May 2017 - The Birthplace of Country Music
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Southwest Virginia’s Favorite Uncle: Celebrating the Birthday of Uncle Eck Dunford

Meeting Uncle Eck Dunford must have been quite an experience. While there aren’t many accounts of his life and times, the ones I’ve found – and the stories I’ve been told – point to a man who was full of character and personality.

He was born Alex Dunford on May 30, 1875 in Ballard Branch near Galax, Virginia; interestingly he has two recorded birth dates – 1875 and 1878 – but the 1875 one is from his tombstone and therefore that’s the one I’ve picked! Several sources tell us that Uncle Eck was a bit of an eccentric, wearing an overcoat and overshoes in all seasons, no matter the weather, and adding pink earmuffs when the temperatures turned cold. He also spoke in a distinctive voice, one that has been attributed to a possible Scots-Irish dialect. He was known for his jokes, but he also stood out from others in the Galax area when he frequently quoted Shakespeare and Robert Burns, pointing to a man who took the time and the interest to read and educate himself.

At the turn of the 20th century, Uncle Eck built a cabin in Galax made up of one big room and a kitchen out back, and this was his home until he passed away in 1953. A large number of pictures – on glass plate negatives – were found in his cabin after his death, along with a tripod and other photographic equipment; unfortunately many of these photographs have now been lost. As an amateur photographer, Uncle Eck seemed to focus on pictures of the everyday life around him in Galax, though it’s not known whether he took photographs to sell or simply for pleasure. One of his photographs of a logging group was used on a County Record label; another picture – this time of several Galax musicians – was used by Mike Seeger and John Cohen on the cover of The New Lost City Ramblers Song Book. Uncle Eck also worked as a shoe cobbler, and a Singer leather sewing machine was also found in the cabin.

Uncle Eck’s cabin is still standing. © Lynn Delp

However, Uncle Eck is really known for music. He was a highly skilled fiddler, guitarist, and storyteller, and he played with a host of other musicians and bands. He is especially known for his musical connections with Ernest “Pop” Stoneman; he even married into the family when he wed Callie Frost, a relative of Hattie Stoneman’s. The first time that Uncle Eck recorded was in 1927 at the Bristol Sessions, and he sang or played (or both) on several sides with different Stoneman configurations – “Mountaineer’s Courtship” with Irma Frost and Stoneman, several sides including “Are You Washed in the Blood” and “I Am Resolved” with Ernest Stoneman & His Dixie Mountaineers, “What Will I Do, For My Money’s All Gone” with Hattie, “Barney McCoy” with Stoneman, and “Old Time Corn Shuckin’” with the Blue Ridge Corn Shuckers. Uncle Eck also recorded two sides by himself – “The Whip-poor-will’s Song” and the familiar children’s tune “Skip to Ma Lou, My Darling,” with the 1927 recording being its first commercial outing.

There is some speculation that this picture of Uncle Eck Dunford was a self-portrait. The portrait highlights his musical instruments, including a guitar he bought in 1912 from Sears Roebuck and which he played on most of his recordings. The guitar is currently on loan from Doris Brown and on display in our Hometown Stars: Southwest Virginia’s Recording Legacy, 1923—43 special exhibit, open through June 4, 2017. Portrait courtesy of Doris Brown; guitar image © Birthplace of Country Music

His appearance on the “Old Time Corn Shuckin’” song with and his unusual way of speaking brought his comedic talent to the fore. Based on this, Ralph Peer invited Uncle Eck to Atlanta later that year to record four comic monologues, including two that were listed as original compositions – “Sleeping Late” and “The Taffy Pulling Party.” Well-written lyrics obviously make a song skit funny, but Uncle Eck’s language, his timing and delivery, and the emphases he put on certain words underlined their comic value. He recorded two other skits with Stoneman in February 1928, again in Atlanta. One of these – “Possum Trot School Exhibition” – detailed the misadventures during a Southwest Virginia mountain school’s activity day. In October 1928, Uncle Eck was back in Bristol with the Stonemans when they recorded “Going Up the Mountain after Liquor,” amongst others, another song where Uncle Eck’s comedic talents were heavily featured.

Uncle Eck was part of several other recording sessions with Stoneman, and he recorded a couple more solo numbers at the 1928 Bristol Sessions – “Old Shoes and Leggings,” which was later featured on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, and “Angeline the Baker,” an Appalachian standard. But he also played fiddle and guitar with other local groups in the 1920s and 1930s including the Bogtrotters and the Grayson County Railsplitters, and there were probably other instances where he was never listed as one of the band members.

