The Birthplace of Country Music Museum – Bristol VA/TN
The Birthplace of Country Music Museum opened in Bristol TN/VA last August.
The $10.5 million museum was built in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution and is a project years in the making for the small town of Bristol which straddles the border between Tennessee and Virginia. The grand opening weekend featured a number of special events, including a ribbon cutting ceremony and several free concerts from country and bluegrass acts like Carlene Carter, Jim Lauderdale and Ralph Stanley.
The mountains of the southern Appalachia have long been recognised as a breeding ground for traditional music. The earliest settlers brought their instruments and musical traditions, which were fused together to form country, blues, folk and other styles of American popular music. Bristol has earned its place in musical history.
In 1927 Ralph Peer, a record producer from Victor Talking Machine Company took the most advanced recording equipment and set up a portable recording studio in the middle of Bristol, on State Street. Over the course of two weeks, Peer recorded no less than 76 songs by 19 different acts, including three acts who became stars – Ernest V. Stoneman, The Carter Family (now known as “The First Family of Country Music” and Jimmie Rodgers (“The Father of Country Music”) – this catalogue of songs are now known as “the 1927 Bristol Sessions” and are regarded as “The Big Bang of Country Music”.
“These recordings in Bristol are the single most important event in the history of Country Music” – Johnny Cash
Charlene Baker, Director of Marketing/Communications from the Museum was kind enough to meet me and take me on a personalised, introductory tour of the facility. It was an integral part of my journey along The Crooked Road music heritage train in Virginia last October, a long way from my home in Melbourne Australia.
The Museum has everything, loads of information about the Bristol Sessions, so many different interactive and interesting displays. The 24,000 square foot area features the most diverse exhibit spaces – featuring both temporary and permanent exhibitions – while also accommodating educational and interactive programming. It’s located in the heart of downtown Bristol, on the appropriately named Birthplace of Country Music Way on the Virginia side of town.
Charlene left me to allow me a lengthy examination of what’s on offer. Frankly, it’s amazing, the design space, the interactivity and the variety of exhibits. It would take me a while to work up a list of the music museums and facilities I’ve been to, but, simply, this is the best music museum I’ve seen.
Here’s but a taste of what’s on offer:
- an array of recording technologies
- “Bound To Bristol” film narrated by John Carter Cash, son of Johnny Cash and June Carter
- listening posts for the music that came out of the Bristol Sessions
- a film “Variety and Voice” about the technical aspects of playing instruments
- a small chapel which cleverly recreates the feeling of being in a gospel church as it demonstrates “Church and Faith in Appalachian Music”
- listening booths where you can compare later versions of songs that emanated from the Sessions – eg The Byrds doing a 1968 cover of “Pretty Polly” and “The Longest Train I Ever Saw” was reinterpreted by Nirvana as “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”
- an amazing and unique Singing Station where you are guided by lyrics and able to record your own voice (I tried but hopefully the tapes will be erased by now!)
- an exhibit featuring local hero Tennessee Ernie Ford
- “The Unbroken Circle”, a wonderful immersion experience, and
- The Special Exhibit about The Carter Family (which runs through to February 2015).
The visitors’ board is unique and you can even send an e-postcard as well.
Finally, there’s an excellent gift shop with a nice mixture of museum and Bristol Session memorabilia, along with local crafts – something for everyone.
If you are ever within range of Bristol TN, don’t pass up an opportunity to visit this amazing place.