October 2019 - The Birthplace of Country Music
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Off the Record: Townes Van Zandt’s Live at The Old Quarter, Houston, Texas

“Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world, and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.”

~ Steve Earle

I moved to Bristol, Tennessee, in early January 2010. Moving might be too glorifying of a word, meaning I had $30, a guitar, and a bag of clothes. I was re-moving myself from a failed relationship while finishing a batch of songs, some of which would appear on my debut release Appalachian Travels – hence the name of my radio show on Radio Bristol. (Thanks, Bill Edwards!)

My long-time friend and fellow tunesmith Allun Cormier and I shared a three-story chalet style house at end of Glen Road. The two houses there were owned by the original operator of The Hitchin’ Post, a now-defuct Bristol honky tonk, and they had been the stopping-place of the bands traveling through town in the 1970s and 1980s. One could literally sense the energy the minute you walked through the door.

One afternoon in February, I recorded a song I had just finished on my phone and sent it to Allun – it was called “The Marrying Song.” He immediately replied: “That sounds like a Townes Van Zandt song.” Now, as a child I remember Wille Nelson and Merle Haggard’s cut of “Pancho & Lefty,” a tune written by Townes and released in 1972. However, this was as deep as my knowledge of Townes went. I had heard the name numerous times, but never went down the rabbit hole to learn more. Boy, but what a rabbit hole to find!

I was heavily getting into Texas songwriters Guy Clark, Robert Earl Keen, Ray Wylie Hubbard, and the like. In press interviews, all of these amazing songwriters kept referencing Townes as one of their biggest influences, Clark more than any of them. Allun brought home a copy of the 2004 documentary Be Here to Love Me, giving me great insight into the tragic life of the late, great Townes Van Zandt. I, myself, was deep in the bottle and could relate in more ways than one.

I started with the import compilation Legend – The Very Best of Townes Van Zandt, which I picked up at our local record store, Sessions 27. I kept it on repeat for a couple of weeks, allowing the material to fully saturate every molecule of my being. Minimal production, poetic lyrics, sparse guitar, all of it hit me in the right way. I immediately understood what all these great songwriters were talking about. Townes was the real deal. I soon picked up a copy of Live at The Old Quarter, Houston, Texas, wanting to hear Townes in his natural environment – a live setting with only him, his songs, and his guitar. Townes performs flawlessly, exploring his catalogue while showcasing his own influences – Merle Travis, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Rev. Gary Davis’s arrangement of “Cocaine Blues.”

From squeaky bar stools to audience chatter, I could hear The Old Quarter and Townes’s performance breathe – listen in, and so can you.

Fall, Fish, and Farm and Fun Time!

Farm and Fun Time got back to its bluegrass roots at October’s show! Thanks to our sponsor Eastman Credit Union, Radio Bristol was 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!

The crowded theater at October's show with row upon row of audience members clapping.
Another packed house for Farm and Fun Time – the audience always has a great time! © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Billie Wheeler

Host band Bill and the Belles kicked the show off in grand style with their lighthearted take on classic American sounds, humming our troubles away. This month’s “Heirloom Recipe” segment was presented by Johnson City restaurateur Nathan Brand. After the success of his pop-up restaurant The Orchard Mason, Nathan opened Timber! at the location of the old Acoustic Coffee House in Johnson City. Nathan seeks to bring fresh takes on local foods, and for October’s Farm and Fun Time he shared the story of his popular dish, smoked trout dip. Nathan recalled his first experience catching and eating trout in Northern Idaho, and nearly 20 years later, he still remembers this happy memory when creating the trout dip that is now a favorite at Timber! To tell the audience what it was all about, Bill and the Belles proclaimed the love for this fishy spread with a new jingle “Nothing Smokes Like Trout.”   

Left: Bill and the Belles' musicians -- on bass, fiddle, guitar, and banjo -- around the microphone on stage at the show. Right: Nathan Brand, wearing a hat and country-style vest, at the microphone.
“Nothing Smokes Like Trout” proclaims host band Bill and the Belles in response to chef Nathan Brand’s story about his recipe for smoked trout dip. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Billie Wheeler

Our first musical guest of the evening was Jeff Scroggins and Colorado. Led by two-time National Banjo Champion Jeff Scroggins and noted singer and guitarist Greg Blake, the band has brought their distinctive style of bluegrass to audiences across the globe. For their first visit to Bristol, they started the show off with a rousing rendition of Don Reno and Bill Harrell’s “Big Train,” underlining that the band is steeped in the traditions of bluegrass’s inventors while not being afraid to take it in their own direction. With impeccable vocals and outstanding instrumental prowess, it’s easy to see why they were able to win over our appreciative Farm and Fun Time audience. We hope to see Jeff Scroggins and Colorado back in Bristol soon!

