If I asked you to name the home of country music I would lay money on your answer being Nashville. Well, I would have until a week ago when I arrived in Bristol and discovered that this small town in southwest Virginia is the correct answer.
To be clear, Nashville is the country music capital of the world, and that’s a different thing altogether. It’s not for nothing that Nashville is also known as Music City, the home of the Grand Old Opry, RCA’s Historic Studio B where Elvis Presley recorded more than 250 songs, and the birthplace of albums that define our musical heritage from Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde in 1966 to Ed Sheeran’s X in 2014. It’s also where dozens of country and non-country artists choose to live and it’s definitely on my list of places to visit.
But back to Bristol. Bristol is a small town compared to Music City with fewer claims to fame but what it lacks in quantity it makes up for in quality.
In the late 1920s an exciting new idea was sweeping the country. With the invention of the gramophone, music had become tangible and portable and people wanted to choose what and when they listened to it. Record companies sent scouts all over the country looking for new artists to record to satisfy the demand and in August 1927 a New York record executive named Ralph Peer travelled to Bristol to find the makers of “hillbilly” music. He set up a portable recording studio, advertised for auditions, and waited. Over the next 10 days, he recorded 68 songs by 19 different acts. Peer paid them $50 for an original song and signed some of them, including the legendary Ernest V. Stoneman, the Carter Family, “the First Family of Country Music,” and “the Father of Country Music,” Jimmie Rodgers, to a record deal.
Peer’s recordings became known as the Bristol Sessions and they changed the world of music. Johnny Cash said that they were
“the single most important event in the history of country music”
In 2002, the Library of Congress ranked the 1927 Bristol Sessions among the 50 most significant sound recording events of all time and in 1998, the US Congress passed a bill that officially recognized Bristol as the Birthplace of Country Music.
Take that Nashville.
What was so unique about the music recorded in Bristol in 1927? The answer lies in the musical heritage of the area surrounding Bristol. In the 1920s Bristol was the biggest town sitting on the edge of the southern Appalachian mountains. The earliest settlers from England, Ireland and Scotland brought their instruments and musical traditions and on porches, in fields and in churches up and down the Appalachian valleys people played the banjo and fiddle and they sang and danced. This was hillbilly music, the origin of the music that we now know as country, blues, folk, and blue grass. If you enjoyed the soundtrack to the film O Brother, Where Art Thou, you’re a hillbilly music fan.
After the 1927 recordings in Bristol, the music of the Appalachians became commercially successful and began to spread far and wide but the Appalachian foothills of southwestern Virginia remain its heart and soul. Today it’s possible to drive The Crooked Road, 330 miles of picturesque Virginian scenery and stop at 27 destinations with names like Hillsville, Floyd, Galax, Independence and Bristol (of course) to enjoy the music and learn about the musicians (another of my must-do destinations).
Bristol celebrates its role in country music every day at a museum that tells the story of the Bristol Sessions. The Birthplace of Country Music museum opened in August 2014 as an affiliate to the prestigious Smithsonian institution. Over two levels, the history behind the instruments, the techniques behind the playing and the evolution of the music is told. Visitors can listen to John Carter Cash, son of Johnny Cash and June Carter, tell the story of the Bristol Sessions, or take a seat in a small chapel and feel the music of local gospel groups as it reverberates through the wooden pews. They can sing karaoke with some of the great country artists in a (thankfully) soundproofed booth and watch performances by some of the artists from Lead Belly to Nirvana who have been influenced by the Bristol Sessions in a huge 180 degree immersion theatre. The day after my visit I returned to join the audience of one of the live radio recording sessions held at the museum and hosted by Radio Bristol WBCM. The band was from Colorado but they had blue grass in their veins.
Categories: An American Adventure