We got lucky. The approach to Great Smoky Mountains National Park via Sevierville, where images of Dolly Parton are everywhere, was a congested mess because the autumn weather was beautiful. One lady told us that there were no hotel rooms available in the area. We did a U-turn and headed for Bristol. The name of a museum there, The Birthplace of Country Music, intrigued us. It turned out to be an eye-opening, 5 Compass kind of place.
Bristol’s claim to be where country music began is justified. Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877. By the 1920s record players had improved and were widely available, radio was a new phenomenon, and recording technology was better. In 1925 RCA Victor introduced orthophonic sound. Microphones and amplifiers were better. Ralph Peer, a record producer for the Victor Talking Machine Company, came to Bristol in 1927 to record some hillbilly music. He immortalized 76 songs by 19 different acts. Known as the Bristol Sessions, these recordings sold well and advanced the careers of the musicians and singers who came to record. Most of them, like the Blue Ridge Corn Shuckers, didn’t endure; but the Carter Family did and the Hill Billies, seen above, prospered for a while. The Depression put an end to much of this, but in 1998 the U.S. Congress officially named Bristol “The Birthplace of Country Music” and in 2002 the Library of Congress rated the Bristol Sessions as “among the 50 most significant sound recording events of all time” according to this museum’s visitor guide.
The Carter family, which participated in the Bristol Sessions, became country royalty. Their recording of “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow” was among their early hits. One of its original members was Maybelle. June was one of Maybelle’s daughters. June eventually married Johnnie Cash. June Carter Cash’s son John, Maybelle’s grandson, narrates “Bound to Bristol” the 2014 award-winning, must-watch film that should begin any visit to the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. It’s shown every 20 minutes. Also in the museum are tributes to the many entertainers, like Tennessee Ernie Ford, who came from this area or had a place in country music’s evolution.
Original Bristol Sessions instruments, many of them mail-order, are hard to find; but this museum has done a great job of locating and displaying period instruments like this gorgeous harp guitar. I really enjoyed seeing the 1949 RCA Bakelite 45-record-player, the Embroiders’ Guild of America’s quilt, etc. Check this museum’s calendar before going for special programs, jam sessions, concerts, guest lecturers, etc. When Ruth & I were there, the Push Film Festival was in progress.
The Birthplace of Country Music, a Smithsonian affiliate, is highly interactive. My only regret is that I didn’t get to hear “Pot Liquor Blues” in a place where a spectrum of country music streams constantly to both entertain and educate visitors.