Just past Jinx Proof Tattoo Emporium, Backdoor Records and Quik Laundry, the Acoustic Coffeehouse sign lights up a huge mosaic mural. The mural depicts musicians playing guitar and fiddle against a backdrop of train tracks, church steeples and cloud-laced mountains.
Three people basking in the crisp Appalachian mountain air follow my gaze. “That’s how Johnson City looks when it’s warm enough to play outside,” one says. Grinning, he explains the mural depicts Fountain Square, a downtown landmark a short jog from the coffeehouse. Blind Lemon Jefferson and Clarence Greene honed their skills there in the 1920s, and generations of musicians have jammed there ever since.
I join the crowd inside for brews — fresh-roast coffee and craft beer — and richly chorded acoustic tunes from Wise Old River, whose members include mom, pop and son. Tell-tale signs that you’re in northeast Tennessee: bands composed of relatives, and lots of audience members carrying instrument cases as faithfully as wallets.
In these southern Appalachian foothills, the tie that binds has always been music. Early settlers crafted string instruments from wood chopped from surrounding forests to play Celtic, Scots and English heritage songs. The 1800s added African-American influences to what became “old-time” music. Then in the late 1920s, the railroad carried wishful pickers here for recording sessions that changed music history.
Appalachian mountain music, the original country music, was created on front porches and in kitchens and living rooms after a long day’s work. It was shared kin to kin: Johnson City native son Charlie Bowman learned licks from his father and grandfather, played square dances with his brothers, and performed on the 1928 Johnson City Sessions with his daughters. The songs, about family, work, faith, love, loss and those breathtaking mountains, were played on descendants of early string instruments at fairs, country stores and barns.
And it’s still that way in the region spanning Johnson City to Bristol on the Tennessee-Virginia line, though there’s less playing in barns and more at bars. Resident musicians and fans have preserved old-time, bluegrass and mountain gospel for decades — and in recent months have made it easy for visitors to explore those acoustic roots.
HERITAGE PLAYS ON
Close to the coffeehouse, those roots are honored at East Tennessee State University — probably the only college offering a (very popular) major in Bluegrass, Old Time and Country Music Studies.
At the university’s Carroll Reece Museum, two hours race by amid the Early History of Country Music collection of vintage autoharps, mandolins and other instruments. In the 1700s, area settlers crafted fruitwood dulcimers, held in the lap, to play jigs, reels and hymns.
Among curious tidbits: the saucy lyrics of early ballads were replaced in the 1800s with narratives about repentance, logging and mining. After preachers condemned the fiddle as “the Devil’s Box,” it became more popular at house raisings, corn shuckings and dances.
A high-tech touchscreen scrapbook plays audio and video clips of regional musicians. Fiddlin’ Charlie Bowman, who could fiddle sounds from baying dogs to clucking hens, made his first recording, the classic Turkey in the Straw, in 1908 on a neighbor’s Edison wax-cylinder phonograph. Bowman went on to write and record originals about railroads and moonshine that today are played as standards at jam sessions.
The scrapbook’s songs range from heartbreaking to hilarious, the settings span porches to dance halls. In a late-1920s railroad set, Jimmie Rodgers performs Blue Yodel #1 (“I can get more women than a passenger train can haul”). In an early 1960s clip, Scotty Stoneman — one of Pop Stoneman’s 23 musical children — fiddles train-whistles and fiery riffs on Orange Blossom Special.
In downtown Johnson City, the streets ring with the sound of jackhammers, and shop windows sport “coming soon” banners, harbingers of revitalization. Fountain Square, Blind Lemon Jefferson’s old strumming grounds, recently regained its luster with the return of its bronze “Lady of the Fountain” statue. Even the handsome brick CC&O railroad depot, built 1909, will soon reopen as a restaurant.
A “good-old-days” vibe mingles with progress. Inside family-run Campbell’s Morrell Music, someone plucks chords on a guitar in a sea of acoustic and (gasp!) electric instruments. Bars advertise both craft cocktails and tradition-bound local bands. Buildings bear fresh murals, many train- and music-themed, some courtesy of “Urban Art Throwdown” contests that have become sideshows of the annual Blue Plum Festival, a June showcase of Americana.
But one town is not big enough to hold the area’s music heritage. Another bigger, freshly revitalized pickin’ mecca lies a half-hour northeast -- and it sings its bold claim to fame loud and proud.
BIRTHPLACE OF COUNTRY MUSIC
Bristol, which straddles the border of Tennessee and Virginia, was designated “the birthplace of country music” by a 1998 U.S. Congressional resolution. A towering marker tells the town story: Right here on State Street in 1927, Ralph Peer of Victor Talking Machine Co. recorded the world’s first mass-produced country music records.
