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Bristol's Legacy as Birthplace of Country Music Lives On With Museum, Rhythm & Roots Reunion Festival

Bristol
Courtesy of Birthplace of Country Music

   

The Birthplace of Country Music Museum has grown steadily since opening its doors three years ago.

Ninety years ago this month, the first concentrated series of recording sessions were held in Bristol, which lies directly across the state line between Tennessee and Virginia. That historical period -- once referred to by Johnny Cash as “The most important event in the history of Country Music” -- is still being celebrated at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.

On a recent visit to the museum, executive director Leah Ross told Billboard the music of the hills of Appalachia is still as much of a part of everyday life there as it was when Ralph Peer brought his recording equipment to town.

“I think it all comes back to that being how we entertained ourselves many years ago," she said. "I remember when my dad would bring people to the house and they would play music. He didn’t play professionally, but it was a time to get together and it was fun. Music speaks to everyone. I think it feeds your soul. If I had to choose between the TV or the radio, I would always choose the radio."

The Birthplace of Country Music Museum has grown steadily since opening its doors three years ago and Ross said the staff there is always trying to come up with new and modern ways to make the history that took place there fun and exciting to a new generation.

“I think that one of the ways that we have continued to make an impact is with Radio Bristol and the Farm and Fun Time Show that we do,” she said of the broadcasts that air on local station WBCM as well as streaming on www.birthplaceofcountrymusic.org/radio.

“Artists are still wanting to play that. In the '40s and '50s, that’s where Jim & Jesse were, that’s where Lester Flatt was. Mac Wiseman, too. Now, we find artists of today who really know the history of Country Music -- from the sessions to things past that," Ross continued. "A few weeks ago, Pokey LaFarge called, and said he was going to be doing a show in Asheville, and that he would love to come by and do a session at the Museum. We don’t normally do those on Sunday afternoon, but you’ve got to do a session for Pokey. We had people lining up two hours before to see him." 

Within three hours of Bristol, a rich legacy of artists came up, including Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Kenny Chesney, Patty Loveless, and Hee Haw comic Archie Campbell. And that legacy continues today, Ross pointed out, saying, “We have a local band that is kind of an Alt-Country folk group called Folk Soul Revival. I believe they can make it big someday. They already have a cult following here, but they become popular everywhere they go.”

Of course, Bristol’s favorite son remains Tennessee Ernie Ford, who enjoyed a legendary career in music and television. Born in 1919 in the city, his son Jeffrey “Buck” Ford said that heritage was very important to his father and remained a part of his inner fabric long after becoming a nationwide star in the 1950s in California.

“Dad was very much a reflection of his family, the mountain values and the mountain culture of Bristol. He was a devout Methodist, and grew up at the Anderson Street Methodist Church. He was very much a child of the depression and those years very much formed him. His father was a member of the post office and worked for the post office for many years, and his mother also did as well. It was a difficult life growing up for him, but Bristol was a place that he always looked back on fondly.”

Another way that the museum continues its growth is through its annual Rhythm & Roots Reunion festival.

“I think that Rhythm & Roots helped to solidify the importance of the music here,” said Ross. “It also gave an introduction to our young folks that music from here is important."

When the event started in 2001, she said there were only abot 7,500 people in attendance but by the next year that figure ballooned to over 40,000. 

“When we really started talking about the roots that spawned from the 1927 Bristol Sessions and went out of what we were traditionally doing -- bluegrass, gospel and a little bit of country -- we started bringing in folk and singer-songwriters. Our youth grew up with it but, in the beginning, you couldn’t get a high school or college kid to come here that were from this region," she said. "But, those who grew up with it have found out that this is a cool place to be. They’re bringing their friends back with them. We have a family whose daughter is about to go to Mary Baldwin [in Staunton, Virginia] and our festival is family weekend, so she wants to bring her friends down here."

Though it took a little time, Ross said it's not surprising to her that the festival has become huge among a younger generation.

“When Del McCoury played Bonnaroo, that introduced him to a new audience -- now, he has a bunch of young people following him," she said. "You think about Chris Stapleton and he’s introducing a new generation to what the older crowd calls Country Music. I think that all of those things come back here. You think about Old Crow Medicine Show or The Avett Brothers and we’ve had both of them here. They all believe the importance of the 1927 sessions, and I think that because they do there’s always opportunity to talk about it and bring it back to the forefront.”

Rhythm & Roots has welcomed country artists in the past such as John Anderson and T.G. Sheppard and this year’s line-up includes Dwight Yoakam and Rodney Crowell, but also acts such as Judah & the Lion and The Black Lillies. With close to 20 stages and 120 artists, Ross says that attendees' chances to be exposed to a new musical sound they like is pretty good.

“The people who have been here understand that there are so many artists that are going to be at the festival that they have never heard of," she said, "but they are going to go away following one of them.”

The Rhythm & Roots Reunion will be held September 15-17. Head here for more information about the lineup and tickets. 

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