January 2019 - The Birthplace of Country Music
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Love Live Local: Supporting Your Local Music Economy

Me, couching with my cat Mooch and diggin’ on Snapchat filters instead of seeing live music. Boo, me!

As we settle into the winter months, our cozy pjs become more and more appealing. The skies darken earlier, beckoning us to retreat to our homes where the warmth of comfort foods fill our bellies and the urge to snuggle into our couches with a blanket, a favorite TV show or a good book often overrides the decision to go out and see live music. I get it. I am also guilty. This time of year I welcome hibernation, especially after the busy holidays, but as the Birthplace of Country Music is in the midst of booking music for our annual Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion festival in September I want to encourage everyone to take part in their local music economy this winter. Our venues and bands need you.

Many local venues rely on door cover to pay artists to come and perform. When people stay home, some venues decide not to offer live music at all. This shuts down a source of income for artists, venues, and bar and wait staff who rely on tips to supplement their income. When you support live music in the Tri-Cities, especially this time of year, you’re supporting local businesses and artists – businesses where we discover talent for Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion. In turn, fans that support live music locally are also more likely to buy tickets to our nonprofit festival. It’s great for our local music economy, and we generate an enthusiasm for our music scene that drives visitors from outside the community as well.

Clockwise L to R: International touring artist Amythyst Kiah performing at Radio Bristol’s Farm & Fun Time at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, Toni Doman and K.T. Vandyke performing as Virginia West at Bloom Cafe & Music Room in Downtown Bristol, Annie Robinette making sweet noise on the Lumac Rooftop Bar at The Bristol Hotel. and Beth Snapp with her amazing band at The Down Home in Johnson City.

Several years ago, Bristol Rhythm was once criticized in a national publication for being “painfully regional” in our booking choices. Though most of the article was favorable, that single phrase still sticks in my craw. Those of us in the scene know just how much talent thrives in our midst. Most independent artists work just as hard as their more popular peers, and you may be surprised to learn how many musicians from this region tour nationally and internationally. Indie artists also don’t need big label support and a team of marketers and radio buyers on the payroll to be good—or even great—so when I look at our lineup each year and see the number of regional and local artists on the bill, my chest swells with pride. We have the unique opportunity at our festival to showcase the enormous talent that dwells here. It’s one of the things that makes Bristol Rhythm unique. We don’t want our lineup to look like everyone else’s. Trends come and go. It’s important to us that our festival remains true to our mission of promoting Bristol’s rich music heritage—that includes booking artists who are most influenced by that heritage—artists whom live, record, and perform right here in our area.

L to R: Annabelle’s Curse, Doyle Lawson, and Virginia Ground performing at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion 2018. Lawson, born in Kingsport, is a multi-award winning artists who has toured all over the world.

So, on behalf of all our local venue owners, bar and wait staff, and local musicians here in our region and beyond, I urge you to make room on your calendars to take in a show in your neighborhood this week, invite a few friends, and give back to the people who make it their job to entertain us and make us happy. Don’t just go see local bands, buy their music, rock their merch, and tell your friends about them. Love live local music by supporting it, especially now, when business is slow and they need you the most!

Here is an awesome Spotify playlist comprised of some of a few of Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion’s most killer local acts. Enjoy!

Off the Record: Big Mama Thornton and Nina Simone

Usually our “Off the Record” posts focus on one of our Radio Bristol DJs. Today, however, we asked Amythyst Kiah, one of our favorite artists, to tell us all about a song, record or artist she loves.

Throughout my musical and personal journey as an artist, I’ve been inspired by a variety of musicians in a broad range of genres. Although there are certain ones that invoke strong feelings of nostalgia for me (for instance, 1990s grunge rock and R&B), I’ve never been one to attach my identity to a genre of music ­­– rather I’ve always been more drawn to the use of melody, arrangement, and grit.

