The Birthplace of Country Music Museum is opening in Bristol, Virginia this weekend. Nashville may be the mecca of this music today, but as Johnny Cash himself put it, Bristol was the site of the ‘Big Bang’ that led to the universe of country music we know today.
It was there that the now famous “Bristol Sessions” were recorded by then unknown musicians.
About Two blocks from where the new Birthplace of Country Museum will open in what used to be an old Truck Dealership, a man named Ralph Peer recorded 76 songs by people who’d answered his ad for local musicians. It was 1927 and back then, record players were sold by furniture stores. Peer was looking to make records to help sell the expensive wooden consoles people were buying for their parlors. He was a savvy businessman with a vision and an eye for profit.
"So for example in the Bristol sessions he turns away a lot of string band music because those songs don't have lyrics and he wants songs with lyrics so he can copyright those because people relate to songs that they can relate to the words of and he knew that those would sell," said Jessica Turner, Museum Director and Head Curator.
"And so those Carter family songs and Jimmy Rodgers those are songs that people are listening to."
Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow was just one from that early recording session that went on to become a country music classic covered by everyone from British Singer, Lonnie Donegan to American alternative rocker Natalie Merchant.
So many people in this region played music as a way of life, a way of prayer and even as a way of sharing the news and most of them who showed up that day in Bristol never went on to music careers. Others became household names.
"Jimmy Rodgers and the Carter Family are thought of as the founding families of the whole country music scene. The first two inducted into the hall of fame. The big bang of country music industry on record was that one session that’s kind of though of as that one that iconic thing," said Jeff Place is Curator of Folk Life at the Smithsonian Institution.
Long after Nashville Tennessee became known as the home of modern country music, talk began around Bristol about a museum commemorating those early recording sessions here. Birthplace of country music museum’s Reagan Streetman says it was probably a combination of geography and transit that made Bristol a meeting place for musicians.
"You have a train station just up the road. if you were traveling anywhere north or south of Bristol by train, you had to stop in Bristol for a considerable amount of time because the train gage actually changed. We are on a state line. So if you were riding the train to Bristol, they had to take it off the tracks in Virginia and switch them to Tennessee and that took some time. So a lot of people came downtown. This was a really bustling city. And if you were an artist you would perform here."
The new museum is like a gleaming shrine to that seminal moment but as much as it honors the past, it celebrates the present. You won’t find a lot of objects sitting in glass cases.
"We’re not heavy into artifacts. We want people to touch, feel and hear the instruments and be inspired."
There are listening areas where you can choose a song and mix it yourself, riding the vocals or the guitar to take apart the songs. And there are booths where you can listen to an original song, and some of the remakes.
"I was amazed in 2002 when we were doing research, how many people in their teens and early 20s were playing this music. And there were tons of places you can go for jams. The website called the Crooked Road which lists all these venue all over that whole region down there where you can go and just hear people playing music for the fun of it, so you have these young folks who are learning old time country music from their grandparents and stuff and really interested which is different from living up in Maryland or suburbia you don’t find that so much so that whole scene is really very active and moving and lot of great new music coming out," said Place.
And the museum has additional plans to revive the old music. It applied to the FCC for a low power radio station here. Donors paid to put up a transmitter and some radio stations around here will carry the shows, which can also be heard online. They’ll be produced out of one of the museum’s exhibits--in what looks like a vintage radio studio with a 1946 Raytheon Console gutted and now holding state of the art equipment.
To celebrate the 1927 Bristol Recordings, the Birthplace of Country Music Museum is working on a new album of with re-interpretations of the classics, like Where We’ll Never Grow Old first recorded by Alfred G. Karnes and now by The Church Sisters.