The Birthplace of Country Music Museum is in Bristol, Va.
Country music fans know Nashville. But the “big bang” for the genre happened 500 kilometres east in a city better known by NASCAR fans.
Bristol, where the main street literally divides Tennessee and Virginia, gets credit as the birthplace of country music because it’s the first place its songs were recorded by the likes of the original Carter Family — A.P. Carter, his wife Sara and sister-in-law Maybelle — who brought traditional Appalachian songs from the porch to the studio in 1927 at the urging of producer Ralph Peer, who had arrived in town with portable recording equipment.
Filmmaker Ken Burns acknowledges the Bristol sessions in the first episode of his new 16-hour PBS series documenting American country music.
A fan myself, my travels previously have taken me to Nashville and Knoxville, Tennessee’s third point in a triangle of county music. This journey begins at the modern Birthplace of Country Music. The museum is actually across the street in Bristol, Va.
The tour begins with a 10-minute movie about the Bristol sessions during which 19 acts recorded 76 songs popular in the hills and hollers of Appalachia with titles such as Bury Me Under the Weeping Willows and Cold Penitentiary Blues. Authors of the traditional songs were unknown, so Peer copyrighted them.
The Birthplace of Country Music, opened in 2014 and an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, leads visitors through myriad listening stations, electronic visuals and artifacts tracing the Bristol sessions and other highlights of the region’s musical history on two stories and covering 2,230 square metres.
A radio station sends Appalachian country music throughout the world via a mobile app.
Bristol’s other country music claims to fame include being the hometown of megastar Tennessee Ernie Ford and, on the darker side, the likely final public sighting of Hank Williams when he stopped at a local restaurant, the Burger Bar, before he died in his car in 1953.
While Detroit is known for Motown, New Orleans as the birthplace of jazz, and the Mississippi Delta for the blues, Bristol has not yet received its due.
Local officials and the State of Tennessee believe that’s about to change with Burns’s County Music documentary. In fact, Tennessee helped fund it after seeing the effect on visits to Civil War sites after a previous Burns project.
Bristol’s downtown is an unspoiled early 20th-century streetscape with Tennessee on one side, Virginia on the other. It’s dotted with independent restaurants and shops.
Bristol Motor Speedway is a short track NASCAR venue with capacity for 162,000 fans. The track is famous for its extraordinarily steep banks on a concrete track. The third-largest sports venue in the United States, Bristol Motor Speedway (and its sister drag strip nicknamed Thunder Valley) is the region’s top tourist attraction.
Bristol, along with Johnson City and Kingsport, comprise the Tri-Cities region of northeast Tennessee.
GOOD EATSPal’s Sudden Service: These distinctive light blue drive-through buildings adorned with giant hamburgers, hotdogs, fries and a soda dot the region and usually have a lineup of cars, for good reason. They are legendary throughout several states, but started with one location in Kingsport in 1956. The hamburgers are extraordinary. Giuseppe’s, 2539 East Stone St., Kingsport: Neapolitan pizza and homemade pasta in Appalachia? Yessir. Giuseppe’s highlights the wide-ranging foodie scene. Southern Craft BBQ and Great Oak Brewery, 601 Spring St., Johnson City: From the Tennessee Trinity (three smoked meats, three sides) to Spicy Yardbird tacos (fried chicken, Nashville hot sauce and cabbage), this place has mouths watering. Plus, Great Oak Brewing’s open concept brewhouse provides eye candy and fresh-brewed delights such as Thunder Pig IPA. HARD LIQUOR
The region has a moonshine history, carried on today with a number of craft distilleries highlighted by:
East Tennessee Distillery, 220 Piney Flats Rd., Piney Flats: Featuring Roberson’s Tennessee Mellomoon moonshine, the towering coverall-clad owner and distiller is navy vet Tiny Roberson. Tennessee Hills Distillery, 127 Fox St., Jonesborough: Located in a repurposed historic building, Tennessee Hills offers brands from bourbon to Dead Pecker Rum, Pecan Pie Rum and Lemon Drop Corn Whiskey. GETTING THEREBristol, Johnson City and Kingsport are served by the Tri-Cities Airport. Canadians driving can use Interstate 77. LEARN MORE
Birthplace of Country Music Museum, www.birthplaceofcountrymusic.org
Bristol Motor Speedway, www.bristolmotorspeedway.com
Trip planning, www.tnvacations.com