January 2018 - The Birthplace of Country Music
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Off the Record: Twin-City Records, Bristol after The Big Bang

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

Hey, this is Big Lon!

I’ve always had a love for both music and history. Being a DJ on Radio Bristol these past few months has been an amazing experience as I’ve shared my passion for local music and records on Diggin’ With Big Lon. I’m thrilled to be writing a blog for the Birthplace of Country Music Museum “Off the Record” series. Now, I’m not a radio industry professional, formally trained historian, or even a musician; this odyssey through local music began with the random query results of an eBay search.

While looking online for a CD of bluesman and Kingsport native Stick McGhee a couple of years ago, I stumbled across a listing for an old 78rpm record on Kingsport Records. Kingsport Records? I’d never heard of Kingsport Records. I was familiar with Tri-State Recording Company in Kingsport and knew a bit about the famed Bristol Sessions and The Carter Family, but not this company and its recording history. And so this record piqued my curiosity, and I bought it even though I didn’t own a record player. While researching Kingsport Records, I discovered every little town in the region from Rogersville, Tennessee, to Big Stone Gap, Virginia, had a recording studio and a record label or two from the 1940s to the early 1980s, most of which were fledgling companies only around a short time then lost to history with only dusty old 10” shellac or 7” vinyl records as proof they ever existed. I wanted to know more, fill in the gaps, solve the mysteries of all these obscure records and artists I’d never heard of. By happenstance, my love for music and history now had a common thread, and I’ve made it my mission to discover the rich musical heritage of Southern Appalachia one dusty record at a time.

Several records from local recording studios piled on top of each other.
A few of the records I’ve unearthed over the years. Photograph courtesy of Lonnie Salyer

As a result, I’ve spent weekends and vacation days over the past two years digging through stacks of forgotten and neglected records in thrift shops, flea markets, yard sales, and a cornucopia of eclectic junk stores that dot the hillsides and hollows of little towns throughout Southern Appalachia. This treasure hunt led me to create  Big Lon’s Crateful Dig as a way to share my weekend finds and to learn more about the artists and labels; in the process, it has also acted as a catalyst to spur conversations to preserve this mostly oral history. One of my first “in the wild” 78rpm finds was Twin-City #1007, Fellowship Chapel Choir. I absolutely could not find anything online about this record.

Twin-City Records label for Fellowship Chapel Choir record
An obscure Twin-City Records release by the Fellowship Chapel Choir. Photograph courtesy of Lonnie Salyer

Twin-City Records has not garnered much attention from music historians. The label was founded by George D. “Cuzzin Don” McGraw in Bristol, Virginia, in 1947, and it recorded at local radio station studios. “Cuzzin Don” was a local radio personality on WOPI and WCYB in Bristol as well as stations in Richmond, Virginia, and Salem, Virginia, in the late 1940s and early 1950s. With his access to station studios and equipment, his record company was really a P. O. Box and wherever “Cuzzin Don” told the artists to show up to record. The first record released on the label was written and sung by McGraw (with others) – #1001 “Only Temporary” backed with “The Picture on the Table (By the Chair)” by Cuzzin Don, Cousin Zeke & Virginia Valley Boys.

Twin-City Records label for their first release "Only Temporary"
Twin-City Records’ first release. Photograph courtesy of Lonnie Salyer

I have identified 13 different records released on this label and suspect the total to be 22 based on the numbering system and matrix numbers. Record #1020 was used on two different releases. The most significant record now collected by bluegrass purists was the last record released on the label in March 1949 – #1021 “Somebody Touched Me” / “Driftwood” by John Reedy and His Stone Mtn. Hillbillys.

Based on the similarity of business models and label design, along with “Cuzzin Don” appearing on a couple of sides for Rich-R-Tone, there may have been some collaboration between the two labels and owners. However, I’ve yet to document a solid connection.

