Exploring the Birthplace of Country Music
No matter where you listen to Country Music, you can trace its roots back to a series of recording sessions in the city of Bristol. For decades, a mural depicting the city’s designation as the Birthplace of Country Music was the biggest reminder of the story in town. Now, a modern, highly interactive museum at the corner of Cumberland and Moore Streets tell the story of what some historians call the “Big Bang of Country Music.”
With its gleaming glass windows, bright bricks and a larger than life guitar outside the entrance, the Birthplace of Country Music Museum is difficult to miss. Above the front doors, the museum’s title is spelled out on a circle of musical notes, most likely a nod to the Carter Family song “Can the Circle be Unbroken.”
The journey through the history of country music begins in the spacious atrium of the museum where an array of historical photos hang from a larger than life phonograph album. At the top of the stairs, an exhibit tells the story of Bristol’s history and why it was chosen as the site of 1927’s groundbreaking recording sessions.
Across the hall, a short film sets the stage for the rest of the museum. “Bound to Bristol,” narrated by John Carter Cash, mixes powerful images depicting the beauty of the region with historical recordings and photos to illustrate the impact of the 1927 sessions and the people who participated in them.
As the doors open into the next part of the museum, dozens of Victor phonograph albums line the wall. Artists like the Alcoa Quartet , Ernest Stoneman and His Dixie Mountaineers, and The Carter Family are listed below the iconic dog and phonograph along with the stamp that these are “Orthoponic” recordings, a state of the art technology in the 1920’s.
One of the first exhibits I noticed in the main hall was one about Henry Whitter, a man from Fries, VA (pronounced freeze), a cotton mill town along the New River. His story was one I was familiar with, as I lived in Fries for several years. Whitter was a friend of Ernest Stoneman, who had worked with him at the Fries mill. Stoneman encouraged him to record a few songs and later convinced him to participate in the Bristol sessions.
Scattered throughout the Birthplace of Country Music Museum there are plenty of opportunities to delve further into the music. You can tap into the museum’s extensive archives of music; create a mix of your favorite songs from the Bristol sessions, record your own version of a song, and even check out what set the Orthoponic recording apart from the rest.
Perhaps the most impressive exhibit comes at the end where you are immersed in the song “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” The circular theater puts you at the center of this Carter Family classic that musicians from all kinds of genres have performed and one where people around the world always know how to sing along. It’s almost guaranteed you’ll leave the museum with the song stuck in your head.
The Birthplace of Country Music Museum is the centerpiece of a larger effort to preserve these early recording sessions and several that followed in the years following. Radio Bristol, housed inside the museum and broadcasting over the world wide web, spotlights artists dedicated to keeping this musical circle unbroken. Another facet of this preservation effort is the Rhythm and Roots Festival held each September in Downtown Bristol.