September 2017 - The Birthplace of Country Music
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Hattie Stoneman: Raising Her Children in Music

The enormous influence of women in country music is evident in every era, most certainly in the early days of country music. Sometimes women’s contributions are overshadowed in the historical record, and the story of the Stoneman family is no different. Without the support and encouragement of Hattie Stoneman, her husband may have never recorded in 1924 and never been instrumental in shaping the dynamic of hillbilly recordings forever afterward. The incredible Hattie Stoneman made an impact on early country music – and she did this all while bearing 23 children, facing sadness and grief due to several miscarriages, stillbirths, and children passing, and finding ways to keep her family going through hardship and poverty.

For most people, the first person they likely think about when they hear the word Stoneman is Ernest “Pop” Stoneman, leader of a host of musicians made up of family and friends, who recorded at the 1927 Bristol Sessions, and then patriarch to his family group who later performed and recorded together, played on the radio, and even had their own musical TV show. But there were two parts to this successful musical equation, and the other one was “Mom”: Hattie Stoneman, wife to “Pop” and mother to their children, all but two of whom played music themselves. As Roni, one of Hattie’s daughters, said: “The first thing you heard was music; you were raised in it. I probably heard her playing music when I was in her body. You’re just a part of music after that.”

Today is Hattie Stoneman’s birthday – she was born on September 28, 1900 in Pipers Gap, Virginia. Hattie came to music through her own family: her mother was descended from pioneer fiddler Green Leonard, and her father Bill Frost was one of the finest fiddle players in Virginia at the time. Frost often played at “frolics,” local gatherings of music and dancing (sometimes participants kept a bit of alcohol in the springhouse water to keep cold, adding to the frolicking). He showed Hattie how to play the fiddle and the banjo, and she became a fine musician herself, often accompanying her father on the banjo. Frost also passed on his love of jokes and humor to Hattie, and her children remember her making them laugh even when they were in deep trouble.

Pop met Hattie when he was just a boy, and she was just a baby – as Pop said, “I heard her give her first cry when she was born.” Their first meeting is related in the story about Pop’s father Elisha Stoneman, a preacher, coming to the Frost house to pray with the family during a difficult birth. He brought along little Ernest, and once the baby was born, Elisha brought her out to where Ernest was waiting for him, putting the baby in his arms and telling him to pray for her to have a long life. Little did he know at the time that it would be a long life together.

Several years later, they met again at a memorial service in a church cemetery – when he saw her again this time, he decided right then and there that he was going to marry that “golden-haired girl.” Music was a central part of their lives – and later their family – and family legend tells us that not only did Pop love Hattie, but he also loved the musical talent she had gained from her father. After a long courtship – and after Pop won out over several suitors – they wed on November 10, 1918.

Hattie on her wedding day. Photograph courtesy of Roni Stoneman

After their marriage, Hattie often played fiddle in performances with Pop and other musicians. And in 1927 and 1928, she was with him for the Bristol Sessions recordings. At both sessions, she played fiddle and sang on several sides with Pop’s Dixie Mountaineers and The Stoneman Family, along with several sides by Uncle Eck Dunford. Hattie was also featured specifically on the 1927 recording of “What Will I Do, For My Money’s All Gone” (again with Dunford). And “The Spanish Merchant’s Daughter,” recorded at the 1928 Bristol Sessions by The Stoneman Family, was featured on the influential 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music, compiled by Harry Smith.

Stoneman’s configuration of musicians was known by different names, including The Stoneman Family, the Blue Ridge Corn Shuckers, and Ernest V. Stoneman & His Dixie Mountaineers. Hattie is seen here in the back row with her fiddle. From the John Edwards Memorial Foundation Records, #20001, Southern Folklife Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

The Stonemans saw musical success before and immediately after the Bristol Sessions, but the Depression was on the horizon, and they would soon feel the hardship that came to so many during that period. Before the stock market crash of 1929, Ernest and Hattie were living well in Galax, Virginia – they had bought some land in 1927, and he built them a fine home with modern conveniences. Hattie was very much a southern belle, taking care over her appearance and keeping a neat and tidy house. However, by the early 1930s, hard times were firmly upon them – they were facing the illness of their young daughter Nita (she would die soon after at the age of six) and the loss of their house, and Ernest was having to travel far and wide to look for work, leaving Hattie home alone to cope with her family’s needs.

When they lost their house, Hattie moved with their children into her parents’ three-room house for a while, but soon Ernest sent for them to come to Alexandria, Virginia, where he had found work. However, things continued to be hard, with Pop losing his job and Hattie and the children moving back to southwest Virginia for a while. This routine marked much of this period – Ernest finding work, the family moving into a host of different houses, many of which were falling apart and cold, and Hattie sometimes taking the children home to Galax for periods of time. At least back in rural southwest Virginia they could grow some food in the garden, and the vegetables and fruits were often canned up and used to fill the hungry mouths of her children when they were back in northern Virginia and Maryland with Pop.

Indeed, daughter Roni tells stories about how her mother fought hard to keep her family going during the Depression. Once, on a cold winter night when they were living up near Washington, DC, Hattie went out to the local railyard to look for stray coal to fuel their fire at home. Back then, railroad cops – known as railroad bulls – patrolled the tracks and railyards to keep “hobos” out, and a couple of them came across Hattie in her search for coal. Even though it was late at night and she was a woman on her own, she stood up to them, telling them that they could kill her and bury her in the ground if they wanted, but she was taking some coal to bring warmth to her children. The men admired her gumption and saw her real need, and they helped her gather up the coal she needed.

Son Oscar James (known as Jimmy) was born when the family lived up north, one of only a few of the Stoneman children born in a hospital rather than at home. When the nurse brought the baby into Hattie’s room soon after the birth, Hattie exclaimed that “he wasn’t her baby; he didn’t have the Stoneman nose.” The nurse, of course, assumed hysteria, but around the same time a laundry worker in the basement of the hospital heard a baby crying and found Hattie’s baby in a pile of clothes! Jimmy was named after Oscar Anderson, the captain who commanded the fire station across the street from where the Stonemans lived. Even though it was hard to move past her Appalachian independence and pride, Hattie had accepted his help when the family was really struggling — Anderson and his men were kind and helped them out over the years, bringing them food and Christmas presents when they saw the need. As Roni says: “Mommy showed us how to take the hard times and how to be strong in the sad times. She kept us all together.”

Despite all the hardships they faced during the Depression, and how this affected Pop’s musical aspirations, the family still found pleasure in music, and Hattie still played her banjo and her fiddle occasionally with Pop. Later, when things got better and the family developed a music career as The Stoneman Family on radio and television, and in live performances and recordings, she often took a back seat to Pop and her children.