Twin-City Discography

Discography table of Twin-City Records including their release number, artist, song titles, and matrix info.
Discography courtesy of Lonnie Salyer

And so this is what I do. Find a record and start digging, adding morsels and tidbits, slowly putting together the history literally one dusty old record at a time. And the coolest thing? I get to share these obscure records weekly with the listeners of Radio Bristol.

Guest blogger Lonnie Salyer hosts “Diggin’ With Big Lon on Radio Bristol on Thursdays at 5:00—6:00pm. Big Lon is an avid local record sleuth and aficionado. Check out his collection on Facebook at Big Lon’s Crateful Dig.

Ringing in the New Year with Farm and Fun Time

Farm and Fun Time started 2018 off on the right foot with another excellent installment on January 11th! The show was something of a family affair featuring two bands that began as family bands, a long and storied tradition in country and bluegrass music.

January’s show started off with a set of favorites from host band Bill and the Belles including some new original tunes from their upcoming studio release. Following Bill and the Belles, the Kentucky Pie Queen Stephanie Jeter presented a special “Heirloom Recipe” segment about that all-around favorite, apple pie. Stephanie, an East Tennessee native who has relocated to Lexington, Kentucky, learned to bake pies the old-time mountain way…via the internet. After a less than perfect track record of ruined culinary projects, Stephanie decided to get serious about baking after learning to make Grandma Ople’s Apple Pie. While the mysterious figure of Grandma Ople is no relation to Stephanie, her recipe compelled Stephanie to pursue pie, an activity for which she has now won numerous awards. Stephanie, a fantastic musician in her own right, sang an “Ode to Apple Pie” with Bill and the Belles about the joys of the sometimes sweet, sometimes sour dessert.

Left-hand photo shows Bill and the Belles playing to a large audience in the museum's Performance Theater; the right-hand photo shows Bill and the Belles singing their "Heirloom Recipe" jingle with Stephanie Jeter
(Left) It was another full house for January’s Farm and Fun Time. (Right) Stephanie Jeter, musician and baker extraordinaire, sang the “Heirloom Recipe” with Bill and the Belles. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Billie Wheeler

Our first musical guests of the evening were Uncle Shuffelo and His Haint Hollow Hootenanny. A Middle Tennessee band that draws heavily from the rowdy string band traditions of the American south, Uncle Shuffelo and company had our Farm and Fun Time audience enthralled with sounds that would have made the likes of Uncle Dave Macon and Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith proud. With fiddler Austin Derryberry, one of the finest up-and-coming fiddlers on the old-time music scene, leading this infectious band, it’s hard to believe that anyone in the audience remained in their seats during the driving dance tunes. Performing classics – from Uncle Dave’s “Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy” to Louis Laskey’s “How You Want Your Rollin’ Done?”– Uncle Shuffelo and His Haint Hollow Hootenanny captured the spirit of old-time music in a way that would have fit in perfectly with any of the bands that recorded at the 1927 Bristol Sessions.

Left-hand photo shows a close up of the Uncle Shuffelo band members; right-hand photo shows one of the band members dancing on stage.
While the audience had to stay in their seats, one of the band members danced during Uncle Shuffelo and His Haint Hollow Hootenanny’s energetic set. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Billie Wheeler

For our “ASD Farm Report,” Radio Bristol visited Miller Hill Farm in Bristol, Tennessee. Living on the same family farm for generations, Jonathan McCrosky showed us the importance of preserving not only the farming traditions of his family, but also the equipment that was used by earlier generations. Check out the video from our trip featuring vintage tractors!

With our last musical guest of the evening, we had the privilege of having Flatt Lonesome – one of the most celebrated bluegrass bands around – join us on the Farm and Fun Time stage.  Exhibiting tight sibling harmony that can only come from years of performing together, it is no surprise that Flatt Lonesome has won IBMA’s “Vocal Group of the Year” award for two consecutive years. Performing songs from their new album Silence in These Walls and classics like “Jackson,” Flatt Lonesome performed a captivating set of music that blended the sounds of traditional bluegrass and classic country music with the contemporary flair for which this group has become so well known. We look forward to seeing them down the road again soon!

