August 2017 - The Birthplace of Country Music
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Fun, Fun, Fun: Families Make, Take, and Create at the Museum

At the end of the day this past Saturday we found nine marbles in the museum vault area, locked to the public, inaccessible to all but the few of us who have a key. How on earth did those marbles get there?

It sounds like a mystery or a riddle – you know like the one where you find a body in a pool of water in a locked room with a cat in the window and you have to figure out what happened.* Our story is much simpler, the result of having around 150 children and adults in the museum for our Family Fun Day maker event, held on Saturday as complementary programming to Things Come Apart, our current special exhibit from the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES).

We have worked hard to find cool ways to engage the public with this SITES traveling exhibit, and one of our earlier blog posts went into more detail about the planning that went into this exhibit and the related programming. Our biggest event during the exhibit has been Family Fun Day – filled to the brim with a variety of maker-type activities. Check out the pictures and videos below to get a real sense of the fun, invention, and sheer enthusiasm that kids of all ages, from 2 to 92, brought to the event – and to find out how those marbles got in the vault!

© Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Billie Wheeler

The Bristol Public Library brought their 3D printer to the museum, giving kids and adults the chance to explore the software used to create 3D designs and then see the printer in action. To illustrate the printer’s capabilities, they had a variety of printed objects on display from small hearts to a flower in a vase to a megalodon tooth – and even a prosthetic hand, made for the charity Prosthetic Kids Hand Challenge. Individual guitar picks embellished with text chosen by each person were also designed, printed, and given out – perhaps inspiration for future engineers AND musicians!

© Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Billie Wheeler

Upcycling is cool these days; all you have to do is hit Pinterest to find hundreds of craft ideas to make from common recyclables. Our Bristol Rhythm & Roots Green Team is always looking for new ways to be crafty with kids, and they brought out the washi tape, stickers galore, pom poms, and cloth flowers – plus a 5-pound bag of rice and a box of dry macaroni (because it’s never a real craft project until you use dry macaroni…) – to make old plastic bottles into maracas. There was a whole lot of shaking going on throughout the day!

Wood and metal worker extraordinaire Terry Clark, along with his wife Deb, brought items big and small with them to show our visiting families the cool and functional art you can make from a host of “found” objects. From the dragon weather vane to the lamp made from World War I helmets, the creativity on display was fantastic. And while kids got the chance to take away colorful iron spigots, I got the chance to see a steampunk spinning wheel in action.

© Birthplace of Country Music; photographers: Billie Wheeler and Rene Rodgers

A “take apart” table proved to be one of our most popular activities. We had kids clustered round the table for the entire event, brows wrinkled, tongues sticking out, intense concentration on display as they unscrewed, pried open, pulled off layers, and took every single electronic completely and totally apart. At hour three of the day, I had to run to the local thrift store and buy some more items. Several of the kids took home bits and bobs from their taken apart objects, excited to show other members of their families and their classmates at school what they got up to at the museum over the weekend. It was wonderful to watch the excitement the kids felt as they examined the innards of all these common, everyday objects. And just in case that excitement carried over to home, we put up a sign saying “KIDS: Don’t try this at home. Your parents will get upset!”

© Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Billie Wheeler

The Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation’s Spark!Lab provided three activity kits with the Things Come Apart exhibit. One of these is focused on creating soundscapes by sending marbles along a variety of wooden pathways that have different methods of producing sound. This soundscape activity has proved hugely popular with all ages, from toddlers to teachers. For Family Fun Day we set up the soundscape activity kit in the gallery, not too far from where the locked doors to our vault are found. Long pathways, tall pathways, curving around on themselves pathways were built; marbles were launched; bells rang, xylophones clanged, metal clinked, and wood knocked – and marbles went absolutely everywhere. Despite our eagle eyes and unbeknownst to us, quite a few escaped, shooting through the small crack under the vault door, only to be found later by Emily, our collections manager. We might still be finding marbles for days to come.

