They’re the darlings of DIY, the princesses of Pinterest — the makeover mavens who form the semi-secret sisterhood of the Atmosphere Committee at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion. Each year these fine ladies take a diamond and manage to add a bit more sparkle, continually outdoing themselves since the committee’s formation in 2012. Today’s post turns the spotlight onto these astral aesthetes — usually hidden somewhere in the wings — as we extend a big “thank you” to them for their design-on-a-dime approach to festival “mood lighting.”
If you’ve ever taken a selfie in front of the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion logo projection at the Near Moore Stage or lounged in the hammocks at Cumberland Square Park during the festival, you probably weren’t thinking about how — or why — you were able to do so. Just like everything at Bristol Rhythm, there’s usually a volunteer to thank for the little extras that make our event so special. The volunteers of our Atmosphere Committee are responsible for many of the visuals you see, the ones that make you want to pose and snap a pic. From twinkle lights to hand-painted signs and hand-sewn flags, there’s a photo opportunity around every corner — thanks to our exceedingly creative volunteers.
The Atmosphere Committee was an idea that came to us in August 2012 when Mumford & Sons brought their Gentlemen of the Road Tour (GOTR) to Historic Downtown Bristol. Believe in Bristol (BIB) and the Birthplace of Country Music (BCM), the parent organization of Bristol Rhythm, the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, and Radio Bristol, served as “goodwill ambassadors” during the planning and execution of the event. Mumford & Sons had employed the aid of AC Entertainment in the coordination and production of the Bristol stopover, and BCM opened our State Street office to them for a couple weeks prior to the show so they’d have a comfortable office on-site.
About a week before the event, a small crew of trendy young ladies showed up in the office with bolts of fabric and sewing machines. They asked if we knew where they could find things like hay bales and an old piano. I asked a member of the AC team who they were and learned these women had been hired to provide “atmosphere” to the concert. I was intrigued.
If you attended GOTR, then you likely posed for pics under the trees at Cumberland Square Park at the Alice in Wonderland-inspired tea party table. There were empty photo frames hanging from the trees, and a giant broken-down piano in the fountain behind WCYB. It was amazing. I got to talking with our former operations manager Tahita Haynes, and we agreed that Bristol Rhythm needed atmosphere, too. And so Tahita went to work assembling a team. The rest is history.
Tracey Childress was one of the first people we approached to be part of the Atmosphere Committee. Soon after, BCM hired her full-time and she is now our administrative assistant and “Director of First Impressions” — the first smiling face you see when you come into our office. She also takes care of group tours and about 20 dozen other things including festival vendors. This year will be Tara Russo’s third year chairing the Atmosphere Committee alongside vice-chair Tabby Barnes. Both ladies have been on the committee since the beginning with Christi Edwards and Hannah Bibbee. Lacey Smith is also a long-time committee member. Karen Hinkle, Lauren Houser, and Georgia Moran are also part of this year’s team. All of them working together create some wonderfully inventive decorative surprises, creating, in turn, a special mood and feel for festivalgoers each year.
As you know, our festival is nonprofit. Everything we make goes back into the event, so our Atmosphere Committee works on a very tight budget—a mere $2,500. I’ll take the time here to solicit on their behalf: Atmosphere is actively seeking sponsors, volunteers, and donations to help them work their magic. If you are interested in sponsoring the committee please contact Erika Barker at firstname.lastname@example.org!
If you know or happen to meet one of these hard-working and creative ladies of the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion Atmosphere Committee, be sure and thank them and tell them how much you appreciate the work they do! We are certainly grateful to have these amazing women on our team! Thanks, gals!
West Virginia marks its admission to the Union on June 20, and with this anniversary, it is common practice to celebrate all the contributions West Virginians have made in history through the decades. There are many contributions for us to be proud of, but the ones that are closest to my heart are those made by a few men from Bluefield and Mercer County that became part of the history of the birth of country music.
In 1927 Ralph Peer, a talent scout and recording engineer for Victor Talking Machine Company, searched the south, including Appalachia, for new talent. After setting up a makeshift recording studio in Bristol, Tennessee-Virginia, he spent two weeks with various singers and musicians that came out of the mountains for a chance to record. Today when people think of the Bristol Sessions they often think first of Ernest Stoneman, The Carter Family – known as the First Family of Country Music – and Jimmie Rogers – referred to as the Father of Country Music – but all the musicians who recorded there still influence music today.