However, in 1947, she stepped back in the spotlight for a talent contest at Constitution Hall. Roni relates how her older brothers didn’t want to play with their father and the rest of the family because they viewed his music as “old-fashioned,” and so they entered the contest on their own. When Pop told Hattie that her sons thought he was outdated and wouldn’t play with him, she pulled out her fiddle and said she’d play with him and that they’d “take that prize from those boys.” She was mad as a hornet and so she fiddled hard and strong, and they won the contest, giving them six months of local TV time, which ultimately led to a host of other opportunities. This story mirrors the tale told of Hattie pushing Pop to go record for the first time back in 1924 and really underlines how influential Hattie was in the Stonemans’ musical success.

Hattie fiddling with the family band. Photograph courtesy of Roni Stoneman

There are many more stories of Hattie as mother and performer, and her surviving children, Roni and Donna, look back on those early hard times as rich in love and family, and they view the later musical success as being as much about their mother as their father. And so today, on Hattie’s birthday, let’s celebrate her talent and the contributions to the success of this wonderful musical family made by “The Girl from Galax.”*

René Rodgers is the Curator of Exhibits & Publications at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. A huge thank you to Roni Stoneman for sharing stories of her mother with me, and to Tom Connor for his help facilitating the interview and images for this blog post. 

*”The Girl from Galax,” an instrumental piece written by daughter Donna Stoneman, is a tribute to her mother.

From the Vault: The Beauty and Harmony of Shape Note Songbooks

By Hannah Arnett, September 26, 2017

Want to know what’s behind our closed museum vault door? With this occasional series, we take you behind the scenes to learn more about some of the interesting objects in our museum collections. 

This Saturday, September 30, the Birthplace of Country Music Museum will be hosting a Shape Note Sing led by The Old Field Singers, an event that is free and open to the public – no singing experience necessary!

This event also provides us with a great opportunity to share part of our collection with you: shape note hymnals from the 1950s and 1960s, gifted to the museum by Dorothy Horne in memory of her mother, Ruth Hamm. I didn’t know much about shape notes before I did some research, but goodness, you don’t grow up Baptist without knowing somebody that remembers singing with shape notes. And I promise you, they’ll tell you all about it if you get them started.

The use of shape notes is rooted in the pre-Civil War South, and if you trace those roots back even further, you’ll find yourself in Great Awakening-era New England – though that’s a completely different blog post. For readers that don’t know, shape notes are a method of musical notation in which each tone is given a distinct shape and syllable to represent it. There are all sorts of shape note traditions, but Sacred Harp and Christian Harmony may be the most well known. The Sacred Harp tradition of shape note singing uses four syllables – fa, sol, la, mi – and four shapes. Christian Harmony – the tradition of The Old Fields Singers – uses seven shapes and seven syllables: do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti. Both schools are named for the “tunebooks” associated with them.  If you want to learn more about the particulars of shape notes, this site may be a good place to start.

A scale from Vaughn’s Up-To-Date Rudiments and Music Reader. © James D. Vaughn, 1951; photo © Birthplace of Country Music; gift of Dorothy Horne in memory of Ruth Hamm

Vaughn’s Up-To-Date Rudiments and Music Reader was one of the songbooks used by Ruth Hamm when she attended J. M. Dixon’s singing school in Kingsport, Tennessee. Mr. Dixon’s singing school was part of a larger shape note tradition. In the mid-19th century, singing schools sponsored by local singing conventions gained popularity in the south. These sorts of schools used a seven-shape system and relied on “little-books.” James D. Vaughn and Stamps-Baxter music publishing companies were popular suppliers of these kinds of songbooks. They also supplied the bulk of Mrs. Hamm’s collection!

Mrs. Hamm, according to her daughter, sang her entire life. “Mom grew up singing,” Horne remembers. “Her father sang in a quartet. She sang in a quartet, and she took us with her on the practice sessions and all of the places they sang. She later sang with the Happy Day Singers at the Senior Center here in Kingsport.” Throughout her singing career, Mrs. Hamm accumulated a variety of songbooks – 43 of which are now in our collection. They contain some of the most recognizable sacred songs in the south (and anywhere, for that matter): “Victory in Jesus,” “Rock of Ages,” and of course, “Amazing Grace,” to name only a few. Horne has a special connection with one songbook in particular. “My favorite songbook is Lasting Glory and the song I remember so much is ‘I Feel Like Traveling On,’” she recalls. “It is on page 29.  I can [still] see Mr. Dixon leading that song.”

The songbooks pictured here feature some of our favorite covers – you have to love their colorful, mid-century aesthetic! Songbooks © Stamps-Baxter Music Company and © James D. Vaughn; photo © Birthplace of Country Music

Mrs. Hamm’s songbooks have been through a lot. They’ve been worn all around the edges, marked on, and creased, and some have even had a run-in with water. Those imperfections are part of what makes these songbooks so special: it’s apparent that they’ve been used over and over again. They are well loved. They tell us that singing with these hymnals was an important part of Mrs. Hamm’s life – and likewise, the lives of many that sang by shape notes throughout this region. For those that sang with shape notes, attending singing schools and community sings were once an integral part of keeping in touch with your neighbors. Some sources even indicate that the possibility of courting drew in young members – if they weren’t already “drew in” by their parents.

Community-driven shape note singing in the 1950s and 1960s saw a decline after gospel quartet performances became popular. Although the act of singing in church is still an essential part of the religious experience, there are not anywhere near as many singing schools as there once were. Don Wiley, leader of the Old Fields Singers, notes: “Although opportunities exist today, folks lead busy, even frantic lives.” Those busy days unfortunately mean that shape note singing isn’t as much a part of people’s lives now.

The social aspect of shape note singing might seem irrelevant in this age of social media, where people have more convenient ways to catch up with friends and can “court” with a few swipes on their phones. I asked Wiley what he thought the “most important” reason to continue the tradition of shape note singing was. Wiley gave me an interesting answer: “I can’t do ‘most important’…it seems that the singing itself either strikes a chord inside a person, or not.”

If you do some digging on YouTube, or better yet, join us at the Shape Note Sing on Saturday, I can almost guarantee you that the chord Wiley speaks of will resonate in you. There’s something irresistible about voices raised in gorgeous harmony, led only by a conductor and printed shapes on a page.

The Old Fields Singers and visitors at past Shape Note Sings in the museum. The event always includes the social aspect of a potluck lunch during the noon break! © Birthplace of Country Music

Hannah Arnett was an intern at the Birthplace of Country Music Musem in the summer of 2017. She is a senior museum studies and history student at Tusculum College, set to graduate in December 2017. You can learn more about Saturday’s Shape Note Sing here.

Live, Local, and Free: Come One, Come All to Museum Day Live!

Tomorrow the Birthplace of Country Music Museum will be filled to the brim with people – brand new visitors, regulars and old friends, people who passed by on the street and saw that there was something EXCITING going on inside, tourists who just happened to visit on one of our busiest days of the year. They all pass through our doors on Museum Day Live!

For those who don’t know, Museum Day Live! is a national event – held every September – where participating U.S. museums emulate the spirit of the Smithsonian Institution’s Washington DC-based facilities, which offer free admission every day, and open their doors for free to those who download a Museum Day Live! ticket. The event represents a nationwide commitment to boundless curiosity and the pursuit of knowledge wherever you are. Over 200,000 people downloaded tickets for last year’s Museum Day Live! event, and we had around 500 people at our museum in that single day. We are hoping for even more tomorrow!