Photograph by Jessica Turner

Families also got the chance to take a maker project home with them – we had a take-home instructable on how to create your own “wrenchophone,” generously shared with us by Maker Media from the book Make: Musical Inventions, DIY Instruments to Toot, Tap, Crank, Strum, Pluck and Switch On by Kathy Ceceri. This project showed kids how to make their own musical instrument at home – in the instructions, wrenches were used, but our museum director’s son Ian got creative, making his own version with butter knives and rubber spatulas. Apparently the spatulas helped to make the knives really ring out!

While all of the activities held on Family Fun Day were great, and the enthusiasm and engagement from the participants was especially wonderful, it was also really satisfying to see the other ways that kids were inspired to create and make in the museum. One of our visitors bought a small Lego kit from The Museum Store and built a small ukulele. But being in a museum meant that he didn’t stop there – he then used the plastic packaging (upcycling!) from the washi tape to create a display case for his ukulele, and wrote out his very own museum label for it to be on display during the event. A future curator perhaps!

© Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Rene Rodgers

Finally, to cap it all off and to really underline that music is the center of all that we do, a family of five musicians stopped in and asked if they could share some of their tunes with our visitors. With songs from the 1927 Bristol Sessions and The Carter Family in their repertoire, it was a spontaneous and perfect end to a fun day!

René Rodgers is the Curator of Exhibits & Publications at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.*And by the way, the answer is that the body is that of a goldfish…

Detour from Bristol Rhythm to Wise: Riding the Road to RTE 23

By Dave Stallard, August 23, 2017

The idea for what would eventually become the RTE 23 Music Festival dates back to a drive home from work in the fall of 2008. As I was headed up the mountain to my home in Wise, Virginia, I was ruminating on a simple thought: how could we bring the cool music of Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion to Wise? Though I lived in the heart of Southwest Virginia, Wise residents who loved live music generally traveled to Bristol, Johnson City, or Kingsport – more than an hour’s drive from home. For some, the drive and the distance to hear live music were problematic.

At that time, I was the current chair of the music committee for Bristol Rhythm. I took the idea to festival director Leah Ross (now Executive Director of BCM) about the possibility of doing some outreach in Wise. She agreed that it was a great idea.

Quick phone calls to a couple friends started the ball rolling, and in February of 2009 we began our first concert series on the campus of The University of Virginia’s College at Wise. Over the next five years, we hosted shows and festivals on both the UVa-Wise campus and in downtown Wise, bringing in bands like St. Paul & The Broken Bones, Folk Soul Revival, The New Familiars, Holy Ghost Tent Revival, Last Train Home, Erick Baker, Dave Eggar, and more.

The evolution of our concert series to what would become RTE 23 began in the fall of 2013. Chatting with the folks who were involved with staging these concerts, we began to feel like we wanted to put all of our eggs in one basket, to create something bigger. In other words, instead of several smaller shows, we wanted one big one. And so that original thoughtful drive in 2008 culminated in the first RTE 23 Music Festival in 2013, which saw us partnering again with our good friends at UVa-Wise.

Love Canon and Elliot Root delighted the crowd at last year’s festival. © Jason Wamsley

The 2013 festival was quite an endeavor, bigger than our previous events and more complicated. We put together a fantastic lineup for this first RTE 23, one which included The David Mayfield Parade, Sol Driven Train, Jarekus Singleton, and Derek Hoke. Early in the planning, we knew that we wanted to tap into the spirit of our work in Bristol and feature an eclectic, rootsy lineup – and that diversity was on show with our first performers for sure.

We have continued down that route in the crafting of the lineup for more recent festivals, including The London Souls, Love Canon, Desert Noises, Annabelle’s Curse, This Mountain, and many more wonderful artists. Our goal continues to be to offer an experience that is varied and diverse, and we carry that out each summer with festival bills that feature bands from across the Americana soundscape.

This year’s festival on August 26 – our fourth – promises to be the best yet. We have streamlined the lineup, going from four acts to three, and have assembled what we believe to be the best collection of bands offered by a festival in Wise County this year. Budding southern rock guitar titan Marcus King and his band will headline the festivities. Rounding out the bill are vintage soul rockers The Broadcast, out of Asheville, and Demon Waffle, an energetic ska band from Johnson City.