Three photos showing Flatt Lonesome in full and then details of various band members
Flatt Lonesome wowing the audience with their superb musicianship © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Billie Wheeler

Thanks to our sponsor Eastman Credit Union, Radio Bristol was able to bring January’s Farm and Fun Time to not only those in the audience or listeners 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!

Though our February Farm and Fun Time featuring Larry Sigmon and Martha Spencer, Willie Watson, and house band Bill and the Belles  is sold out, you can tune in via Facebook Live. And tickets are now on sale for our March 8 show featuring Roochie Toochie and the RagTime Shepherd Kings and Bumper Jacksons and our April 12 show featuring David Davis and the Warrior River Boys and Ralph Stanley II & The Clinch Mountain Boys. For more information and to purchase tickets for these events, visit www.listenradiobristol.org.

Nathan Sykes is the Production Assistant at Radio Bristol – have a listen to hear him on air! 

Exhibit Yourself: #MuseumSelfie Day at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum

Today is #MuseumSelfie Day, a chance for museums across the globe to show the fun side of museums – and to ask you to join in the fun with us!

Our BCM staff are pretty passionate about the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, so I asked them to find their favorite spot in the building, take a selfie, and then tell me why they picked that spot. Check out their picks below – and then come out to the museum today, take your own selfie, and share it on social media with the tags #MuseumSelfie and #BCMMuseum.

Hannah Holmes, BCM Graphic Designer: I thought it only appropriate to take a selfie…with myself! Now that I’m memorialized in the Immersion Theater I may as well embrace it, right? Hundreds of people every month get to come see my goofy mug while listening to the sweet sounds of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”

Rene Rodgers, Head Curator: I chose the Special Exhibits Gallery for my selfie because to me it is a room full of possibilities. We have 2–3 temporary exhibits per year – one time we might have an exhibit about luthiers, another we might explore the lives and legacy of The Carter Family, and yet another we might have a STEAM-focused exhibit here from the Smithsonian. Looking ahead we have some great exhibits on the horizon with topics from civil rights and Appalachian children’s literature to honky tonks and Marty Stuart! It’s exciting to be able to bring interesting and diverse exhibits to the museum and to see our community engaging with them in a meaningful way.

Kris Truelsen, Radio Bristol Producer (seen here with Tracey Childress and Charlene Baker, BCM Marketing Specialist): Nobody told me this thing was on?! Radio Bristol – we do radio a little bit different…

Leah Ross, BCM Executive Director: I love The Museum Store because of all the wonderful artisans who are a part of the museum experience. It is my #1 place for shopping!

Baylor Hall, Museum Manager: I love reading about Ralph Peer and how influential he was in the music industry. It’s because of his vision that I get to enjoy the music I love today!

Emily Robinson, Collections Manager: I never get tired of watching the film of musicians deconstructing Bristol Sessions recordings in the Greasy Strings Theater. It is so amazing to watch the tiny playing style details these talented folks can pick out just by listening to the recordings. It always makes me want to go home and learn to play my banjo better!

Erika Barker, BCM Sales & Business Development Manager: The Sing Along Station is my favorite place in the museum because I love to sing! Inside the booth, you can sing along to songs from the 1927 Bristol Sessions and then listen to the recording of your very own modern Bristol Session. It is always fun to watch kids and adults make recordings. This is an interactive part of our exhibit that everyone can enjoy – even if you are shy, being in the soundproof box means only those you choose to take into the booth with you will hear you sing!

The Performance Theater was a popular spot…

(Left) Josh Littleton, Radio Bristol Engineer & Technical Administrator: I love watching the loop of Radio Bristol Sessions playing in the Birthplace of Country Music’s state-of-the-art Performance Theater. There’s nothing better, except being here in person and seeing a LIVE Radio Bristol Session in that very same space!

(Top right) June Marshall, Frontline Associate: I love the Performance Theater, especially when it comes to life!!