Uncle Eck can be seen in the back row holding his fiddle. This configuration of musicians was known as the Blue Ridge Corn Shuckers and the Dixie Mountaineers at different times. Image from the John Edwards Memorial Foundation Records, #20001, Southern Folklife Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Oscar Hall, an organizer of the Galax Old Fiddlers’ Convention, knew Uncle Eck in his later years – his wife’s parents were family friends and took care of him until he died on June 26, 1953. Towards the end of his life, Mr. Hall says Uncle Eck was still playing his guitar, and playing it pretty well, and he even got the chance to play with him some.

Learning about Uncle Eck for this post has obviously underlined his musical talents, but learning about Uncle Eck the man has been the most interesting part. A final story told to me by Mr. Hall is definitely my favorite. According to Mr. Hall, whenever Uncle Eck headed back over the hill to his cabin after a visit with his wife’s parents, their goose would follow him home, flying back once the trip home was finished. And that’s the picture I now have in my mind: of Uncle Eck walking home, perhaps to play a bit of music, with a goose following close behind him.

René Rodgers is the Curator of Exhibits & Publications at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. Special thanks to Roddy Moore at the Blue Ridge Institute & Museum in Ferrum, Virginia, and Doris Brown and Oscar Hall of Galax, Virginia, for their help with this post.

Fateful Freight: Trains and the Tunes They’ve Carried

Today Bristol is celebrating Bristol Train Station Celebration Day, an event highlighting trains and local railroad history through educational programming, arts and crafts, and music.

Bristol’s present-day train station was the fourth on its site. It was built in 1902 by John P. Pettyjohn & Company of Lynchburg, Virginia, and the brickwork was laid by John J. Fowler, a local African American master bricklayer. Bristol’s train station primarily dealt with coal and freight traffic, but passenger trains passed regularly through Bristol – and brought Ralph Peer and the Victor engineers to Bristol in 1927, along with some of the musicians who recorded here during the Sessions.

The Bristol train station in the 1920s and today. Archive image reproduced with permission from the Bristol Historical Association; present-day image © Malcolm J. Wilson/humansofcentralappalachia.com

These days, the railroad has lost much of its mystique – visions of crowded commuter trains come to mind – but back when the railroads were first being constructed and rail travel was developing, trains were iconic. And they were especially iconic in music.

Trains and railroads were common subjects in songs during the 19th and early 20th centuries, in a variety of genres from popular music to blues and hillbilly tunes. These songs covered a wide variety of subjects within the train and railroad theme, including railroad construction and specific trains, rail travel and its excitements and dangers, train bandits, the wandering hobo living life on the rails, and even as a spiritual metaphor within sacred and gospel music.

In all likelihood, the first American song about the railroad was a tune composed by Arthur Clifton and copyrighted on July 1, 1828. Known as “The Carrollton March,” it celebrated the ground-breaking ceremony at the construction of the first public railway for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company. This event served as inspiration to another songwriter, Charles Meineke – he copyrighted his song “Rail Road March” two days later and dedicated it to the directors of the same railroad company.

It would be easy to write a piece as long as “The Longest Train I Ever Saw,” and certainly there are whole books on the depictions of railways and trains in song – for instance, Norm Cohen’s Long Steel Rail: The Railroad in American Folksong is a wonderful source. However, this post will touch on a particular type of train song within the hillbilly genre, and one of the most evocative types: songs about train wrecks.

Train wrecks were a common facet of life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and this was reflected in a lot of songs from the period. While some of these songs lamented passengers who lost their lives, most of them memorialized the crewman killed in the line of duty on the rails. Two of the songs at the 1927 Bristol Sessions chronicled train accidents – “The Wreck of the Virginian,” sung by Blind Alfred Reed, and “The New Market Wreck,” sung by Mr. and Mrs. J. W. Baker. You can read more about the former song here; the latter was based on the 1904 Southern Railway crash of two passenger trains near New Market, Tennessee, where at least 56 people died. Family lore tells us that Sara Dougherty was playing autoharp and singing “Engine 143” when A. P. Carter turned up at her family home selling fruit trees; her singing voice convinced him that she was the woman for him. “Engine 143,” also known as “The Wreck on the C & O,” tells the story of engineer George Alley who was badly injured when his train hit a rock slide on the tracks, later dying from his wounds. This was a particularly popular folk song with over 70 different versions known; the Carter Family version recorded for Victor sold over 90,000 copies and was the most influential, and later artists like Johnny Cash and Joan Baez also put their own stamp on the song.

