjos we know today, describe yourself to us.

My body is a calabash, and my drumhead is made of animal skin held on with wooden pins. I have two S-shaped sound holes (kind of like a fiddle). I also have three long strings and one short string and a very nicely carved peghead. My neck is thinner than banjos today, and it is made of wood.

Left pic: A creole bania as described in the text, made of a calabash with a skin drumhead, charged peghead, and strings. Right pic: A globular green calabash growing on a tree.
The image to the left is a picture of me, where you can see the details I describe above. To the right is a picture of a calabash, a type of fruit that grows on trees; banias are also made from gourds, which grow on vines on the ground. Left: Creative Commons,; Right: Photograph courtesy of Kristina Gaddy

Where did you come from?

I came from the country that is known as Suriname. Located on the northern coast of South America, Suriname is actually a part of the Caribbean, even though it’s not an island. In the 1770s, Suriname was a Dutch colony, known for the brutal conditions that enslaved Africans and people of African descent faced working on sugar and coffee plantations.

A two-storey, with gable, plantation house, reconstructed. It is white with red stairs and doors on the ground floor, and a green roof.
A reconstructed plantation house at Stichting Openluchtmuseum Fort Nieuw Amsterdam (SOFNA), an open-air museum in Paramaribo, Suriname.
Photograph courtesy of Kristina Gaddy

Wait! I think of banjos as a North American instrument, but you say you’re from South America?

Actually, we’re not just found in North America. Banjos were observed all over the Caribbean, too. In fact, the first record of a banjo is from about 1687 in Jamaica! Instruments similar to me had lots of different names, including bania, banya, banjo, banger, banza, and panja, and were observed in New York, the Carolinas, New Orleans, Cuba, Haiti, St. Vincent, and Barbados, among other places. If you want to know more, you should check out Dena Epstein’s Sinful Tunes and Spirituals. Yours truly is mentioned, but she has accounts of my relatives from all over.

Check out this video of Seth Swingle playing a reproduction of the Haitian banza, a banjo collected in Haiti around 1840. Pete Ross studied the original and now makes reproductions for players and museums.

Who made you?

Almost 300,000 people were forcibly taken from Africa and enslaved in Suriname, and I was made by one of those enslaved people, who based my design on the instruments he or she had in Africa. I wish I could tell you more about the person who made me, but the man who collected me, John Gabriel Stedman, didn’t tell anyone more than that.

Tell me more about this Stedman guy.

Captain John Gabriel Stedman arrived in Suriname to fight formerly enslaved people who had escaped to live in the jungle. Stedman was there to stop two tribes – the Saamaka and Njuka – from attacking plantations. Stedman kept a diary while he was in Suriname, which eventually became a very popular book, and he even drew a picture of me in it! That was when he named me “Creole Bania.”

Left: A earthen path marked with a horizontal wooden branch with hanging elements on it to mark the entrance to a village; right: boards from a house (looks like a ceiling), including carved elements.
Left: The entrance to a Saamaka village in Suriname; right: Detail of a carving on a home in a Saamaka village. Photographs courtesy of Kristina Gaddy

Where are you now?

I live at Tropenmuseum in the Netherlands. For many years I was in the storerooms, but I’ve recently been put on permanent display in an exhibit about slavery in the Dutch colonies, including Suriname.

Ok, so you’re the oldest banjo, but are there any other banjos like you?

Yes! I have a friend from Suriname who lives at the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin, Germany. That banjo is known as the panja (pronounced pan-ya), and it was collected sometime before 1850. We are very similar in construction, and this panja has a really beautiful peghead.

The panja's dark wood peghead, intricately carved with what looks to be a goat head, in the museum archive.
The peghead of the panja at the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin, Germany. Photograph courtesy of Kristina Gaddy

Do we know any more about the panja?

No. In fact, for many years, U.S. banjo scholars didn’t know about the panja at all! It was rediscovered by a banjo researcher named Schlomo Pestcoe, and now a couple of people have even been by to visit it.

What type of music did you and the panja play?

Alas, something else we don’t remember! No one wrote down the music that was played on banjos in Suriname, but a note about the panja does give a bit of a clue. The collection note says: “Panja, 4-stringed strummed instrument, particular to death celebrations and to the song Ananhitori.” Recent research suggests that the banjo was a central part of a spiritual/cultural ritual across the Americas. I hear if you want to find out more about this, you should come to this year’s Banjo Gathering at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in November!

