November 2017 - The Birthplace of Country Music
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Top Ten Things You Didn’t Know About Square Dancing

I’ll never forget how I felt the first time I went to a real square dance.

I had been studying Spanish in my apartment with my best friend in college when her phone rang. Our music community in Johnson City, Tennessee, was incredibly strong and connected at that point. Word was traveling down the iPhone telegraph that a caravan of folks would be leaving from Mary Street heading toward Burnsville, North Carolina, for a square dance.

I had been a diligent and dedicated student all through college and the thought of abandoning a homework assignment was enough to send me into an anxiety attack. Excitement and peer pressure got the best of me, however. It was the only zero I ever received on an assignment, but the experience of the dance was well worth the failing grade. Perhaps it was that the world seemed exceptionally gloomy on that evening (the country was a few days into a government shutdown and public tension was high), but the square dance magically transported us all away from the problems of society for a moment. We were transfixed in do-si-dos, swings, and promenading through a sea of mesmerizing fiddle and banjo tunes.

The next morning, I began wondering just how in the world something so free and happy could have dwindled away from so many of our Appalachian communities. Dances had once been centerpieces of mountain society. They served as social gatherings where news could be swapped, courtships could form, and musicians could test their chops. Today, it is safe to say that square dancing is in a revival of sorts. There are numerous workshops and classes offered throughout the mountains to teach people to dance and to call. There are also young folks who are working to bring square dancing back to into communities.

I’ve been an advocate of dancing since that first night in Burnsville, and I’m hoping this post will encourage you to get out on the dance floor yourself. I’m sure many of you are reading this and thinking to yourself: “I haven’t square danced since elementary school!” or even “I’ve never square danced in my life!” On that note, I think it’s a real shame that school children don’t get to experience the Virginia Reel anymore in gym class.

The Virginia Reel in action. © Tyler Hughes

If your interest has been piqued but you’re still not sure about swinging and promenading, then today – National Square Dancing Day! – is the perfect time for this “Top Ten Things You Didn’t Know About Square Dancing” list. Hopefully this blog post will give you that final nudge to find a dance near you. Read the list and then get your dancing shoes on (see #8 below)!

  1. 10. It Ain’t All Squares

Square dancing developed long ago from a mix of English country dances and African American social dances. The typical formation is four couples in the shape of a square. However, all along the Appalachian Mountains it became popular to run square dance steps in large circle dances using as many couples as can fit on the floor. The Circle Dance often uses moves like the Right and Left Grand to continually have a dancer switch partners. This gives everyone a chance to dance with everyone and often breaks the ice for folks a little nervous about meeting others and asking them to dance.

  1. 9. Square Dances are Forgiving (Thankfully!)

There is often a fear by first-time dancers that they will look foolish because they don’t how to dance the moves correctly. This thought should never cross a dancer’s mind though. Square dance callers are always used to having beginners on the floor, and the job of the caller is to explain the dance in full until everyone is comfortable. These dances are welcoming spaces where more experienced dancers are always willing to help you learn the ropes, and if you do get all twisted up and turned around, nobody is going to mind. Square dances are not competitive sporting matches; rather, they’re a place to have fun. So stop worrying!

  1. 8. No Dress Code

The first time I invited a friend to what would be their first square dance, he looked puzzled and disappointed when he said, “I can’t. I don’t own any cowboy boots.” I politely explained that cowboy boots were not a requirement. Neither are gingham shirts, petticoats, or cowboy hats. Just as squares can be danced to modern music (see #5), the typical dress for dances has evolved as well. Jeans, slacks, and even yoga pants would be just as fitting for a square dance now.

Wedding guests -- plus the bride and groom -- participate in a square dance
You can even wear a wedding dress for a square dance! Courtesy of Emily Robinson, photograph by Skyryder Photography 
  1. 7. Square Dances are for Everyone

Square dances, like most of country, old-time, and bluegrass music traditions, are often portrayed as homogenous scenes that lack any type of social diversity. However, square dancing is forward-thinking. Many dances today are called with gender neutral terms, and there is no scrutiny for dancing with partners of the same sex. There are numerous organizations worldwide working to create welcoming dance scenes such as the International Association of Gay Square Dance Clubs or the U.S. Handicapable Square Dance Association.