Every year the new Museum Day Live! signage adorns our museum reception desk, our website, and social media as we reach out to as many potential visitors as possible for the event.

Despite the exhaustion that comes after Museum Day Live!, it is one of our favorite days. For one thing, the free admission means that we see visitors who might not otherwise be able to afford a museum visit. It’s always great to see whole families come through our doors ready to spend a couple of hours together exploring their local heritage and history. It also means that we see people who think country music isn’t for them but decided to come in on Museum Day Live! because it was free – more often than not, they have a great time, which means we might continue to see them as visitors in the future.

But one of the things we really love about Museum Day Live! is the opportunity it gives us to create some really fun and engaging programming for our visitors. Last year there were two Museum Day Live! events – one in March and the other during the usual September, both of which were themed around specific concepts or other events.

The March 2016 Museum Day Live! focused on encouraging all people – and particularly women and girls of color – to explore our nation’s museums and cultural institutions. After thinking carefully about programs that fit in with this theme, we approached the YWCA Bristol TechGYRLS, a local after-school program based on a STEM-focused curriculum and geared towards supporting girls aged 9—15 who would otherwise have limited access to and experience with technology. The goal of the partnership was to give the TechGYRLS access to a new technology and the opportunity to explore the music history of their hometown in a meaningful way through the creation of a special radio program on WBCM Radio Bristol, our in-house radio station.

From February to mid-March 2016, we hosted the TechGYRLS at the museum four times for a museum tour, to work on their radio script, to record the program, and on Museum Day Live! This project introduced the students to the museum, gave them opportunities to engage directly with radio technology and learn more about how a radio station works, and produce their very own radio program. The end result was a half-hour radio program that was played during the Museum Day Live! event at the museum, both on air and in the museum’s Performance Theater, attended by several girls and family members, along with museum visitors. It was really gratifying to see the TechGYRLS explore the museum and share their enthusiasm and learning on air. For a taste of the radio show, check out the clip here.

Our goal with this program was to create a new opportunity for an underserved group in our community, while also sharing an enjoyable learning experience that would tie into that group’s needs. Not only did this partnership accomplish that, it also resulted in many of the girls becoming advocates for our museum and for the musical heritage of our area – we have seen them as school group visitors sharing the things they learned with their friends, at our summer camp, and at special events. The experience also had a huge impact on museum staff through a wonderful feeling of pride at what the girls created and the possibilities of future partnerships with the group. This program is also now saved in our archive collection for future use. A win-win for everyone involved!

The TechGYRLS brought a lot of energy and enthusiasm to the museum and their radio show! © Birthplace of Country Music

September 2016’s Museum Day Live! coincided with the opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), which gave us the opportunity to celebrate this historic opening with them. As a Smithsonian affiliate, we got a poster exhibit that highlighted the history behind the NMAAHC’s creation and several of the artifacts and stories featured in the museum. These vibrant posters were a wonderful way to introduce our museum visitors to the new Smithsonian museum, inspiration for them to plan their own visit to DC to see it in the future!

Just a few of the posters exhibited in the NMAAHC poster exhibition. © Birthplace of Country Music

We also live streamed the NMAAHC opening ceremonies and concerts in the museum’s Performance Theater, giving people the opportunity to participate from afar as luminaries and performers from President Obama and Congressman John Lewis to Angélique Kidjo and Patti LaBelle marked the day with words and song. We had our own performance by local musician Amythyst Kiah, belting out her signature “Jolene” along with a variety of other beautiful old-time and traditional songs, and we offered regular tours of our permanent exhibits with the focus on the African Americans who contributed to the success of the Bristol Sessions recordings and the early development of “race records.”

What was particularly great about this Museum Day Live! was that it led to continued programming in the months that followed with our “Lift Every Voice” series, inspired by the NMAAHC’s “Lift Every Voice” initiative to showcase the depth and breadth of African American history and culture across the nation and around the world. With our series, we created several radio spots focused on the history of “race records,” hosted a talk by CeCe Conway on the history of the banjo followed by a wonderful performance by Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton, and invited Dr. W. A. Johnson of Lee Street Baptist Church and Professor Jerry Jones of Emory & Henry College to lead a community conversation on the African American experience in Bristol.

Amythyst Kiah and Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton gave crowd-pleasing performances as part of the September Museum Day Live! and related programming in 2016. © Birthplace of Country Music

And so we come now to this year’s Museum Day Live! As always it is the week after our huge music festival, Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion, and so we always go into it a little tired but we come back out of it re-energized by the numbers who visit and the great activities they enjoy. This year will be no different, and we are excited about the variety of things we have planned for the day. Some – like the screening of American Experience: Tesla and access to a Smithsonian Spark!Lab soundscape activity kit – are meant to go hand-in-hand with Things Come Apart, our current special exhibit from the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. Others – like a performance by fiddlers Jake Blount and Tatiana Hargreaves – tie in well with our music content. All of them will bring a special Museum Day Live! experience to our visitors.

Hope to see you there!

René Rodgers is the Curator of Exhibits & Publications at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. For more information about this year’s Museum Day Live! at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, check out this link.

 

Ask Me Why I’m Crying: A Mournful Goodbye to Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion 2017

As another stellar Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion has now come to a close, the staff at the Birthplace of Country Music (BCM) is in mourning. Sleep deprived and squinting through bloodshot eyes, we were back in the office on Monday (later than usual; closing on Friday for a rest…) nursing our collective aches, pains, and fatigue while the remnants of the weekend’s events have all but vanished.

Within hours of the festival ending, the stages were down, the streets were clean, and as I drove to work on Monday morning, it was as if nothing had happened at all. Did we really just experience the experience we just experienced? Was it a dream? Our social media feeds validate that we lived it, but the weekend itself zipped by so fast that the general feeling of disorientation seems overwhelming. For those of us who spent more than a year planning for the 17th annual event, seeing it all end is very much like the passing of a dear friend. We’ll never get those moments back, but happily we still have our memories.

An exuberant performance by Judah & The Lion on the Piedmont Stage Saturday night at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion 2017. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Cora Wagoner

In order to hold onto those happy memories, we asked members of our staff and the festival committee to share their personal highlights from Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion 2017 so we could share it with all of you.

For me, personally, every vein was tapped over the course of the festival. I enjoyed some powerful performances by our festival artists throughout the weekend and often wished for a clone so I could have experienced more of them. However, my most memorable festival experiences may be my final ones. Ten minutes after breaking down into an ugly cry during “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” at the tribute to the 90th anniversary of the 1927 Bristol Sessions on Sunday night, I was dancing on stage with Southern Culture on the Skids with my friend Sandra Harbison, throwing chicken and Little Debbie snacks like it was the 1990s and we were seeing them at The Casbah in Johnson City. The vast ranges of emotion that ebb and tide during Bristol Rhythm can be pretty extreme for me. I’m naturally a bit empathic, and my emotional state is highly exacerbated by exhaustion. But it’s common for festivarians to go from tears to exuberance in a matter of minutes, isn’t it?