This train wreck is possibly from the 1910s based on the clothing worn by the spectators. Courtesy of Gene Williams

A train wreck ballad written by preacher Blind Andy Jenkins fell into the more unusual category of songs that focused on the passengers rather than the crew. His song records the collision between two Southern Railway trains – the song’s namesake and the Ponce de Leon – in December 1926. Attributed to an error amongst the crew of the Ponce de Leon, the crash resulted in 19 dead and 123 injured, most from the train that caused the accident. Within two months of the wreck, Jenkins had composed “The Wreck of the Royal Palm,” and it was recorded by popular musician-turned-hillbilly singer Vernon Dalhart for Columbia in January 1927 – this quick release reflects the common practice of rapid production and distribution of “current event” songs on hillbilly records during this time period. Dalhart’s version of the song sold around 36,000 copies. Jenkins also wrote the train wreck song “Ben Dewberry’s Final Run,” which was recorded by Jimmie Rodgers in November 1927.

A version of “The Little Red Caboose Behind the Train” by Bob Miller, copyrighted in 1928 and recorded by him in 1930, is a train wreck song that is probably not based in a real happening. Instead, it uses the train wreck as a vehicle to tell a sad and sentimental story – that of a conductor, now old and grey, whose new bride was killed in a wreck on their honeymoon as she rode in the little red caboose behind the train. The song’s last verse delivers home the tragedy of the tale:

“They placed her in the graveyard beside the railroad track,
He still works in the sunshine and the rain;
And the angels all are sober as he rides all alone,
In that little red caboose behind the train.”

Another version of this song copyrighted by John Lair in 1935, however, tells a different story, this time about the loss of the brakeman as the train’s crew tried to prevent a wreck; its details imply that this musical account might be based on a real event.

This sheet music of Miller’s “Little Red Caboose Behind the Train” highlights its performance by Big Bill Campbell, a Canadian entertainer who had a BBC radio show featuring cowboy and western music in England in the 1930s to 1950s. Image
source: theopendoorway.co.uk (2017), https://goo.gl/jtmvWI

One of the most famous wreck songs is “The Wreck of the Old 97.” The Old 97 was a mail express train that flew off the tracks at a railway trestle near Danville, Virginia, in September 1903, crashing in the ravine below – the engineer Joseph A. Broady had pushed the train to a faster-than-normal speed to make up lost time and then wasn’t able to use his air brakes as the train approached the trestle. The wreck inspired several ballads, one of which was first recorded by Henry Whitter with G. B. Grayson for OKeh Records in December 1923. It was later recorded by Dalhart and released by Victor Talking Machine Company in October 1924 (after he first recorded the song for Edison earlier that year). The Victor version has been heralded as the first million-selling country record in the United States.

However, the tragedy of Old 97’s crash is not the only drama associated with the song. It was also part of a major battle over copyright. The song was first credited to spectator Fred Jackson Lewey (his cousin was killed on the train) and Charles W. Noell, but it was later claimed by David Graves George, who sued Victor saying he was the original writer of the ballad. The case was tied up in court for several years, with the decision favoring both sides at different times; George died before ever collecting the $65,000 in damages he was awarded.

Michael, an Anderson Elementary School 4th-grader, loves anything and everything about trains. He drew “The Wreck of the Old 97” on the museum’s Green Board during a school visit and then told us exactly which details were accurate and which ones were drawn with artistic license! © Birthplace of Country Music

René Rodgers is the Curator of Exhibits & Publications at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.

Challenging the Ideas that Bear Our Name: Why Museums Give Us More than the Elevator Speech on History

Today is International Museum Day, a day that reminds us to reflect on the purpose of museums, to really dig into the idea of why museums matter. After all, can’t we find all the information we need online these days? Can’t we use Google to find answers to the facts we seek, look at images and media that shape histories of the world, and read countless commentaries on these ideas that are written by scholars? Isn’t all the recorded music explored in the museum available online somewhere? Basically, yes. But in a world where the answers are at our fingertips, museums remain important institutions.