All Things Country on International Country Music Day

September 17 is International Country Music Day! And while every day is “country music day” here at the Birthplace of Country Music, we thought we’d mark today in particular with a few fun facts and fancies all about this genre of music.

On This Day

On the internet, you can almost always find something interesting via the “on this day” sites, and country music is no exception. Sometimes the connections drawn feel like a stretch to mark the day as interesting. For instance, on this day in 1959, Johnny Cash made his first appearance on UK television on a show called Boy Meets Girl. And sometimes you find a connection to the day that is just a good story, like the fact that on September 17, 1977, Reba McEntire almost missed her debut performance on the Grand Ole Opry after her name was accidentally missed on the performers’ list by a security guard. However, some “on this days” give us a truly notable moment: On September 17, 1923, country legend Hank Williams was born in Alabama. Williams died young at the age of 29 in 1953, but his short life had huge impact on country music with a host of iconic and influential songs, including “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “Hey Good Lookin.'”

International Fandom

With this being International Country Music Day, it seems only natural to highlight the love of country music beyond the borders of the United States. Articles from recent years in The Tennessean and the Guardian note the increasing global popularity of country music – not just with fans but also with country singers who hail from other countries. Festivals devoted to country and bluegrass music abound abroad – for instance, the Country 2 Country Festival in the UK, which now draws over 80,000 fans, and the Takarazuka Bluegrass Festival in Japan, now in its 47th year. In 2014 the Canadian postal service released a series of stamps focused on the contributions of Canadian country music stars with stamps of Shania Twain, k. d. lang, Tommy Hunter, Hank Snow, and Renée Martel. And we we often experience that international love of country music  here in Bristol where the Birthplace of Country Music Museum has seen visitors from around 45 countries since we opened!

The Long Road is a new festival in the United Kingdom, held for the first time in early September 2018. Members of our team – and three musical acts from Virginia, including Folk Soul Revival seen here – went over for this inaugural event! © Kim Davis


So much of country music is about storytelling from the songs themselves to the stories behind them. And that storytelling is an important facet of this blog too, giving us the chance to dig deeper into the people and the events that make our music heritage so interesting. Over the past year and a half, we’ve shared the stories of several Bristol Sessions or other old-time artists. Here are just a few of our favorites:

Clockwise from top left: Ernest Phipps posing on a rock outcrop with his first wife Minnie and a friend; Georgia Warren’s signature on the museum’s Green Board at the grand opening in 2014; Jimmie Rodgers; and Hattie Stoneman performing with her family. Top left: Donated to the Birthplace of Country Music Museum by Teresa Phipps Patierno in the memory of her grandfather, Ernest Phipps, a coal miner and Holiness preacher from Kentucky, a simple man who loved his Lord; top right: © Birthplace of Country Music; bottom right: From the John Edwards Memorial Foundation Records, #20001, Southern Folklife Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; bottom left: Photograph courtesy of Roni Stoneman

An Animal By Any Other Name…

The common names of animals and plants – dog or daisy – aren’t their only names; they also have scientific names. These scientific names are formed within a system of binomial nomenclature using Latin grammatical forms where the first name refers to the genus and the second to the species, e.g. Homo sapiens or Tyrannosaurus rex. Now, oftentimes, these names reflect different elements related to the discovery of the animal or plant – for example, the person who discovered it, the place it was discovered, different languages, or even based on a joke or a pun. And in 2015 one creepy crawlie was named after a country music star: Aphonopelma johnnycashi. Named by arachnologist Chris Hamilton and his team, this tarantula species honored “The Man in Black” because it was found near Folsom State Prison, site of Cash’s famous “Folsom Prison Blues,” and due to its dark coloration.

A male Aphonopelma johnnycashi. From Wikimedia Commons:


Country Music…Worth a Visit

Hopefully the few quirky and interesting highlights above stoked your interest and will lead you to explore country music more. A great place to start is obviously the Birthplace of Country Music Museum here in Bristol, Tennessee-Virginia! But, of course, there are a huge variety of sites that are important to country music history – for a start, check out this list of “14 Places Every Country Music Fan Should Visit Before They Die.” Just in this area alone there are many great ways to experience the history and sounds of country and old-time music (and the music it has influenced), from the Crooked Road: Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail with sites like the Carter Family Fold in Hiltons, Virginia, and the Ralph Stanley Museum in Clintwood, Virginia, to the Down Home in Johnson City, Tennessee and music festivals and fiddlers’ conventions such as Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion, MerleFest, Galax Old Fiddlers’ Convention, and FloydFest. And finally, fans can pay tribute to country music stars who have passed by visiting the cemeteries and the graves that mark their final resting place.

