The sounds of some of the earliest country music recordings are filling a new museum.
But the Birthplace of Country Music Museum is not located in Nashville. Instead, it’s in Bristol, a small town on the Tennessee-Virginia state line. The museum aims to tell the story of the Bristol Sessions, a series of historic recording sessions that took place here in 1927 and helped spread what was then known as “hillbilly music” to the rest of the country.
The Bristol Sessions took place after the Victor Talking Machine Co. developed a device capable of recording music for the masses. Victor producer Ralph Peel set up a makeshift studio in the Taylor-Christian Hat Co. warehouse on State Street, recording 76 songs in 10 days. Newspaper ads drew singers and musicians from around the Appalachian region, coming by train, horse-and-buggy and on foot. Performers included the Carter Family, known as the first family of country music.
The artists brought a mix of musical styles, including gospel and the blues.
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“It was like all these tributaries coming together into a big well of American music,” Emmylou Harris says in a film shown in one of the museum’s theaters.
Trisha Gene Brady of The Black Lillies is one of several artists who perform Will The Circle Be Unbroken in the museum’s Immersion Theater exhibit, which also features Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson and others. Brady visited the museum in September, and says she got emotional when she saw it: “Of course I cried a little bit, there were tears there.”
Exhibits display instruments, recording equipment, clothing and other artifacts from country music and other genres, such as gospel and blues. Visitors can hear early gospel records inside a small chapel or step inside a sound-proof booth to record their own songs.
What took place in Bristol was not the first time country music was ever recorded, but “it was the first time it was ever mass-produced and pushed out to markets like New York and Atlanta and Chicago,” said Leah Ross, executive director of Birthplace of Country Music.
The museum is 290 miles east of downtown Nashville, where a radio station began broadcasting a show in 1925 called the WSM Barn Dance in a downtown office building. The show was later renamed the Grand Ole Opry. It moved in 1943 to the Ryman Auditorium and later to the Grand Ole Opry House. The buildings are among Nashville’s top tourist attractions.
Ross says Bristol’s potential visitors include those who’ve already been to better-known music heritage sites in places like Memphis and Nashville, where the Opry and Country Music Hall of Fame are among the South’s most-visited attractions. She sees the attractions as promoting each other with visitors making stops at multiple sites.
“Especially the international travelers — they’ve been to the big cities like New York and San Francisco and now they’re ready to really delve down into America and get to what it’s all about,” Ross said.
Japan is one of many places outside the U.S. where country music is popular. Ross noted that a Japanese magazine called MoonShiner is devoted to country and bluegrass news.
A documentary is also in the works from Oklahoma film director James Payne about country music’s popularity in Japan, and how a World War II-era radio station intended for American forces in Japan helped fuel interest in the music that continues today.
Ross thinks some fans may also like the fact that Bristol (population 27,000) is less touristy than better-known destinations. Unlike downtown Nashville, there’s no Hard Rock Cafe or Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville. Instead, on State Street, Bristol’s main downtown thoroughfare separating Tennessee from Virginia, there are places like Borderline Billiards, where a member of the Old Line Skiffle Combo jumped on top of the bar and played a washboard last month during a music festival connected to the museum.
Ross hopes the museum will add to appreciation for Bristol’s role in the early days of country music.
“We’ve had that dream of building that museum and promoting that and celebrating that to the region and to the world for many years,” she said.
▪ Birthplace of Country Music Museum: 520 Birthplace of Country Music Way, Bristol, Virginia; www.birthplaceofcountrymusic.org or 423-573-1927. Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sundays 1 p.m.-5 p.m. Closed Mondays. Adults, $13; seniors, students, military and children 6 -17, $11.