Festival fans enjoying local libations and great music. © Jason Wamsley

In recent years, we’ve added wine, beer, and first-class food options from local and regional businesses that showcase the very best our region has to offer. There are so many talented producers in this area, and music is always more enjoyable when paired with the good things in life!

It is also important to mention that all of the events we have ever produced in Wise have been absolutely free to our patrons. How have we managed to do that? Simple. We have been blessed with incredible financial support from an array of sponsors in the area. We have presented our vision of what we want to do with RTE 23, and our community has responded with tremendous support. Without these great folks, we could not do what we do.

The team behind RTE 23 is incredibly proud of what this festival has become. It is a labor of love that requires hours of scheming, planning, and work. Hopefully you will come to Wise and join us for a great evening of music!

Fans of all ages love RTE 23! © Jason Wamsley

Guest blogger Dave Stallard is a member of the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion Music Committee and one of the organizers of the RTE 23 Music Festival in Wise, Virginia.

National Radio Day: Connecting Old and New Through Radio Bristol

Today is National Radio Day, the perfect time to reflect back on the creation of our radio station, WBCM Radio Bristol. Radio Bristol is an active radio station with ongoing live programming in the museum, but this growing branch of our organization started as an exhibit about radio history.

When the museum’s team of content researchers, scholars, and writers who shaped the core exhibits of our museum came together to interpret and present the importance of early radio, we discussed ways to make radio history more engaging than the original plan: a static exhibit on radio displayed in a mock studio. We considered how we could make the studio interactive instead, and from these early conversations and after much thoughtful consideration, BCM staff and board decided that a working radio station would highlight that history much better and so we applied to the FCC for a low power FM license. A team of advisers from the radio industry helped shape that application and the subsequent launch of Radio Bristol.

What better way to make radio history interactive than through an actual radio station?

The control room of Radio Bristol, located in the exhibits of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. © Birthplace of Country Music

One of the most important steps was fitting out the radio studio space. Radio Bristol’s equipment isn’t just stock equipment. The station uses vintage equipment from Bristol radio stations, refurbished and repurposed for today. Sourced from local radio buff and collector William Mountjoy, a Raytheon console from 1940s WCYB Radio was painstakingly rebuilt by engineer Jim Gilmore, retired engineer from TNN. You can read Gilmore’s piece about his work on the console – “Rework of a Classic” – in the Tennessee Radio Hall of Fame September 2014 newsletter. Gilmore, along with colleagues Ron Worrell, Tom King, and Mike Flood, worked hard to help outfit our station with period equipment that performs in the kinds of ways our radio team needed, with the grace of a 1940s radio station and the innovation of the digital. We call it high-tech vintage.

The 1940s Raytheon console and an RCA 44 microphone were once used in earlier radio stations in Bristol. © Birthplace of Country Music

King (of Kintronics Labs) and George DeVault (of Holston Valley Broadcasting), both industry leaders, worked with BCM Technical Director Josh Littleton to install and test equipment. Our antenna, transmitter, and other equipment were donated. This work – which grew far beyond normal museum content curation – really was a labor of love for the radio community who came together on the project. Most importantly, the end result showcases both local radio history and an ongoing commitment to community through the innovation of Radio Bristol.

Radio Bristol, which officially launched with music 24/7 in 2015, has grown out of much effort and the cooperation and expertise of many advisers, and it stands as an example that cultural institutions like ours can harness media and technology to share history and engage community. With Radio Bristol you’ll find far more great music and video content than you can possibly consume. But Radio Bristol isn’t just a great station. It’s also a living part of our museum, broadcasting out of an exhibit space that provides context for our visitors with information on early live radio performances such as Border Radio, The Grand Ole Opry, National Barn Dance, and Bristol’s original Farm and Fun Time. And the station is engaging our museum visitors and radio listeners with historic content and contemporary, often live performances every day. And when radio staff and artists are in this space, as they often are, it gives our visitors a direct window into the working of the station, making what they’ve learned about radio history even more relevant.

