March 2018 - The Birthplace of Country Music
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Band Aids: 11 Helpful Tips for the Gigless

“Hey, man, what do I have to do to play your festival?”

It’s a question I’ve been asked a million times – and, in turn, one I’ve asked other event organizers as a band member, and as an artist manager and booking agent. I’ve also been on the other side of the coin, having served on the music committee for Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion. Before you ask, I don’t book talent for the festival anymore, but I’ve written hundreds of pitches, sent thousands of emails, cold-called venues begging for gigs, schmoozed, and fielded millions of requests from bands that want to play BCM events. I’ll be honest, there is no “one and done” answer to the above question. However, as someone who has seen it from all sides, I can confidently provide some useful insights that may help you get your foot in the door of some venues and events if you are a new act or a young touring band.

Empty Bottle String Band on stage seen from behind with the audience in front of them.
The Empty Bottle String Band performing in the Dance Tent at Bristol Rhythm ’17. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Bill Foster

The first thing you have to understand is that music is a business. Venues and festivals that specialize in live music cannot operate if they don’t turn a profit. Stages, lights, stage equipment, and sound techs aren’t delivered from the sky by musically-minded Festival Fairies. Those things cost money and are a necessary expense. If you are a band that just kicks around the garage, plays the same tiny bar every other month, and hasn’t gained a substantial following, buyers won’t take you seriously – especially if your online presence is a hot mess. You have to put in the work in order to reap the rewards.

Talent buyers are all looking for different things. More often than not – and I hate to be the bearer of bad news here – some are not open to solicitations from bands. Many simply don’t have time to review the avalanche of press kits, CDs, and MP3s that come in daily. Generally, buyers at big festivals already know what acts they want to target in order to achieve the perfect lineup. Bars and venues are more flexible and will likely leverage door deals for new acts, meaning they will take a portion of ticket sales at the door of your show.


So how do you get the attention of talent buyers and start getting booked? Here’s my personal list of 11 “Band Aids” that successful touring bands have done or are doing that may help:

1. Get real

Be honest with yourself. Get real about your band, your brand, and what you truly have to offer. For every act that’s never performed outside their hometown, there are 50 bands out there touring – shedding blood, sweat, and tears on the road – to earn good gigs. They live in and out of sketchy Dodge Caravans and shower at truck stops to achieve their dreams.  Are you hungry enough to live this way? Don’t expect to go from playing in the garage to a main stage anywhere USA if you haven’t done the work. Evaluate your expectations and what you want to achieve, then ask yourself if your act is polished enough to perform in front of an audience.

Photograph showing a close-up of the guitarist's hands from the band the Dead Tongues.
Close up on the guitarist from the Dead Tongues. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Adam Martin

2. Be an O.G.: Do YOU

What does your act have that no one else has? What makes you stand out? Fine-tune what makes you awesome and strive to be the best at that. Even cover bands can get great gigs if they have a niche. The Cleverlys and Love Canon are fine examples.

Also, make sure there isn’t another act out there performing under your name. I can’t stress this enough. At the very least, it’s confusing. Worst case scenario, you get a cease and desist letter from an attorney. Your name is the first step to building a brand. Google it and make sure the name is available across all web and social media platforms before printing t-shirts. Also, choose your band name wisely.

3. Bio Hazards

Even if your band tours outside your hometown, don’t assume you are known in every market. That’s why a good, 200-word-or-less band biography is so important. Fill it with information about what genre of music you most identify with and include a list of career accomplishments: headliners you’ve opened for, other festivals you’ve played, producers you’ve worked with, and awards you’ve achieved are a good place to start. Include quotes from press reviews if you have them. If you are pushing a new album, make this write-up separate from the band biography. Grammatical and spelling errors matter, too, folks. As a marketer, it’s my job to “sell” you to festivalgoers. I can’t do that if you can’t sell yourself with a decently written band bio.

4. Break the Internet

Have a professional-looking website. Period. Your website is an extension of your brand and it’s the first place talent buyers will go to listen to your music and find information on how to book your band. There is a growing number of website-building services out there just for musicians that are easy to DIY and inexpensive to maintain. I recommend checking out Bandzoogle, BandVista, or Wix. Some offer things like email marketing, online storefronts to help you move merch, and video and music players. The ideal band website will have your contact info, video and audio samples of your music, tour dates, and a downloadable EPK (electronic press kit) that contains a good band bio, hi-res photo, and links or quotes from press articles written about your act. You should also include links to all your social media sites. Further, social media sites should not serve as a substitution for your website.

5. Pictures are worth a thousand gigs

Spend the money to hire a good photographer and get good publicity shots made. Don’t have the cash? Find a friend who takes professional-looking photos who will work with you on price or offer a freebie for photo credit. Any venue or festival will ask for hi-resolution photos to promote your band. This is not a step you can skip. Just do it.

