Photos by Times-News Staff Writer J.H. Osborne
"The Bristol Sessions is the single most important event in the history of country music." - Johnny Cash
Ten years in the making and at a cost of over $12 million, the Birthplace of Country Music Museum is a 24,000-square-foot renovated car dealership building, located across from the War Memorial, one block off State Street on the Virginia side. It is a light-filled, energizing look at history, technology, music, socioeconomics, transportation and craftsmanship. It is extremely interactive with the focus on technology-infused media through mixing and listening stations.
It is not your typical museum.
An affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, the BCMM is dedicated to telling the story of the Bristol Sessions, the first commercially-successful recordings of country music. Known as "The Big Bang of Country Music," Sessions introduced the world to such musicians as the Carter Family, Jimmie Rogers and Ernest Stoneman. Bristol was designated as the "Birthplace of Country Music" by both Tennessee and Virginia, a designation later recognized by the U.S. Congress in 1998. In 2002, the Library of Congress ranked the 1927 Bristol Sessions among the 50 most significant sound recording events of all time.
Ralph Peer (a record producer and talent scout for the Victor Talking Machine Company) put out the original call to artists, which resulted in over 12 days of recording in the Taylor-Christian Hat Company on State Street in the summer of 1927. Musicians were paid $50 to come to the "recording studio" and record their music. Peer was taking advantage of the new technology that produced the first "portable" microphone (even though it took four men to carry it) and introducing the country to a new and different type of music and musicians.
So what can you expect to see when you visit this museum?
Well, there's 12,000 square feet of permanent exhibit space. There are interactive displays and media experiences, an 80-seat orientation theater, a small chapel and a 100-seat performance theater. There's 2,000 square feet of special exhibition space featuring traveling exhibits from the Smithsonian Institution, other organizations and guest curators, plus educational programs, music and community and outreach events. There's also a really great Museum Gift Shop and a gorgeous quilt that spans two stories.
When you enter the museum, the first thing you will notice are mobiles of photos and documents hanging in the lobby. You will be encouraged to make your way to the "Train Depot" where you will see "Bound To Bristol," a 13-minute movie that provides an orientation of mountain music, the Bristol Sessions, leading musicians of the day, all juxtaposed against a growing music industry and a vibrant Bristol in the 1920s.
After the movie, visitors exit the theater through the front of the room, behind the screen, and file out into a huge hall filled with exhibits, interactive listening stations, films of performances ranging from techniques used in playing traditional mountain instruments and the importance of gospel music and old hymns to learning a little about sound engineering. There is also an exhibit entitled "What is a Hillbilly (or Hill Billy)?," in case you've always wondered.
Then, there is the "Timeline of Sound: 1860-1938" which shows the technological changes in sound and recording techniques, with a national historical timeline (in green), a Radio and Sound timeline (in blue) and an historical timeline of Bristol (on the reader rail). There is a Thomas Edison Phonograph on display, and an exhibit entitled "A New Appalachia: Industrialization and Modernization."
"Country, Bluegrass and Hollywood" takes place in a theater in the round, featuring walls covered in images of the famous - Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Faith Hill - and the unknown all singing their renditions of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken." Feel free to tap your foot, do a little dancing, or join in on the chorus.
But the museum isn't stuck in the 1930s. Taping has resumed on the old radio show, "Farm and Fun Time," originally produced by WCYB-TV/Radio, which was instrumental in the growth of early bluegrass. There is even an Instagram Scavenger Hunt. Take a picture at the following locations, post it on Instagram, and be sure to use the hashtag #bembristol in the caption. Locations include: the Bristol sign, the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, Train Station, Believe In Bristol Visitors Center, Bristol Sessions Marker; Country Music Mural and the "Take the Stage" sculpture.
And one of the most exciting events is yet to come: eighty years later, music legends like Dolly Parton, Vince Gill, Steve Martin, Marty Stuart, Doyle Lawson and Emmylou Harris are among the amazing roster of talent gathered for "Orthophonic Joy: The 1927 Bristol Sessions Revisited," scheduled for release in October 2014.
We are so very fortunate to have such an institution just down the road. This is a part of history and our heritage. Go and see it for yourself - you'll learn a lot, you'll be amazed, you'll feel proud, and you'll want to bring your family and friends. Trust me, it's worth the trip.
The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, and from 1 to 5 p.m., Sunday. It is closed on Mondays and major holidays. Admission is $13 (plus tax) for general admission. Groups of 20 or more, seniors, military and children ages 6-17 years receive $2 off the general admission price. Children 5 and under are admitted free. Be sure to allow at least two hours to enjoy all of the exhibits the museum has to offer.
Going Places is a monthly segment that appears in the Sunday Stories section of the Kingsport Times-News. Writers visit nearby attractions and share information about the visit and their experience each month in Going Places. To suggest a local attraction you'd like to read more about, share it in the comments or email Sunday Stories editor Carmen Musick at firstname.lastname@example.org.