6. Square Dances are Everywhere

Just as you don’t have to dress country to dance, you don’t even have to live in the country to dance. Square dances are quite literally everywhere. They span the entire country from the historic Carcassonne dance in Kentucky to a thriving scene in Baltimore, Maryland. Though they are called different names, squares live on across the pond as well at Irish Ceilidh Dances or Scottish Country Dances.

Several dancers participate in a community square dance in Big Stone Gap
You can find square dances in the usual places – and the unusual, like this community square dance held in the parking area of a local business in Big Stone Gap! © Ann Marrs
  1. 5. Tune Up Your Fiddles or Synthesizer!

Square dancing is closely associated with fiddles, banjos, and country music. However, today square dances are performed to numerous types of music including disco, modern pop, and techno.

  1. 4. Don’t Just Dance, Call!

There has been a resurgence in recent years to teach more people to become square dance callers. As elders of the tradition have passed away, they’ve left behind a void, and a wealth of folk dancing knowledge needs to be passed on to younger generations before it is lost forever. If you’re interested in learning to call, find a Dare to Be Square! event near you. These weekend-long workshops offer advice and lessons from expert callers hoping to expand the calling world. If you’re lucky enough to live near a caller, literally give them a call on the phone. Many callers, particularly older ones, are more than willing to show newbies the ropes.

The author calls the steps at a square dance
Calling can be just as much fun as dancing, though perhaps not as strenuous! © Lou Murrey
  1. 3. Take It to the Next Level

Square dancing doesn’t have to stay in your own backyard. You could take it national. In fact, you could do-si-do all the way to the National Square Dance Convention. The convention was born out of a dance in California in 1952 and is now going into its 67th year. The convention celebrates every aspect of modern square dancing and is even open to Contra dancers as well.

  1. 2. Musicians Are Welcome Too

You don’t have to be a dancer or a caller to enjoy a square dance. You could add so much to the mix as a musician too. Callers are almost always looking to throw together bands, so if you fancy yourself a good banjoist or guitarist then give your local dance a call. Some dance halls have established bands while others have open bands that anyone can join on any given night.

Musicians playing at a square dance
Musicians play a host of lively tunes to get the dancers moving. Courtesy of Emily Robinson, photograph by Skyryder Photography
  1. 1. Square Dancing is Fun! (Most importantly!)

Finally, square dancing is just plain fun – and good for you! In a fast-paced world where you’re more likely to text than swing your partner, a square dance is a perfect way to connect with other humans without the technological filter. Square dances were originally intended as social gatherings. Even before the Civil War, people of various social and economic positions were intermingling and sharing in their experience at square dances across the country. They serve the same social function today. Square dancing can remind us that when we work hand-in-hand, we can create a harmonious world or at least a harmonious basket (square dance humor – sorry!).

Guest blogger Tyler Hughes is a professional musician and educator from Southwest Virginia. He is dedicated to reviving the square dance scene in the coalfields of Virginia through school programs and community dances in Big Stone Gap, Virginia.

 

 

Trading Local: Keeping Craft and Currency Close To Home

Ahhhh…the magical world of retail shopping! It’s called many things from “therapy” to “a necessary evil” to “entertainment” to “an addiction.” The retail industry is a complicated, beautiful, sometimes crazy sector of our culture and economy that reaches every individual in some way.

Tomorrow, November 25, is Small Business Saturday, a day dedicated to encouraging us to shop in and support local businesses from smaller merchants and mom-and-pop stores to independent restaurants and cafes. And these small, local businesses include “miscellaneous store retailers” or “specialty retailers” like the stores and gift shops that can be found in museums, cultural venues, and even libraries. A tiny niche within the vast retail sector, but one that has impact nonetheless!

The 2017 Small Business Saturday graphic from American Express.

I started working for the Birthplace of Country Music in 2014 as the Museum Manager – this, of course, covered a lot of responsibilities, including stocking and running The Museum Store. Which led to a lot of questions: What must a small museum store do to stand out in the crowd among big box giants in a society where bigger is almost always perceived to be better? How do we compete for our piece of the estimated $4.785 trillion retail sales in the United States? And finally, how do we inspire customers to come into The Museum Store as a place to shop when there are so many wonderful and unique shopping opportunities in our historic downtown in Bristol, TN/VA?