Top left: Close up photo of the mandolin player's hands on his mandolin. Middle left: The female fiddle player and the guitar player playing at the mic together. Top right: Close up photo of the banjo player's hands on the banjo. Bottom: Photograph of full band, including musicians playing the fiddle , the bass, the guitar, the mandolin, and the banjo.
Jeff Scroggins and Colorado brought heartfelt vocals and out-of-this-world instrumental prowess to the Farm and Fun Time stage. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Billie Wheeler

For this month’s “Radio Bristol Farm Report,” we visited Phillip Ottinger at Buffalo Trail Orchard in Greene County, Tennessee. Ottinger is the fifth generation of the same family to work on the property, and though it was originally a tobacco and cattle farm, Ottinger has turned it into a successful orchard. Here’s a video from our visit:

Our last guest of the evening was Chatham County Line. Hailing from Chatham County, North Carolina, as their name suggests, Chatham County Line has developed quite a following over the past two decades, with seven studio albums under their belt. Based strongly in the sounds of bluegrass, Chatham County Line has developed a performance style all their own that is somehow mellow and high energy all at the same time. Performing mostly original songs with one Beck cover thrown in for good measure, it is easy to see how these guys enthrall audiences everywhere they go. We’re looking forward to their upcoming release on Yep Roc records.

Top left: Photo focused in on the guitar player wearing an embroidered shirt. Top right: Photo focused in on the bass player, with the guitar player in the background. Bottom right: Photo focused in on the fiddle player wearing a dark suit. Bottom left: Photo focused in on the drums player.
Chatham County line blended bluegrass roots and original songwriting for an outstanding performance. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Billie Wheeler

Thanks to everyone who came out and shared in this wonderful evening of music! Tickets are on sale for November’s show, but they’re going fast. We hope to see you there!

Instrument Interview: A Guitar Built for Doc Watson

“Instrument Interview” posts are a chance to sit down with the instruments of traditional, country, bluegrass, and roots music – from different types of instruments to specific ones related to artists, luthiers, and songwriters – and learn more about them. Ten questions are posed, and the instruments answer! Today we talk with a guitar built for Doc Watson.

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Hi! I am a handcrafted acoustic guitar based on a Martin 000 pattern. I was made by Jayne Henderson, the daughter of prominent luthier Wayne Henderson – in my opinion, she is the coolest Henderson! Being a 000 means that I am a smaller guitar, with thinner sides and a smaller body shape than the typical bluegrass Dreadnought guitar you see all the big country stars playing. My small stature doesn’t stop me in terms of volume and playability though!

I am made from white oak, which I know isn’t the typical material one would think of when it comes to guitars. However, at the time, my builder had just graduated from Vermont Law School with a degree in environmental law and policy, and therefore she wanted to try some local materials as she didn’t want to use any woods that were extinct or too hard to come by.

I was made for the incredible musician Doc Watson upon his request. He passed away about a week before I was finished, but that has not stopped me from spreading my voice loud and proud among other musicians – in fact, it has actually lead to some awesome opportunities where I have been played by all sorts of talented folks!

Wayne Henderson, Doc Watson, and Jayne Henderson posing for the camera in the Henderson workshop. Tools, instruments, and wood litter the background of the photograph.
Wayne and Jayne Henderson visiting with Doc Watson in Wayne’s workshop. Photography courtesy of Jayne Henderson

Why is oak such a strange wood to make a guitar from?

Well, while not many builders use it for a tone wood these days, it actually isn’t that strange historically. Martin, one of the best guitar manufacturers out there in my opinion, made parlor guitars from oak around the turn of the 20th century and into the 1920s and 1930s.

Jayne, my builder, found the board I am made from at a local lumber yard and chose it primarily because the board was the first one she had ever seen where she knew it was quarter-sawn, a term that refers to the grain of a tree running straight vertically for the length of the board. Boards that are quarter-sawn are the best for guitar material because they are usually the most stable pieces in terms of cracking and moving. Quarter-sawn boards are also best at allowing vibrations from plucked strings to run fastest through the board and then transmitting those vibrations into sound waves. She bought that board and took it to Virginia where her dad helped her cut it into a guitar set. The thinly sliced back and side pieces rang out loud and bright when Jayne and her dad tapped on them so they knew the pieces would make a great guitar.

What is the best part about being made from a material not typically used for guitars?

