March 2020 - The Birthplace of Country Music
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Radio Bristol Book Club: Rocket Boys

Welcome to Radio Bristol Book Club! Each month readers from BCM and the Bristol Public Library come together 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 the 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!

This month’s Radio Bristol Book Club pick is Homer “Sonny” Hickam’s memoir Rocket Boys, a coming-of-age story of a young man growing up in Coalwood, West Virginia. Sonny is in high school when the Russians launch Sputnik and the United States joins the space race, which leads Sonny and a group of oddball companions on an adventure which changes their town and their lives forever.


The cover of Homer “Sonny” Hickam’s Rocket Boys.

Homer Hickam was raised in Coalwood, West Virginia, the son of a coal miner. He began his writing career after he returned home from Vietnam in 1969 by writing adventure pieces for different magazines. His award-winning memoir Rocket Boys was followed by four more books in the Coalwood series. His first novel was Back to the Moon and his most recent was Carrying Albert Home: The Somewhat True Story of a Man, His Wife, and Her Alligator which came out in 2015. He has received many awards and honors for his writing, along with an honorary Doctorate of Literature. You can find more details about Homer Hickam from his official website.

Author Homer Hickam. Courtesy of the author

Make plans to read Rocket Boys and then join us on Thursday, April 23 at 11:00am as we discuss this wonderful book – and hopefully we will be sharing a conversation with the author too! You can find us on the dial at 100.1 FM, streaming live on Radio Bristol, or via the Radio Bristol app. We look forward to sharing our thoughts on this deep and engaging novel.

Our Radio Bristol Book Club pick for May is Clapton’s Guitar: Watching Wayne Henderson Build the Perfect Instrument by Allen St. John.

Spring Has Sprung: And Farm and Fun Time is Growing!

From rockin’ new roots music to Americana royalty, March’s Farm and Fun Time was a thrilling conclusion to our 2020 Radio Bristol Fund Drive! A special thanks to all the generous donors who helped exceed our stretch goal of $25,000! And through the support of 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!

Left: Bill and the Belles' bass player Andrew Small and Kris Truelsen, aka Bill, on guitar.
Right: Kalia Yeagle (fiddle), Kris, and Helena Hunt (banjo) sing together at the mic.
Bill and the Belles’ performance at the March Farm and Fun Time brought the audience good feelings in tricky times. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Billie Wheeler

Host band Bill and the Belles got the show rolling with their lighthearted sound ready to soothe the soul in these turbulent times. Farm and Fun Time strives to preserve the traditions of early country radio in Bristol, and our “Heirloom Recipe” presenters for the evening brought an early Bristol tradition to the stage. Tonight’s recipe was presented by members of Bristol’s Blue Stocking Club, a philanthropic organization that has been doing good deeds in the community for 100 years. Clad in costumes worn by Blue Stocking club members in the 1940s, our presenters brought to life an old recipe for Brunswick Stew from a historic cookbook published by the club decades ago. However, no conclusion was drawn about what meat goes in Brunswick Stew. Beef? Pork? Possum? Chicken? Bill and the Belles then crooned a speculative tune, still not revealing a conclusion.

The Blue Stocking Club members were the traditional 1940s club outfits -- a blue dress with a white collar and a Blue Stocking apron -- as they tell the audience about their recipe for Brunswick stew.
Blue Stocking Club members Barbara Smith and Mary Lynn Satterwhite share a timeless recipe from the club’s cookbook. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Billie Wheeler

The “Heirloom Recipe” was followed by our first musical guest of the evening: Miss Tess. If you listen to Radio Bristol, you’re certainly not a stranger the music of Miss Tess and the Talkbacks. With tasteful electric guitar riffs and jazzy arrangements, Miss Tess blends early rock ’n’ roll, blues, jazz, and country into a distinctive style all her own. A gifted vocalist, Miss Tess brought down the house with performances of selections from her new record, The Moon is an Ashtray. A brilliant release, it came at an inopportune time, as many artists are losing tour dates due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Because musicians are unable to tour right now, be sure to check out all the recordings available from Miss Tess and countless others to help artists through this difficult time.

