A town without peer- Bristol celebrates its vital role in the history of country music
All of which made Tim White wonder why the city itself wasn’t celebrating its contribution. “I was just amazed that no one had done more with the heritage of this region,” he says. “At first, it almost made me mad. But then I realized there was an opportunity there.”
The first thing he did was convince the city to let him paint a mural. Officially unveiled in 1986, it covers a brick wall that overlooks a farmer’s market and city park along State Street (about eight blocks from the site of the recording sessions). The huge painting depicts Rodgers, the Stonemans and the Carters around a black disc with a Victor label. Standing off to the side is Ralph Peer. There’s a small wooden stage in front of the wall, and on Tuesday evenings from May to September you can hear free bluegrass, old-time and gospel music here. Just across the street is a NASCAR mural, depicting Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. White didn’t paint that one, but he says, “Country music and racing kind of go together.”
Then there’s the Birthplace of Country Music Alliance. The organization formed in the mid-’90s and opened a museum and gift shop three years ago. (The BCMA now has nearly 400 members and an advisory board that includes Dolly Parton, Ralph Stanley, Tom T. Hall, and senators Jesse Helms and Mitch McConnell.) It may seem incongruous in a city of historic sites and buildings, but the Birthplace of Country Music Museum is located several miles from downtown, sandwiched between Sears and J.C. Penney at the Bristol Mall.
BCMA executive director Bill Hartley, the organization’s only full-time employee, says the mall leases the space to the museum for just a dollar a year. As the museum has grown, the mall has accommodated it, providing a new, larger storefront. The museum pays special attention to the Bristol Sessions, but also acknowledges the entire span of country music history. A large map on one wall shows how many notable names in the industry have come from a 100-mile radius around Bristol. One display case holds memorabilia from the Stanley Brothers. Also given substantial attention are Jim & Jesse, the Stonemans, the Carters, and local boy Tennessee Ernie Ford. The gift shop offers a nice array of traditional music, not to mention acoustic and electric guitars.
Every Thursday night, the BCMA sponsors the Pickin’ Porch in another mall storefront — one of the few free regular bluegrass and old-time music series at any mall in the nation. The shows are broadcast live on local radio station WGOC 640 AM (and streamed at www.wgoc.com).
Bristol’s other music attraction is the Tennessee Ernie Ford House. It’s a white clapboard shotgun shack at 1223 Anderson Street, just up the hill from downtown. Except for the identifying sign in front, it would stand out from its neighbors only by virtue of being the most modest house on a modest block.
The back bedroom, currently used to store the archives of the Bristol Historical Association, is where the man who sang “16 Tons” (Merle Travis wrote it) was born in 1919. The house is outfitted with period furniture and several display cases of Ernie Ford memorabilia, including photos of the barrel-throated singer with presidents Ford, Reagan and George H.W. Bush. There are also photocopies of the original arrangement of “16 Tons” and a paycheck from Ford’s early days as an announcer on local radio station WOPI (which operated out of the same building where Peer did his recordings).
Frazier King, president of the historical society, says Ford was pleased to see his childhood home preserved and visited it often before his death in 1991. The house is open by appointment only, through the Bristol Historical Association.
As a day trip or overnight destination, Bristol has other pleasantries. The downtown area is well preserved, low brick buildings nestled into low hills. There’s a nice coffee shop, Java J’s, which offers live music; a gourmet cafe; antique and gift shops; and Top Hat Magic Supply, a combination magic/music store that also stocks an impressive array of denim overalls.
And music is never far away. The Carter Fold, which has a band every Saturday night, is only a 40-minute drive. Equally close is the legendary Down Home in Johnson City, with its full roster of roots music. The BCMA website maintains a calendar of area events.
Frazier King says of Tennessee Ernie Ford, whom he knew personally, “He was always very unassuming, and he never forgot his friends.” Thanks to the efforts of Tim White and others, you can now say the same about Bristol.