The coolest thing about being made from a piece of white oak is that it is a sustainable material that is easily available for building. A lot of historically used materials – such as Brazilian rosewood and Honduran mahogany – are becoming endangered or have even gone extinct so protecting those resources rather than using them is more important than ever. Even though there are currently some regulations monitoring the use, those types of wood won’t be around forever at the rate they are being harvested or destroyed in their countries.

I am also very proud that when you tap on a plank of oak, its tone is similar to that of Brazilian rosewood. What’s great is that oak comes from right here, in our own backyards, and it is prevalent enough that if you cut a few, or better yet, harvest a naturally felled tree, it won’t threaten the entire species or the subsequent species that rely on that tree for survival.

A tall man with Jayne Henderson in a workshop; the man holds the Doc Watson guitar, which is a pale wood with tortoise-like pick guard.
Jayne Henderson and friend holding the finished Doc Watson guitar; the simplicity of the design highlights the beautiful oak wood. Photograph courtesy of Jayne Henderson

You said you were made for Doc Watson. Who is that?

Doc Watson is a legendary musician known for his picking style and for pioneering new “licks” on old songs – licks that countless musicians following his footsteps strive to emulate, including Wayne Henderson. Doc was blind, which he once told Jayne was why he became a musician in the first place as it provided a means to express himself as well as carry a successful profession without the need to see. Jayne knew Doc Watson for her entire life because he had been friends with her dad through playing music together. Doc also has a few of Wayne’s instruments, one of which he proudly played during his last performance at Merlefest a few years back.

How did he find out about Jayne’s guitars?

The last years of Doc’s life, when he wasn’t traveling around playing as much, he would visit Wayne’s shop most Sundays. He would sit for hours and tell Jayne stories, like how he met his wife Rosalie or all the pets he has considered friends in his life, while petting her dog Harper who laid her head on his feet, oblivious to his celebrity status. Whenever Jayne finished a new guitar near one of those precious Sundays, Doc would always play it and sing a song or two.

Two pictures of Doc Watson in the Henderson workshop, one where he is leaning down to pet Harper, a black hound-looking dog, and the other with him playing a guitar while Harper sits at his feet.
Doc and Harper hanging out in Wayne’s shop. Dogs are music lovers too! Photograph courtesy of Jayne Henderson

And then how did you come about?

As Jayne began building, she would show Doc her new guitars. He was so kind and generous with praise for each one, even though he claimed he would be honest with his critiques. One day Jayne asked if he would like her to build him one, and he said he would love that – soon enough I was in the works. I am a simple guitar, with minimal adornment, the only flashy thing being my brass encircled fret markers which reminded Jayne of the snaps on Doc’s plaid shirts.

How did Doc feel about oak being used for his guitar?

Jayne told Doc that she wanted to use a sustainable material for his guitar. Because she had just finished her degree from one of the top environmental law programs in the country, she thought it was important to include the principles she learned in her building. She asked if the oak she had found would be OK to use and showed him the boards so he could hear them ring. He told her, “Honey, that wood sounds great. Anything you want to make for me, I am going to love it.”

Left: The full back of the guitar showing the grain of the wood and the small strip of inlay decoration up the center of the guitar's back. Right: A detail shot of the heelcap inlay, which reads "Doc" at the top.
White oak back and heelcap inlay of the guitar built by Jayne Henderson for Doc Watson. Photograph courtesy of Jayne Henderson

So what happened next?

Well, as I was getting my top braces shaved down, the shop phone rang. Someone told Wayne that Doc had passed away. Jayne decided she would never be able to sell this guitar, one that she had made for her friend, so she set about making the neck comfortable for her hand instead. Once, a few months before, while testing a guitar she had just strung up, Doc told her, “You need to keep this guitar and learn to play it as well as your dad. Learn from him everything you can.” Sometimes I think I was meant to be Jayne’s guitar all along, that Doc wanted her to have a guitar. She didn’t have a full-sized one, just the tiny one her dad made her when she was eight years old, built with such precious materials she was almost scared to play it. She shaped my neck to fit her own hand and now practices on me as often as she can.

Do you get to go anywhere else?

Jayne loves to share me with her friends, because she wants everyone to have a great guitar if they need one. When she isn’t practicing her limited skills on me, her dad plays me on the PBS show Song of the Mountains and for Doc tributes at Merlefest. I have also gotten to sit with Zac Brown of The Zac Brown Band as he did an interview for CBS Sunday Morning, and I’ve traveled to Washington, DC for the first leg of Steve Martin’s musical Bright Star.

Vince Gill, wearing mostly black, playing the Doc Watson guitar in what looks to be a studio or green room space.
Vince Gill testing out Doc’s guitar. Photograph courtesy of Jayne Henderson

Is there anything you’d like to add about yourself?