As I started digging into earlier eras of popular music, there are two songs in particular, however, that have had a huge impact on me as a singer and songwriter in my mid-20s: “Hound Dog,” performed by Big Mama Thornton, and “Four Women,” written and performed by Nina Simone. These are important songs because of their place in popular music history, but they are also significant because behind both songs are women who weren’t initially accepted by their own peers in the music world because of their race.

“Hound Dog” was made internationally popular by Elvis Presley in 1956, and it is considered one of the most influential rock & roll songs. However, Big Mama Thornton was the first person to record the song in 1952.


Written by Jerry Leiber and Michael Stroller, Thornton recorded the song on Peacock Records, and it was released four years prior to Presley’s recording. Her version has become my favorite. There is a certain rawness about her vocal delivery and the call-and-response between the lead guitarist and her voice that is simply captivating.

Thornton’s version would go on to influence other rock & roll singers, including Presley, and it was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2013. Despite this, Thornton revealed in a 1971 interview (Gunsmoke Blues, 2004) that Presley refused to do a show with her. It would only be in the late 1960s when Janis Joplin, who recorded Thornton’s song “Ball and Chain,” would not only formally recognize her as an influence, but ask her to open for her for a couple of concerts. This gives a little insight into the issues that the music industry caused for women of color – something as simple as being recognized for her work was a challenge in and of itself.

Check out Big Mama Thornton’s 1965 live performance here:

Nine Simone’s “Four Women” was a single from her 1966 album release, Wild as the Wind. It chronicles the lives of four black female characters from slavery to the present era: Aunt Sarah, Saffronia, Sweet Thing, and Peaches. Each woman experiences the effects of slavery in a different way. Aunt Sarah is presented as a slave who can take the pain; Saffronia’s birth was the product of the rape of a black woman by a rich, white man; Sweet Thing is a prostitute – historically women of color have been disproportionately put in positions of poverty where prostitution might be seen as the most effective way to make money to survive. And Peaches, who is the last of the four women and of the latest era, is justifiably upset about the plight of her parents and ancestors and has developed the thickest of skins in order to protect herself, presumably from the very things that haunt the other three women in the song: physical abuse, rape, and the hands of strange men.

What’s particularly intriguing about this song is that it offers no solutions; it is simply a telling of four experiences of women of different shades of brown and the struggles that each one faces. Simone herself would face racism herself at a very young age when she applied for the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and was denied entry, despite her talents, because of her race (two days before her death, they gave her an honorary degree). Nonetheless, from playing classical music to playing “the devil’s music,” according to her pastor mother and religious family, Simone had a harrowing journey as a musician and as a woman, an experience which is expressed in this powerful song – one of many she wrote as critiques and reflections on the realities of racism during the Civil Rights movement.

Celebrating A New Year and a Timeless Tradition with Farm and Fun Time

For our first Farm and Fun Time of 2019, we had a special celebration of Appalachian balladry! Thanks to our sponsor Eastman Credit Union, Radio Bristol was able to bring the live show 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!

Left pic: Bill and two of the Belles grouped together for a song; left pic: The full band is shown with the packed audience in front of them.
Bill and the Belles warmed up the audience, ready for a night of ballads and story songs. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Billie Wheeler

Host band Bill and the Belles kicked the show off with a couple of songs that told stories full of laughter and tears: “When I Had But Fifty Cents” and “Mr. Frog Went A Courting.” Instead of an “Heirloom Recipe” segment this month, Dr. Ted Olson took the stage to offer a bit of context for the evening’s program. Ted is a renowned scholar of early country music and a professor at East Tennessee State University. Perhaps most importantly for this performance, Ted is the producer of Big Bend Killing: The Appalachian Ballad Tradition, an album which features the talents of many of the world’s top ballad singers, a few of whom were on tonight’s show. Balladry is an important element of traditional music, and these old songs and the stories they tell have been passed down through the generations knee-to-knee with the old masters – they are a crucial link to the earliest elements of country music. Proceeds from this record go to support the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Ted standing in front of the microphone, holding the CD Big Bend Killing.
Dr. Ted Olson shares the story of Big Bend Killing with the Farm and Fun Time audience. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Billie Wheeler