Kiosk with info about the music heritage of Grayson County, including text about the Carter Family.
Crooked Road Wayside Kiosk at Grayson Highlands State Park. Photo by Jonathan Romeo for The Crooked Road

Happy International Country Music Day! Enjoy!



Hillbilly Superstar: Owning the “H” Word

I’m just going to say it.

I loathe derogatory representations of people from the south in the media. Though not as prevalent today as it once was, I despise the backward caricatures made up to represent us. Insults like “hillbilly” and “redneck” really tick me off. And you can find all sorts of examples of this type of characterization in movies, television, and books – for instance, the Oscar-nominated Deliverance brought some of those stereotypes into play, such as through the main characters’ perceptions of the people they encountered towards the beginning of the movie.

Let me be clear that my stance is not a lesson in political correctness, and I’m not writing this out of anger or resentment. My purpose with this blog post is to encourage folks from this area not to let those derogatory images and statements define them or make them ashamed of where they are from. We’re pretty great, and we live in one of most beautiful places in the world – and we all need to be reminded of that sometimes.

And, or course, the term “hillbilly” has ties to the musical heritage of this region too. The connection comes from a story told about a recording made by producer Ralph Peer on January 15, 1925 when he worked for the OKeh record label. At this first recording session for a quartet made up of Joe Hopkins, Al Hopkins, Tony Alderman, and John Rector, Peer asked the quartet for the name of their band. Al Hopkins’ immortal words were: “Call us anything you want. We’re nothing but a bunch of hillbillies from North Carolina and Virginia anyway!” Peer instructed OKeh’s secretary to write Hill Billies in the ledger. While the event surrounding the naming of the band was somewhat circumstantial, and it could be argued that the naming was a throw-away jibe or a stereotypical afterthought, the genesis of the term “hillbilly” in music can be linked to this moment.

The people of Appalachia are bred from a long line of strong people who knew how to survive. Our ancestors did back-breaking work in the fields, in the mines, and in the home for generations. If they didn’t grow it, they didn’t eat. If they couldn’t sew, they had no warmth. If they couldn’t chop down a tree and build it, they had no shelter. And when times got really tough, as I imagine they often were, southerners turned to their faith, and to their family and friends, and took care of each other. If that’s what you call a hillbilly, then I’m proud to be one.

Black-and-white image of a woman pulling the oars on a barge in Appalachia.
This photo reminds me of my Granny, a God-fearing woman who raised seven children largely by herself. “No rest for the weary,” she’d always say. Amen, sister. Image from The Appalachian Photographs of Cecil Sharp, originated by the Country Dance and Song Society, with permission of the English Folk Dance and Song Society

With all that in mind and thinking about the rich culture, history, and beauty of this region, I’m embracing the word “hillbilly” and challenging y’all to embrace it, too. In fact, one of the reasons I love Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion so much is because it changed my perspective of who I was and where I was from in such a positive way that I’m compelled to share this story in hopes that it makes someone else look at life a little bit differently, just like it did with me.

Shame on me, but as a naive, self-conscious teenager in the 1980s, I resented the hillbilly stereotype so much that I wanted to be as far removed from it as possible and rejected practically everything from southern culture. All I wanted was to get out. After all, the 1980s were all about Dynasty, Reaganomics, BMWs, and big shoulder pads – really important stuff, right? The world outside glittered with bigger and (seemingly) better possibilities – especially exemplified by Robin Leach’s Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, the Instagram of the 1980s.

So I traveled, thinking I’d move to some big city and then my life could really begin. I went to New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Las Vegas – and I loved them all for a variety of reasons. But, of all the sparkly and wonderful things those places have to offer, there was nothing like coming home to the mountains of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.

Image of a grassy field and the mountains in the distance with the sun setting behind a hill.
Who can argue with the beauty of our region? © Charlene Baker

And then, of course, as I said before, Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion changed everything for me.

