February 2020 - The Birthplace of Country Music
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A Rose by Any Other Name…Celebrating Musicians through Flora and Fauna!

Today is the anniversary of Johnny Cash’s birth date. He was born on February 26, 1932 in Kingsland, Arkansas, the son of sharecroppers who were struggling through the Great Depression. Despite – and indeed, perhaps because of – this early hardship, Cash went on to become one of the most iconic and influential country musicians in the history of the genre.

Johnny Cash in a black decorated shirt and holding his guitar on stage in front of a mic; he smiles out at the audience.
Johnny Cash on stage. From the Robert Alexander Collection at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum

So, what you ask, does this have to do with the naming of flora and fauna species, or binomial nomenclature as it’s known in the scientific community? Johnny Cash and his musical impact is rightly celebrated and recognized in a variety of different ways – through a US postage stamp with his image to a museum dedicated to his life and legacy in Nashville to numerous industry and national awards and honors to the many artists who have been inspired by Cash and his songs. I, of course, knew all about these honors, but then I found out that he had also been celebrated in a really interesting and relatively under-the-radar way: by having a spider named after him!

First, a little bit about how binomial nomenclature works. This “two-term naming system” is a formal way to name species of living things. Both names are based in Latin grammatical forms, but they do different things: the first name is called the generic name, identifying the genus that the species belongs to; the second name is called the specific name, identifying the species within the genus. Therefore, scientific names for flora and fauna can share the first name because the genus may cover many species, but their second name will always be unique. And that second name is where scientists get creative!

Now, back to Johnny Cash: In 2016, a previously unknown tarantula species was discovered in the course of a larger research project. This particular species was found in abundance near Folsom Prison in California, and its coloring was dark, almost black. And from these two links – Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” and “The Man in Black” nickname – the tarantula was named Aphonopelma johnnycashi.

Image of the Aphonopelma johnnycashi tarantula -- a large black spider with a hairy abdomen and long legs.
A male Aphonopelma johnnycashi. © Dr. Chris A. Hamilton

Johnny Cash isn’t the only musician who has had a species named after him. While the specific names within binomial nomenclature can be inspired by many things – such as the location where they were found, to commemorate a scientific mentor or teacher, inspired by another language or culture where the meaning matches the animal or plant in question, etc. – there are many species names after celebrities.

Here are just a few:

  • Myrmekiaphila neilyoungi, a species of trap door spider discovered in 2007 (the scientist loves Neil Young’s music)
  • Scaptia beyonceae, a species of horse fly with a shiny golden abdomen discovered in 2011 and named after Beyoncé
  • Synalpheus pinkfloydi, a type of shrimp discovered in 2017 (this shrimp stuns and kills its prey with small “sonic booms” made by its snapping claws – kind of like standing too near an amp during a Pink Floyd concert!)
  • Orectochilus orbisonorum, a species of whirligig beetle, black on top and white on the bottom, that was discovered in 2008 and named after Roy Orbison
  • Cirolana mercury, an East African isopod (crustacean); this species is found off the coast of Zanzibar (where Freddie Mercury was born)
  • Gaga germanotta and Gaga monstraparva, where both genus and species within a group of ferns honor Lady Gaga and her fans (due to the appearance of the fern being akin to some of Gaga’s costumes and her “paws up” salute; even more interesting is that the DNA for this potential new genus of ferns had GAGA spelled out in its base pairs!)
  • Macrocarpaea dies-viridis, a type of night-blooming flower discovered in Ecuador and named after the band Green Day (dies-viridis is Latin for green day)
  • Anillinus docwatsoni, a species of ground beetle discovered in 2004 and named after Doc Watson
  • Desis bobmarleyi, an Australian intertidal species of spider discovered in 2017 and inspired by Marley’s song “High Tide or Low Tide”
  • Japewiella dollypartoniana, a type of lichen so-named due to its abundant growth in the mountains of East Tennessee
  • Phialella zappai, a species of jellyfish discovered in 1987 (named in a ploy to meet Zappa after the musician said “There is nothing I’d like better than having a jellyfish named after me.”)

These are just a few of the MANY plants and animals with names inspired by musicians and other well-known people. And referring back to the great Dolly Parton, while it’s not related to binomial nomenclature, she has also been honored through naming in another scientific endeavor – the genetic cloning of Dolly the Sheep in Scotland in 1997. Dolly was named after Parton because part of her DNA came from a mammary gland cell of a Finn Dorset sheep. Knowing Dolly Parton’s self-deprecating humor and her graciousness, one imagines that she found this interesting honor both amusing and wonderful!