I want to be sure everyone knows that just because you may come from sustainable, even humble, beginnings doesn’t mean you will shine any less than that flashy Brazilian rosewood adorning the backs of your counterparts!

“Tell It to Me”: The Johnson City Sessions 90th Anniversary

“Can you sing or play old-time music?”

This question was asked by Columbia Records in an advertisement in the Johnson City Chronicle on Wednesday October 3, 1928. That advertisement, seeking musicians specializing in regional old-time music, ran in various papers in Johnson City in anticipation of recording sessions spearheaded by visionary producer Frank Walker and now known as the Johnson City Sessions of 1928–29. Though more obscure than the famed Bristol Sessions that took place a year prior, the Johnson City Sessions, only 25 miles down the road, illustrate a more diverse and possibly equally important catalog of music that continues to have a significant impact on folk and roots musicians to this day.

Newspaper advertisement asking for a musicians of "unusual ability" of all types to come record.
Original Columbia Records advertisement published in the Johnson City Chronicle on October 3, 1928. Image from Ted Olson and Tony Russell’s The Johnson City Sessions 1928-1929, Bear Family Records: 2013

Ted Olson, writer and researcher of the Johnson City Sessions Bear Family 4 CD boxset, notes:

“The Johnson City Sessions were one of several significant location recording sessions conducted by commercial recording companies in Appalachia during the 1920s and 1930s. But the Johnson City recordings were unique. More than those from the other rival sessions of that era, they documented the broad sweep of the Appalachian song and tune repertoire, from the traditional to the contemporary, from the familiar to the obscure, and from the serious to the silly. While some of the recordings made in Johnson City during 1928 and 1929 were in the country music mainstream, other recordings stood out as truly unusual, even avant grade, anticipating future directions for as-yet-unborn music genres such as bluegrass, revivalistic folk, rock ‘n’ roll, and Americana. And looking back at those sessions 90 years later, one can’t help but wonder if country music might have taken a different course had the Great Depression not obliterated the distribution and potential influence of those exuberant, truth-telling Johnson City recordings. People in the 1930s depended upon art – and particularly music – to guide them out of the Depression, and the Johnson City recordings could have helped set a higher standard for relevancy in country music moving forward.”

Some of the songs recorded during these sessions have become standards in old-time repertoire including “Tell It to Me,” a riotous tune from the Grant Brothers who a year prior recorded in Bristol as the Tenneva Ramblers, or “The Coo Coo Bird” from the great Clarence Ashley, an artist whose music career was rejuvenated during the folk revival. “Old Lady and the Devil,” by Bill and Belle Reed, later found a home on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, a collection that would influence countless folk musicians including a young Bob Dylan.

Portrait of Tenneva Ramblers with Jimmie Rodgers -- two seated musicians and two standing.
The Grant Brothers, a.k.a. the Tenneva Ramblers, recorded at both the 1927 Bristol Sessions and the Johnson City Sessions. They are pictured here with Jimmie Rodgers. PF-20001/1745_01 from the John Edwards Memorial Foundation Records (20001) in the Southern Folklife Collection at Wilson Special Collections Library, University Libraries, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

This impact is being celebrated in downtown Johnson City on Saturday, October 19, during an all-day event to mark the 90th anniversary of these sessions. The event will feature leading folk and roots artists, including Dom Flemons, Willie Watson, Amythyst Kiah, Bill and the Belles, Nora Brown, The Brother Boys, and many more. Roy Andrade, Associate Professor and head of the Old-Time Program at East Tennessee State University, notes that “the 90th anniversary of the Johnson City Sessions is exciting for those of us involved in old-time music in this town – the music is still very much alive here and the celebration will help us remember that the story is still being written.” And featured artist Amythyst Kiah says that the celebration is timely in that “the Johnson City Sessions is a celebration of the roots of American music and the preservation of a musical legacy that has captured the imagination of people all over the world.”

Left: Amythyst Kiah in jean jacket, eyes closed and singling with her banjo on stage. Right: Willie Watson, in striped jacket and hat, with his guitar.
Amythyst Kiah is one of the many talented artists who will be featured at the 90th Anniversary celebration of the Johnson City Sessions. Willie Watson will be headlining Saturday’s festival. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Billie Wheeler

We invite you to be a part of this legacy by joining us at the Johnson City Sessions anniversary event on October 19 from 11:00am to 10:00pm – the event is free and open to the public! Radio Bristol will broadcast live from the Main Stage throughout the day, and you can also tune in here. Other activities include a square dance, children’s stage, vendors, and a record fair. Also of note, in celebration of the 90th anniversary, Bear Family Records has released a CD with 26 tracks from the sessions: Tell It To Me: Revisiting the Johnson City Sessions, 1928–1929.