With my friend Sandra: selfie upon execution of our riveting dance ensemble backing Southern Culture on the Skids. Chicken and Little Debbie cakes were involved. Photograph courtesy of Charlene Tipton Baker

Here are just a few of the reflections on Bristol Rhythm 2017 from some of our staff and committee members:

Leah Ross, BCM Executive Director

“Standing on the State Street Stage on Sunday singing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” with the artists who performed during the tribute show in celebration of the 90th anniversary of the 1927 Bristol Sessions was very special to me. Looking out on the crowd made me feel humbled and proud to be a small part of a festival that continues to perpetuate and celebrate the music of our region. Everywhere I went, smiling faces assured me that everyone was having a good time. We are blessed to have a wonderful staff, a giving community, and visitors who know just how special Bristol really is.”

Christian Lopez with his arm around BCM Executive Director Leah Ross during the tribute to the 90th Anniversary of the 1927 Bristol Sessions on the State Street Stage. Also pictured (L to R) Tanya Blount and Michael Trotter Jr. of War & Treaty, Langhorne Slim, and Cruz Contreras of the Black Lillies. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Eli Johnson

Kris Truelsen, Radio Bristol Producer and Host of Farm and Fun Time

“Crowds flooded the Paramount to get a seat for this weekend’s special broadcast of Farm and Fun Time. From the first note played on the stage, there was something special in the air, and the crowd agreed with thunderous applause throughout the show. The combination of stellar artists – Earls of Leicester, Cactus Blossoms, Amythyst Kiah, and Bill and the Belles – and a lively crowd will no doubt go down in Farm and Fun Time history. It will forever be a fond memory for the Radio Bristol team.”

Bill and the Belles on stage at the festival Farm & Fun Time show, playing to a full house! © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Billie Wheeler

Brent Treash, Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion 2017 Committee Chairman

“One of the most anticipated sets of the festival for me personally was that of Colter Wall. As the band wrapped up their sound check for the Saturday afternoon set in the Paramount, Colter stood in the wings by himself strumming his guitar as the stage manager rattled off some of the high words of praise that fellow musicians and print journalists around the world are saying about this rising star.

Colter slowly walked up to the microphone all by his lonesome. He spoke softly as he greeted the capacity crowd, but his Bristol debut struck a familiar chord as he paid homage to the Birthplace of Country Music. His baritone voice dug deep as he sang a classic Jimmie Rodgers tune. I wanted to ask him about it after the set, but I think I already understood why he did it. Ninety years after Jimmie Rodgers made his recording debut, Colter Wall took us back in time with his Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion debut.

I also have to admit, it made a tear come to my eye and it reminded me that those 1927 Sessions are still influencing talented musicians today – and they are still making powerful music in Bristol.”

Bristol Rhythm Festival Committee Chairman Brent Treash with Colter Wall backstage at the Paramount. Photo Courtesy of Brent Treash

Dave Stallard, Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion Music Committee Chairman

“There’s something magical about a kid meeting a musician. On Sunday, I noticed a young lady – maybe 10 years old – singing along to every word of The Whiskey Gentry’s final song at Cumberland Park. I conspired with a festival friend, Lisa, to get the young lady backstage. You could see her explode when she was invited back, and she virtually swallowed Lauren, the lead singer of the band, in a huge hug when she came off stage. She was all smiles and jitters, and it was the moment of a lifetime for both of us.

My own son, Ben, had two such moments this weekend. Over the last year and a half, Elliot Root has become one of his favorite bands. I was able to take Ben and a friend backstage to meet the band, and Ben got “hired” – momentarily and for no money – to do a little roadie work for them. On Sunday Ben also go the chance to shake hands with Tyler Childers, whose song “White House Road” has been on repeat in our house for the last six weeks.”

Ben Stallard, son of Bristol Rhythm Music Committee Chairman Dave Stallard, acting as roadie for Elliot Root. Photograph courtesy of Dave and Suzi Stallard

Jessica Turner, Director of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum

“There is so much to love as we come out of this year’s festival. It was great to hear lots of different music, some familiar and some not. It was great to see loads of musicians in the museum. It was great to see the energy around our Farm and Fun Time broadcast from the Paramount, from those who know and support this show to those who came for the Earls of Leicester and left as new fans. And it was amazing to see musicians from many styles come together to pay tribute to the 90th anniversary of the 1927 Bristol Sessions, a set of music old and new that celebrated the past and the present, the iconic and the eclectic.

But perhaps my favorite part of the festival was the programming for children that we do. Our annual Children’s Day on Saturday featured music for families, arts and crafts tables, balloons, snow cones, face painters, and hands-on activities. This special part of the festival is a space to celebrate the children in our community, host an event that is tailored to them, and be a place for families to gather and enjoy the festival with activities just for their children. It’s also free and open to the public – not just festivalgoers – drawing in kids throughout our community. This year we featured music for kids, but also music BY kids as we showcased Sullins Academy (performing a medley of Dwight Yoakam songs) and Kid Pan Alley, who had worked with all Bristol, Virginia 5th graders to write and perform songs of their own. Seven 5th-grade classes each wrote a song at the end of August, practiced this song as a class, and performed it on stage in a school assembly and at the festival. Fostering these youngsters to find their voice, show their creativity, and sing out loud was a rewarding and joyous process!”

The Sullins Academy kids performing their rockin’ Dwight Yoakum tribute. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Hannah Holmes

Larry Gorley, Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion Music Committee Member

“On Saturday the Country Mural Stage area really started filling up about the time Front Country came on, and the crowd size only got better. With Melody Walker leading the vocals, the crowd was well entertained. Billy Strings was up next, and his set was great as he had an excellent band with him. By the time The SteelDrivers hit the stage, the Country Mural area was packed – it was wall-to-wall and almost across the street. And with new fill-in vocalist Adam Wakefield from NBC’s “The Voice,” it was party on! The band soon had the crowd singing along, and they knew the words and tempo to a lot of the band’s songs. Their set ended way too soon, but then Jerry Douglas & The Earls of Leicester came on. They took the crowd back to the days of Lester and Earl and the Foggy Mountain Boys, and they played and sung it like it is supposed to be – straight-up, high-octane bluegrass! And the crowd was enjoying every note. A great way to end Saturday night at the Country Mural!”

An aerial view of the Country Music Mural Stage during The SteelDrivers set. Completely packed! © Birthplace of Country Music; Photograph: Loch & Key Productions

Hannah Holmes, BCM Graphic Designer

“If I’m being honest, the thing that stands out in my exhausted brain the most right now was the food! Oh, man, I ate horribly this weekend, and I don’t regret my decisions one bit. I honestly enjoyed every meal from our amazing food vendors.