A close-up shot of Dolly the Sheep on display at the National Museum of Scotland.
Dolly the Sheep passed away in 2003 and is now preserved in taxidermy form at the National Museum of Scotland. From Wikimedia Commons, image courtesy of Toni Barros

And so with that, we can marvel at the wide-ranging inspiration that comes to scientists as they go about their important work – and how it connects to our love of music. Sometimes a celebrity-inspired name is the perfect way to get people engaged and excited about the biodiversity of our planet. As Dr. Chris Hamilton, namer of our Cash-monikered spider, notes: “It’s a really important mechanism for reaching out to the public and getting them involved,” Hamilton said. “We want the public to love these new species, too.”

February’s Farm and Fun Time Comes Full Circle with Flash and Flatpicking!

From high energy bluegrass showmanship to down home guitar pickin’, February’s Farm and Fun Time was a huge hit! Thanks to our sponsor Eastman Credit Union, Radio Bristol was able to bring Farm and Fun Time not only to 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!

Host band Bill and the Belles kicked the show off with their signature sound that has become an eagerly awaited fixture of Farm and Fun Time. Tonight’s selections included a wonderful rendition of an obscure tune called “Wait For Me” from the almost forgotten duo Harold and Hazel. This month, instead of our usual “Heirloom Recipe” segment, Birthplace of Country Music Museum Head Curator René Rodgers told listeners about the recently restored Stanley Brothers radio transcription disc from WCYB’s original Farm and Fun Time, on air in the 1940s and 1950s. This badly damaged disk was recently restored thanks to a special grant from the Virginia Association of Museums. After her explanation of the high-tech process used to restore this piece of history by the Northeast Document Conservation Center, the story was brought full circle as some selections were played for the audience, and the Stanley Brothers were once again heard on Farm and Fun Time some 70 years later!

Left: A close-up of Bill and two of the Belles singing at the mic; Right: Rene Rodgers telling the story of the radio transcription disc on stage.
Bill and the Belles charmed the audience with their old-time tunes, while René Rodgers shared the fascinating story of the preservation of a one-of-a-kind radio transcription disc. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Billie Wheeler

The Kody Norris Show – host of the Farm and Fun Time Noon Show – was our first musical guest of the evening, and they started us off with a bang! Radio Bristol listeners are certainly no strangers to the higher energy, hard-driving sounds of Kody Norris over the air, but what a treat to see them in person! Clad from head to toe in brightly colored western-wear, The Kody Norris Show looks like they just stepped out in color from grandma’s black-and-white TV, and they have the classic sounds to match. Playing and singing songs ranging from bluegrass standards such as “Pig in a Pen” and “Rose of Old Kentucky” to country classics including “Tennessee Flattop Box” and “Movin’ On,” The Kody Norris Show knows the lineage of the music they play and are presenting it in a grand style all their own. Wrapping up their set with a dynamic performance of “The Auctioneer,” the Farm and Fun Time crowd was SOLD!  on The Kody Norris Show!

Left: The full Kody Norris Show band on stage; Center: Detail of Kody's western-inspired blue jacket sleeve bearing an images of a mandolin and music notes; Right: The Kody Norris Show's fiddler, banjoist, and Kody on guitar.
The high-energy and glitz of The Kody Norris Show was a wonderful crowd pleaser, bringing the audience to their feet and a smile to everyone’s face! © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Billie Wheeler

For this month’s “Farm Report” segment, we visited the Erwin National Fish Hatchery in Erwin, Tennessee, where we learned a lot about how fish are produced to stock waterways in Tennessee and beyond! Here’s a video from our visit:

Our final guests of the evening were the unlikely duo of guitar masters, Wayne Henderson and Presley Barker. Wayne Henderson is a legendary finger-style guitar player and luthier who has lived his entire life in Grayson County, Virginia, where he builds some of the finest musical instruments in the world. Presley Barker is an up-and-coming 15-year-old flatpicker who is winning contests and audiences everywhere he goes. Though there are a lot of years between these two pickers, they’re as close as can be when it comes to making music! Both drawing from the influence of Doc Watson, Wayne and Presley put their own unique spin on classics from old-time fiddle tunes and songs to bluegrass and country favorites. Wayne Henderson is truly a gem of our region, and it was an honor to have him grace the Farm and Fun Time Stage and see how he is passing his legacy along to the newest generation. And we look forward to seeing where the music takes Presley!

Top left: Wayne Henderson and Presley Barker on stage together; Top right: Close up of Wayne playing guitar; Bottom left: Detail of the crowd responding to the show; Bottom right: Presley Barker playing with Wayne Henderson.
Wayne Henderson and Presley Barker shared their talents and camaraderie with a delighted Farm and Fun Time crowd. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Billie Wheeler

Thanks to everyone who came out and joined in this great night of music! Tickets for March’s Farm and Fun Time featuring Jim Lauderdale and Miss Tess are sold out, but of course, you can listen live or watch on Facebook Live. However, tickets are available for April’s show featuring Merle Monroe, Nora Brown, and host band Bill and the Belles. We hope to see you there!