Photo of the band all sitting in a row boat on a small pond.
Roadkill Ghost Choir has a name and publicity photo that are unforgettable.

6. Be a social butterfly, not a wallflower

Engagement with fans on social media has never been more important for independent artists. It’s a great way to push merch, ticket sales, and turn “likes” into super-fans. If you are serious about booking shows, building a fan base, and creating a brand, social media is essential. Talent buyers (and agents who may want to represent you) will look at how many followers you have to help them state a case for your act playing at their venue or festival, especially if you are flying under the radar. Also, keep it professional. Profanity, dissing venues or other bands, and breaking bad online can turn fans off and keep you from getting gigs. Also, keep the graphics and branding on your social media sites consistent with those on your website.

7. Video made the radio star

Good music videos are essential to your career as a musician, period. Get a YouTube channel and only upload your very best quality video content there. Save the amateur iPhone videos for Facebook or Instagram Stories and Snapchat. Buyers want a good representation of what you sound like live. You don’t have to spend a lot of money to achieve that. Set up a one-camera shoot (mounted on a tripod) in a quiet and acoustically friendly location with good atmosphere and lighting. Take out the close-ups edited into this video of HoneyHoney performing “Father’s Daughter” in an old house and you get the idea. .

Another example is this simple video of Molly Tuttle playing her arrangement of “Wildwood Flower.” Note the natural lighting from the curtained window and the simple props:

8. Sing for your supper

Talent buyers are busy, busy, people. Their inboxes are full of unopened pitches from bands who want to play their venues. Most often, buyers at larger festivals and venues rely on booking agents they trust and have built relationships with to hire talent or book bands that have a proven track record of ticket sales. If you have no history in the buyers’ market, no press, and no representation, you won’t have much luck. This is frustrating for a lot of musicians, but the only way to get their attention is by taking advantage of as many opportunities to perform as possible. Play your uncle’s backyard barbecue. Break out your guitar at your best friend’s dinner party. My best advice for those just starting out: Do as many open mics in as many venues as you can. Show up early, be friendly with venue owners and staff, and network with the other musicians who are there. If your music is any good, this will help you land a paying gig and build a good reputation among the music community. It takes time, but persistence pays off.

9. Network

Embed yourself in your local music scene. Support other musicians by paying the cover charge and going to their shows. Pass out demos to people who frequent live music venues wherever you go. Hang out and talk to bands after shows. Get to know staff at the venues and be friendly. Networking can help you get your foot in the door for playing gigs at a particular venue, perhaps gain an opening slot for another act, or even help you find other musicians to collaborate with. Above all, be professional, be nice, and don’t give up. Musicians and the music-minded are a kind and welcoming bunch. Like in any other profession, building good relationships is key.

10. Promote, promote, promote

Collect email addresses of fans whenever the opportunity presents itself and add them to your email database. Collect email addresses of music-related press in any market you are playing and send them press releases about your upcoming shows. Send a copy of that release to the venue you are playing as well, along with a poster file they can print off to help you promote. A few weeks out from the gig, see if there are any local shows on radio or TV that would have you on as a guest to perform. Don’t leave it up to the venue to promote your show as they have tons of other concerts on their calendars and may have other marketing priorities. Keep your tour schedule updated on your website and send invites to shows on social media. Being your own press agent is essential. Also, celebrate every single band achievement on your website’s news feed and on social media.

Left image shows the Mama Said String Band set up on the street busking with their case open for tips; right image shows J. P. Parsons talking on camera with a member of PLA Media.
Mama Said String Band got the gig at Bristol Rhythm last year, but also put in that extra effort to gain fans by busking on State Street (left). Bristol singer-songwriter J. P. Parsons working the press at the festival (right). Mama Said photo is © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Adam Martin; J. P. Parsons photo by PLA Media

11. Don’t blow it

Yay! You got the gig! Now it’s up to you to blow their minds and pack the house!  Above all, be professional. If a member of your band gets drunk and plays a sloppy set or you have a heated argument with the sound guy, it’s doubtful you’ll ever play there again. However, if the venue owner or talent buyer finds you likeable, professional, and digs your music, nine times out of ten you will be invited back. At the end of the day, it’s about what you put out there and building relationships as much as it is about your art. Success, at any level, is a journey worth taking if you are passionate about what you are doing, set goals, and stay on task.

Good luck!