Let’s take a moment to remember the pork barbecue-covered tots from Southern Craft, the immortal Island Noodles (worth every minute waiting in that crazy long line), cheesecake on a stick from Lil’ Delights, the heaping plate of veggie lovers nachos from Savory Sweet (who knew sweet potatoes and nachos made such a divine pairing?), and many, many more. May the festival food lineup always be as lengthy and talented as our music lineup.”

Island Noodles staff working hard to keep up with demand for the tasty noddles. © Birthplace of Country Music

Erika Barker, BCM Sales & Business Development Manager

“This was my first Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion festival experience. I joined the Birthplace of Country Music staff just two months before the festival, and it has been amazing to watch and be a part of this huge event. It was wonderful to witness how much every single person in this organization, and all of the many volunteers, really, truly, and deeply care for this festival and what it represents to the community. Seeing the entire town transform for a weekend and come together to celebrate the musical heritage of this region was absolutely astonishing. I enjoyed every minute of it… As a new staff member, I got recommendations from many of my coworkers on the best things to do, see, or eat at the festival. I did my best to experience as many as I could, but I am sure I missed some. I will have to try again next year!”

State Street beginning to bustle. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Cora Wagoner

Tracey Childress, BCM Administrative Assistant

“Reflecting back on this past weekend, all I can think is WOW. How do I pick a favorite when there wasn’t anything I didn’t love? Seeing old friends that I only see once a year and truly understanding the ‘reunion’ part of the festival’s name.  Dancing along to all the different ‘rhythms’ of all the different genres we get to bring downtown and learning how much the history of the ‘roots’ music influenced these musicians. There is nothing better than watching so many people smiling and having the times of their lives and being grateful for the small part I have in making that happen.”

Langhorne Slim bares his soul to a captive audience on the Piedmont Stage. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Eli Johnson

Kim Davis, BCM Director of Marketing

“One of my favorite memories was of watching the shows at Cumberland Square Park stage this year.  The new lighting made all the shows magical and so memorable.”

New lighting at Cumberland Park Stage created a magical atmosphere for fans. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Cora Wagoner

Rene Rodgers, Curator of Exhibits and Publications at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum

“I am the staff liaison for the BRRR Green Team, the volunteers who spend the weekend clearing beer gardens of paper, plastic, and cans, digging through trash for recyclables, and generally promoting a greener festival. I love working with the Green Team committee – you couldn’t ask for a more dedicated, hardworking, and FUN group of people, and each year we get some great volunteers, new and old, who join us in our recycling mission. It’s a worthwhile, though dirty, job! On Saturday I was laughing hysterically with Green Team Chair Sarah Tollie as we tried to lift a heavy bag of cans into a big recycling container, beer and soda dripping down our arms, cans clinking ominously above our heads, bag slipping through our fingers. With two short people, this feat of strength was never going to be successful… Later that morning, we were carting several bags of recyclables down State Street in the back of our golf cart, hit a big bump, and bounced one of the bags straight off where it landed in front of Brett, our operations manager. Another mess but another bout of uncontrollable laughter. Despite the beer-soaked shoes and the desperate need for a shower at the end of festival weekend, it is all worth it to see our containers filled to the brim with recyclables instead of in the festival trash cans!”

Collecting recycling in Cumberland Square Park with volunteer Monica Hoel. The Green Team collected 1,080 pounds of paper and plastic at this year’s festival! Final numbers on cans still to come… Photographs courtesy of Monica Hoel (left) and Michael Foy of Revolution Curbside Recycling (right)

Scotty Almany, Digital Resources Manager & Catalog Associate at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum

“I get this feeling sometimes, not often, but these times always involve live music. I could call it an epiphany, a moment of Zen or a religious experience, and everyone would have at least an idea of what I am describing. If I really think about it, I can make a connection with most of the times this has occurred – that connection is that this feeling is a break of serenity during times of excessive stress or worry. It’s always been prompted by the tone of an electric guitar, starts as a little chill down the back of my neck then a wave of complex emotions wash over me. It gives me a sense of triumph, safety, and comfort. This happened to me around 5:40pm on Sunday as I stood watching Son Volt beside one of my oldest and closest friends. The set and setting of being with her and seeing a band who I’d listened to first so many years ago made the moment seem timeless, like it could have happened anytime in the past 20 or more years. It really is wondrous to me to think about these combinations of abstract sounds and words and how they have meant so much to me. Songs have given me legitimate faith, courage, motivation, contentment, and so much more. Make no mistake my friends, music is magical.”

Son Volt performing on the Piedmont Stage Sunday afternoon of Bristol Rhythm, one of the final performances of the weekend. © Birthplace of Country Music; photograph: Loch & Key Productions

Becky Littleton, BCM Director of Finance & Human Resources

“One gal stopped me on 6th Street mid-afternoon on Sunday and said, ‘I’m crying because the weekend is over and I have to go home. I don’t want it to be over!’ And she was literally crying!”

This sign, on display at Cumberland Square Park during festival, says it all — everyone loves Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion! © Birthplace of Country Music; photograph: Adam Martin

It was a great festival for us, and we hope you’ll let us know your thoughts on the festival, too. Please share your comments, memories, and suggestions on our Facebook page.

Charlene Tipton Baker is a Marketing Specialist at the Birthplace of Country Music.

 

Off The Record: The Jingle, The Rumble, The Roar – The Magic Of America’s Smoky Mountain Boy

By Bailey George, September 15, 2017

Our Radio Bristol DJs are a diverse bunch – and they like a huge variety of musical genres and artists. In our Off the Record series, we ask one of them to tell us all about a song, record, or artist they love.

From the great Atlantic Ocean to the wide Pacific shore, Roy Acuff represents our great musical heritage. To me and millions of others, he was and still is country music. His charm, his charisma, and his ability to handle an audience will never be surpassed. Though others have come and gone and might have had bigger star power or critical acclaim, he still stands as a giant in our music.

My discovery of “The King of The Hillbillies” came at a very difficult time for me in my life. My mother died of cancer when I was 10 years old. Suddenly the world as I knew it changed. I didn’t realize fully what had even happened. All of a sudden, I was motherless and lost in a dark, threatening place. Then, one night while at my new residence with my grandparents, a Hee-Haw rerun aired on television.

Like a prophet from heaven, Roy Acuff came into my living room and with a whistle and Dobro kick-off, I was instantly hooked on this thing called country music. The piece: “Wabash Cannonball.” I was entranced by this man dressed in a modest suit and tie, suspiciously balancing and holding a fiddle, but never actually playing it, twirling a Yo-Yo and boldly pronouncing the names of each of his soloists including one “Bashful Brother Oswald.” As the tune ended, I immediately knew that this music was something I wanted to be in too.

I’ve always been interested in people who are larger than life. From my favorite childhood authors to my fascination with folks like Mark Twain and Walt Disney, I’ve always loved the people who could take me from the small community of Walnut Grove, South Carolina, to the largest adventures across the universe. While I had certainly listened to music before, specifically John Denver, Alan Jackson, The Beach Boys with my mother, and Carolina beach music (known to the rest of the world as 1950s rhythm-and-blues) with my grandmother, I had never really experienced music quite like this. The sound, look, and style of Mr. Acuff completely filled my mind with visions of Americana. I wanted to be Roy Acuff. I wanted to dress like him, sing like him, act like him. He was unlike anything I had ever seen and in all my experience diving into the history of American music, I have still never come across anything quite like him.