Museums bring relevance to our communities and remind us why history matters and how art speaks in numerous voices. Museums are spaces to gather, investigate, collect, interpret, and debate. Yes, debate! Museums are not spaces to find the answers, but to seek, experience, explore, and connect. In fact, the theme for International Museum Day in 2017 is contested histories – and, importantly, museums do not shy away from contested histories; they provide a space for debate and discussion. And at a museum that calls itself The Birthplace of Country Music Museum, you can bet there’s a lot to discuss!

When developing the permanent exhibits for our museum, we focused much attention on the debates and the nuances that are an important part of the complex, multifaceted history of American popular music. And while we like to think of ourselves as experts – content specialists, museum designers, experienced graphic artists, and museum media producers, amongst others – we also consulted the written scholarship, other historians, our colleagues, and our communities.

Inviting arguments about genre gets people to think about how the early recording industry categorized musical style by musical characteristics, marketability, and race. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Neil Staples

With this many voices,  everyone didn’t always agree, and it’s the ongoing, day-to-day interpretive work that is truly invigorating and defines us as an institution. No one wants to go into a museum and read the facts through a dominant narrative written by scholars. Even scholars don’t want this, as they will continue to debate and discuss these histories from their perspectives and training. (And yes, we scholars think that’s fun!)  Everyday visitors also like to understand the shades of the story, debate the facts, and marvel at how a moment in musical history that was not significant enough at the time for Mother Maybelle to even consider keeping the guitar she used to record there could then influence so many of the musicians who followed.

In the final gallery of the museum, images of festivals past and present, song lyrics, and questions such as these offer a space for contemplating how country music has shaped American history and continues to invite participation and ownership. © Birthplace of Country Music

In our exhibit design, the museum content team tried to raise more questions than we answered. Did Alfred Karnes really play a harp guitar on his Bristol Sessions recordings, or did he just own one at the time? Would these recordings have been as successful without the new microphone technology, especially given the quick popularity of the songs of Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family? How long would the hillbilly music industry have been delayed if Fiddlin’ John Carson hadn’t recorded a few years prior to the Bristol Sessions in Atlanta? Would the Stonemans have been more successful if Ernest “Pop” Stoneman claimed composition ownership of the songs he recorded and not attributed the hymnbooks where he learned them?

One of the museums cases shares the debate about the harp guitar’s appearance on the Bristol Sessions. © Birthplace of Country Music

And where is the Birthplace of Country Music? The 1927 Bristol Sessions provide a significant anchor and the museum explores this impact, but we also dig into earlier arrivals into the hillbilly music industry, such as Atlanta and New York. Should Atlanta be considered the birthplace? Or somewhere else? What about the Stonemans’ home in Monarat, Virginia? Or the Carter’s home place in Maces Springs, Virginia? Our earliest conversations about a museum in Bristol acknowledged the entire region as the birthplace. And hillbilly music/early country/traditional Southern Appalachian music began long before it was recorded, right?!?

In a simulated train station, the museum playfully explores the “earliest arrivals” in country music through an arrivals board that notes where a sampling of the earliest country music records were recorded. There is also a soundscape in this exhibit, including early songs of Fiddlin’ John Carson, Vernon Dalhart, Ernest Stoneman, and others. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Neil Staples

Can we also consider the British Isles as the Birthplace of Country Music? Many of the ballads that became the songs of early traditional music came from there, after all. And, with the roots of the banjo, shouldn’t we also consider West Africa? I’d say sure, it’s all part of an amazing and intricate history, and the Birthplace of Country Music Museum exhibits acknowledge the complex interaction of musical styles and social history that fostered the vernacular musical styles that ended up being recorded in Bristol.

It’s in these debates that museums offer relevance and dialogue. Where we can learn something new as we listen deeply and engage with history. Where we also discover something about ourselves when we attend live programs that celebrate community music-making. And where we can pass along inquisitiveness, appreciation, and a deeper understanding of place to our kids. It’s why museum staff work long hours even after a museum opens, and why the work going forward is just as important as the foundation we sit on.

Adding more nuance to an already-wordy name playfully acknowledges the many ways scholars have discussed the birth of country music. Many recognize that country music existed long before it was recorded, and some say Bristol should be called the birthplace of “commercial” country music, emphasizing its impact on the commercial country industry. © Birthplace of Country Music

Jessica Turner is the Director of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. She reminds us that this is a blog post, so it’s a mere 800 words. For further reading, turn to Bill Malone, Barry Mazor, or Charles Wolfe and Ted Olson, amongst others… Just keep digging and debating!