That’s a Wrap, Bristol Rhythm ’19

Thank you, Fans!

The energy at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion is unlike any other experience in the world. Seriously, it’s a beautiful thing. For every single person who contributed to the fantasticalness (yes, I just made that word up) of that awesome weekend, we owe a sincere and loving “thank you.”

This dude. The embodiment of festival spirit.
© Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Wade Payne

I love standing in the middle of the crowd at the festival and catching a stranger’s eye when a set is really starting to heat up. In that moment, whatever may separate you from that person in real life, everything but the music and your oneness with that energy completely disappears. The connection is instant, electric, and binding. Bristol Rhythm is filled with those moments. If we could harness that level of bliss and positivity, I’m convinced we could change the world.

With that, I want to share with you our Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion 2019 festival re-cap video, produced by Loch & Key Productions. They did a stellar job (once again) of capturing that positive spirit and the joy of our event with amazing music and visuals. We look forward to reclaiming the energy next year, one week earlier than usual! Mark your calendars for 10 days of Rhythm & Racing 2020 September 10–19 and pick up that Super Ticket! For $150 you’ll get to enjoy all the music at Bristol Rhythm (September 11–13), all three days of racing at the world’s fastest half-mile, Bristol Motor Speedway (September 17–19), and all the surrounding events happening over 10 days in the Tri-Cities!

In the meantime, keep supporting live music and buying music and merch from the artists you love!

Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion 2019 re-cap video.

Radio Bristol Book Club: A Walk in the Woods

Welcome to Radio Bristol Book Club! Readers from BCM and the Bristol Public Library are coming together each month to celebrate and explore one book inspired by our region’s rich Appalachian cultural and musical heritage. We invite you to read along and then listen to Radio Bristol on the fourth Thursday of each month at 11:00am when we will dig deep into the feelings and questions raised by the books, learn more about the authors, and celebrate the joys of being a bookworm! Let’s jump right in…

Who wouldn’t want to go for a walk with an old friend?

Sounds like a fun time, right? What about a 2,200 mile walk?

Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail documents just such a walk when Bryson decides to trek the entire length of the Appalachian Trail – from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to Mt. Katahdin, Maine. The trail from start to finish is a grueling 2,200 mile trip through 14 states and some of the most beautiful and treacherous terrain in the country. Every year, thousands attempt to “thru-hike” the trail from Georgia to Maine in one trip, and only about 25% will actually finish.

Three book covers for A Walk in the Woods: A bear looking out of the woods at the reader (left); A leaf and then the outline of a hiker and a bear in a circular graphic (center); Two hikers talking to each other (perhaps arguing) on a cliff edge (right).
Several versions of the cover for A Walk in the Woods, from Bryson’s obsessional focus on bears to a more graphic representation to the movie-of-the-book edition.

Seems like a worthwhile challenge for an experienced hiker to attempt, right? Except for one minor issue: Bryson has never actually hiked before. At all. Bryson and his equally unprepared friend Stephen Katz (who shows up at the airport woefully out of shape and with nothing but a duffle bag full of Snicker bars) set out to hike the entirety of the Appalachian Trail but soon discover that they might be in over their heads. What follows is a comical, yet heartfelt and sincere, memoir of the pair’s journey through portions of the Appalachian Trail and all of the adventures that go along with it. Part humorous memoir, part Appalachian Trail history, A Walk in the Woods will leave you itching to go explore the trail near and dear to everyone in Appalachia.

Bill Bryson, who has written such works as The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid and The Lost Continent, is an esteemed travel writer and memoirist who often uses a humorous tone to tell his stories. A Walk in the Woods is a wonderful story of the Appalachian Trail and those who have hiked it. Bryson’s adventures will leave you in awe, and often laughing, as he encounters the eccentric hikers, imposing wildlife, and difficult terrain, all while learning the art of hiking as he goes.

One of Bill Bryson’s Facebook profile pictures shows that the love he found for hiking on the Appalachian Trail has continued to take him onto other paths.

Make plans to join us on October 24 at 11:00am on the dial at 100.1 FM, streaming live on Radio Bristol, or via the Radio Bristol app – and be sure to read the book ahead of time and listen in as we discuss A Walk in the Woods! Many of the Radio Bristol Book Club books will be available at the Bristol Public Library or The Museum Store at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum so stop by to borrow or buy a copy! The librarians or our frontline staff will be happy to help you find the book.

And plan ahead: Future Radio Bristol Book Club picks include Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music by Barry Mazor (November 21) and Serena by Ron Rash (December 19).