Live studio session in the radio station – a wonderful experience for our museum visitors and radio listeners. © Birthplace of Country Music

Producer Kris Truelsen works tirelessly to ensure broadly diverse programming that digs deeply into music from this area; these are shared across the station’s different music and video channels. Live programs throughout the week feature music ranging from regional roots music (old-time and many other styles) to contemporary Americana. Radio Bristol DJs come from a variety of music backgrounds – many are musicians themselves – and all steeped in local music practices and communities of our region. It’s rich listening.

A sampling of programs on Radio Bristol. © Birthplace of Country Music

One of Radio Bristol’s signature programs, Farm and Fun Time, draws on the historic 1940s—1950s radio program on WCYB in Bristol and has been featured on this blog several times. Radio Bristol’s Farm and Fun Time is a monthly live radio program introducing and familiarizing listeners with regional music and contemporary Appalachian culture. While music sets the foundation of the show, farming and food culture play an important role too. With the inclusion of various segments related to food access and responsible and sustainable farming, Farm and Fun Time showcases the region and its people, honoring the past, the present, and the place simultaneously through an incredible live program.

Farm and Fun Time host Kris Truelsen visits a llama farm for the show’s “ASD Farm Report” segment, and the Malpass Brothers perform on the April 2017 Farm and Fun Time. © Birthplace of Country Music.

And in addition to the polished programming and live music sessions Radio Bristol produces, the museum taps into the radio station as an interactive tool for education as part of our programming. We often have students in the studio and in production spaces, such as with our annual Pick Along summer camps or special outreach programs with local youth organizations.

Summer camp students perform live on the radio with Producer Kris Truelsen. © Birthplace of Country Music.

Early on, when we first started this journey, some people wondered why start a radio station when streaming online is cheap and music sources saturate the Internet? These folks argued that building a NEW radio station is a risky investment using an old-school platform. But Radio Bristol is anything but old-school, and it is unique in its focus on local community and the diversity of this region’s music. It is deep and engaging, just as the museum curators hoped it could be. At the Birthplace of Country Music, we took a gamble a few years ago when we began work to develop Radio Bristol. Now just two years after the station launched, Radio Bristol has recently been honored with several nominations from the International Bluegrass Music Association for its innovation and leadership – IBMA’s Momentum Awards for Producer Kris Truelsen, the Farm and Fun Time show, and Farm and Fun Time’s house band Bill and the Belles, and IBMA’s Special Award nomination of Broadcaster of the Year for Producer Kris Truelsen.

A graphic shout-out to our Radio Bristol team in recognition of all their hard work and achievements. © Birthplace of Country Music

We congratulate our team for the recognition of their efforts and continue to be amazed at how this station has exceeded our expectations. And so today, on National Radio Day, we honor the history and innovation of radio in America, and we also honor the way radio platforms focused on community make those communities more vibrant and engaging.

If you haven’t listened to Radio Bristol, stop reading and get to it. I challenge you to choose just one favorite program!

Jessica Turner is the Director of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.

Fiddlin’ Cowan Powers and His Family String Band: Pioneers in Early Country Music

Back in the early 1920s, there was a quest for “hillbilly music.” A&R men – A&R stood for artists & repertoire – were heading out of their studios in New York and other big cities to find recording talent that played the traditional music they knew would sell.

And there were plenty of musicians who were ready to play their tunes into the acoustic horn (and later the electric microphone) and lend their music and voices to a cylinder or 78 recording that carried that tune to others. One of those artists was Fiddlin’ Cowan Powers, who led The Powers Family, hailed as the first family string band to be commercially recorded.

The Powers Family are on the front row of this group of musicians with, from left to right, Cowan Powers, daughters Orpha, Carrie, and Ada, and son Charlie. Photograph courtesy of James Powers, Patty Powers, and Stephanie Collins

Fiddlin’ Cowan Powers was born James Cowan Powers in October 1877 in Russell County, Virginia (as with many old-time musicians, birth dates vary depending on the source; I’ve also seen 1879). He married Matilda Lambert, and they had four children together. Powers was a musician, and he also worked the land and as a carpenter and leather worker – making leggings and underarm holsters, amongst other things.

With a father who played fiddle and a mother who played banjo, it was inevitable that the children would also play a host of instruments: Charlie on banjo, Orpha on mandolin, Carrie on guitar, and Ada on ukulele. After Matilda died in 1916, Powers looked to music as a profession and took his children on the road with him as members of the family string band.