Farm and Fun Time, Then and Now

Since its debut on WCYB in 1946, Farm and Fun Time is a name that has become synonymous with country music in Bristol, Tennessee/Virginia. Farm and Fun Time was not only a lunchtime companion to countless listeners throughout the region, but it also served as a launching ground for many soon-to-be country music legends including Mac Wiseman, The Stanley Brothers, Jim and Jesse, Flatt and Scruggs, Curly King, and many more. Since well before Radio Bristol’s launch in 2016, the station team has been working to bring back this historic program by creating a contemporary version of the classic that speaks to today’s audiences yet honors and celebrates the tradition of live regional country music radio.

Flash forward one year and all that hard work has made Radio Bristol’s Farm and Fun Time not only a reality but also a huge success. The program, held in the museum’s Performance Theater, features many top-notch regional and national performers of roots music, and the show also celebrates the culture of Central Appalachia through a variety of segments including “The ASD Farm Report” presented by Appalachian Sustainable Development, a video segment profiling regional farms and farming practices, as well as the “Heirloom Recipe,” a storytelling segment centered upon a family recipe – this part of the show is followed by a related jingle performed by Bill and the Belles, the wildly popular and insanely rich and famous Farm and Fun Time house band. Lighthearted jingles are found throughout the program and have quickly become a crowd favorite.

Bill and the Belles perform and sing ear-catching jingles for each Farm and Fun Time show. © Birthplace of Country Music, photographer: Billie Wheeler

In April 2017 Radio Bristol celebrated its one-year anniversary of the revival of this storied program to a sold-out theater featuring the music of The Malpass Brothers, The Price Sisters, Corbin Hayslett, and Bill and the Belles. Bill and the Belles kicked the show off with their lush harmonies and spirited string band sounds. The “Heirloom Recipe” was presented by collard green historian Ed Davis, followed by a jingle titled “Stinkin’ Greens” celebrating the unique fragrance of greens slowly cooking. Heavily influenced by the sounds of early bluegrass, The Price Sisters took the stage for the next segment of the show. From the state of Ohio, Lauren and Leanna Price perform – as does most of their backing band – with Morehead State University’s Mountain Music Ambassadors; they also have an EP released on Rebel Records.

April’s “ASD Farm Report” profiled Walnut Ridge Llama Farm, a Chuckey, Tennessee, farm specializing in raising llamas and the cultivation of llama products. For the final portion of the show, honky tonk heroes The Malpass Brothers – Chris and Taylor – performed their brand of classic country music. Having shared the stage with the likes of Merle Haggard, Ray Price, and Don Helms, these boys know a thing or two about country music, and it shined through in this performance. Chris’s quality Elvis impersonation including signature pelvic gyrations brought the house down. The evening’s performance was a wonderful conclusion to the first season of Farm and Fun Time.

Farm and Fun Time host Kris Truelsen meets one of the friendly llamas from Walnut Ridge; the Malpass Brothers on stage at the live radio show. First image courtesy of Kris Truelsen; second image © Birthplace of Country Music, photographer: Billie Wheeler

Our kick off to season two was equally engaging. Airing just this past week, May’s Farm and Fun Time showcased the diversity of sounds found within contemporary old-time music with performances by the Down Hill Strugglers and the Piedmont Melody Makers featuring folk singer Alice Gerrard. Tim Pharis, Park Ranger at Rocky Fork State Park and founder of the Upper East Tennessee Fiddler’s Convention in Flag Pond, Tennessee, delivered our “Heirloom Recipe,” a special segment highlighting the wonders and blunders of the ramp, a pungent wild onion. I wrote a song titled “Ramp Diggin’ Daddy,” dedicated to Tim, who just days before dug a few thousand ramps for the Ramp Festival in Flag Pond. Fortunately he didn’t carry the odor with him into the theater!