The first step in creating an inspiring and meaningful museum store was to look to the museum’s mission statement: “To explore the history, impact, and legacy of the Bristol Sessions through educational, engaging, and fun experiences and provide our patrons with museum experiences that teach, entertain, delight, and spark curiosity.” It was important, therefore, to make every effort to create a museum store that was firmly part of that mission – this was accomplished by bringing together a variety of items that dig deeper into our content, for instance through books and media. The books give our visitors an opportunity to learn more about the 1927 Bristol Sessions, to explore their impact and legacy on other musical genres and later musicians, and to understand the Appalachian history and heritage that is a part of these musical traditions. And records, CDs, box sets, and videos provide numerous ways for interested patrons to take the music they’ve been tapping their feet to in our exhibits home with them! The aim was to strive to be an extension of the museum and an integral part of the overall museum experience. While this is obviously very important to our visitors, from near and far, it is especially important for our local residents as it is another way to encourage knowledge of and pride in the heritage of their region.

Display of books, CDs, and other media in the Birthplace of Country Music Museum store
Books and music relevant to the Bristol Sessions as well as more current selections extend the museum experience. © Birthplace of Country Music

Another way to extend the museum’s mission through the store is by offering elements of our Appalachian culture to our store visitors, for instance through local items that showcase the best of tradition and innovation in this region in a way that connects back to our community. The store has a host of unique, handmade goods from local and regional artisans in The Museum Store, bringing a truly special element to the retail space. Our artisan items include pottery, jewelry, steampunk lamps, glass, textiles, folk art, woodwork, soaps and lotions, and hand-printed notecards, just to name a few! As part of the store display, they bring a gallery affect that is widely appealing to store customers and museum patrons alike. Additionally, the ability to consign the merchandise from artisans is financially beneficial to a museum store as the artisans are paid as items sell. Most importantly, featuring artisans in the store is a great way to support these artists and to highlight and celebrate the craft traditions in this region. We are fortunate to have so many talented local and regional artisans, all producing beautiful items, and we are glad to work with them in this mutually beneficial way.

Different artisan items from the Birthplace of Country Music Museum store, including hand-dyed yarn, wooden boxes, glass pumpkins, and a steampunk lamp
One-of-a-kind handmade goods by local and regional artisans create a gallery atmosphere in The Museum Store. © Birthplace of Country Music

And finally, let’s face it…any time you visit a museum or historic site, you’ve gotta get the t-shirt! Most museum visitors love to take home an easy-to-pack souvenir, and our locals love to send a piece of Bristol to far-away friends and family for special occasions. From a marketing standpoint, souvenir items – like t-shirts, hats, magnets, mugs, bumper stickers, patches, etc. – are an effective means of getting the BCM name around the world! T-shirts remain a top seller and never go out of style. We work with local screen printers, but also offer custom designed tees and sweatshirts created just for our store that have proven to be very popular as well.

A view of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum store
T-shirts are always a popular take-away for our visitors, and the inviting front table display changes with the seasons. © Birthplace of Country Music

This combination of content-driven items, handmade goods, and souvenirs provides a truly unique atmosphere in our museum store and sets us apart from other retailers in our area. It also makes us one more asset in our quaint historic downtown, one that helps tourists and visitors to have an enjoyable and engaging experience – from visiting the museum and its store to eating at a local restaurant and strolling around State Street popping into the many wonderful shops.

And so it’s worth remembering the importance of shopping local and patronizing small businesses, tomorrow on Small Business Saturday, and every day of the year! For every $100 spent in your community, $68 stays in the local economy – which is a big deal. And, of course, you’ll be supporting our fantastic museum; you’ll be helping regional artisans to continue producing their amazing work; and, as you wear or gift that BCM t-shirt or hat, you will show your pride in the awesome and very important musical heritage that makes Bristol the birthplace of country music!

* Check out our website for information on all of our great specials and promotions in The Museum Store and online over the weekend, including Bristol Rhythm tickets, discount promotions, and free shipping!

Guest blogger Landy Mathes is the former Museum Manager at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. In that role, she often tapped into the Museum Store Association, a great place to gain the knowledge and resources needed for a museum store to thrive in a competitive retail environment. 

Caring for Your Family Treasures: Photographs

The holidays are upon us! Cozy gatherings with family and friends often lead to reminiscing about past gatherings, retelling funny family stories, and maybe even paging through photo albums. That works best, of course, if your family photos are actually in albums and not stacked in shoeboxes like mine are.