Follow the Ballad: From Scotland’s “Lord Gregory” to The Carter Family’s “The Storms Are on the Ocean”

Just 30 minutes south of Big Stone Gap, Virginia, where our bookstore Tales of the Lonesome Pine is located, you will find Hiltons, Virginia, and the Carter Family Fold, home of the famous musical family that started with A.P., Sara, and Maybelle, and included Maybelle’s daughter June Carter. June went on to marry Johnny Cash, whose ancestors immigrated to America from the village of Strathmiglo in Scotland. Just down the road an hour or so is Bristol, Tennessee-Virginia, known as the “birthplace of country music” due to its place in early commercial country music history. A wee bit north is the hometown of Ralph Stanley, who among other accomplishments famously sang “Oh Death” in the movie O Brother Where Art Thou. Just to the west in Kentucky is where the wonderful ballad singer Jean Ritchie grew up.

As you can see, it’s an area rich in musical heritage – and one that can be connected to the Old World through song. For instance, one of the most fascinating musical links between Scotland and Appalachia is through the Scottish ballad “Lord Gregory” and its American versions. No less than 30 of the 82 variants listed in the Roud Folk Song Index records are from our adopted state of Virginia. Chief among these is a song recorded by The Carter Family back in 1927 in Bristol, Tennessee, called “The Storms Are on the Ocean”– despite the fact that this part of Appalachia is a few hundred miles inland.

Image of "The Storms are on the Ocean" sheet music.
“The Storms Are on the Ocean,” sung by The Carter Family at the 1927 Bristol Sessions recordings, was published by Ralph Peer’s Southern Music Publishing Company in the Carter Family songbook Album of Smoky Mountain Ballads. Copyright 1927 by United Publishing Co., copyright assigned 1941 to Peer International Corporation; courtesy of peermusic

Here are the opening lyrics of “The Storms Are on the Ocean”:

I’m going away to leave you dear,
I’m going away for a while,
But I’ll return to you my dear,
Though I go 10,000 miles.

Who’s gonna shoe my pretty little foot,
And who’s gonna glove my hand,
And who’s gonna kiss my red rosy cheek,
Till you return again.

The “Storms” version was long established in the family tradition of the Carters, who also claim ancestry from the British Isles, and the first verse, with its reference to 10,000 miles, might also call to mind Robert Burns’ poem “A Red, Red Rose” Different renditions of the second verse can also be found in many of the earlier versions of this song across the years.

The ballad “Lord Gregory,” also known as “The Lass of Loch Royal,” is listed as number 76 in Francis James Child’s famous collection, English and Scottish Popular Ballads. Child also details a number of mainly Scottish variants. In one the lady sails with her baby from Capoquin to her beloved’s castle, only to be told by his duplicitous mother that he’s away. Sailing back to her home, she is drowned, but not before lamenting over who will shoe her foot, glove her hand, etc.

When Bertrand Harris Bronson produced his collection The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads, he included several “Lord Gregory” variants more reminiscent of “The Storms are on the Ocean.” Like most American descendants of Scottish ballads, the story got stripped down to become shorter and simpler, while the tunes were jollied up in tempo and rhythm.

Cover of David Herd's book, showing
Photograph of David Herd’s Ancient and Modern Scottish Songs, Heroic Ballads, &c, currently on display in the museum’s special exhibit about Cecil Sharp.

We were delighted to be able to lend a number of books to the Birthplace of Country Music Museum for their new special exhibit The Appalachian Photographs of Cecil Sharp, 1916 to 1918, focused on the ballad collecting done in Appalachia by Englishman Cecil Sharp at the beginning of the 20th century. The books trace the journey of “Lord Gregory” (under various titles) from Scotsman David Herd’s Ancient and Modern Scottish Songs, Heroic Ballads, &c from the late 1700s to Bronson’s record of the tunes from the 1950s, along with the afore-mentioned and famous Child’s English and Scottish Popular Ballads, Sharp’s English Folk-Songs from the Southern Appalachians, and a book about the Greig-Duncan Folk Song Collection from Aberdeenshire in Scotland. We hope you’ll check out the exhibit to explore the journey of the “Lord Gregory” variants across these different books!

Cecil Sharp book, open to "The True Lover's Farewell" pages
Cecil Sharp’s English Folk-Songs from the Southern Appalachians is also on display in the Cecil Sharp special exhibit. It records the variants of “Lord Gregory” under the song title of “The True Lover’s Farewell. The version seen here under F was sung by Mrs. Laura Virginia Donald, one of the women featured in Sharp’s photographs in the exhibit.

The recording of “Lord Gregory” by Maddy Prior on the Silly Sisters album is magnificent, based on an earlier recording by Ewan MacColl. As for “The Storms are on the Ocean,” while many singers have followed in their footsteps, nothing compares to the original by The Carter Family. You can hear both these versions below:

Nor does anything surpass a visit to the Carter Family Fold, a favorite pilgrimage spot for visitors to Appalachia from across the water. For those unfamiliar, the Carter Family Fold runs Saturday night music and dance events, and we’ve enjoyed many a weekend there, listening to the old-time music and watching the amazing local dancers flat foot – from a woman who often dances with her (willing) dog to an elderly couple tearing up the floor with their moves!