The Down Hill Strugglers had a wonderful performance capturing the feeling of the golden era of recorded music. Comprised of Jackson Lynch, Eli Smith, and Walker Shepard, the band has a new album titled Lone Prairie out on Jalopy Records. Keeping with the Farm and Fun Time tradition of hosting legendary performers alongside rising stars, Grammy-nominated songwriter and folk icon Alice Gerrard appeared with the Piedmont Melody Makers. Alice and the Melody Makers performed a number of gorgeous four-part songs including an inspired rendition of the Carter Family tune “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” Corbin took us to Aunt Willie’s Wildflowers, a wildflower farm in Blountville, Tennessee, for “The ASD Farm Report.” This was followed by Corbin and Bill and the Belles singing a song together – one done to the tune of the old Flatt and Scruggs Martha White Flour theme and with the words replaced with praise for Aunt Willies Flowers. All in all it was quite a way to start our second season.

Tim Pharis shares his love of ramps and a recipe for this tasty plant; Jackson Lynch of the Down Hill Strugglers; and the Piedmont Melody Makers and Alice Gerrard in the museum. © Birthplace of Country Music, photographer: Haley Hensley

We have lots going on and lots of plans in the works, and with the popularity of the show just continuing to grow, it’s always smart to get your tickets good and early! So look ahead to June’s Farm and Fun Time with Third Man Records artist Lillie Mae (who you may have caught on Conan on CBS This Morning last week) and the rambunctious rockabilly trio the Royal Hounds. For more information and tickets for next month’s show, click here.

The studio audience at Farm and Fun Time brings a lot of energy to the live radio broadcast. © Birthplace of Country Music, photographer: Haley Hensley

Kris Truelsen is the Producer at Radio Bristol and a member of Farm and Fun Time house band Bill and the Belles.

Frames for Reference

By René Rodgers and Emily Robinson

Each year, the month of May is designated as National Photograph Month. In this day and age, every single day seems like it is devoted to photographs, as we are all constantly shooting pics on our phones — and finding our storage full of photographs of the minutiae of our lives.

With a museum devoted to the history and legacy of early commercial country music, a music festival in its 17th year, and a radio station on air each day, the Birthplace of Country Music is now the repository of a wonderful variety of digital and physical images. To mark National Photograph Month, we wanted to share just a few of our favorites from our collections:

Donated by the family of Karl Smith

Tennessee Ernie Ford on South Holston Lake, Bristol, Tennessee-Virginia

Ernest Jennings Ford – better known by his stage persona, Tennessee Ernie Ford – was born in Bristol, Tennessee, on February 13, 1919. Ford was a star behind the mic and on screen, and he was awarded three Hollywood Walk of Fame stars for his achievements in radio, recording, and television. During the height of his career, a visit from Ford to his hometown was an occasion for celebration, including a presentation of the key to the city, press meet-and-greets, and parades on State Street. Locals remember the times they met Ford on his returns to Bristol and speak fondly of his genuineness, his reverence and love for his hometown and the Appalachian area, and his star quality.

For Ford, coming home also meant being himself. He spent much of his life in front of an audience or a camera, but what he truly loved was getting back to his rural roots and enjoying the outdoors – at his ranch, in the woods, and on the water. This photograph, taken by his friend Karl Smith, shows him fishing from a boat on South Holston Lake, perhaps even catching his dinner!

© Birthplace of Country Music, photographer: Billie Wheeler

Jesse McReynolds on Farm and Fun Time

In February 2017, Jesse McReynolds appeared on Radio Bristol’s Farm and Fun Time show, broadcast live from the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. On August 1, 1927, his grandfather Charles played the fiddle with the Bull Mountain Moonshiners as they recorded two songs for Ralph Peer at the Bristol Sessions. McReynolds followed in his grandfather’s musical footsteps, establishing a successful bluegrass career in a duo with his brother Jim and then as a solo musician – singing and playing fiddle and mandolin. McReynolds played his grandfather’s fiddle at the February radio show, bringing its history full circle – from its time at the 1927 Bristol Session to its place on stage at the Birthplace of Country Music. And at the age of 87, McReynolds’s hands show the strength and skill bought from a lifetime of playing.

Robert Alexander Collection, Birthplace of Country Music Museum

Johnny Cash at the Carter Family Fold, Hiltons, Virginia

This photograph of Johnny Cash is full of energy – he’s seen here dancing at the Carter Festival in Hiltons, Virginia. Photographer Robert Alexander gives some insight into the image:

“[This photograph was] taken in August 1977 at the 50th anniversary of the Bristol Recordings held at the Carter Fold. After performing with June Carter on stage, Johnny changed out of his black outfit into informal clothes and danced a bit with the festivalgoers. This particular photograph was taken moments before he did a 360 cartwheel in front of the stage. I missed that shot.”