Our first musical guest of the evening was none other than Elizabeth LaPrelle. Raised in Rural Retreat, Virginia, Elizabeth has been performing old-time songs and ballads since she was 11 years old. Elizabeth began performing at fiddler’s conventions across the region, and soon after, she was sharing her gift of song with audiences the world over. As a member of Anna and Elizabeth, she has toured the world, recorded for Smithsonian Folkways, and hosted the Floyd Radio Hour. For January’s Farm and Fun Time, Elizabeth performed some of the most heartfelt ballads one could imagine, including “The West Virginia Mine Disaster,” a gut-wrenching piece that can also be heard on Big Bend Killing.

Left pic: Elizabeth LaPrelle singing with guitar in front of the mic; center pic: A close-up shot of the audience clapping; right pic: Elizabeth singing a capella, eyes closed, in front of the mic.
Elizabeth LaPrelle mesmerized the audience, taking them wholly into the tales told in the ballads. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Billie Wheeler

The ETSU Old Time Rambler’s were our next musical guests of the evening. Comprised of students from ETSU’s Bluegrass, Old Time, and Country Music Program, these young scholars of early country music research the music they perform under the direction of Roy Andrade. From the sweet duets of Hannah and Emily Roper, to the rip-roaring fiddling of Bluff City, Tennesse’s own Zeb Dougherty to an old-timey solo number by Connor Vleistra, these young musicians are clearly doing their homework and absorbing the nuances of old-time music!

The four band members, with the male musicians on either side and the two female musicians in the center, gather round the mic with their instruments.
The ETSU Old Time Ramblers brought youthful enthusiasm to the songs and history they are learning together! © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Billie Wheeler

Following the ETSU Old Time Ramblers was the incomparable John Lilly. John has traveled all across the south learning music from legends such as Ralph Blizard and others, and he is equally at home singing the folk songs of the hills or his own acclaimed original work. For tonight’s performance, John tackled the ballad “Man of Constant Sorrow,” in addition to an original ballad entitled “Angel’s Share.” John is a compelling solo performer, but he was also joined by his son George, who accompanied him on mandolin and fiddle, bringing beautiful harmony vocals that can only be achieved by members of the same family.

Left pic: John Lilly on the guitar singing at the mic; Center pic: John Lilly and son George, holding his fiddle, harmonize together at the mic; Right pic: John Lilly portrait. wearing a hat and cowboy shirt.
John Lilley, and his son George, connected with the audience with their personal songs and stories. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Billie Wheeler

Before our final performance of the evening, Hasee Ciaco, accompanied by Kalia Yeagle on the fiddle, sang a beautiful rendition of the traditional ballad “Omie Wise.” And then last but not least, Farm and Fun Time welcomed Johnson City, Tennessee’s own Amythyst Kiah. A self-professed Southern Gothic songster, Amythyst blends influences from old-time music to R&B to alternative music, creating a powerful style all her own. Consistently a crowd favorite everywhere she goes, from venues like Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion to the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, Amythyst’s time on the stage at January’s Farm and Fun Time was no different, and she easily had the crowd’s full attention as she gave command performances of her pieces “Trouble So Hard” and “The Worst.” The rest of her set was dedicated to old-time ballads, including a powerful rendition of “Pretty Polly,” accompanied by Roy Andrade on the five-string banjo. Look for Amythyst on an exciting new release from Smithsonian Folkways, “Songs of Our Native Daughters,” along with Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla, and Allison Russell.

 Top left: Close up of Amythyst's face while singing; Top right: Close up of her hand playing the guitar; Bottom left: Amythyst (on guitar) and Roy Andrade (on banjo) play together at the mic; Bottom right: Close up of Amythyst playing.
Amythyst Kiah’s stage presence, evocative voice and skillful playing always wrench emotion from her audience and listeners. A reunion with Roy Andrade on stage was particularly special. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Billie Wheeler

Thanks to everyone who came out and paid tribute to Appalachian balladry at this wonderful celebration of our region’s culture and heritage, and all the best to you in the coming year! Tickets are on sale for February’s Farm and Fun Time featuring Beth Snapp and Rachel Baiman, and host band Bill and the Belles. We hope to see you there!