West Virginia was part of that important history – the state was represented at those recordings by Blind Alfred Reed and the West Virginia Coon Hunters.
Alfred Reed was born blind in 1880 in Floyd County, Virginia, the son of Riley and Charlotte Akers Reed. According to census records, they originally hailed from the Alum Ridge/Indian Valley area of Floyd County, Virginia. Their family, like others, migrated to Bluefield, West Virginia, in search of work. Bluefield was central to the coal boom, especially since it was a railroad hub, and it brought many workers to the coal fields from other areas. In 1927, the year of the Bristol Sessions, Reed and his wife Nettie and several of their children were living in Bluefield on Lilly Road. They are listed in the 1927 Bluefield City Directory with Reed’s occupation noted as music teacher. He made his living playing music long before the Bristol Sessions.
There has been a lot of speculation about the many ways that all that musical talent came to Bristol in 1927. Were they brought there by advertising, handbills, or word of mouth? Newspaper and obituary accounts recount that Ralph Peer attended a convention around this time – presumably a fiddlers’ convention – and heard Blind Alfred Reed’s rendition of “The Wreck of the Virginian.” It makes sense that Peer, as a talent scout, would go to where music was being played in the summer of 1927 and invite musicians too. I would argue that invitation could have been one of the methods to bring musicians to Bristol because of the type of music he seemed to be looking for and the type of music he ended up recording. And so Peer, after hearing Reed, might have invited him to Bristol.
The song “The Wreck of the Virginian” would have personal appeal for Reed. Several of his family worked for the railroads. For instance, his brothers Monroe and Matthew Reed worked for the B&O Railroad. His son Collins D. Reed is listed in the 1927 Bluefield City Directory as living with him and working as a machinist for the Virginian Railway Co. His other son Arville Reed, who played guitar on three of the songs at Bristol, is also listed in the 1927 Bluefield City Directory as living with him and as working as a brakeman on the B&O Railroad. Arville’s name is misspelled as Orville in several records.
Blind Alfred Reed recorded four songs for Peer: “The Wreck of the Virginian,” “I Mean to Live for Jesus,” “You Must Unload,” and “Walking in the Way with Jesus.” Reed continued recording until 1929, the year when his most famous side was released: “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?,” a song that has been modified and sung in modern times by musical artists such as Bruce Springsteen and Ry Cooder.
We don’t know the reason why Reed quit recording in 1929 – there is only speculation on that front – but we do know that he still played music locally and became a lay preacher for the Methodist church. He and his family moved around Mercer County, and for a time, he was a street musician in Princeton until the city created an ordinance against busking in 1937. Today there is a mural in his memory on Main Street in Princeton and so he has become a permanent fixture on the street he was once forbidden to play on. Blind Alfred Reed died in 1956 and is buried in Elgood, West Virginia; in 2007 he was inducted into the first class of the West Virginia Hall of Fame.
Most members of the West Virginia Coon Hunters also hailed from Bluefield and the surrounding area, many migrating there for the same reasons as Reed’s family. The band recorded two songs on August 5, the last day of the 1927 Bristol Sessions: “Your Blue Eyes Run Me Crazy” and “Greasy String.”
There are several pictures of the West Virginia Coon Hunters from this time. One is the large group photo of nine musicians seen above, but several simply show four of the men and the full group didn’t play on the songs recorded at the Bristol Sessions. The record has Clyde S. Meadows and my grandfather Wesley “Bane” Boyles included on its label – they are also in the pictures of the smaller group and the large group. However, the record has Clyde’s name as C. A. Meadows (and on the session sheet it is mis-written as W. A. Meadows), while on one side of the record, W. B. Boyles was misspelled to W. B. Bayles.
I’ve tried to track down the personal histories of where each of the members of the band was living in 1927. Several of the band members had migrated to West Virginia, and all of them seemed to be living in and around Mercer County – many were found in the 1927 Bluefield City Directory or had connections to Bluefield. Most continued to play and influence music here in this region for generations.