The Carter Festival was originated by Janette Carter in 1975 as a memorial festival in honor of her father A. P. Carter and is held annually at the Carter Family Fold. Johnny Cash married Maybelle Carter’s daughter June in 1968, and they came often to the Carter Family Fold to perform and revel in the music made there.

Bill Mountjoy Collection, Birthplace of Country Music Museum

Photograph from WOPI scrapbook

Bill Mountjoy was a disc jockey, engineer, reporter, and executive for several radio stations in Northeast Tennesee, Southwest Virginia, and the Washington DC suburbs, including local station WOPI in Bristol. At the time of his death in April 2014, he owned Custom Audio/Video Services of Elizabethton, Tennessee.

We are fortunate to have Mr. Mountjoy’s scrapbook from his time at WOPI in our collections. It is full of wonderful memories and, like all scrapbooks, a few mysterious unlabeled photos, like this one from inside a lingerie store. Take a closer look at the banner and you can see that the store is running a “WOPI Special!” We don’t know what the radio station has to do with unmentionables, but we are intrigued… If you have any memories of this sale and can shed some light, let us know!

© Birthplace of Country Music, photographer: Haley Hensley

Boo Hanks and Dom Flemons at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion

Boo Hanks, an acoustic guitarist with roots in Piedmont string band and blues traditions, learned the music he loved to play from his father and by listening to the records of Blind Boy Fuller. He passed away at the age of 87 on April 15, 2016. Hanks is seen here with his friend and musical collaborator Dom Flemons when they played together at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion in 2015. This intimate shot hints at the close friendship between the two men.

Emily Robinson is the Collections Manager and René Rodgers is the Curator of Exhibits & Publications, both at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.

Decisions, Decisions: From Twinkle in the Eye to Band at Bristol Rhythm

By Brent Treash, May 4, 2017

How does my band get booked for Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion?

This has to be one of the most popular questions I get when someone learns I’m on the music committee for the festival.

For the answer, let me pull you up a seat to the table and offer you a biscuit, because that’s the payment the nine members of the committee get for thousands of hours of listening to music, negotiating with agents, and handling special requests from bands during the festival. I’m not complaining. It’s a great biscuit.

Members of the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion Music Committee enjoy the fruits of their labors during the 2016 festival. © Laken Fontaine

The individuals sitting around that table all have day jobs that pay the bills for our musical addictions. We’ve got a teacher, a lawyer, public relations experts, radio personalities, contractors, and more. Most of this group has been together for the better part of a decade – so we know each other’s likes and dislikes. I know when a band I’m pitching is going to make one-person nod in approval, and I know when I’m going to get pelted with jokes about the band being “just another guy with a guitar.” (Thanks, Randy.)

Let me be clear: the meetings may happen over biscuits on scheduled Saturdays but the conversations never seem to stop. It’s hard to recall the last time I didn’t have a Facebook message, email, or phone call from a band or someone connected to the festival.

But let’s head back to the table, where I bet you’re ready to dive into the main course: the headliners. It’s a big part of the festival – they are at the top of the poster after all! And they are the ones that we are continually asked to divulge by friends and family before the official reveal.

Finding those special two or three bands for the top of the poster is an intricate process. Lots of potential headliners get volleyed about during our discussions, and many factors, like budget and availability, come into play. It’s not easy to land those special artists that our fans want to see, and every year my heart breaks over the band that got away. Everything has to fall into place to make one of these big bookings happen, and we are always grateful when the stars align and allow us to bring artists like Emmylou Harris, Robert Randolph, Buddy Guy, Bela Fleck, Steve Earle, and Lucinda Williams to the festival.

The cost of music shocks many people, and some of the bands we would love to have would take our entire budget.  Amazing, Top 40, or even huge Americana acts and stadium bands deserve everything they’ve earned, and so we seek out those artists while they are on the way up. We’ve done this with bands like Old Crow Medicine Show, The Avett Brothers, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and St. Paul & The Broken Bones, to name a few. It’s finding the next Avett Brothers or the next Carolina Chocolate Drops that keeps many of us going.

St. Paul & The Broken Bones performed at the festival in 2013 and 2014. © Birthplace of Country Music

I love going to shows or down internet rabbit holes in the search for new music. I can easily get lost in websites like Pandora, YouTube, and Spotify with no real idea where the journey started.