The Powers Family first made their mark in a Johnson City, Tennessee, music competition in the early 1920s. They were soon traveling around southwest Virginia, northeast Tennessee, and neighboring states, performing at a variety of stage shows and dances, and also playing in fiddle and music competitions. James Powers, youngest son of Fiddlin’ Cowan Powers, tells us that he found around 25 $10 gold coins in his father’s belongings after he passed, all winnings from fiddle contests. The band also played on local radio stations, including WOPI in Bristol, Tennessee-Virginia.

The Powers Family got their “big break” at a music competition in Johnson City, Tennessee, in the early 1920s. They are seen here to the far left of the stage. Photograph courtesy of James Powers, Patty Powers, and Stephanie Collins

After the Johnson City competition, a Victor Talking Machine Company representative singled The Powers Family out, asking them to do a test field recording. Their stint behind the mic impressed, and in August 1924, they rode the train up to the Victor studio in Camden, New Jersey, and made their first commercial recordings. In all, The Powers Family recorded 17 songs over two days there, including “The Little Old Cabin in the Lane,” “Sour Wood Mountains,” “Sallie Goodin,” and “Cripple Creek.”

In 1925, The Powers Family recorded for the Edison label in New York City – performing several of the same songs recorded with Victor – and then in September 1928, they recorded six sides for the OKeh company. One of the recordings for OKeh was “Old Virginia Reel,” which was unusual in its length – around six minutes – and thus divided into two parts, one on each side of the 78 record. This piece also features each member of the family performing solo, highlighting the band’s individual talents and personalities. Part 1 of “Old Virginia Reel” starts off with a “master of ceremonies” saying:

“Folks, we’re goin’ to have a real old-time square dance. And while the crowd is gathering and everybody getting their partners, we will have a little rehearsal by Fiddlin’ Powers and Family. First, Miss Orpha with the mandolin…”

Orpha was followed by her brother and then her sisters, each playing their own instruments. Fiddlin’ Cowan Powers – with the anonymous emcee calling him a “fiddlin’ ace” – came next with his version of “Buck Creek Girl,” and then Part 1 ended with a harmonica player. Part 2 brought the whole string band together to play a selection of dance tunes. One can imagine that this recording – the last of The Powers Family’s career – was a pretty good rendition of what a live Powers Family show would have been like.

Photographs of Fiddlin’ Cowan and his children show a very serious-looking bunch – they stare out at the camera with dark eyes and rarely a smile. But from the stories told to us by the family and accounts from those who remember their performances, we know that a Powers Family show was filled with jokes and laughter, a variety of magic tricks performed by Fiddlin’ Cowan Powers, and clog and buck dancing by little Ada. And also sometimes a bit of drama: another family story tells us that Powers shot a man in the leg at one of their shows after the man got fresh with one of his daughters. The man wasn’t killed, but he surely learned a lesson, and Powers had to pay a fine of around $1,000 dollars for his paternally protective action.

Powers Family artifacts and photographs are currently on temporary display in the museum, including Cowan Powers’s fiddle and some of his magic tricks, Orpha’s mandolin, and the gun shot by Powers at a fresh young man at one of the Powers Family’s performances. Objects on loan from James Powers and Stephanie Collins; photograph © Birthplace of Country Music

The Powers Family stopped performing together in the 1930s when the children began to marry. Cowan Powers continued to play his fiddle with other groups, including the Stanley Brothers, until his death in 1953; the story goes that he died of a heart attack while playing “Cluck Old Hen” on stage at a Stanley Brothers show. Son Charlie had enlisted in the United States Air Corps in the late 1920s, and he passed away in 1942 in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. Daughters Orpha, Carrie, and Ada (now playing the autoharp rather than the ukulele) came back together, along with Orpha’s husband Eugene Ireson, as a band, in the 1970s. They performed on local radio and television, and at a number of festivals in the region. Later, after Orpha’s health affected her ability to travel and perform, Carrie and Ada continued together as a duo.