When you came to see Roy Acuff and His Smoky Mountain Boys and Girls, you got a show. Not a concert. Not a performance. But a SHOW. He had it all. Heart and home songs, sacred numbers, train songs, comedy from “Bashful Brother Oswald” and Sister Rachel, jug bands, harmonica solos, fiddle tunes, and featured vocalists all in one repertory group of “hillbilly” entertainers. I treasured that. I’ve always been a sucker for entertainment, and Roy Acuff and his team were never short on vaudeville-esque antics and razzle dazzle. In an age of loud arena-filling pop country schlock, this down-home, personal style of performance has grown even more fascinating to me, and it’s a tradition I hope to continue in my own musical pursuits.

We have several Roy Acuff records in the museum’s collections. © Birthplace of Country Music; Gift of Betty Lou Dean and Roger Allen Dean

Admittedly, Acuff’s open-throat mountain style of country music might strike some modern ears as antiquated, rural, and possibly even melodramatic. But it was this passionate, heartfelt, and authentic performance that drew me in as something real and completely different from the more metropolitan sounds I’d been accustomed to in the music of my formative years.

Now, even as my music tastes have widened to include everything from classical arias to punk and rockabilly, Acuff still stands supreme in my mind as the world’s greatest performer. He was always true to himself and his music. He never updated during the heat of the rock-and-roll era. He stuck to what he knew.

And he worked hard! He traveled the world and entertained troops during three of our nation’s wars – World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. He brought the Grand Ole Opry and the city of Nashville to the forefront of the country music industry. He appeared in several Hollywood films, sharing the screen with huge stars such as Tex Ritter. He campaigned for governor of Tennessee. He shook hands with and hosted several presidents and heads of state. He was christened by Baseball Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean as “The King of Country Music” and was the first living inductee to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1962. Yet, even with all those accolades, he was still the curly-haired boy from the Smoky Mountains. He never left behind his upbringing in Maynardville, Tennessee.

This poster from Roy Acuff’s 1948 gubernatorial bid was later signed by him in 1972. © Birthplace of Country Music; Donated at the request of the late William Wampler

Roy Acuff brought country music to the world and inspired me to dig deep into this fascinating and important music. Perhaps, the greatest lesson he taught me though was how to be humble. Always treat your audience with respect. Never be unapproachable. Stick around until every picture is signed and every hand is shook. “They’re the ones that got you here. Give them all you got.” That was the rule that Acuff lived by: a lesson often lost on many modern music performers.

Roy Acuff represented the best of mountain class and southern culture. He symbolized everything that’s great about our nation: work hard at what you believe in, but always be humble.

A jewel here on earth, a jewel now in heaven. Thank You, Mr. Acuff.

Guest blogger Bailey George is a DJ on Radio Bristol. He hosts The Honky Tonk Hit Parade every Wednesday from 3 to 5pm. Bailey plays the best in classic country, honky tonk, rockabilly, and all around good music for his listeners who he calls “The Greatest People in the World.”

Hot Buttered Biscuits, Spicy Sausage Gravy: Southern Cooking at Its Best

I bet many of our readers don’t know this, but the second week of September is designated as National Biscuits and Gravy Week.

Now, in the south, biscuits and gravy are a home-cooked delight worth celebrating. In my family, the tradition of gravy making has been passed down from mother to daughter, and earlier this year on Radio Bristol’s Farm and Fun Time, I talked about my Grandma’s gravy recipe during the “Heirloom Recipe” segment – a storytelling part of the show when a favorite recipe reflecting Appalachian and southern food culture is shared with our radio listeners and live audience. And so we thought we’d dish out that recipe here to mark this special culinary week.

The best breakfast involves biscuits and gravy. Image by mccartyv on Pixabay

But this is not just a recipe for gravy; it is also a story about inadequacy because one of the things that serves as a reminder of my inadequacies is my Grandma’s gravy. Of course, I’m talking about sausage gravy – that magic breakfast potion of the south that, spooned on biscuits, the rest of the world wrinkles their noses at as a soggy mess. But to a lot of people in the south, and definitely to me, it is a favorite food.

I’m not talking about the powdered gravy with big, fake black pepper flakes, but real, made-from-scratch gravy. Sadly, try as I might, however, mine never tastes as good as my Grandma’s. My Grandma is in her 90s, still living with my Grandpa on the farm where they raised their four children. They have been married 71 years. Up until a few years ago, she made gravy every morning except Sundays when she got ready for church and knew a big Sunday dinner was on the horizon later that day. I grew up eating gravy at her house, before catching the school bus, or on stints home from college – basically any time I could get it.

Now, I’ve tried to make Grandma’s gravy with varying degrees of success, and it’s never been outstanding. What could be so hard about such a simple recipe: sausage, flour, milk, salt, pepper. Some people may get fancy and add other things, but this is not necessary. You fry up slices from a tube of Tennessee Pride of Jimmie Dean sausage (I recommend the “hot” variety) and remove them from your skillet. To that hot grease, you add one heaping tablespoon of flour for every cup of milk. Stir that to cook it until it’s very brown – roux they call that in some places. Then you add your milk. Some folks like to use cream, but my Grandma uses what she has on hand.

It doesn’t have to be fancy to be the best thing you ever had. “It’s that simple,” she says. My question: How can something that simple be so difficult? The tricks are in the details. Salt and pepper? “Yes,” she says. “Plenty.” And she likes to add it to the flour and stir that up really good. And the sausage really matters. You have to brown it well, almost burn it, so that you have a lot of flavor in the grease.

I shared this recipe with our Farm and Fun Time listeners, and now our blog readers, but good luck getting close! I follow the steps my Grandma laid out, and my gravy turns out…serviceable. There’s an unspoken science to gravy that southerners do not discuss. Like lumps, and how to get those lumps out of your gravy. I admit that sometimes I privately run my gravy through a sieve to get out the lumps. I’m not sure if my Grandma has ever had to do that; I’ve never asked, because I’m too polite. Maybe I just need more practice. I can’t imagine making gravy for my husband every day for nearly 70 years. Even if I started right now, I could never catch up to her.

There’s a lot to live up to when you come from a bunch of strong women, and Grandma’s gravy could be a metaphor for anything, although there really isn’t anything better than that. My own kids like my gravy just fine, but they really prefer my mom’s, their Mamaw’s gravy. Sometimes I tell them “Mamaw cooked the sausage and I just added the milk.” Sometimes that’s true. If I’m lucky, someday I’ll be making my own version worthy to be called Grandma’s Gravy for little people who think it’s the best thing in the world.