(Bottom right) Shane Simmons, BCM Director of Development: My favorite part of the museum is the Performance Theater. It is a great reminder to me that while we are a museum, we aren’t just about the past – we are still making history today.

Tracey Childress, BCM Administrative Assistant: Did you know you can email someone a postcard from Bristol from the museum? It’s a cool way to send an electronic souvenir – and show everyone you’re having a good time, wish they were here!

Kim Davis, BCM Director of Marketing: One of my favorite areas of the museum is the “Circles of Success” wall, which features 76 individual records representing each song recorded in the 1927 Bristol Sessions. There is something about seeing each and every song recorded on the wall that brings the Sessions to life for me.

Thank you to all our staff for embracing their silliness and feeling passionate about this museum all at the same time!

 

Preservation Priority: Rare Transcription Disc of WCYB’s Farm and Fun Time Radio Show

Here at the Birthplace of Country Music we are so excited that a radio transcription disc from our museum collections has been chosen as one of the Virginia Association of Museum’s Top 10 Most Endangered Artifacts! At first glance it might seem odd to be excited about having an object that is in danger of falling apart, but this honor gives us the chance to receive much-needed funds to save it.

Photograph of the full transcription disc from WCYB's Farm and Fun Time radio show featuring the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys
The rare transcription disc of WCYB’s Farm and Fun Time radio show is a preservation priority in the museum’s collections. © Birthplace of Country Music; Donated by Glen Harlow via Dean Casey

Early in 2017, Glen Harlow donated a Farm and Fun Time radio transcription disc containing live tracks that have not been heard in over 60 years. The fact that an original live recording of the Stanley Brothers with the Clinch Mountain Boys from Farm and Fun Time exists at all is pretty amazing, because the discs used to record radio broadcasts in the mid-20th century are highly unstable and prone to degradation. Before the advent of magnetic tape, instantaneous recordings were usually made on lacquer discs. These discs have an aluminum core covered with a lacquer coating. Over time, the lacquer becomes brittle and shrinks. Since the aluminum core cannot shrink, the lacquer flakes off and the recording can no longer be played with a stylus.

Two photographs of disc showing split laquer and other signs of degradation.
These details show some of the degradation to the transcription disc. © Birthplace of Country Music; Donated by Glen Harlow via Dean Casey

This recording is no different – it is fragile, damaged, and unplayable. Until recently, recordings on degraded lacquer discs like this one were usually lost forever. Starting in 2014, the Northeast Document Conservation Center began offering audio preservation services using a new technology called IRENE. This process involves creating highly detailed images of the grooves on a disc and recreating the sound from these images. The recordings can be heard again without a stylus getting anywhere near the disc and damaging it further. Buried treasure revealed without even touching the fragile disc!

Two photographs showing the IRENE camera appartus with a record disc and the wavy black lines that are created from the camera's photographs of a disc.
The IRENE camera apparatus (left) and an IRENE scan (right). As the disc rotates, the IRENE camera virtually ‘unravels’ the spiral shape, producing images of long straight lines. These images can then be analyzed in custom software to extract the sound. Courtesy of the Northeast Document Conservation Center

And buried treasure it truly is. The chance to hear a live recording of the Stanley Brothers from Farm and Fun Time is tantalizing to say the least. Farm and Fun Time began broadcasting to a five-state area from WCYB in Bristol, Tennessee-Virginia in 1946 and provided a platform for many of the first generation of bluegrass performers. Indeed, the program was crucial in the development of bluegrass music. The Clinch Mountain Boys, the band of Ralph and Carter Stanley, were featured on the first episode of Farm and Fun Time and continued to play on the show on and off for the next decade. The recording trapped in this degrading transcription disc is truly a piece of lost history. It is beyond exciting to have an opportunity to uncover it again!