Wesley “Bane” Boyles, my grandfather, was born in Bland County; in 1927 he was living in Bluefield at 501 Rogers Street with his parents and brothers. He was a moonshiner by occupation so unsurprisingly there was no occupation listed in the 1927 Bluefield City Directory! To read more of his story, check out my own blog.
Vernal Leonidas Vest was a mandolin and ukulele player. He was a true son of West Virginia, born in Summers County to Salunda Jackson and Emma Robbins Vest. In 1927 he was living in Oakvale, West Virginia, and the 1930 census has his occupation listed as a fireman on the railroad. His brother Robert Vest lived in Bluefield in 1927 and worked for the Virginian Railway. In 1930 and 1931 Vernal also recorded with fiddler Fred Pendleton’s West Virginia Melody Boys.
Fred Pendleton was born George Fredrick Pendleton to George Woodruff and Matilda Blankenship Pendleton in 1904 in Princeton, West Virginia; in the records he is listed as George Frederick or Fred G. Pendleton. In 1920 Pendleton was living with his parents on a farm in Oakvale, West Virginia, and by 1930, he was living in Princeton and also working for the railroad as a repairman on steam trains.
Pendleton is one of the most locally famous musicians after the 1927 Bristol Sessions, and he and Clyde Meadows continued to have recording careers as the West Virginia Coon Hunters for a while after they recorded in Bristol. Indeed, Peer asked them to return to Bristol to record again in 1928. Pendleton also recorded with Blind Alfred Reed and his son Arville for Victor later in 1927, as a group called the West Virginia Night Owls.
Pendleton can be found in newspaper articles and ads playing numerous events in West Virginia and beyond – everything from a reunion to a political rally, though my favorite is the Calico Frolic. In over 50 West Virginia news articles, his bands are listed playing events under many different names such as the Fred Pendleton Orchestra, Fred Pendleton’s Lilly Mountaineers, Fred Pendleton’s Swingsters, Fred Pendleton’s Hillbilly Band, etc. As long as his name was first, whoever joined him seemed to form a new band, at least for the event. He also was elected as a commissioner of Mercer County in the 1950s. He passed away in Princeton, West Virginia, in 1972.
Regal Mooney was born Ovid Riggle Mooney in Tazewell County, Virginia, to Charles and Barbara Cruey Mooney. His father worked for the N&W Railway freight station in Williamson, West Virginia. In 1927 his father had passed and he was living with his mother and his wife Lake Palmer Mooney on Hale Street in Bluefield. His occupation at this time was listed as coil maker. I don’t have much information about his musical career, but he died in Columbus, Ohio, in 1973.
The rest of the band led to scanty information. Jim Brown worked for the Foley Printing Company and was also the music teacher at the Bland Methodist Episcopal Church in Bluefield. Joe Stephens – possibly Joseph H. Stevens – was a truck driver for Holt Brothers living at 305 Roanoke Street, a couple of blocks away from Fred Belcher at 113 ½ Roanoke Street, according to the 1927 Bluefield City Directory. And finally the most elusive band member: Dutch Stewart. I could find no one by that specific name though many Stewarts are listed in Bluefield and Mercer County during this timeframe.
Each of these men lived every day and ordinary lives, with music being an important part of those lives – and no matter their station in life, for a brief period of time, they came together in Bristol, Tennessee -Virginia and represented West Virginia at the “big bang” of country music.
It’s part of my job as the museum’s Collections Manager to accession things into the collection (not to pass the collection plate – that’s the development department!). But what the heck is accessioning, anyway?
Accessioning is the process by which something donated to or purchased by the museum becomes an official Object with a capital O. Once accessioned, objects are held in the public trust in perpetuity and maintained with the highest possible standard of care. It may seem pretty straightforward on the surface – someone drops something off, we stick it on a shelf, right? But everything offered to the museum goes through a multi-step process involving much discussion, scheduling, writing tiny numbers on things, and lots and lots of data entry and paperwork. Without all of this hard work, an OBJECT is really just a THING with no story, no context, and no way to even find it in the storage room. Here’s a rundown of everything it takes to turn a thing into an object…
Folks contact me with offers to donate objects for the collection. I gather as much information as I can: What is it? Is it in good shape? Who used it or made it? Where did it come from? When did it come from? I place said information in a file until…
THE COMMITTEE MEETING
Four times a year, the curatorial staff meets to review potential donations and decide whether or not to accept them into the museum’s collection. Acceptance depends on a number of factors, but the most important questions we ask are: A) Does this help us meet our mission? and B) can we take care of this properly?