Two boxes overflowing with family photographs
Two of many photo boxes just waiting to be organized… © Emily Robinson

Because I am a museum collections manager, my family has decided that I should also be the family history collections manager! I’ve been slowly organizing our photos, documents, and special keepsakes and trying to apply my professional collections training to a home setting. And so I thought it would be a great time to share some tips and tricks so that you too can start to tackle elements of your own family history!

First up: photographs. There are many different kinds of photographs. Maybe you are lucky enough to have some glass slides or tin-type portraits of your ancestors. I can almost guarantee that you have a phone or computer hard drive full of digital photos. For the purposes of this post, though, I’m going to focus on what’s piled up in shoeboxes in most of our homes: photographic prints on paper. Here are some tips to storing and caring for these photos so you can actually enjoy them with your family…maybe next Thanksgiving!

Ditch the shoeboxes and the self-adhesive albums

Cardboard boxes and shoeboxes contain acids that will eventually harm your photograph collections. Old photo albums may also contain acidic paper that will brown and crumble over time. And remember those old “magnetic” self-adhesive albums where you place your pictures on a sticky page and then cover them with an attached plastic sheet? The sticky stuff will actually damage photographs as they years pass by.

A photo album label noting that it is acid, lignin and PVC free
Look for labels like this one to be sure your albums won’t damage your photographs. © Emily Robinson

Look for boxes and albums that are acid-free, lignin-free, PVC-free, and have passed the PAT (Photographic Activity Test). The scrapbooking craze of a few years ago was great for home archivists – it means there are a ton of great photo album and photo box options available at craft stores, big box stores, and online. Add some to your holiday wish list!   

 Avoid sticky situations

Have you ever come across an old piece of tape or the remnants of an old rubber band when going through old files? Blech. Avoid using adhesive labels, tape, post-its, rubber bands, or glue on your photos, especially for long-term storage. Adhesives will inevitably fail and rubber bands will dry up and get gummy. The sticky residue from all of these things will damage your photos. Look for albums with sleeves or use photo corners to put pictures in albums.

Pictures of people like to live in the same places that actual people like to live

Most of us have storage space in our basements or attics, but basements are usually too damp and attics too hot for photograph storage. Chemical deterioration doubles with each 10 degree increase in temperature, and damp conditions can lead to mold and insect infestation. Extreme temperature and humidity fluctuations cause structural damage – think of a wooden door swelling and shrinking. It’s better to keep your photos in a place where YOU would feel comfortable – a bedroom chest or guest room closet, for example, rather than a basement or attic (not that you’d feel comfortable stuffed into a chest or a closet, but you get the idea).

Photographs don’t like wet feet

Water pools on the floor when there is a leak or a flood, so your photos will be safer if they are up on a shelf. Aim for at least 6 inches off the floor.

Shelving that is raised off the floor
Purchase shelving units with shelves that can be installed at any height you choose for flexibility. © Emily Robinson

Don’t let memories fade away

Photographs, particularly color prints, will fade if exposed to light. The safest place to keep them is in albums, where they will only be exposed to light when you are looking at them. For framed photos, consider framing good-quality copies and keeping the originals in albums. At the very least, try to keep framed photographs out of sunlight and unfiltered fluorescent light. Professional frame shops offer treated acrylic that blocks the UV rays that cause fading, but keep in mind that this just slows fading. Nothing can prevent it altogether except blocking all exposure to light.

Bridal photograph of the author's mother, showing quite a bit of fading
This bridal photograph of my mother is badly faded after decades of display. © Emily Robinson

Information please!

Future generations will have no idea who’s who in an unlabeled photo! Use a soft pencil to label the backs of photos with dates, names, and places. Avoid permanent markers, which can bleed or break down and damage photos. Pigma Micron pens can work well depending on the type of paper your photograph is printed on, but in my experience the ink can sometimes smear when not allowed to fully dry.

The author and another family member on vacation in the 1980s
If you really hate writing dates on photographs, just make sure to always wear conspicuously trendy clothes in all your photographs. This photo from a family vacation is clearly from the 1980s. © Emily Robinson

Learn more about caring for your family photographs

There are a lot of professional resources out there that will also help you in your role as the family archivist. Check out the advice from the National Archives, the Northeast Document Conservation Center, and the American Institute for the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works.