The Carter Family Fold and The Carter Family’s song “The Storms Are on the Ocean” – and the history shared by the Birthplace of Country Music Museum and exhibits like The Appalachian Photographs of Cecil Sharp – illustrate just a few of the many connections between Appalachia and the British Isles. If the subject interests you, start with Child’s book. A world of discovery awaits!

Jack Beck and Wendy Welch singing together on stage
Jack Beck and Wendy Welch performing at the Swannanoa Gathering a few years ago. The photograph was taken by the resident photographer R. L. Geyer, who gave permission for its use here.

Thank you to our guest bloggers Jack Beck and Wendy Welch, who wrote this blog post touching upon the journey of the “Lord Gregory” ballad, the perfect post to accompany our new special exhibit!

Jack was born in Dunfermline, Scotland, and lived most of his life there. A founding member of Heritage, one of the seminal traditional Scottish bands of the 1970s and 1980s, he was also the musical partner of Barbara Dickson. Awarded an honorary lifetime membership in the Traditional Music and Song Association for his services to Scottish traditional music, he spent five years as external examiner in Scots Traditional song at the Royal Scottish Conservatoire in Glasgow. Jack has lived for the last twelve years in Big Stone Gap, Virginia with his wife Wendy Welch, in the heart of Appalachia and old-time mountain music. Wendy is the author of four books, the most recent Fall or Fly detailing effects of the opioid crisis on foster care. She has a PhD in Folklore, is book editor for the Journal of Appalachian Studies, and was founding director of a storytelling non-profit in Scotland. Together they run a bookstore – Tales of the Lonesome Pine – the subject of Wendy’s memoir The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap from St. Martin’s Press.

Pork-estras, Whiskey and song…Putting the FUN in Farm and Fun Time!

Spring was in the air for another thrilling installment of Farm and Fun Time on the evening of March 8! This month’s show was full of all sorts of surprises from singing pigs to tell-all tales of whiskey rebellion.

The four members of Bill and the Belles playing fiddle, banjo, guitar, and bass while singing the opening numbers at Farm and Fun Time.
Bill and the Belles get the crowd going at the beginning of Farm and Fun Time. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Billie Wheeler

Kicking things off with a real barn burner – the “Three-in-One Two-Step” – host band Bill and the Belles set the mood for a fun-filled evening of music. Month in and month out, Bill and the Belles never cease to enthrall the packed house! Next up was our “Heirloom Recipe” presenter Denise Smith. Denise, a native of Bland County, Virginia, is the granddaughter of fiddler Wesley Bain Boyles, who recorded with the West Virginia Coon Hunters at the 1927 Bristol Sessions. Telling stories about her family’s past in distilling, Denise not only informed the audience about making Dandelion Wine, but also her grandfather’s life after the Bristol Sessions, including a stay in federal prison for bootlegging and an even briefer stint as one Bill Monroe’s first Bluegrass Boys. After hearing the story of one Appalachian family’s distinct history, Bill and the Belles sang an inspired tribute to Denise’s recipe, “Baby’s Dandelion Wine,” about picking weeds in the neighbor’s garden all for the sake of wine.

Denise Smith tells the audience all about her family history and dandelion wine.
Denise Smith’s “Heirloom Recipe” segment was full of family history – and laughs! © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Billie Wheeler

Our first musical guests of the evening were the wild and wooly Roochie Toochie and the Ragtime Shepherd Kings!  A grouping of world-class musicians from New Orleans to Maine, Roochie Toochie and the Ragtime Shepherd Kings put on a show that is as fun as their name is to say. Drawing from the zaniest and most obscure corners of early American song, this band put on one of the most entertaining performances we’ve seen yet, singing songs about topics ranging from salami to red hot mamas to wildcats. Roochie Toochie included theatrical elements that were unlike anything ever seen on Farm and Fun Time, including a pork-estra – a symphony squeaking pigs – and a crashing applause sign that brought a dramatic end to their performance. This grand finale was as unpredictably fun as their entire set.