And if you need inspiration as you get ready to try this recipe, have a listen to the original gravy jingle that was performed by house band Bill and the Belles after my “Heirloom Recipe” segment at the Farm and Fun Time show:

That covers the gravy, but what about the biscuits? They, of course, are equally important to make this dish just right. Twenty years ago as a graduate student at Indiana, I was homesick for my family and good southern cooking (Indiana has a great food culture, but I missed the foods of my Appalachian home). I tried making biscuits several times, and they turned out flat, stale, just not good. And so, once again, I turned to the expert: my Grandma.

She listened patiently to my problem and gave her assessment confidently: “Are you using While Lily Flour?” I said no, because my grocer in southern Indiana didn’t carry that brand. “You need White Lily flour,” she said. A couple of weeks later a package arrived: a five-pound bag of White Lily Self-Rising Flour. I was skeptical, but I tried it with the same biscuit recipe. And she was right. White Lily Flour made good biscuits.

An advertisement for canned southern biscuits in a 1948 Ladies Home Journal — definitely not the same thing as made-from-scratch biscuits. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Since then I’ve learned that the type of flour really matters in a dish, and flours grown in different regions are different in their chemical makeup and in their milling. Having later lived in China and made dumplings there with Chinese flours, and then coming back to the U.S. where I struggle to replicate that consistency here, I have seen how flours make a difference.

Here’s the recipe from the White Lily Flour Company using their self-rising flour. It’s a simple recipe that is nearly identical to how my Grandma makes it – though it is worth noting that my Grandma doesn’t use a recipe for her biscuits, because once you’ve made thousands of biscuits you get a feel for the proportions of the ingredients. You can also use all-purpose flour and add your own leavening.

If your mouth is now watering, I urge you to celebrate National Biscuits and Gravy week with a plate of your very own. Feel free to take my Grandma’s recipes and make them your own family tradition!

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

Jimmie Rodgers: Reflections on the Musical Genius of The Singing Brakeman

Today marks what would have been the 120th birthday of America’s Blue Yodeler, the Father of Country Music – Jimmie Rodgers.

Take a second out of your busy day today and listen to just one song from Jimmie Rodgers. Any song. I promise you’ll be happy you did. That’s what I’m doing right now, listening to “I’m Free from the Chain Gang Now,” a sentimental heartbreaker of a tune, a song so powerfully delivered that in the past it has moved me to tears.

We have several Jimmie Rodgers records in the museum’s collection. As can be seen here, his songs were recorded and distributed on a variety of labels. © Birthplace of Country Music; Records are the gift of Betty Lou Dean and Roger Allen Dean, and Jim and Joyce Prohaska

It’s hard to not become immersed in the scenes Jimmie paints through his ease of delivery and phrasing, his smooth yet edgy and warbled vocals, the sincerity of a person who truly believes in what he’s singing. But what amazes me more than anything about Jimmie’s music is how relevant and fresh it still seems today. I guess many would call his music timeless, which it certainly is – but more than that, his music has a depth that has seldom been captured on record. Jimmie’s music hits you right in the gut. It has the ability to make you laugh out loud and then make you cry; it makes you yearn for the past and look forward to the future. His music is music for the heart and soul. It’s alive. Every time I put a needle to one of his records or when the sound of his signature blue yodel cuts through my car radio speakers, I can’t help but think Jimmie is giving me a wink and a nod.

As you may already know, Jimmie Rodgers is one of the most celebrated country musicians of all, and deservedly so. Possibly no other country artist has been so heavily imitated or influential. He was much more than a hillbilly artist that could yodel (though his yodel was top of the line). Jimmie was an innovator, and a walking musical juxtaposition in the most beautiful of ways. When I think of Jimmie I think of the complex and often conflicting images he portrayed through his music – the rambler, the sentimental crooner, the caring son, and the rounder, just to name a few. Many speculate that had he lived longer, and as his appeal and development as a musician continually grew, he would have been one of the most celebrated American musicians without the constraints of genre.

Publicity shots of Jimmie Rodgers, including one where he is in “cowboy” persona. From the John Edwards Memorial Foundation Records, #20001, Southern Folklife Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Many of us in Bristol and central Appalachia are familiar with Jimmie’s story and his music. One of the reasons our organization, including the radio station, museum, and festival, exists is in large part due to the impact Jimmie had on the world. Of course, he had his first big break here in Bristol recording two sides: “Sleep Baby Sleep” and “The Soldier’s Sweetheart.” That record, just an average seller, was recorded on August 4, 1927, part of what would eventually become known as the celebrated Bristol Sessions.

Let’s be honest: those two sides didn’t exactly turn the world upside down upon their release. But the music that would soon follow sure did. Lucky for us Victor Talking Machine Company executive Ralph Peer had insight and vision, and he followed a hunch that Jimmie had a lot more to offer, inviting him for a follow-up session just a few months later at the Victor studio in Camden, New Jersey. Jimmie would hit his stride at the next session, which would yield a massive seller – “Away Out on the Mountain” and “Blue Yodel No. 1 (T for Texas)” – and from this point, he didn’t slow down. He even appeared in a movie short called The Singing Brakeman, released in 1929 for Columbia Pictures; this short is the only known video footage of Jimmie singing and features three of his well-known tunes: “Waiting for a Train,” “Daddy and Home,” and “Blue Yodel No 1.” His distinctive sound continued to develop up to his final recording session just a few days before his death from tuberculosis on May 26, 1933 at the age of 35.

But instead of giving you a recycled history lesson of the greatness that is Jimmie Rodgers, I thought it would be much more interesting and fitting to mark this day by talking to musicians who love his music like I do. And so in celebration of Jimmie on his 120th birthday, I asked some of today’s greatest country and roots musicians to reflect on his music, to talk a little about how Jimmie Rodgers influenced them and how he might be found in the music they create today. A huge thanks to all those musicians for taking the time to share their thoughts on the genius of Jimmie Rodgers:

Tim O’Brien 

“Jimmie Rodgers just had the juice. He guided Ralph Peer to a real sweet spot in southern music. He played the part of the rake and ramblin’ boy and may not have needed to act that much to do so. Listen to most of the other Bristol Sessions singers and you’ll hear that swagger break through the pops and crackles. Jimmie Rodgers knew he was cool, and every recording gave him a way to show everyone.”

John Lilly 

“I was initially struck by Jimmie Rodgers’s yodeling, which I still find to be amazing. As I explore his recordings, however, I am captivated with the immense variety of accompanists he recorded with and the range of musical emotions he was able to express. He sounded great whatever the setting, from a full orchestra to just his own voice and guitar.”

Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton 

“The music of Jimmie Rodgers has gone across culture since it was introduced to the world. There are musicians all the way in India that have copied Jimmie Rodgers’s sound note-for-note. While record companies marketed him towards white and hillbilly audiences, his records often found their way into black homes. The irony that a person who was rumored to have gotten the ‘blues’ in his blue yodel from listening to Tommy Johnson as he entertained white patrons at hotel parties in Mississippi and have it repackaged and purchased by people in the black community is of a particular queerness that can only exist in America. With the conversation being had at the present time about white people playing blues and other forms of black music, I wonder if we would be having this conversation if they sounded as good as Jimmie. His respect and take on music from outside of his culture should be an inspiration.”