The story of the Powers Family and their music underlines their place as pioneering figures in the history of early commercial country music. They made their mark as the first family string band to record commercially when they took that train up to New York City to record for Victor. And their performance of “Old Virginia Reel” – with Part 1 showcasing each musician on their respective instrument and Part 2 featuring their performance of popular string band tunes – underlined the level of talent in each member of the family and the harmony and energy of the music when they came together.

Most importantly, the memory of The Powers Family and their place in music history is being carried on by their descendants, and luckily for us, shared with the museum and our visitors through objects, stories, and photographs.

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

Keeping Alive the Old-Time Way, One Record at a Time

By Ivy Sheppard, August 12, 2017

I come by my love of old-time music and records naturally. The earliest sounds I remember are listening to my grandfather’s scratchy records on a console record player in our old log house. Hank Williams Sr. singing the “Lonesome Whistle,” Jimmie Rodgers, fiddle tunes, and anything by Rockingham County native Charlie Poole was the soundtrack of my childhood. I remember the first time I heard some sort of modern music and I asked my mother what it was, and she said, “Oh, that’s city music. We don’t listen to that.”

The old log house where I grew up, filled with memories of good music and old records. Photograph courtesy of Ivy Sheppard

Today is National Vinyl Record Day, and in honor of that as a collector, I thought I’d write a post about shellac 78rpm records, the grandaddy of modern vinyl records. 78rpm records really came into vogue in the early 1920s and were the industry standard until the introduction of 33 1/3rpm and 45rpm in 1948 and 1949, respectively. Records are time capsules capturing sound from a particular moment that would’ve otherwise forever been lost. We can get some little notion of what 1931 was like from the music and voices magically preserved on records. There can’t possibly have been a greater invention in the history of the world.

In the early days of recording there weren’t high-tech electronic record players to reproduce sound. The recordings were made totally live, cut direct to disc, and playback was all acoustical and mechanical. Around 1925 recording techniques advanced significantly with the arrival of the Western Electric system. Sadly phonograph technology did not move forward so quickly. Phonographs had a crank or wind up to power them, then a small steel nail carried the sounds in the grooves to a speaker where the levels were controlled by opening or shutting doors. The records had to be made of a sufficiently durable material to withstand the weight of the tonearm and a nail digging into the grooves. Fortunately for us, playback technology has drastically improved and enough records survived or escaped this torture so that folks like me can collect them and share them with the world on radio.

Check out this demo of an old record playing on a Victrola phonograph. Please note: No records were hurt in the production of this video. I used a cracked record.

Most people who know me would probably say I’m an obsessive record collector, but that isn’t entirely correct. Of course, I am. I have a few thousand 78s, and as many LPs and 45s. But more accurately, I’m a music collector. I’m a Carter Family nut, an old-time musician, and a radio show producer for several stations including WBCM-Radio Bristol, Bluegrass Country, and WPAQ.

Preserving old sounds and sharing them with new listeners is what I love most in the world. I used to want nothing more than to play music. It was my heart’s desire, and I spent the better part of 20 years of my life traveling up and down the roads playing honest old-time music, first with the Roan Mountain Hilltoppers, and then with my own band, the South Carolina Broadcasters.

These days I get just as much enjoyment out of listening to the sounds of a bygone era. As much as we try, that music can never be recreated by folks like me. We will never know the world, the trials and struggles of those great early country performers whose voices go straight to our souls and were thankfully captured on the grooves of shellac records. I feel extremely fortunate to be able to share this music that means everything to me on stations such as Radio Bristol.

A rare Carter Family record released only on the Conqueror label, and a couple of other absolute fav-O-rites from my collection. Photographs courtesy of Ivy Sheppard

There’s a lot of music in a lot of formats that would never be heard, or quite likely would be lost, if it weren’t for people like me, who spend countless hours digging and searching through dusty piles of dingy records. Although I mostly focus on 78rpm recordings, I also have an extensive collection of 45s, 33s, and reel-to-reel tape, primarily comprising recordings that have not been reissued. Obscure gospel is what trips my trigger, and I recently teamed up with the Field Recorders Collective to reissue the recordings of Early Upchurch, a regional gospel singer from Mount Airy, North Carolina, where I live. It’ll be out soon!