Why here? It was a well-established Appalachian urban center with a train station, making it easy for performers to come for auditions. Johnny Cash called the resulting Bristol Sessions “the single most important event in country music.”
Today, the town’s classic mercantile buildings, many dating to the 1800s, house spunky shops, a newly installed music museum, restored theaters, restaurants, bars, art galleries and cigar lounges. A large number of these venues help preserve music traditions by hosting concerts, open mics and jam sessions.
History is ever-present: Side-street names and a huge wall mural at State Street’s downtown plaza honor Bristol Sessions performers such as Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. Formal markers recount events block by block. Water-main covers bear the slogan “The Birthplace of Country Music.” A truck showroom built in 1924 displays a banner heralding its new occupant: the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, a glitzy Smithsonian affiliate scheduled to open in August 2014.
But ultimate proof for that birthplace claim appears in a no-tech place that recently opened on State Street.
Tucked for years into a Bristol shopping mall, the Mountain Music Museum and Pickin’ Porch, a free Monday night music venue, has hospitable new digs in a beautifully renovated 1892 department store on State Street.
Museum objects like original 78 rpm records recall the Bristol Sessions and performers such as the Carter Family who’ve influenced country, folk and rock artists through the decades. Maybelle Carter, for example, promoted the guitar to lead instrument with her signature “Carter Scratch,” which involves playing melody on bass strings and using a finger to “scratch” rhythm on treble strings.
“Another groundbreaking event in Bristol was WCYB Radio’s Farm & Fun Time Show. In the 1940s and 1950s it helped launch the careers of many artists [performing] bluegrass and classic country,” says Tim White, VW Boys banjo-player and host of the PBS series Song of the Mountains. He’s also a member of the Appalachian Cultural Music Association, which runs the museum and Pickin’ Porch, both of which are free-admission. The radio shows built fan bases for bluegrass masters such as Flatt & Scruggs ( Foggy Mountain Breakdown and The Beverly Hillbillies theme song).
The museum’s treasury includes record albums, photographs, gourd banjos, autographed guitars, barn dance posters, glittery costumes and a 78-rpm hand-cranked Victrola that staff members are happy to play. One exhibit celebrates “Tennessee” Ernie Ford, the Bristol-born baritone whose hits ranged from gospel to the hard-labor ballad 16 Tons (and who created a country-bumpkin stereotype on “I Love Lucy”).
An exhibit about Maybelle and her daughters, the Carter Sisters, reveals how, over time, the dresses got fancier, Maybelle looked younger and June Carter Cash wrote more and more hits, including Ring of Fire for husband Johnny Cash.
FREE MUSIC, ALL UNPLUGGED
After the museum closes, I check out the next-door Asian-fusion bistro, then head to a grand exposed-brick hall upstairs. This evening’s free Pickin’ Porch concert pairs gospel and bluegrass bands. Between sets, I sneak down the street to an art gallery jam session to hear George “Lukeman” Barnes’s legendary deep-bass voice.
In warmer weather, jam sessions take place in parks, on sidewalks (look for the painted “Busk Stops”) and at the State Street farmers market. But indoor jams take place year-round — and you don't need to play or pay to attend.
Tuesday nights, pickers gather at Bluff City Rescue Squad, located between Bristol and Johnson City. Jerry Malone, who launched these jam sessions two years ago, spoons out hot homemade cornbread in the kitchen facing “the main stage” — a corner occupied by a half-circle of string players. The sessions draw skilled amateurs, working musicians hungry for authentic jams and pros who quit touring to return to their mountain home.
Intimate jams take place in small rooms downstairs. Only 15, Taylor Hicks looks like a cheerleader until she starts fiddling the old instrumental Whiskey Before Breakfast with mandolinist Ron Lewis. Within a few sparkling notes, winter’s chill is just a memory.
Clearly, traditional music didn’t fade; it got hotter. During my short visit, college pickers spontaneously combusted with virtuosos, a grad student inflamed a sushi bistro with old-time ballads and family bands changed partners to bring new shimmer to old songs.
And right beside a museum exhibit about a 15-year-old Bristol girl who swept fiddling awards throughout 1932, a record producer previewed an album featuring modern-day area teens who’ve mastered clawhammer banjo, three-finger rolls and other heritage fingerpicking styles.
The songs of the mountains play on, invigorating entire towns — and those just passing through.
An earlier version of this story had the wrong name of the bluegrass duo Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.