Sometimes we consult with content experts outside the organization. If we don’t accept an object, I try to suggest another institution that would be a better fit. If we do accept the object, the next step is…
Sometimes donors mail their things to us, sometimes they bring them to the museum, and sometimes I pick them up. We always schedule delivery in advance because I want to be sure I am in the building and have space on the shelf! In addition to taking physical possession, there is also some paperwork to take care of at this step, such as:
Signing a Deed of Gift (a form that proves transfer of ownership to the museum)
Determine a credit line (a line of text that acknowledges the donor whenever an object goes on exhibit)
Writing down any additional contextual information that I learn from the donor
Getting to meet donors and talk to them about their fascinating family histories is one of the best parts about being a Collections Manager!
Finally, we get to…
Now the real fun begins. Processing a THING includes:
Cleaning it (if necessary)
Writing tiny tracking numbers on it
Putting it in a new archival quality sleeve, folder, box, or bag
Scanning or taking photographs of it so that we can recognize it during inventory, exhibit planning, or research
Recording its condition
Entering data about it into our collections management database
Placing in its new home on a shelf and recording the location in the database
Filing all related paperwork in archival folders and saving digital copies to a backed-up drive
TA-DA! What was once merely a THING is now…an OBJECT! It is now ready to help tell the story of our region’s music history via exhibits and publications.
Do you have anything that might make a good object? You can find out more about donating to the museum collection here!
For our “Pick 5” blog series, we ask members of the Radio Bristol team to pick five songs within a given theme – from heartsongs to murder ballads and everything in between! Once they pick their “5,” they get the chance to tell us more about why they chose those songs. With a diverse staff of knowledgeable DJs, we’re sure to get some interesting song choices, which might introduce you to some new music, all easily accessible by tuning into Radio Bristol!
Today is National Moonshine Day!
My Dad’s family made moonshine in the dark corner of upstate South Carolina and western North Carolina for many years, and my folks would deliver corn, sugar, shorts, and yeast from their grocery store to his relatives way out on the back roads. My Mom recalled seeing one of the Plumley girls come get a 50lb. sack of sugar, toss it over her shoulder, and disappear up through the woods to the still. After the hard work of distilling had been done, they would take the train with pockets and valises full of mason jars of shine from my hometown of Tryon, North Carolina, up the mountain to Saluda, connecting with many rich Charlestonians who were coming up to their summer homes; my relatives would then return down to Tryon with pockets full of cash.
That history gave me the inspiration to pick five of my favorite liquor songs to mark this day:
“The Prayer of the Drunkard’s Little Girl,” Blind Alfred Reed
The great Blind Alfred Reed was one of the 1927 Bristol Session musicians, and he was well known for his self-penned songs about social issues. “The Prayer of the Drunkard’s Little Girl” was, of course, a morality tale about the evils of drink and the toll it took on families, especially children.
“Prohibition Blues,” Jorma Kaukonen
Jorma Kaukonen was the guitarist for Jefferson Airplane and has a wonderful guitar camp in southeast Ohio called Fur Peace Ranch where I have taken classes and also performed on a number of occasions. He is a long-time musical hero of mine and also a great friend. Check out the folks playing on this version of “Prohibition Blues” – a Jimmie Rodgers composition! – on Jorma’s album Blue Country Heart. Popular Georgia fiddler Clayton McMichen was the first to record this song back in 1930, and he later played fiddle on Jimmie’s recording of the tune, which unfortunately has never been recovered. It’s the only Jimmie Rodgers side still missing.