Three images showing the two female singers from Rootchie Tootchie wearing their funny hats and singing; one female Rootchie Tootchie member playing the pork-astra, a variety of squeaking rubber pigs;, and the full band on stage.
Everything about Rootchie Tootchie was fun – from the hats to the pigs to the active participation songs! © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Billie Wheeler

For our “ASD Farm Report,” Radio Bristol visited David Lay Farm in Rogersville, Tennessee. David showed us his greenhouse, but most importantly he talked to us about CSA, Community Sponsored Agriculture. Community Sponsored Agriculture is a way that consumers can support local farmers and get a share of the harvest throughout the growing season. Here is a video from our trip to David Lay Farm:

After spinning their new record “I’ve Never Met A Stranger” heavily since its release, we were thrilled to have the Bumper Jacksons rounding out the music for the evening! Combining the sounds of the Appalachian holler and the streets of New Orleans, Bumper Jacksons perform a distinctly American style of music. With honking horns and twanging telecaster and steel guitar, the Bumper Jacksons rocked the Farm and Fun Time audience with their first appearance in Bristol. Performing songs from Hank Williams and Bob Dylan to original compositions, this was a top-notch set of music that felt right at home in the Birthplace of Country Music. We hope to see the Bumper Jacksons back in Bristol soon!

Three pics: Member of Bumper Jacksons on trumpet; two band members doing a clapping song; and the full band on stage.
The Bumper Jackson shared high-energy music, amazing vocals, and – best of all – a nostalgic clapping song. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Billie Wheeler

Tickets are going fast for our April 12 show featuring David Davis and the Warrior River Boys and Ralph Stanley II & The Clinch Mountain Boys, so grab them while you can! May’s show featuring Roy Bookbinder and Traveller with Jonny Fritz, Robert Ellis, and Cory Chisel are available now. For more information and to purchase tickets for these events, visit!

And remember: Thanks to our sponsor Eastman Credit Union, Radio Bristol is able to bring Farm and Fun Time to not only those in the audience or 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!

How Old-Time Music Changed My Life

For me, it all started on a Thursday night back in 1991. I had recently torn a ligament in my knee playing softball and felt restless and out of sorts; last doctor visit I’d had, my orthopedic surgeon suggested I take up playing an instrument. My grandparents Reeber and Norma Kilby took me with them to a jam session. I had been with them to the Whitetop Mountain festivals before, but – little did I know – this trip was different and it was going to change my life forever.

We arrived at the old Mill Creek store, near Rugby, Virginia. While there were lots of cars there, it didn’t really look like anything much, just an old, abandoned store building. Pretty soon musicians started to come in, everybody was talking, laughing, and having a big time; my grandparents seemed to know just about everybody there! This was the first time I’d been so close to music being played live. Shortly after the music got started, I focused on one lady’s banjo picking. Later I’d find out she was Dee-Dee Price, who was playing the banjo, clawhammer style. It was at that moment when inspiration hit and deep down, I knew that’s what I wanted to do…play the banjo.

Several musicians on a log cabin front porch stage playing hammer dulcimer, banjo (Dee-Dee Price), bass, fiddle (Dean Sturgill), mandolin, and guitar.
Dee-Dee Price playing banjo onstage with the Grayson Highlands Band. My cousin Dean Sturgill is on the fiddle. © Judy Kilby

That night when I got home, I told my Mama and Daddy that I wanted to learn how to play the banjo. Week after week I went with my grandparents to the weekly jam session that we referred to as “The Music” and my interest continued to grow. I asked for a banjo for Christmas, and Mama and Daddy got me one.

Then came the hard part: learning how to play. I had all kinds of enthusiasm, but absolutely zero know-how. I clearly remember having the Christmas Time Back Home album on the record player and putting on some finger picks to try to play along. My cousin Dean Sturgill, a fiddler, and his wife Phyllis stopped by to visit that afternoon. I wanted to play clawhammer style, but I didn’t know that you didn’t wear picks to play that way. Dean took one look at what I was doing, let out a big laugh, and said, “Why young’un, you’ve got your picks on backwards! And if you want to play clawhammer, why, you don’t need any picks at all!”

A teenage Trish Fore sitting on her couch holding her new banjo.
Me with my new banjo at Christmas. © Judy Kilby

As a shy, backward, 14-year-old girl, I was struggling to learn how to pick. A book had come with the banjo, but I couldn’t get any understanding out if it. At the time I was growing up there were no traditional music programs around, except the Albert Hash Memorial String Band at Mount Rogers Combined School. As time passed, I got discouraged and practiced less, but I did still keep going to The Music with my grandparents.

In the summer of 1992, it was evident I needed someone to show me more things on the banjo. My family knew Thornton and Emily Spencer, and we were distantly related. After a chance meeting with Emily, a banjo lesson finally got set up for Wednesday, July 29, 1992.

For my first lesson, my Daddy took me to Thornton and Emily’s house. Everything Emily showed me that evening, I just soaked up. The first tune Emily taught me was “Cripple Creek,” which she recorded for me on a cassette tape, playing it real slow so I could have something to listen to when practicing. She also gave me the song written out in a tablature that looked like numbers with exponents. It proved to be a big help because there were so many things to concentrate on all at the same time! She and Thornton showed confidence in me, and this helped me have confidence in myself. At the end of the first lesson, I asked if I could come back the next Wednesday for another lesson. This was a turning point. Emily’s help and influence really made me feel like I could play this instrument.