At some point in adulthood I became active in my community. I adapted the motto, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” I met a lot of like-minded folks who were working to rebuild our downtown and give Bristol back its identity. A city’s downtown is its very essence and defines a community. When people are proud of their communities, they are more likely to be engaged and work to make it a better place to live. One of my first connections to community-building came with Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion, and this festival has given me, and so many others, a level of pride in this area that no shopping mall or chain restaurant could ever deliver.

Bristol Rhythm is also a microcosm of all the creativity, tradition, and skill that has been passed down to us over the generations. A walk down a street of vendors reveals the true artistry of our Appalachian friends and neighbors, evident in every square inch of a colorful, hand-sewn quilt and recognized in the smoothly sanded lines of an elegantly crafted instrument. And a meal in one of our downtown restaurants imparts the quintessential southern kitchen where friends and families come together for gatherings that feed the body and the soul.

Top left image shows a host of festivalgoers cheering near the Downtown Mural stage; top and bottom right images features artisan items from the festival vendors, including guitars and quilts; bottom left picture shows a view into the restaurant Eatz on Moore Street
Top left: Look at all these smiling, happy people! They’re at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion and they’re ECSTATIC! Pure magic! Top and bottom right, and bottom left: From artisan items to downtown restaurants like Eatz on Moore Street, there’s something for everyone amongst the vendors and merchants at Bristol Rhythm. All images © Birthplace of Country Music; top left and top right are by photographers Bill Foster and Kendra Dougherty

And then there’s the music. Even if bluegrass or old time isn’t your thing, one can’t help but marvel at the level of accomplishment and prowess involved in playing a traditional instrument well. You really must see it live to truly appreciate it. Some of the greatest musicians of all time studied hillbilly music in an effort to up their game. Don’t believe me? Stop by the Birthplace of Country Music Museum to learn more about the wider story and be sure to check out the Immersion Theater experience where you’ll hear artists talking about the influence of this music on their own. Or come to the festival this year and see Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn, Doyle Lawson, Molly Tuttle, Sierra Hull – amazing instrumentalists with mind-blowing talent and dexterity beyond imagination. Troy Grady’s video of Molly Tuttle – only 25 and the first woman to win the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Guitar Player of the Year Award – highlights what that great music sounds and feels like. The influence of our Appalachian music heritage continues to inspire musicians like Molly all over the globe, and it’s a beautiful thing.

And I encourage you to really listen to southern lyricists like Ed Snodderly or Scott Miller, songwriters who continue to take the trials and tribulations of the southern experience and turn them into poignant novellas that resonate with both satire and sentiment. Their talents are truly a gift, and we have so many artists like these two at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion just waiting to be encountered by music lovers.

Okay, so maybe Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion won’t change negative southern stereotypes on a global scale, but it did change the way I saw myself and our region. I also feel strongly that it’s a good start to changing the way young people feel about their own Appalachian heritage if they are judging themselves and their communities based on an outsider’s view of this region.

I hope Bristol Rhythm serves as a source of pride and inspiration to them, as it does for me, so they will carry on the traditions that make our region truly unique and special. Further, my wish is for anyone reading this to feel empowered and inspired to believe in Bristol, or in their own hometowns, so that they make positive change happen where they live for a sustainable future – one that doesn’t rely on people from the outside coming in and homogenizing their neighborhoods.

So own it, claim it, shout it loud and be proud! Be the “Hillbilly Superstar” you were intended to be! After all, being unique means we are meant for the spotlight, otherwise everything awesome that we and our ancestors worked so hard for will eventually disappear. We can’t let that happen because, Bristol truly is a really, really good place to live. And being from Bristol – and celebrating Bristol at the festival each year – is awesome!

Photo of downtown Bristol with Bristol Sign in the distance.
Some days I take a break with a cup of coffee on the top of the steps behind the Bristol Public Library and check out the view. Our twin cities may be small, but they are mighty. Two states, one state of mind.




Reading is Music to the Ears!

Each year on September 6, bookworms across America celebrate National Read A Book Day. Though this is a fine thing to celebrate, reading is, of course, important and pleasurable every day of the year. If one wants to learn more about country music history, what better place to start than with a book? While you can find all of the selections below through online sellers, these and other fine selections can also be found at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in our museum store – so stop on by and pick one up. Here are just a few of my favorites to get you started!