“Moonshiner” has been done by lots of folks, but Peter Rowan’s version is my favorite. As usual, he puts his own enthusiastic spin on it. I’ve seen him do quite a few duet shows with Jerry Douglas in days of yore, and this was always a highlight of the night. The first two verses give a sense of the song:
I am a moonshiner
For 17 long years
And I spent all my money
On whisky and beers
And I go to some hollow And set up my still If whisky don’t kill me Lord, I don’t know what will
Another musical hero and great friend here, David Lindley is a most unique performer who puts a Middle Eastern take on this Steve Earle classic by playing it on the saz, a long-necked instrument in the lute family. I’ve performed with David numerous times, and he is one of the smartest and funniest people on earth who has played on hundreds of recordings. Most importantly, however, remember: take a trip down Copperhead Road but keep an eye out for the revenuer man!
These two gents are from Sylva, North Carolina, where I used to live, and their versions of old-time and traditional music through the lens of musical heretics like Harry Partch, Captain Beefheart, The Residents, and others are some of the most unique and oblique music to be found anywhere. Their fearlessness in turning staid forms upside down and inside out is a continual source of musical wonderment.
Want to know what’s behind our museum vault door? With this occasional series, we take you behind the scenes to learn more about some of the interesting objects in our museum collection.
Every museum’s permanent collection is akin to an iceberg – there are the things you see above the surface (i.e. the artifacts and objects on display), and there are the things that lie below the surface (i.e. the artifacts and objects in museum collection storage). However, even though no museum has the space to have all their collection on display at one time, it doesn’t mean we can’t share some of those behind-the-scenes objects with you here!
One of our most enigmatic objects is an instrument you might never have heard of: the ukelin. The ukelin is a Frankenstein instrument, with enthusiasts speculating that its origins can be traced via the Schwatzer bowed zither and the Hawaiian art violin. Plus you can throw a ukulele into the mix!
Hard to imagine what that might look like? Then check out the pictures below:
The ukelin utilizes two sets of strings: one set of sixteen strings tuned to the scale of C and another set of four groups of four strings all tuned to a different chord. On the neck of the instrument, the first set of strings is akin to a violin, and there are guiding posts located on the neck to show the player where to move the bow in order to elicit the desired melody. On the body of the instrument, the accompanying chords are meant to be plucked or picked to the song being played. Here is a diagram if you are still a little confused about what in the world is going on with this instrument:
Clear as mud, right? If you think the diagram is convoluted and confusing, just wait until you hear about the history of this conglomerate beast!
The man who first laid claim to this invention was Paul Richter, who requested a patent for his creation in 1923, applying it to the Phonoharp Company. After merger with Schmidt International Inc., Schmidt’s traveling salespeople would go door-to-door selling these odd-ball instruments to any interested takers. Other companies sold similar instruments.
The ukelin was a novelty hit for a short time in the 1930s – the salesperson would play a few simple tunes for potential customers, convincing them that the instrument was incredibly simple to learn how to play, even for a beginner: “You could learn in a day!” Budding musicians were often persuaded to buy with the offer of a “bargain” price that could be paid off in installments, and once the sale was done, they were left with the ukelin, instructions of how to play by number, and sheet music.
So, bow in hand, instrument and provided sheet music on the table, the new ukelin owner would sit down to learn their hip new instrument in just a day as the salesman had promised. However, the new ukelin owner would soon discover that the instrument was in fact too hard to play for a novice musician – two sets of strings, plucking, and bow action proved to be too difficult for the casual player. Perhaps too much like rubbing your tummy and patting your head at the same time!
Plus, once the new owner would haphazardly try to play their new instrument all day and the instrument needed tuning, it was nearly impossible to tune back. And, so the Frankenstein creation was tucked away into attics and other such forgotten places for grandchildren to find years later and try their hand at the instrument all over again.
Check out a couple more recent ukelin players to get a sense of the process of playing:
While ukelin enthusiasts are trying to bring ukelins back into mainstream culture with renditions of contemporary songs like “Sweet Caroline” and “Come Sail Away,” the true sound of the ukelin is not reaching its full potential in these videos. Professional musicians like Chris Sayre have tried to master this obscure instrument in an effort to produce the truly haunting and beautiful sound that can be elicited from the complex sets of ukelin strings.
The beautifully bizarre ukelin clearly demonstrates that the possibilities of music and musical instruments know no bounds, but also that what looks pretty complex often is!