Selfie Expression: #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 it’s not just for museum people! You can join in the fun by sharing your own selfie in our museum, or others!

Our BCM staff are pretty passionate about the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, and they’ve stepped up on #MuseumSelfie Day before. This year I asked them to take a selfie in front of a panel, photograph or object in the museum’s exhibits that shared some surprising or particularly interesting information. Check out their picks below – and then come out to the museum, take your own selfie, and share it on social media with the tags #MuseumSelfie and #BCMMuseum.

Summer Apostol, Toni Doman, Kris Truelsen (Producer), Josh Littleton (Engineer & Technical Administrator), and Lawrence Inscho

You might have listened to our in-house radio station, Radio Bristol, but if you haven’t visited the museum yet, you might not know that not only is it a live, working radio station but it is also an integral part of our museum exhibits. Visitors can regularly see our DJs at work and be part of the audience for some of their live performance shows. Guests like Lawrence Inscho, a regular on On the Sunny Side, always bring a new and interesting perspective to our radio listeners, and Kris, Josh, and other members of the Radio Bristol team share their enthusiasm for their work every day! As Toni notes, it’s wonderful to see so many talented artists and guests visit the station and be continuously inspired by the museum, and hosting her own radio program, Mountain Song & Story, is also a blast especially when Summer stops in to help her out with sound effects for the show!

Scotty Almany, Digital Resources Manager & Catalog Associate

Did you know that the fiddle has also been called “the devil’s box”? This is my favorite piece of information in the museum. It has been used to stump many who have wagered that they knew the answer, be they docent, visitor or co-staff member. Diabolical knowledge!

Erika Barker, Sales & Business Development Manager

The Anatomy of a Hit panel talks about how 78rpm records could only play about four minutes of sound on average. Most early songs and ballads are much longer than that, and therefore they had to be rewritten and shortened to fit on the records accordingly. I had known since I was young that most songs on my old CDs and on the radio even today are about 3-4 minutes long, but I never knew why that length had been chosen as the music standard until reading this panel. Just goes to show how much early record recording techniques and equipment still influence the music industry today!

Rene Rodgers, Head Curator

There are so many wonderful objects in the museum, and I particularly love the early music playback machines from large phonographs within cabinets as can be seen here to phonographs with visible morning glory horns to portable cylinder players. What’s interesting to me is that these machines, along with the cylinders and records played on them, were usually sold in furniture stores, rather than dedicated music stores. Phonograph needles are also slightly surprising in that they were only good for a certain number of “plays” – so you had to keep buying them!

Summer Apostol, Frontline Associate

As a history major, and general lover of history, I think it’s critical to connect the past to the present – to show people that history is relevant and important! The museum does a beautiful job of showing its visitors that the 1927 Bristol Sessions are, in fact, very important and relevant. One way this feat is achieved is with the kiosks that let you listen to covers more modern musicians (like Nirvana) have arranged. One of the coolest spots in the museum, in my opinion!

Emily Robinson, Collections Manager

I’ve always associated old-time music with banjos and fiddles, so when you visit the museum and see the wide range of instruments that are part of that music, such as kazoos and ukuleles, it comes as a bit of a surprise. I was particularly interested to see that Alfred Karnes (possibly) played a harp guitar at the Bristol Sessions!

Toni Doman, Frontline Associate

Any time I get the chance to dance, I’ll take it! Here I am swinging with Pokey LaFarge in the museum’s Immersion Theater. Several of the images in the museum have been taken at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion, and it’s great when people come to visit and then get to see themselves as part of the museum’s exhibits. A wonderful surprise!