Top left, top right, and bottom right images all show Miss Tess singing with her guitar and various band members, including the drummer.
Bottom left: A shot of the full audience at the show.
Miss Tess and her band were a big hit with the Farm and Fun Time crowd. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Billie Wheeler

For this month’s “Farm Report” segment, we visited the Tilted Tavern Animal Sanctuary near Jonesborough, Tennessee, where we learned a lot about rehabilitating abused and neglected farm animals! Here’s a video from our visit:

Our final guest of the evening was the King of Americana, the legendary Jim Lauderdale. A prolific songwriter and versatile performer, Jim put on a tremendous performance with a bluegrass band, featuring Alex LeachThomas Cassell, and other regional super pickers. Jim is a favorite in Bristol, and he had the crowd singing right along for most his performance. Jim featured many power songs in his set, including “Lost in the Lonesome Pines” and “Old Time Angels,” an homage to women who were victimized in the murder ballads that are such a large piece of the Appalachian musical tradition. It was a pleasure to work with Jim on March’s show, and we can’t wait to hear new music from him soon!

Left: Jim Lauderdale and his band play together on stage.
Right: A close-up of Lauderdale, wearing a colorful shirt and playing guitar.
Jim Lauderdale and his band brought a performance to remember to March’s Farm and Fun Time. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Billie Wheeler

Thanks to everyone who came out and joined in this great night of music! April’s Farm and Fun Time has been postponed, but good news: You can tune in to Blue Ridge PBS on April 4 at 7:00pm for the debut of Farm and Fun Time as a television show! Thanks for your continued support of Radio Bristol, and we hope to see you soon!

Bristol Rhythm: The Roots & Branches

“Bristol is the absolute bedrock upon which the entire empire of country music and many tributaries therein are built.” ~ Marty Stuart

Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion began as a community bluegrass, old-time, and gospel music festival. Acts like Ralph Blizard and Reeltime Travelers led the lineup, and there was even a soup bean and cornbread dinner. In 2003 we really began to examine what it meant to honor the 1927 Bristol Sessions in addition to the influences those recordings have had on other genres of music.

2001 Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion festival program, an insert in the Bristol Herald Courier.
2001 Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion festival program, an insert in the Bristol Herald Courier.

A conscious decision was made to expand the lineup to include more progressive acts like Leftover Salmon, Old Crow Medicine Show, Corey Harris, and Donna the Buffalo. This changed the entire landscape of our festival. Younger audiences were drawn to the music like never before and the energy downtown became absolutely electric.

In the second edition of our mini docu-series, we talk about how our expansion paved a wider path on that “road home” to Bristol’s music legacy by exploring its roots and far-reaching branches.

Sidebar: I get a little misty watching these videos. I think I’ve mentioned in previous blog entries that I began serving as a volunteer for the festival in 2002, prior to our third annual event. To hear country music icons like Marty Stuart and Jim Lauderdale speak so passionately about my hometown and Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion is life goals for me and many others who have worked so hard and truly believed in the magic we were creating.

“Within tradition there is always innovation and pushing forward.”~Amythyst Kiah

Amythyst Kiah at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion 2019.
© Birthplace of Country Music; Photographer: Eli Johnson

I am especially proud that our event plays a role in the success and evolution of so many artists, including my good friend Amythyst Kiah (also featured in the series) who just received her first Grammy nomination. Artists like Amythyst are true innovators, taking bits and pieces of what they’ve learned from the past and folding it into their work – making something completely new and relevant and exciting. Knowing what an important role Bristol has played in the art and careers of Amythyst – and so many others – is extremely satisfying.

In those early days I used to say we were the “little festival that could,” charging slowly and determinedly up that steep hill, struggling to reach our destination. Have we arrived? In many ways we have, but we continue to refine and grow each year. To everyone who has believed in Bristol Rhythm and helped push us along these past 20 years, we are eternally grateful. It’s been one heckuva ride!