This Oscar Schmidt guitar, on display in the museum’s permanent exhibit, was owned, played, and signed (in the upper left corner, faintly legible now and not easily seen in this photograph) by Jimmie Rodgers. © Birthplace of Country Music; on loan from the collection of Joseph R. Gregory

Alice Gerrard 

“It seems as though Jimmie and his songs have been part of my musical life as long as I can remember. That bluesy voice, that yodel, and those songs…. I never much liked the Swiss type of yodeling but Jimmie’s made sense to me and was so much more accessible. Plus it had so much feeling in it.”

Roy Book Binder 

“First heard Jimmie Rodgers back in the ‘60s… I was really getting into old-time country blues…and was a fan of Emmett Miller. Jimmie Rodgers was a white guy who played and sang some blues, he was a yodeler, a singer of sentimental ballads…you name it, and he could make it his own! I admired that, he was hard to categorize! I do believe in some ways Jimmie Rodgers had an impact on my approach to building a pretty eclectic repertoire.”

David Peterson 

“Jimmie Rodgers made his way into my music most directly through Bill Monroe and his interpretation of those songs. Of course, a serious study of Rodgers himself has followed over the years. Anyone studying modern 20th-century western music will realize just what an influence Rodgers was on almost every form of popular music, including rock n roll.”

Marty Stuart 

“I think Jimmie Rodgers exists. Perhaps he’s a reclusive ghost who lives somewhere beyond the edge of the universe. Of course, proof that the Father of Country Music walked among us can be found in his Victor recordings made in the early days of the 20th century. His guitar hangs in a vault in Meridian, Mississippi. I once sat in a chair he made. I’ve held his striped railroader’s hat. I have one of his brakeman’s lanterns, and the briefcase that contained his songs and was laid inside his casket on the funeral train from New York City back to Mississippi. As his marker in Meridian reads: ‘His is the music of America.’  Although the average American doesn’t know his name, Jimmie Rodgers is an integral part of our atmosphere. He is synonymous with country music.”

Kris holding a Jimmie Rodgers picture disc, the first disc of this type known in country music. This disc appeared at the end of Jimmie’s career – only a few hundred copies were made, and it was released after his death – and bears his recordings of two songs: “Cowhand’s Last Ride” and “Blue Yodel No. 12.” © Birthplace of Country Music

And so this brings us full circle – if you’re taking the time to read this, I urge you to spend just a few more minutes today and seek out Jimmie’s music. Listening to a Jimmie Rodgers record is much more powerful than anything I can possibly write. Seriously. Put on a song of his you’ve never heard. He has a surprisingly vast catalog for having a recording career of only five and a half years. Listen to “Gambling Polka Dot Blues” or “Prairie Lullaby” or “Blue Yodel No. 9” or “I’m Sorry We Met” or “Never No Mo” or…really any of his songs.

Take it from someone who has listened to his catalogue back and forth on repeat for years – there’s always something new to discover. And if you listen close enough, you’ll soon find the Singing Brakeman can still be heard in the voices and sounds of musicians across the country, and for that matter across the world.

Happy Birthday, Jimmie.

Kris Truelsen is the Producer at Radio Bristol. Tune in to the station today to hear Jimmie Rodgers on the hour all day long.

Ernest Stoneman’s First Hit: “The Titanic”

The unsinkable RMS Titanic sank in the cold Atlantic waters on April 15, 1912, claiming over 1,500 lives of its passengers and crew, and capturing the attention and imagination of the world from that moment forward. After years of searching, the wreckage of the Titanic was discovered on September 1, 1985; researchers continue to study the wreckage and ephemera that connects to the ship and its passengers, and the story of the Titanic still resonates today.

1912 engraving by Willy Stöwer: Der Untergang der Titanic. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons

To mark the date of that discovery, we wanted to explore the retelling of the Titanic’s story in song – as with many disasters of the day, the wreck of the Titanic gave rise a few years later to a song detailing this contemporary history, one that was part of people’s lives and memories. In early September 1924, Appalachian musician Ernest “Pop” Stoneman traveled to New York to make his first recordings with OKeh Records, part of a few days of recording that also included Fiddlin’ John Carson and several other musicians as OKeh continued to build their catalog of popular American music. Stoneman chose two songs for this session, one of which was “The Titanic.”

That first recording in 1924 was not released – Stoneman and the OKeh executives thought that it was too fast, so he agreed to travel back to New York to do another recording of the song. On January 8, 1925, he recorded it again, and it was released later that year. This version of “The Titanic” (OK 40288) was a success, which led to further trips to New York to cut new records. He then recorded the song again in 1926, this time under the title “The Sinking of the Titanic” for the Edison label (Ed 51823, 5200).

Stoneman’s lyrics to “The Titanic” tell the story well, including a bit of social commentary about the difference between rich and poor on the voyage:

It was on Monday morning just about one o’clock,
That the great Titanic begin to reel and rock.
Then the people began to cry, saying, “Lord I’m a-going to die.”
It was sad when that great ship went down.

Chorus:
It was sad when that great ship went down,
Husbands and wives, little children lost their lives.
It was sad when that great ship went down.

When they were building the Titanic, they said what they could do.
They were going to build a ship that no water could not go through,
But God with his mighty hand showed to the world it could not stand.
It was sad when that great ship went down.

Chorus

When they left England, they were making for the shore.
The rich they declared they would not ride with the poor.
So they sent the poor below, they were the first that had to go.
It was sad when that great ship went down.

Chorus

When the people on the ship were a long ways from home,
With friends all around them, didn’t know their time had come,
For death came riding by, sixteen hundred had to die.
It was sad when that great ship went down.

Chorus

Stoneman wasn’t the only artist to record a song detailing the Titanic’s sad fate. Tony Russell’s Country Music Records: A Discography, 1921—1942 details the various recordings of the song:

“The Titanic,” Ernest Stoneman September 4, 1924 (unissued) and January 8, 1925

“The Sinking of the Titanic,” Vernon Dalhart, June 4, 1925

“The Sinking of the Titanic,” George Reneau, October 14, 1925

“The Sinking of the Titanic,” Ernest Stoneman, June 22, 1926

“The Sinking of the Titanic,” Richard “Rabbit” Brown, March 11, 1927

“Sinking of the Great Titanic,” Vernon Dalhart, May 23, 1928

Long after these early hits of hillbilly and blues records, the Titanic lives on in imaginations. Celine Dion’s “Love Theme from Titanic” (also called “My Heart Will Go On”) won a Grammy in 1999 for Record of the Year; the song was the theme song from James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster film Titanic, which won 11 Oscars. And visitors pour into the many exhibits that chronicle the Titanic‘s history and display its once-seabound artifacts, including the Titanic museum attraction just down the road in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.

And in 2013, Ernest Stoneman’s “The Titanic” was recognized with its own Grammy award when it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and recognized for its historical significance in recording history.

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