The cover of the Early Upchurch reissue, along with several Early Upchurch records in my collection. Graphics by Jim Garber, PaperClip Design; photograph courtesy of Ivy Sheppard

One of the many things I love about record collecting is that it’s a low-tech occupation. When I come in with a pile of new records from a hunt the first thing I do is bring them out on the kitchen counter and give them a good bath with some dish soap and a brush. Then I lay them out on towels, let them dry, sort them, run to my record room, and start listening. My husband knows there won’t be supper on those nights.

A bit of gentle washing gets a record ready for a first listen. Photographs courtesy of Ivy Sheppard

I make all of my radio shows with the best in 1950s technology. I run a Fisher monoblock tube power amplifier, a Pilotrol mono preamplifier, and a little mixing board that links up all my record players, tape decks, and reel-to-reel players. There is no computer involved until I have to transfer the recordings to the radio stations. Creating shows is an entirely intuitive process for me. I typically think of the first record or two that I want to play and then follow where my mind takes me. Listeners always know when I’ve picked up a new lot of records because they’re sure to make their way on the air.

Some people collect labels or names. There’s nothing that gets me more fired up than discovering some new treasure. I recently came across a transcription disc of a band who recorded at radio station WPAQ in Mount Airy in the late 1940s. They had a regular radio show on the station, and I reckon traveled regionally playing hillbilly music. It’s killer good stuff, and I was really excited to share it on my radio show, Born In The Mountain! And on a recent afternoon, I came across a home-cut disc of Frank & Vivian singing “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.” It is hillbilly gospel perfection, and I doubt we’ll ever know anything more about them than that.

It’s the excitement of putting down the needle or starting the tape and hearing something new and wonderful that wakes me up in the morning. And it’s knowing that I have the opportunity to get those sounds out to a larger audience that gives my life purpose.

Guest blogger Ivy Sheppard shares her love of records and music as the producer of the Born in the Mountain radio show, which airs on Radio Bristol Tuesdays and Thursdays noon to 2pm.

* Collectors love old records, and so do museums and libraries! For an insight into how professional conservators help preserve old records and other audio-visual materials for museum and library collections, check out the relevant pages at the Library of Congress and the Northeast Document Conservation Center

Four Films Highlighting the Bristol Sessions to Watch Again and Again

Four recent and upcoming films brilliantly document the depth and reach of the 1927 Bristol Sessions. Each of these films deserves a space on your media shelves, and each of the filmmakers displays a love of the music and history running through these visual tributes.

The Winding Stream: The Carters, the Cashes, and the Course of Country Music, 2014

The Winding Stream was released in 2014 and has received numerous glowing reviews. Image courtesy of Beth Harrington; graphics by Brian Murphy

Released in 2014 and the oldest film on this list, the acclaimed 90–minute documentary The Winding Stream traces the careers of A. P. Carter, his wife Sara, and his sister-in-law Maybelle, heralded as three of the earliest stars of country music. The film documents how The Carter Family, from their earliest days as Victor recording artists to their international success via the phenomenon of Border Radio, made their mark on the history of American recorded music.

The Winding Stream illuminates the foundation-forming history of this multi-generational musical family. It achieves this through careful research and well-crafted storytelling and with filmmaking techniques that help the viewer feel connected to The Carter Family and to those telling their stories.

Beth Harrington, award-winning producer, director, and writer, tells these stories and others through narrator-less interviews and performances by celebrated roots music practitioners like Johnny and June Carter Cash, George Jones, Rosanne Cash, Sheryl Crow, Kris Kristofferson, and others. Harrington’s work often explores American history, music, and culture, and the decade she spent working on this film is evident in the depth of the history she documents. To read more about the film, check out this review from Variety magazine.

Producer and director Beth Harrington. Image courtesy of Beth Harrington; photo by Amy McMullen

The Winding Stream reminds us that The Carter Family story is one that captured America’s attention starting with the family’s first recordings, and one that continues to capture imaginations in country music history and scholarship to this day.