Clothes Make the Man – and Woman – in Country Music

Perception has always been integral to country music. From the very beginning with Fiddlin’ John Carson’s debut in Okeh Record’s “Old Familiar Tunes” catalog to Garth Brook’s record-breaking stadium tours, the way country music has been marketed to the public has relied heavily on its appearance. It’s been something the genre has taken with pride, shunned with disdain, or constantly parodied throughout its history.

Garth Brooks on stage wearing jeans, a purple button-down shirt (untucked), and a black cowboy hat.
This photograph was taken during Garth Brooks’ 2015 concert tour, and while Brooks is wearing fairly everyday clothes – jeans and a shirt – he is also sporting his trademark black cowboy hat. Photograph from Flickr; user: fatherspoon

One of the most common perceptions about country music is the idea of the stereotypical country singer as a “lonesome cowboy” singing in a smoke-filled honky tonk to beer-drinking, blue collar workers in nasal, piercing tones. However, in the early 20th century, country music catalogs were filled with images of overall-wearing “hillbillies” playing fiddle and banjo breakdowns for square dancers in plaid shirts and gingham dresses. In the 1920s, country music was marketed to a specific type of audience, though of course, that did not mean that this specific audience was the only one buying the records. These listeners were conceived as displaced ruralites who saw the rapidly changing landscape around them as too fast-paced and carried with them a nostalgia for earlier times, times when parlor songs and mountain reels dotted the backcountry of Appalachia.

Record companies, therefore, often encouraged their artists to “play up” their rural heritage and soon records by groups with homespun names like Al Hopkins and His Hillbillies, Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers, and Uncle Dave Macon and the Fruit Jar Drinkers started selling by the thousands. Some of the first entertainment outlets to notice this association with country music and a created image or persona were the radio “barn dance” programs that were growing in popularity in the late 1920s. Radio listeners quickly developed attachments to their favorite performers, and soon, fans were showing up in droves outside of studio air rooms to catch a glimpse of this new genre of radio star. To keep alive the illusion of a “Good-Natured Get Together,” George D. Hay – founder of the WSM Barn Dance in Nashville (soon to be renamed as the Grand Ole Opry ) – sent a memo to his performers of string bands and soloists to encourage them to wear work clothes and straw hats. And over time he renamed his “string orchestras” to more hillbilly titles such as Dr. Humphrey Bate and His Possum Hunters and Paul Womack and the Gully Jumpers. Soon, The Grand Ole Opry stage was dominated by “hoedown bands” and remained largely that way until the late 1930s.

Black-and-white image of Dr. Humphrey Bate and His Possum Hunters, 6 band members all dressed in country or rural-style clothes, including suspenders, floppy hats, and work pants.
Dr. Humphrey Bate and His Possum Hunters were the first group to play country music over Nashville’s airwaves in 1924. Here they are shown as Grand Ole Opry members, having adopted the “Rube” dress code by 1929. From www.alchetron.com

Meanwhile in Chicago, the WLS National Barn Dance had a brand-new star on its own barn dance show. Inspired by Jimmie Rodgers and western poets such as Jules Allen and Carl T. Sprauge, yodeler and guitarist Gene Autry was bringing the heroic idea of the American cowboy to audiences across the country. Clad in a 10-gallon Stetson hat and strumming a plaintive guitar, Autry soon brought Depression-era audiences to a frenzy with his move to Hollywood to become “America’s Singing Cowboy,” inspiring future generations of country musicians to don cowboy hats and western wear.

Soon, this image of a cowboy’s life was adopted by fellow WLS star Patsy Montana, bringing “girl singers,” as they were called, to the fore – and offering a new image, independent of Mountain Men and traditional gender roles, in the romanticized image of the cowgirl. Patsy’s long cowhide skirt and pushed back cowboy hat embodied her free and adventurous spirit, characterized by her anthem “I Want to Be A Cowboy’s Sweetheart.” Overnight, female country performers dropped the gingham dress, “milk maid,” “pure mountain gal” personas for the exciting image of the American cowgirl.