The whole next week I practiced playing the banjo – I practiced in the bedroom, in the living room, and out on the front porch. By the next Wednesday, I could play a slow, but recognizable version of “Cripple Creek.” I went back to show Emily and Thornton my progress and ask for another song. This went on, week after week, until wintry weather came and we took a break from the lessons. She and Thornton were full of praise and encouraging words, and this helped me begin to establish a strong foundation in music.

A teenage Trish Fore playing banjo onstage with Thornton Spencer and Emily Spencer.
Me with Thornton and Emily onstage in the gym of the Mount Rogers Combined School. © Judy Kilby

All the while I continued going to The Music, and soon I started to take my banjo with me. I finally found the courage to talk to Dee-Dee Price, the woman I had seen playing the banjo first. She was always nice, giving me pointers on playing tunes. After a while, when I could follow along with music, Dean would call out the chords to me so I could keep rhythm and play along with the group. Watching Dee-Dee play, along with Dean calling out the chords, helped me develop my timing and my ear.

In ways, this all seems like a long time ago, and in ways it seems like yesterday. Dee-Dee and Emily were my earliest influences on the banjo and both of them inspired me to play. Over the years in addition to Dee-Dee and Emily, I’ve been lucky to have many influences on my banjo playing including Howard Wallace, Wade Ward, Enoch Rutherford, Larry Pennington, and Harold B. Hausenfluck. I’m currently in my 40th year and I’m coming up on my 26th year of playing the banjo. Although I’ve been on several recordings in the past, I’m currently working on my first solo recording project which should be released in May. Check out my recording of “Cuttin’ the Cornbread” from that project here:

I truly feel that God has led me here. When the door to playing softball was shut, He opened the door to music.

Trish Kilby Fore plays the clawhammer banjo with various groups, including The Cabin Creek Boys, and is Assistant Director of the Galax-Carroll Regional Library. She is married to banjo builder Kevin Fore and lives near the Blue Ridge Parkway in Carroll County, Virginia. 

Trish Fore playing banjo in the recording studio.
Recording in the studio. © Kevin Fore.

Remembering Georgia Warren

The 1927 Bristol Sessions story is one of developing technology, star singers, and business acumen. It’s also a very personal story for the descendants of those artists who answered Ralph Peer’s call for musicians and recorded in that makeshift studio in the Taylor-Christian Hat Company here in Bristol.

One of those Bristol Sessions artists – Georgia Warren – holds a particularly special place in our story as she was here with us at the museum’s Grand Opening in August 2014, the last surviving musician from those historic recordings. When she came to Bristol in 1927, she was only 12 years old, the daughter of George Massengill, who was the leader of a congregational choir from Bluff City, Tennessee. Known as the Tennessee Mountaineers, they recorded two songs at the Bristol Sessions: “Shall We Gather at the River” and “Standing on the Promises.”

Left pic: Georgia Warren at museum interactive wearing headphones with daughter Nancy and museum director Jessica Turner; center pic: Georgia Warren's signing of Green Board, reading: Last living member of Sessions, Georgia Warren, 98 yrs old; right pic: Georgia Warren cutting Grand Opening ribbon in front of museum with Roni Stoneman behind her.
Georgia Warren, seen here with daughter Nancy Taylor, got a sneak peek of the museum before it opened – here she is listening to the clip of the Tennessee Mountaineers at the 1927 Bristol Sessions (left). Georgia also came to the museum’s Grand Opening on August 1, 2014, signing our Green Board in the permanent exhibits (center) and cutting the Grand Opening ribbon with Roni Stoneman, daughter of Ernest and Hattie Stoneman (right). © Birthplace of Country Music

Georgia Warren passed away on March 6, 2016 at the age of 100. And so today, the anniversary of that date, we want to remember her and her part in our story. Because we actually knew Georgia, and know her family, we have had the chance to learn about the things she loved, about her life, about what singing in that dark studio all those years ago meant to her. And we’ve had the chance to learn what Georgia’s place in this history means to her family too.

Some things we learned were surprising – for instance, Georgia played basketball in high school and won MVP in 1934 when her high school team won the local championships. She kept her love for basketball in later life as a huge fan of the Lady Vols and Pat Summitt, often saying that Pat should have been the men’s coach at University of Tennessee too. (Something probably quite a few Pat Summitt fans have said in the past!)