Most importantly, enjoy the time with your family and the trips down memory lane as you start taking care of your family treasures!

Emily Robinson is the Collections Manager at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.

Falling for Farm and Fun Time: Family Stories, Brother Boys, and John McEuen on Stage

After a brief hiatus from the Birthplace of Country Music Museum’s Performance Theater, Farm and Fun Time was back with another sellout crowd on November 9! Thanks to our sponsor Eastman Credit Union, Radio Bristol was able to bring Farm and Fun Time not only to those in the audience or who tuned in to WBCM-LP, but to viewers far and wide via Facebook Live. Be sure to like WBCM – Radio Bristol on Facebook to tune in every month!

Bill and the Belles performing at November's Farm and Fun Time show.
Two of the Belles sing in harmony. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Billie Wheeler

For the November show, Farm and Fun Time got underway as usual with some opening selections from host band Bill and the Belles. Following these finely crooned tunes, Robert Gipe took the stage for the first portion of the program: the “Heirloom Recipe” segment. Gipe is the director of the Appalachian program at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College, a producer of the Higher Ground community drama series in Harlan, Kentucky, and the critically acclaimed author of the illustrated novel Trampoline. As Gipe talked about his childhood days in Kingsport, Tennessee, he shared the important role that cheese played in his family’s diet, especially pimento cheese and mac and cheese. Though his story was a touching tribute to his mother and her love for these cheesy concoctions, Gipe still managed to have the crowd rolling in the aisles. Keeping the laughs rolling, Bill and the Belles performed “A Boy Named Cheesy,” the hilariously tragic tale of a boy who eats entirely too much cheese. (Is that even possible?!)

Robert Gipe shares stories of food and family with a laughing audience at November's Farm and Fun Time show.
Robert Gipe shares stories of food and family with his appreciative audience. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Billie Wheeler

Following this great segment, our first musical guests of the evening were the Brother Boys. Drawing heavily from the early country music tradition of brother duets and adding splashes of pop and soul, front men Ed Snodderly and Eugene Wolfe had our audience grooving along throughout their entire set. From country classics like Marty Robbins’s “Singin’ the Blues” to Snodderly’s original “Record Shop,” the Brother Boys set was a crowd-pleaser that featured something for everyone. A special portion of the show was set aside for an excerpt of Wolfe’s new one-man show, “The Book of Mamaw,” soon to be featured here at the museum in partnership with Arts Alliance Mountain Empire. Telling stories of his childhood spent with grandparents in Greeneville, Tennessee, Wolfe’s storytelling captivated the crowd and was a nice addition to this fantastic set of music.

Eugene Wolf and Ed Snodderly of the Brother Boys performing at November's Farm and Fun Time show.
Eugene Wolf and Ed Snodderly make the perfect duo as the Brother Boys. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Billie Wheeler

For our “ASD Farm Report,” Radio Bristol visited Myers Pumpkin Patch in Bull’s Gap, Tennessee. A third-generation farm, Myers transitioned from being a dairy and tobacco farm to one focused on educational field trips. Though field pumpkins and Indian corn are a major part of their business, the Myers work year-round on a wide variety of crops. Check out this video from our trip:

Our last guest of the evening was none other than John McEuen. A founding member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, John worked on the classic Will the Circle Be Unbroken – a pioneering album that brought together country legends from Mother Maybelle Carter to the King of Bluegrass, Jimmy Martin. A giant in the country music field, it was an honor to have McEuen on Farm and Fun Time. Accompanied by Matt Cartsonis, McEuen closed our show out with a diverse selection of songs, including some from his new album “Made in Brooklyn” and bluegrass classics. Even the Belles joined him for a few tunes in this fun-filled set of music – definitely a thrill for the band!

John McEuen performing at November's Farm and Fun Time show; seen here playing his banjo.
John McEuen brought something special to November’s Farm and Fun Time show. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Billie Wheeler

Though our Farm and Fun Time Christmas Ball featuring Jill Andrews, The Secret Sisters, and host band Bill and the Belles is sold out in December, be sure to join us Saturday, December 2 at 7pm EST via Facebook Live! Tickets are already on sale for our January 11 show featuring Uncle Shuffelo and His Haint Hollow Hootenanny and Flatt Lonesome and our February 8 show featuring Larry Sigmon and Martha Spencer and Willie Watson. For more information and to purchase tickets, for these events, visit www.listenradiobristol.org.