Gene Autry with June Storey to the left and Patsy Montana to the right, all three wearing cowboy hats and cowboy/cowgirl outfits.
Gene Autry and Patsy Montana (right) grew from being Chicago radio stars on the WLS National Barn Dance to being among America’s top stars appearing in several motion pictures. They are seen here with June Storey in a Hollywood publicity still from the early 1940s. Chicago Tribune historical archive photograph

Among this new group of independent female performers was Rose Maddox, who, along with her brothers, pushed hillbilly and cowboy performance to new heights with their eccentric and electric performance style. The Maddox Brothers & Rose grew to prominence on the west coast in California in the immediate post-World War II era, and their proximity to Hollywood fashion designers lead to one of the clothing designs most associated with country music – the rhinestone western suit. Designers like Nathan Turk and Nudie Cohn had been creating wardrobes for western movie stars like Gene Autry and Tex Ritter for years, but the innovation of rhinestones and brash and bright colors insured the Maddox Brothers & Rose not only stood apart musically from other country and western bands in the nation, but now they could truly bill themselves as “America’s Most Colorful Hillbilly Band”! Soon performers such as Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, and Little Jimmy Dickens were knocking on Cohn’s door and “Nudie suits” became the most prominent form of country music stage attire of the mid-20th century.

The Rockin' Rollin' album cover for the Maddox Brothers & Rose shows all of the male band members in green, highly decorated suits and cowboy hats, with Rose in a matching cowgirl-style outfits covered in fringe and beadwork.
This album cover shows The Maddox Brothers & Rose in the late 1940s wearing matching highly-decorative outfits, accented by embroidery, fringe, and rhinestones, that were designed by tailor Nathan Turk.

Country music has always had an interesting way of presenting itself. From the mountaineer attire of the 1920s to the loud and bold Nudie suits of the 1950s – and all the other clothing-enhanced personas in between (think of Johnny Cash’s “The Man in Black” and Minnie Pearl, for instance) – country music has reflected elements of our own nation’s history: plaintive and nostalgic in the days of the Depression to excited and flashy in the post-war economic boom of the 1950s, and beyond. Perception has always played an important part in how the nation saw country music and how country musicians and record companies saw the nation. Country music and its attire has, and always will be, an important marker not only of who we are but the people who made us that way.

Radio Bristol Book Club: Lord of the Mountain

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!

The book cover shows a young boy with a bag on his back walking through the woods; a young girl waves to him in the distance.
The cover of Ronald Kidd’s Lord of the Mountain.

This month’s Radio Bristol Book Club pick is Ronald Kidd’s Lord of the Mountain, a middle-grade historical novel. The story follows 13-year-old Nate Owens as he struggles with the restrictions in his family and runs away to pursue his love of music. Set in the area around Bristol, Tennessee, in the 1920s, part of Nate’s journey includes meeting The Carter Family when they are in town to record with Ralph Peer and then later finding respite in their home after a near-tragedy with his little brother. Weaving together historic details from the 1920s and the “big bang of country music,” the trials and tribulations of adolescence, and Nate’s quest to understand his family, all while discovering the power of music, Kidd does a wonderful job of creating an adventure story that also explores the depths of family pain and redemption.

Black-and-white photograph of the author, close-up on his face.
Author Ronald Kidd. Photograph by Helen Burns

Ronald Kidd has worked as a writer for many years, producing entertaining juvenile and young adult fiction, theatrical plays, and most recently, historical novels. Lord of the Mountain is his most recent historical fiction book, published in 2018, but others include Monkey Town: The Summer of the Scopes Trial, On Beale Street – about music, race, and Elvis Presley and set in Memphis in 1954, and Night on Fire – about the Freedom Riders in Alabama in the 1960s. Kidd also edits books and produces audio and video programming.

Make plans to join us for our on-air discussion on Thursday, March 26 at 11:00am! You can find us on the dial at 100.1 FM, streaming live on Radio Bristol, or via the Radio Bristol app. The book is available at the Bristol Public Library and at The Museum Store so be sure to pick up a copy and read it ahead of listening in. The librarians or museum staff will be happy to help you find the book. We look forward to sharing our thoughts on this deep and engaging novel.

Our Radio Bristol Book Club pick for April is Rocket Boys by Homer Hickam Jr.