American Epic: The First Time America Heard Itself, 2017

American Epic: The First Time America Heard Itself has been selected for screening at numerous film festivals, winning awards at Calgary, Tryon, and Sydney. Credit: PBS

Writer and director Bernard MacMahon calls American Epic his love letter to America. With this PBS documentary series, he explores the history of recording technology and American innovation of the 1920s and also celebrates it through contemporary performances. This work – which painstakingly recreates the recording technology of the 1920s and then creates new recordings using this technology – is visually stunning, carefully documented, and a beautifully creative way of honoring early recordings. This is a series to enjoy (the visuals are stunning!) and to study.

Okeh Engineers Charles L. Hibbard and Peter P. Decker with a Western Electric amplifier and cutting lathe from American Epic: The Big Bang. Image courtesy of Maida Vale Music

With executive producers T Bone Burnette, Jack White, and Robert Redford, the film has some major brains and talent behind it. The film was produced and directed by Lo-Max Films, led by Allison McGourty, Duke Erikson, and MacMahon, who bring their filmmaking skills and knowledge of music history to a project that was over 10 years in the making. You can watch the trailer to American Epic here, and learn more about the research and recreation of the technology that went into the film here.

Born in Bristol: The Untold Story of the Birth of Country Music, 2017

Born in Bristol earned recognition at the 2016 Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, and the film premiered in Bristol with several screenings on August 3–6, 2017. Image courtesy of VML

Born in Bristol is a 53-minute documentary and drama profiling the 1927 Bristol Sessions; it also highlights the 2015 production of Orthophonic Joy: The 1927 Bristol Sessions Revisited, an album where contemporary country artists put their own spin on the songs of the Bristol Sessions. The film was produced by the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development, with support from the Virginia Tourism Corporation, and it features performances by and interviews with Dolly Parton, Vince Gill, Eric Church, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Marty Stuart, Sheryl Crow, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, and many more. Hearing the musicians speak about the impact these recordings have had on them, and the reverence they feel for the music of this region, underlines the legacy of the Bristol Sessions and the ways in which they still resonate today.

Filming began in 2014 by Plan A Films, and several locations in and around Historic Downtown Bristol were chosen to recreate the story of the legendary 1927 Bristol Sessions recordings. A number of local musicians, actors, and extras were cast in the film. The film earned shortlist honors at the 63rd Annual Cannes Lion International Festival of Creativity in Cannes, France in the category of Film Craft – Use of Licensed or Adapted Music. You can read more about the film here.

Country Music, to be released in 2019

This much anticipated new documentary series by award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns is scheduled to be released in 2019. The film’s team is stellar: Country Music will be directed and produced by Ken Burns; written and produced by Dayton Duncan; and produced by Julie Dunfey – Emmy Award-winning creators of several of PBS’s most-acclaimed and most-watched documentaries.

The Country Music crew, led by Julie Dunfey, visited Bristol during their research. They can be seen here setting up a shot of a phonograph playing a 78 record. © Birthplace of Country Music, photographer: Rene Rodgers

The filmmakers state that Country Music will “chronicle the history of a uniquely American art form, rising from the experiences of remarkable people in distinctive regions of our nation. From southern Appalachia’s songs of struggle, heartbreak and faith to the rollicking western swing of Texas, from California honky tonks to Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, we will follow the evolution of country music over the course of the twentieth century, as it eventually emerged to become America’s music. Country Music will be a sweeping, multi-episode series, exploring the questions “What is country music?” “Where did it come from?” while focusing on the biographies of the fascinating characters who created it – from The Carter family, Jimmie Rodgers, and Bob Wills, to Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Charley Pride, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Garth Brooks and many more – as well as the times in which they lived.”

In the search for valuable memories and experiences that make up this story, gathering firsthand interviews for the Country Music series has often been a race against time – you can read more about this work here.

Ken Burns. Photo credit: Florentine Films

Each of these films takes a reverent approach to visualizing country music history and exploring the early history of this genre and its many influences and (winding) paths. With considerable research and respect for the musicians and their craft, each takes a different approach to telling the complex story of country music.

So watch these films, and savor their stories and the history that made them – we guarantee you’ll want to listen to the music and learn more.

Kim Davis is Director of Marketing and Jessica Turner is the Director of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.