Pick 5: Coal-Mining Songs

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! This month’s “Pick 5” focuses on coal-mining songs and is from Rich Kirby, host of Radio Bristol’s Old Kentucky Bound airing Thursdays at 2:00pm!

The coal mining era is coming to an end in southwest Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and southern West Virginia. Coal has had its share of booms and busts over the decades, but this time it looks like the elevator is going to go to the basement and stay there. What with cheap natural gas, cheap solar and wind power, and our awareness of the climate crisis, coal plants are shutting down, and no new ones are being built. Coal will still be used for steelmaking, but that’s only a small share of the market.

But what a ride it’s been! Coal has sustained mountain communities for well over a century with good-paying jobs and an important place in the national economy. However, as with so many things, these benefits have come at a price. For instance, 100,000 miners have died on the job since 1900, and Black Lung Disease and other occupational ailments have helped make coalfield communities some of our least healthy. Strip mining has left hundreds of mountains scarred. And despite the coal jobs, income is low, and this area consistently ranks at or near the bottom of quality-of-life measures.

As you would expect when such an intense way of life meets a culture with a strong musical tradition, there is a ton of coal-mining music – more, I believe, than from any other industry. Mining songs shine a light on the many ups and downs of the mining life. Here’s just a small sampling (and despite the “Pick 5” title, I couldn’t pick just five, so you get a bonus song for six!):

“Which Side Are You On,” written and sung by Florence Reece

The Great Depression hit coalfield communities hard. Desperate companies cut wages to the bone, then cut more, to the point where miners were facing actual starvation. Desperate miners tried to unionize, an action which companies met with armed repression – especially in Harlan County, Kentucky, where coal completely controlled the county government. Harlan miner Sam Reece, an organizer for the National Miners Union, worked in hiding with a price on his head. One night his wife Florence had had enough. “When the thugs were raiding our house off and on, and Sam was run off, I felt like I just had to do something to help. The little children, they’d have little legs and a big stomach. Some of the men staggered when they walked, they were so hungry… We didn’t even have any paper, so when I wanted to write ‘Which Side Are You On?’ I just jerked the calendar off the wall and sat down and wrote the words down on the back.”

Her powerful song went on to become an anthem of the labor movement, sung on countless picket lines and recorded by everyone from Pete Seeger to Natalie Merchant.

“’31 Depression Blues,” written and sung by Ed Sturgill

The Union – specifically the United Mine Workers of America – brought miners and their communities out of the pits of despair and into the middle class. Ed Sturgill managed to get all that history into two minutes and forty-two seconds. From the days of scrip (company money) and miners paid by the ton (with the company doing the weighing) to FDR’s New Deal and the UMW Welfare and Retirement Fund to a plea to miners to stick with the union – it’s all here in this one song.

Ed Sturgill was from either Harlan or Wise County – I’ve heard both. His banjo style tells us he was likely a good buddy of Dock Boggs.

“Coal Miners Boogie,” sung by George Davis

Listen to a lot of mining songs, and you can get the idea it’s all strikes and disasters, and indeed there have been plenty of both. But a lot of old miners like to remember the camaraderie of men whose lives were in each others’ hands, and the freewheeling excitement of coal towns on Saturday night. George Davis, “the Singing Miner,” did daily radio shows in Hazard and Pikeville, Kentucky. His songs capture a lot of this strong, cheerful spirit.

“West Virginia Mine Disaster,” written and sung by Jean Ritchie

I once sang this at an open mic in Portland, Oregon. Afterwards a young woman came up in the throes of great emotion. Seems her grandfather had been a West Virginia coal miner who had died recently of Black Lung Disease. She told me she’d been holding all her feelings inside until suddenly Jean’s piece gave her permission to grieve. Such is the power of a great song.

“Dyin’ to Make a Livin’,” written by W. V. Hill, sung by Foddershock

Living in the hills of Dickenson County, Virginia – Clinchfield Coal Company’s historic center – W. V. Hill knows firsthand the toll that mining can take on a human body, and the drugs that give the promise of being able to go on another day. This song was part of the Grammy-nominated Music of Coal collection that appeared in 2007.

“Black Dust Fever,” sung by the Wildwood Valley Boys

Black Lung Disease should have been wiped out by health and safety laws that require adequate ventilation in the mines, but shoddy enforcement has kept that goal out of reach. After years of decline, Black Lung is again on the rise. I’ve been unable to find who wrote this song, or where the Indiana-based Wildwood Valley Boys got it. I can’t imagine a pithier way of expressing the existential dilemma of coal communities than the chorus:

      “The black dust has taken my last dying breath / But the mines kept my family from starving to death.”