Cover image of Country Music Originals showing the title and two pictures of country music singers/bands.

Country Music Originals: The Legends and the Lost by Tony Russell

If you want to learn more about the important players in the world of country music, Tony Russell’s Country Music Originals is a great place to start. World-renowned scholar Russell presents biographies of figures in country music from the earliest days of recordings until the late 1940s. Highlighting superstars such as Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family and celebrating obscure figures such as Bernard “Slim” Smith and John Dilleshaw, Russell provides articles that are short enough to be approachable for the casual reader, but also in depth enough to spark interest for further reading. It’s a great place to start your country music reading journey!

Cover image of Don't Give Your Heart to a Rambler showing title and the author with Jimmy Martin.

Don’t Give Your Heart to a Rambler: My Life with Jimmy Martin, the King of Bluegrass by Barbara Martin Stephens

While bluegrass music is widely regarded as having been born in late 1945, one could argue that the music did not achieve the “high lonesome” sound until a young guitar player and singer from Sneedville, Tennessee, joined Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys in late 1949. Jimmy Martin is widely regarded as “The King of Bluegrass” and is one of most charismatic and controversial figures in bluegrass. Don’t Give Your Heart To A Rambler was written by Barbara Martin Stephens, Martin’s longtime partner and the driving force behind his rise to success in the music business. Barbara spares her readers no gritty details as she gives an inside look into life with the King. Through all the abuse and hardship she suffered in her personal life, Barbara was still able to become the first female booking agent on music row. Nothing short of inspiring, this book is a must-read for all bluegrass fans and those interested in women in country music.

Cover image of Dixie Dewdrop showing title and Uncle Dave Macon playing the banjo.

Dixie Dewdrop: The Uncle Dave Macon Story by Michael D. Doubler

Uncle Dave Macon is one of the most iconic figures of early country music, and his style of banjo playing and showmanship has inspired countless musicians – and so Dixie Dewdrop tells the story of one of country music’s first stars. Michael Doubler, the great-grandson of Uncle Dave, spins a narrative that ties together Uncle Dave’s personal life and the music and culture of the world in which Uncle Dave lived, giving readers a glimpse into a different side of this legendary performer. If you’re curious about this book and Uncle Dave Macon, you can join Doubler at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum at 1pm on Sunday, November 4 for a special talk and book-signing.

Cover image of In Tune showing title and pictures of Charley Patton and Jimmie Rodgers.

In Tune: Charley Patton, Jimmie Rodgers and the Roots of American Music by Ben Wynne

Before record companies began marketing music to specific audiences, music flowed across cultural lines, and the line between traditional African American and white rural music was blurred. With the wonderfully informative In Tune, Ben Wynne compares and contrasts these two giants of roots music within that context. Both men were born in Mississippi around the same time, and both passed away much too early in their musical careers and their lives, dying within a year of each other. Though from separate sides of a deeply segregated society, these men lived hard lives and had experiences that were remarkably similar. This book provides commentary on the social dynamics that shaped country music, and it gives readers a detailed look into the lives and legacies of these two important figures.

Cover image of Linthead Stomp with title and picture of banjo player.

Linthead Stomp: The Creation of Country Music in the Piedmont South by Patrick Huber

Geography and country music go hand-in-hand, and regionalisms are part of what makes early country music so diverse. Bristol with its significant music history is heralded as the “Birthplace of Country Music,” but in reality, American roots music was shaped all across the nation. Patrick Huber explores the impact of textile mills in the Piedmont region of the Carolinas in Linthead Stomp. With a high population of displaced rural southerners seeking work in the mills, a new market for early country music entertainment was opened. Rural music moving to town also changed the music, and the changes that were taking place in the 1920s and 1930s in the Piedmont set the stage for country music as we know it. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in the commercialization of country music.

Cover image of Country Music Records with pictures of various record labels and the title.

And finally a “special mention”: Country Music Records: A Discography, 1921–1942 by Tony Russell

All of the books previously mentioned are easily digestible reads for the casual country music fan. However, if you find yourself hungering for all the facts about early county music records, this is the book for you. Roughly the size of your local phone book and twice as dense with information, this book contains the dates, locations, and personnel of every commercial country record recorded before 1942. A must have for any diehard country music fan and connoisseur of fine shellac.

So…I’ve given you my favorites. Now tell us: what are your favorite music reads?!