I also just love to ask questions. Who should I be listening to? What bands are other bands listening to? If you asked me which artist I’m most excited to see at the festival in 2017, the answer would be an up-and-coming singer-songwriter sent via Facebook Messenger by a friend. (Thanks, Greg.)

The author backstage at the Piedmont Stage. © Ed Stout

The reality of it all is that there is so much that goes into building a festival roster. I could go on and on about radius issues, backlines (I actively avoid stages where I know my help might be needed in carrying a piano), transportation, and about a dozen other things it takes to get a musician from a pitch at the table to performing on one of our 20 stages.

Yet what I think you most need to know is that we all take this very seriously. There is no glory. There is no plaque that comes with discovering that artist that breaks out each year at the festival.

We do this because we love Bristol. We do this because of our history.

We work hard to plan the musical soundtrack to the annual celebration of our roots, and we are always amazed and grateful that you all show up to see it. That’s the jelly on a fine buttermilk biscuit.

 

Brent Treash is this year’s Festival Chair and serves on the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion Music Committee. May 4 is the “big reveal” of the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion headliners, all the acts, and the festival poster so check out www.bristolrhythm.com to find out more!

Listen While I Tell: From Bristol’s Birthplace of Country Music and Beyond

Today is the first day of the Birthplace of Country Music blog. Welcome!

For those readers who are familiar with us, you probably already know quite a lot about the Birthplace of Country Music (BCM) in Bristol Tennessee/Virginia. But for those who might be meeting us for the first time with this blog, let me tell you a little bit about our organization. BCM celebrates, promotes, and preserves the history and legacy of the 1927 Bristol Sessions, historic recordings by Ralph Peer and the Victor Talking Machine Company that marked the beginnings of the commercial country music industry. You can read more about that history here.

BCM shares that history through our Smithsonian-affiliated Birthplace of Country Music Museum, our annual music festival – Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion – now in its 17th year, and our radio station, Radio Bristol. Each and every one of these branches bases their work on a huge amount of content – from the artifacts, images, history, and outreach in the museum to live performances and the musical heritage that make up the festival and radio programming.

Photos of museum visitors, a band onstage at the festival, and a dj on the air at wbcm radio bristol.
Scenes from the museum, festival, and radio station. © Birthplace of Country Music

And now we want to bring more of this content to you through our blog! The blog’s title – Listen While I Tell – is from the first verse of the song, “The Wreck of the Virginian,” recorded at the 1927 Bristol Sessions by Blind Alfred Reed.

Blind Alfred Reed
Songwriter, singer, and fiddler Blind Alfred Reed had one of the biggest hits of his career with the recording of “The Wreck of the Virginian.” Courtesy of Goldenseal Magazine

“Come all you brave, bold railroad men and listen while I tell
The fate of E. G. Aldrich, a good man we all loved well
This man was running on a road known as Virginian line
He was a faithful engineer and pulled his train on time.”

This song, describing a train wreck that happened near Ingleside, West Virginia, in May 1927, reflects a common theme in old-time and traditional music – songs that feature contemporary news stories, and specifically train wrecks. Now, while this blog is not all about train wreck songs, we loved how the “Listen while I tell” line from the song felt like a great introduction to the stories and posts we will share on this blog, and how it tied the blog firmly back to our content.

So what can you expect from Listen While I Tell? Our posts will bring you behind-the-scenes views into the work that we do each day at the museum, festival, and radio station; content-driven stories related to early country music history; features on instruments and musicians; explorations of the continuing music traditions in this region; and so much more.

This blog is not just for readers who already know the history – though we are excited to give those in-the-know readers even more interesting information. But we hope that this blog will also engage readers who don’t know much about us yet but who want to know more, hear more, and experience more! We want this blog to be a resource, for us and for our readers, and we want it to be a chance to gain a better understanding of our history and the music that made that history.

We are thrilled to get this chance to share our stories with a wider audience, to dig deeper into our history and content, and to pick out lesser known stories and quirky ways of looking at our heritage – all of which will hopefully make our readers as inspired, as engaged, and as ready to stomp their feet and clap their hands to the music as we are every single day at the Birthplace of Country Music.

Artistic renditions of the BCM logo on the streets during Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion
Artistic renditions of the BCM logo on the streets during Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion declare our tie to music history. © Birthplace of Country Music
René Rodgers is the Curator of Exhibits & Publications at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.