Nathan Sykes, Production Assistant

One of my favorite ideas that is explored in the museum is the idea that genre is a concept that was made up to sell records. Before the record industry put terms such as “Hillbilly” and “Race” on the music, it flowed freely and transcended culture, and musicians played whatever music was called for. From breakdowns to blues to ballads, musicians adjusted their set lists to fit the occasion. To put it simply, good music is good music, and everything from polka to hip hop to bluegrass has value. When we set aside our preconceived notions of genre, our ears and minds are opened to new ideas and experiences we couldn’t imagine if we only think of music along strict genre lines.

High-Tech Vintage: Technology and the Delivery of Old-Time Sound

January 6 is National Technology Day – and so it seemed the perfect time to explore some of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum from the technology side of things! We’ve picked five elements of the content or the museum itself that tell just a little of the technology story here:

Recording and Playback Machines

The museum shares the story of the 1927 Bristol Sessions, but it also explores how sound technology shaped their success and evolved over the years. Inventions such as recording and playback machines played important roles. For instance, in 1877, Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, which was instrumental in distributing music in the early 20th century, including the songs recorded at the 1927 Bristol Sessions. Writing an article in 1878 on “The Phonograph and its Future,” Edison listed other possible uses for his invention beyond playing music, including elocution and other educational lessons; audio books (before Audible and iTunes!); to create sound effects for children’s toys; and most intriguingly, “family records,” where the last words of dying family members could be saved for posterity, like that of other great characters of the day.

Other innovators contributed to the development of this type of playback technology. In 1881, Alexander Graham Bell invented the graphophone, an improved version of the phonograph developed by Edison, and in 1894, Emile Berliner invented the disc gramophone method, which used different machines to record and then to play back the sound. Where earlier recording and playback machines used cylinders, either coated in tin foil or wax, Berliner’s gramophone used flat disc records.

Left: Large room filled with musical instruments, a large phonograph and other equipment and furniture; center: A cylinder phonograph with rose red horn with cylinders and another machine nearby; right: A close-up showing the needle on a record disc.
Left: Thomas Edison’s Phonograph Experimental Department in the early 1890s; Center: A cylinder phonograph with rose red horn; Right: Record playing on a disc phonograph. Images are Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [reproduction number, e.g., LC-USZ62-90145] (left) and © Birthplace of Country Music (center, right)
Acoustic Design

The museum is a high-tech, interactive experience, one that is filled with music and sound. And because of that, it had to be designed strategically and carefully in order to provide the best possible experience to our visitors. For instance, the acoustic engineer advised the architects and exhibit designers on ways to define walls and ceilings to contain sound or keep it from bouncing around the open gallery spaces or the theater. The firm also worked closely with the technology team and media producers to define how the sound of each audio or audio/video production is delivered into the space. The goal was to provide an immersive experience, yet minimize unwanted “bleed” of sound between programs. Innovative acoustic wall panels and fabric mean that the acoustic technology is seamless and becomes a part of the museum experience itself, while speakers embedded underneath the pews in the chapel theater space mean that visitors feel like they are right in the middle of the congregation and they can often even feel it in their seats!

Left: The curved wall of the timeline with an oval white disc hanging above it; center: Several patrons sit in the pews of the chapel as they view the chapel film; right: The acoustic tile is a light beige color with several cut-out dots in a variety of patterns on its surface.
Left: A hanging acoustic panel above the timeline in the museum’s atrium exhibit space focuses the soundscape down towards visitors who stand in this area; Center: The sound design in the chapel helps patrons to feel like they are part of the congregation as they watch the film; Right: High-tech acoustic tile in the museum’s Performance Theater helps to make the sound experience in this space truly special. © Birthplace of Country Music, photographer: Neil Staples; © Hillmann & Carr; © Birthplace of Country Music

Orthophonic Technology

Orthophonic reproducers were an outgrowth of the electric microphones being used to record performers in the late 1920s. Electric recording captured a wider range of sound frequencies and produced recordings in which the instruments and voices sounded much more like live instruments and voices than they had on previous acoustic recordings. These reproducers were designed to be more sensitive to the nuances in the electric recordings, making the listener’s experience more pleasurable and true-to-life. The Bristol Sessions in 1927 were recorded using this process and many claimed that the Orthophonic recordings sounded even better than the live performances! Electric recording and Orthophonic machines, like later compact discs or HDTV, were a technological revolution that helped change the shape of the music industry.