Black and white photo of girls' basketball team -- 9 players and 1 coach
Georgia as a senior (first on the left) with her winning high school basketball team. Photograph courtesy of Nancy Taylor

Others – like her green thumb – made more sense, knowing that Georgia grew up on a farm in rural Tennessee. After marrying her husband Paul and living in California for a while, they moved back to Tennessee to build a farm on a parcel of land – with Georgia right there in the thick of it driving the tractor, baling hay, planting tobacco, helping with the animals, and growing vegetables. Her daughter Nancy Taylor remembers sitting under a tree in the yard of their house, breaking beans with her mother, and how her mother did a lot of canning of fruit and vegetables, stocking their pantry with row upon row of Mason jars filled with food. Georgia was also a keen flower gardener, filling her yard with a bounty of beautiful flowers and especially loving the first crocuses as they bloomed each year.

Left pic: B&W photograph of Paul and Georgia Warren; right pic: Paul and Georgia Warren standing in a flower bed.
Georgia with husband Paul (left) and enjoying the flowers at a garden visit (right). Photographs courtesy of Nancy Taylor

Even though Georgia’s appearance on the two Tennessee Mountaineers sides from the Bristol Sessions was her one and only professional performance, music and singing was still a big part of her life. For many years, she continued to sing (alto) in the First Christian Church in Bluff City, Tennessee, along with her parents and her husband (tenor), while Nancy’s sister played piano and organ. Georgia’s father George Massengill was one of the originators of this church, though before it was made of brick and mortar the congregation often gathered on Massengill’s front porch to sing, and Nancy remembers her grandfather saying that people would yell out song requests down the holler because they could hear them from afar. The family also used to sing together just for fun – as Nancy tells us, “We’d have a big time singing different songs,” from Elvis’s “Love Me Tender” to singing along with the record from the Sessions.

A connection to the music she sang in 1927 stayed strong through the years, and when Georgia was ailing toward the end of her life, the hospice minister would sing “Shall We Gather at the River” with her at home – apparently she knew it by heart, never missing a note or a word of the song. And at her funeral a couple of years ago, the Tennessee Mountaineer’s 1927 rendition of “Shall We Gather at the River” was played in the funeral home chapel with everyone singing together to honor Georgia.

Nancy tells us that Georgia felt enormous pride from the part she played in the 1927 Bristol Sessions recordings, and that the recognition of this history was important to her. She didn’t want to have a fuss made over her, but she enjoyed telling people about climbing the dark stairs to the put-together studio, seeing Peer and the engineers, and being a bit scared by the whole set up, staying close to her father but still singing strong and true. And the best part – seeing Jimmie Rodgers, who recorded the previous day, and thinking he was quite handsome!

Georgia Warren sits central, surrounded by her daughter Nancy and several other family members. Behind them is the Grand Opening Birthplace of Country Music Museum logo.
Georgia with her family at the museum’s Grand Opening on August 1, 2014. © Birthplace of Country Music

Nancy notes that the songs the Tennessee Mountaineers sang at the Sessions were old standards, not really sung much anymore but the kind of music she and her mother were raised on. And Georgia’s story underlines one of the fundamental truths about the Sessions recordings: many of the songs recorded were everyday sacred family songs, songs sung in church and at home, and most of the artists were working people who went back to their everyday lives after the recordings. And that’s part of what makes them special.

When asked what her mother’s place in the history of the 1927 Bristol Sessions means to her, Nancy said, “Even though she’s gone, I don’t want them to forget her.” There’s no fear of that here at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum – Georgia’s story is our story and the personal connection makes our appreciation of this history richer.

Off the Record: Memories of My Grandmother’s Music

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.

The first music I ever heard was my grandmother’s. I was very small, nestled in her lap as she rocked and sang. That sound was a basic part of my growing up, something I, and the rest of the family, took completely for granted. Much later, living far away from the Kentucky homeplace, I began hearing people around me sing “folk songs” that were oddly familiar – songs my grandmother sang, but somehow different and not quite right. I started listening, really listening, to her music and gradually realized she was a great traditional singer.

Black and white portrait in an oval frame of a young Addie.
Addie Graham as a young woman, date and photographer unknown. Image courtesy of Rich Kirby

Her name was Addie Graham, born before 1900 in the hills of eastern Kentucky, heir to a great stream of traditional music she heard from her family and community. She sang ballads, Old Baptist hymns, blues pieces learned from African American railroad workers, frolic songs, and some songs that are hard to categorize. One of these is a remarkable window back into a piece of Kentucky’s and America’s past.

The song is “We’re Stole and Sold from Africa.” It is apparently an abolitionist song from before the Civil War that my family held for generations. Addie learned it from her mother, and the song was a family possession: “All the family I guess sung it, sister Nan and all. I can’t even remember how long it’s been in the family.” Addie felt it was an important song and always sang it with great seriousness. It’s a rarity; in a lot of research I haven’t found any other version of it.