Nathan Sykes is Assistant Producer at Radio Bristol — have a listen to hear him on air!

It’s Not You, It’s Us: The Heartbreak of Unsolicited Object Donations

As the museum collections manager, it’s my job to take care of and keep track of all the STUFF in the museum. Which is great, because I love old stuff! I love my old stuff. I love the museum’s old stuff. I might love your old stuff, too!

In the museum biz, though, we have to put the brakes on our love of stuff and be very thoughtful about what we bring into our permanent collection. We’re talking about a serious long-term relationship, to have and to hold, forever and ever. It’s not something to be entered into lightly. Have you ever brought an object to the front desk of a museum, only to be told that you need to make an appointment and come back later? What’s the big deal about dropping something off? Well, it’s not you, it’s us – I promise. Let me explain…

My other true love is paperwork

When we accept objects into the museum’s permanent collection, we really do mean permanent. The museum is promising to be stewards of these important historical objects and to keep them in perpetuity. As a nonprofit organization that serves the community, we take our duties as stewards of these objects seriously. We keep track of them and take care of them so they will be available to the community for research and via exhibitions and publications. Through saving objects and audio/visual material, we are saving and perpetuating the incredible stories of people in our community and region.

Keeping track of the museum’s objects, their condition, and their location involves a lot of database records, file folders, lists, photographs, tracking numbers…you get the idea. The Collections Management department is responsible for the large amount of tracking documentation and legal paperwork that follows each and every object we accept, so it makes sense for us to be the ones to be the gateway for object donations. Our friendly and hardworking Visitor Services staff has plenty to do without having to keep track of objects and huge amounts of paperwork, too! It would be tragic if something was dropped off at the front desk and it got lost in the shuffle, or if the amazing story behind an object got lost. To keep things straightforward and streamlined, our policy only allows the Collections Management staff to accept objects.

Our Visitor Services staff is the best! They cannot accept object donations, but they will be happy to give you the contact information for the Collections Manager. © Birthplace of Country Music

If I can’t have the one I love, I won’t have none at all

You may have heard the Smithsonian Institution referred to as “America’s Attic.” That makes collections managers cringe, because not only are attics too hot for storing museum objects, but attics are notorious for being disorganized. Also, sometimes they have squirrels in them. We pride ourselves here at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum on being both organized and squirrel-free!

No squirrels allowed.

In order to remain so, we have a Scope of Collections. Instead of collecting anything and everything related to country music and Bristol, we collect objects that support the types of exhibitions we want to do. This is driven by the Birthplace of Country Music’s mission, which is to perpetuate, promote, and celebrate Bristol’s rich musical heritage; to educate and engage audiences worldwide regarding the history, impact and legacy of the 1927 Bristol Sessions from which we derive our name; and to create recognition, opportunities, and economic benefit for our local and regional communities. You can find a list of what we do and do not collect here! The Curatorial and Collections staff carefully reviews each and every potential object donation to be sure it fits our mission before we make room for it on the shelf – this is another reason we require an appointment to discuss donations.

I just need some space

We have our Scope of Collections not only as a guide to help us keep our collecting activity mission-driven, but also for practical reasons. For one thing, we want to provide meaningful collections for research and not collect the exact same things that other institutions are collecting. Additionally, we simply have limited space, time, and money! Before we agree to take an object or collection of objects, we have to make sure we have a safe place to put it. We also have to plan our budget to cover costs associated with processing new objects – things like archival boxes, supportive foam and tissue, new shelving, and staff time. Speaking of staff time, it can take weeks (or even years, depending on the size of the collection) to fully process a donation of objects. Because of these constraints, we must be careful to only accept objects that are truly within our scope.

The sight of archival boxes in a neat row makes a Collections Manager swoon. © Birthplace of Country Music

Call us, maybe?

If you think we might want your object to have and to hold, in the public trust, forever and ever, please don’t drop it off at the front desk. Your stuff is special! It deserves careful consideration and attention! To make sure I can provide that attention, please email me at erobinson@birthplaceofcountrymusic.org or call me at 423-573-1927. I will happily find a time for us to talk about the potential of a serious long-term relationship between the Birthplace of Country Music and your amazing STUFF!