Cover of The Stanley Brothers on WCYB album showing them standing in front of a WCYB mic.
This album is a collection of Stanley Brothers recordings from their time on WCYB — but not the one from the transcription disc! From the Birthplace of Country Music Museum Collection

Part of the Virginia Association of Museums Top 10 Endangered Artifacts honor is a People’s Choice voting contest. The artifacts that receive the most votes will receive conservation awards of $5000 and $4000 respectively. In other words, YOUR votes translate into dollars that will enable the Birthplace of Country Music Museum to work with NEDCC to scan the damaged disc and reveal this performance that hasn’t been heard in decades.

We hope you are as excited about this prospect as we are – and so we need you!

Please click on the link below and help us uncover this amazing piece of music history! You can vote daily from January 15 through January 24.

CLICK HERE TO VOTE

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

A Boy Named Sue… Written by a Boy Named Shel

Today is National Trivia Day, the perfect opportunity to dig deep into the interesting and unexpected origins of a well-known, oft-sung country song – “A Boy Named Sue.”

Johnny Cash’s At San Quentin album is iconic for many reasons – the album went triple platinum and was nominated for Album of the Year at the Grammys, and the infamous picture of Johnny Cash boasting the middle finger was taken during the recording of the concert in the prison. Johnny Cash at San Quentin was just one of Cash’s albums featuring the concept of playing live in front of an audience of prisoners, so what made this time around so special? Well, one thing was the song that won Cash Best Male Country Vocal Performance at the Grammys – “A Boy Named Sue” – a song he didn’t even write.

Cash performed and was recorded live at San Quentin on February 24, 1969. Before this performance, Cash had a slew of famous musicians at his house for a party. The guest list included artists like Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, and Shel Silverstein. As a form of entertainment, Cash had his guests gather around and perform whatever song they were currently working on. Silverstein played a song entitled “A Boy Named Sue.” Cash thought it was both hilarious and genius, so much so that he asked Silverstein to write down the lyrics for him.

While it may seem odd that Shel Silverstein, a man known in popular culture as a children’s author and illustrator, was at a party with country and folk musical legends like Cash, Dylan and Mitchell, there was really much more to Silverstein than his classic and much-loved book Where the Sidewalk Ends. He was also a well-regarded singer and songwriter, writing for groups and artists like Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show and Loretta Lynn.

Another less well-known side of Silverstein, perhaps a fact only known by a few parents out there, is that he was also a cartoonist for Playboy magazine where he wrote and drew an illustrated travel journal! So, with his knack for rhyme, lyric, and the provocative, it’s no surprise that he would have a lyrical hit with the likes of “A Boy Named Sue” up his sleeve. According to Silverstein, he drew inspiration for the lyrics to this song from friend and fellow humorist Jean Shepard, who was teased as a child for having a “girl’s” name.

Check out this link to watch Cash and Silverstein singing “A Boy Named Sue” together on Johnny Cash’s variety show:

Cash never would have sung Silverstein’s song if not for his wife June. She convinced Cash to take the lyrics Silverstein wrote down for him on the road to California, saying that it would be a great song to play at San Quentin. Cash, however, was hesitant about the idea because he had only just heard the song for the first time the night before, and he wasn’t sure how people would respond to the song. Despite his misgivings, he brought the lyrics along with him, and a few songs into the set (after he had time to build up some courage), he pulled out the lyrics to “A Boy Named Sue.” And what ensued was an iconic moment.

Here’s an audio recording of Cash performing the song for the first time at San Quentin Prison:

All of the laughs, mess ups, and other such inflections that are clearly heard in Cash’s version of the song are all completely genuine because he is really reading and understanding the lyrics as a performance for the first time. He is truly playing off of the reaction of the crowd and of his band (which was also performing the song for the first time) in order to figure out how to best recount and sing this tale. It is the genuine nature of the song that warrants it all of its accolades – and today it’s a true classic.

Silverstein would also win a Grammy for “Best Country Song” with this song, and later in 1978, he returned to the topic of that boy named Sue, but this time telling the tale from the father’s perspective. And of course, that song was called “The Father of a Boy Named Sue”!

Summer Apostol interned at the Birthplace of Country Music in fall 2017; she is studying history and sociology at Emory & Henry College.