We’re stole and sold from Africa
Transported to America
Like hogs and sheep, to march a-drove
To bear the heat, endure the cold

See how they take us from our wives
Small children from their mothers’ sides
They take us to some foreign land
Make slaves to wait on gentleman

We’re almost naked as you see
Almost barefooted as we be
Suffer the lash, endure the pain
Exposed to snow, both wind and rain

O Lord have mercy and look down
Upon the race of the African kind
Upon our knees pour out our grieves
And pray to God for some relief  

Here is Addie singing this song:

Though no other singer has been recorded doing this song, we can trace some of its history through records of the abolitionist movement. The text is similar to abolitionist ballads published in The Liberty Minstrel of 1844 and the Free Soil Minstrel of 1848. A prominent Kentucky abolitionist, James Birney, ran for president under the banner of the Liberty Party in 1844; other Kentucky abolitionists founded Berea College in 1855, which became “an oasis of anti-slavery and democratic education.” Slavery became a very hot issue in Kentucky, particularly in the mountains where few people owned any enslaved people. During the Civil War, communities and families (including Addie’s) were divided, leaving scars that took many years to heal.

Though it speaks from a slave’s perspective, Addie’s song probably has no connection with Black folk sources. It is almost certainly derived from one or more as-yet-untraced abolitionist tracts. George Clark’s The Liberty Minstrel contains the following in “Song of the Coffle Gang” (“Words by the slaves, music by G.W.C.”):

See these poor souls from Africa,
Transported to America;
We are stolen, and sold to Georgia, will you go along with me?
We are stolen and sold to Georgia, go sound the jubilee.

In the same volume, “Stolen We Were” (“Words by a Colored Man”) contains these stanzas:

Stolen we were from Africa,
Transported to America;
It’s work all day and half the night,
And rise before the morning light;
Sinner! man! why don’t you repent?
For the judgment is rolling around!
For the judgment is rolling around!

Like the brute beast in public street,
Endure the cold and stand the heat;
King Jesus told you once before
To go your way and sin no more;
Sinner! man! &c.

Title page for The Liberty Minstrel
Title page of The Liberty Minstrel.

Tunes for these songs do not at all resemble Addie’s, which instead shares the musical feeling of her Old Baptist hymn tunes. The song may have become part of the folk-hymn tradition, for a couplet “Upon my knees pour out my grief/ And pray to God for some relief” turns up in “Young Ladies All I Pray Draw Near” in the Old Baptist Sweet Songster.

In any case, it is striking that an abolitionist song survived in tradition so many years after the end of slavery. Perhaps it had a special meaning for the family. The song came through Addie’s mother, Gillian Williams Prater. Her ancestor Elder Daniel Williams preached at the Lulbegrud [Baptist] Church in Montgomery County, Kentucky around 1800. He was forced to leave after disagreements with prominent elders of the North District Association to which the church belonged. Williams’ successor at the church, David Barrow, was similarly “run off” for advocating the emancipation of slaves. Williams’s differences with the elders were probably doctrinal rather than political. But in light of the preservation of the song “We’re Stole and Sold” in the Williams family, it is tempting to speculate that Daniel Williams, like David Barrow, sympathized with abolitionist views. Barrow, by the way, went on to found an association of emancipationist Baptist churches; its membership included Thomas Lincoln whose son Abraham would take the lead in settling the slavery question.

Addie singing with Rich Kirby, mountains in the background
A photograph showing me singing with Addie at Home Crafts Day, Mountain Empire Community College, Big Stone Gap, Virginia, ca. 1976. Photo courtesy Mountain Empire Community College

Addie never performed outside the home until I took her to a few festivals shortly before her death in 1978. “We’re Stole and Sold” reached a wide audience that year, when Appalshop’s June Appal Recordings released an LP of her singing, Been a Long Time Traveling (re-released with additional material in 2008). Over the years, awareness of Addie and her music has gradually spread, and today, she’s well known as an important source of Kentucky traditional music. Mike Seeger and John McCutcheon have performed “We’re Stole and Sold,” and I included Mike’s striking version in The Very Day I’m Gone (June Appal 2014), a collection of Addie’s songs performed by 15 artists. The song remains especially meaningful for me, evoking Addie’s voice and personality, her deep sympathy for those who suffer, and her links to an important if little known part of Appalachian history.

Cover illustration for The Very Day I'm Gone compilation CD, showing a drawing of a woman at a piano
The Very Day I’m Gone CD cover illustration and design by John Haywood.

Rich Kirby is a producer at Appalshop’s WMMT radio station and a performer and historian of traditional Appalachian music and stories. His show Old Kentucky Bound airs on Radio Bristol on Thursdays 2:00 to 3:00pm.