Emily Robinson is the Collections Manager at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.

 

Off the Record: From Songs around a Campfire to “The Selfishness in Man” and Leon Payne

By Martha Spencer, November 4, 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.

Howdy folks! Martha Spencer, the DJ of Hillbilly Wonderland, on Radio Bristol here for this blog!

I come from a family of old-time fiddlers, banjo pickers, instrument makers, and dancers in Whitetop Mountain, Virginia. I play and sing in a few different bands, and I love to dance, write songs, and listen to country music! With this post, I wanted to share a song and songwriter that has inspired me recently.

You know that feeling. Every once in a while, a song reaches out and just strikes a chord with you. Back in August, I was at the Galax Old Time Fiddlers’ Convention, which some folks call the “super bowl of mountain music.” Me and Frank Rische had been jamming over at Billy Hurt Jr.’s camp – Billy is a good buddy and great fiddler – when I heard a couple of older fellows singing at the camp across the aisle. It caught my attention, so I sort of wandered in. I knew one of the players, Marvin Harlow; he had performed with Larry Hall and the Virginia Mountaineers at a show in Floyd that I also played on, and I had enjoyed hearing them and getting to talk a bit. So we joined in, and I found myself in the middle of a fun jam with a guitar and few great singers. It was one of those special moments, jamming with some folks you’d never sang with and listening to them play – they had that great old-timey, harmony sound together and pulled out a lot of great old country numbers around the campsite.

The sign leading into Galax highlights its place in old-time music. Photograph by Jimmy Emerson

Later in this jam session, Allen Messenger, one of the singers, did the song “The Selfishness in Man,” which starts out with the lyrics: “I saw a little beam of sunlight steal across a purple sky / And bend down to kiss a rosebud, oh it made me want to cry….” The song had such a nice melody – it made me want to smile and shed a tear at the same time – the sign of a great country song in my book! I was really taken by the beginning, and then the next verse went “Little children painting pictures of the birds and apple trees / Oh why can’t the grown-up people have the faith of one of these / And to think those little fingers could become a killer’s hand / Oh there’s nothing that stands out more than the selfishness in man.”

At the end, I was really touched and captivated by this song and knew I wouldn’t forget the moment. Turns out “The Selfishness in Man” was a song George Jones had recorded –  but I hadn’t heard it before, and I am a huge George fan! With more research, I found out that Leon Payne wrote the song, which also really interested me. After hearing the crazy lyrics in the song “Psycho,” which was recorded by Eddie Noack and also written by Leon Payne, and knowing he was also the author of “Lost Highway,” I was very intrigued by Payne and so I tried to find more information.

One of Leon Payne’s albums, The Lang-Worth Transcriptions. Found on amazon.com.

Leon Roger Payne was born in Alba, Texas, in 1917. He was blind in one eye at birth and lost sight in the other at a young age. His musical career started in the mid-1930s, playing a variety of musical instruments, and performing in Palestine, Texas, on KWET radio starting in 1935; he also had a short stint playing with Bob Wills’s Texas Playboys in 1938. In 1949 he formed a band with his stepbrother, calling themselves Jack Rhodes and The Lone Star Buddies. They performed regularly on the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport, Louisiana, and later he was on the Grand Ole Opry. Known as “the blind balladeer,” Payne recorded his own albums as well.

However, Payne was best known for his songwriting, penning hundreds of songs in his career from 1941 until his death in 1969 with such hits as “They’ll Never Take Her Love from Me” and “I Love You Because,” and with artists such as Hank Williams Sr. and George Jones recording his songs. The song “The Selfishness in Man” was recorded by George Jones in 1965; it was then released on his album Great Songs of Leon Payne in 1971. Bobby Osborne later recorded it in 2000, which led to Allen Messenger hearing it and singing it in a jam at the Galax fiddlers’ convention.

And then, of course, leading to that moment when I first heard the song in Galax – thus inspiring me to learn the song myself.  It’s that kind of inspiration that helps bring out my creativity as an artist and a musician every day.

Guest blogger Martha Spencer hosts Martha Spencer on the Air on Radio Bristol on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 11:30am—1:00pm. She is also a member of the Whitetop Mountain Band and Unique Sound of the Mountains with Larry Sigmon.