Two sides of an Orthophonic reproducer -- one looks like the front of an old-time microphone, while the other bears the name Victor Ortophonic. Both sides are made of silver metal.
These Victor Orthophonic reproducers (front and back), donated by Bob Bledsoe, are the pieces of the Orthophonic Victrola that connected the record to the sound horn. A listener would insert a needle into the reproducer, which would follow the groove on the record. The groove created vibrations that were made into sound waves by the reproducer and amplified by the sound horn. © Birthplace of Country Music

The Radio Station

During the planning stage of the museum, the exhibit content team discussed ways to make the space focused on radio history into an engaging experience for our visitors. The result? Radio Bristol, a live radio station! With help from a team of radio industry advisers, BCM applied to the FCC for a low-power FM license, secured the antennae, transmitter and equipment necessary for broadcasting, and created a working radio studio in the museum. And that’s where the technology gets really interesting because the station uses vintage equipment from older Bristol radio stations, refurbished and repurposed for today. For instance, a Raytheon console from 1940s WCYB Radio, sourced from local radio buff and collector William Mountjoy, was rebuilt by engineer Jim Gilmore, retired engineer from TNN. One of the mics in the radio studio is from local station WOPI and was used by Tennessee Ernie Ford when he was a DJ there. And there are numerous ways to deliver music in the station – from a record turntable to a live recording booth to the digital ease of tablets and MP3s. The station is what we call high-tech vintage!

Left: A view of the radio station from outside the booths showing a DJ in the smaller room to the left and a band recording live in the larger space to the right; center: A view of the console, turntable, and other equipment in the DJ booth; Right: A musician on banjo plays while Martha Spencer flatfoots live on the Farm and Fun Time stage.
Left and center: The radio station in the museum has a booth for the radio DJ and a larger room for performers and musicians to record live; the DJ booth is fitted out with 1940s equipment upgraded to digital capability. Right: Live performances in the Performance Theater, such as this Farm and Fun Time show, can also be broadcast live from the museum and streamed on Facebook. © Birthplace of Country Music (left and center); © Birthplace of Country Music, photographer: Billie Wheeler

Technology Lessons

Finally, sometimes the technology isn’t an object from our collections or an innovative way to present the museum’s content. Rather it is found in educational programs where we share the story of that technology. For instance, for the past two years, museum staff and volunteers have participated in the Kingsport Mini Maker Faire where we have presented information about the museum’s exhibits and engaged in a variety of sound demonstrations, including an example of amplification and a homemade Chladni plate! We also offer a “History of Listening” lesson, available in the museum and to schools and other groups. Throughout history music has been experienced in a variety of ways, especially as advances in technology have developed over time. This lesson explores these technological changes and then compares how listening to music transitioned from being a mostly community-based activity, often through live performance, to listening either alone or together in person via technology and the virtual environments of cyberspace.

Left: A young girl listens to an explanation of amplification while looking at the equipment held by the head curator; Top right: A metal plate covered in blue sand sits between a museum volunteer and a young girl in one picture while the second shows the geometric pattern formed by the sound from the sound waves that have been directed to the metal plate; Bottom right: A drawing of the acoustic and electric methods of recording on a white board at a school in the first pic, while the second pic shows two tables bearing a variety of different playback machines such as a record player, a CD player, a tape player, and several cylinders and records.
Left: Museum head curator Rene Rodgers demonstrating sound amplification to a young visitor at the Kingsport Mini Maker Faire in 2017. Top right: Museum volunteer Matt Wood explains the Chladni plate to a child at the Kingsport Mini Maker Faire in 2018; the resulting pattern produced by sound waves. Bottom right: A basic drawing (very basic!) to differentiate the acoustic and electric recording methods during the “History of Listening” lesson at a local school; museum staff and volunteers demonstrate the lesson to teachers during a summer in-service. © Birthplace of Country Music