March 2021 - The Birthplace of Country Music
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Melodious Murals: Public Art as an Expression of a Community’s Musical Identity

Murals are one of the oldest known forms of human artistic expression. What people decided to paint on the walls of their domestic and community spaces can tell us a lot about the time and society in which they lived. For example, in the first known cave painting made in Indonesia 45,500 years ago, humans depicted animals and other humans they interacted with every day. During the Renaissance, murals of great religious scenes were painted on the walls and ceilings of churches, underlining the political, cultural, and financial power of the church during the 16th century. And, within the 20th century, we have seen a dramatic rise in murals being made for arts-sake, to make a political statement, or to highlight local color and culture.

So, let’s take a look at some murals that are special for all of the aforementioned reasons and because they tell a story you’re probably interested in if you’ve found your way to this blog: the story of country music.

This aerial view shows the side of a building painted with a wall-sized mural. Two music notes bookend the central painting that bears these words at the top "Bristol, Tenn-VA / Birthplace of Country Music." The central painting show several people or groups of people in a graphic/realistic style, from left to right: Ralph Peer (in a grey suit and with grey hair), The Carter Family (A.P. Carter wearing a greenosh suit stands beside of Sara in a pink dress and holding an autoharp with Maybelle sat in front of them in a blue dress and playing her guitar), Ernest and Hattie Stoneman (he is wearing a brownish suit and white cowboy hat and holds his guitar, she is standing behind him in a green dress with a bonnet-style hat on and playing the fiddle), and Jimmie Rodgers (dressed as a railway worker with engineer's cap, blue jacket, and red bow tie, he has his guitar and is holding two thumbs up). In the center is a Victor record and a microphone with 1927 on it.

Courtesy of Eddy Gray, Tri Cities Captured Photography

We’ll start with a mural that is a Bristol, Tennessee-Virginia must-see: Bristol’s Country Music Mural. The mural is located at 810 State Street, a public square that is used for the weekly farmers’ market, community events, and to host one of the stages at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion. The mural is 30 feet by 100 feet, taking up the entire side of a building, and features the big players and iconic images from the 1927 Bristol Recording Sessions: Ralph Peer, The Carter Family – A. P., Sara, and Maybelle, a Victor record and microphone, Ernest and Hattie Stoneman, and Jimmie Rodgers. First painted in 1986 by local artist, musician, and radio DJ Tim White, the mural was recently refurbished to great effect during the summer of 2020.

A long rectangular mural with a cityscape shown behind the people in front. Different musicians and singers are shown throughout the foreground in a folk-art type style -- some are playing instruments, others are singing.

Source: Knoxville Public Arts

Next stop on our virtual tour of murals with a country music connection is the Knoxville Music History Mural. The mural is located at 116 East Jackson in Knoxville, Tennessee, and it was designed by Knoxville artist Walt Fieldsa in collaboration with local art teacher Tifanni Conner and her students at Laurel High School. The mural was then painted by local artists, including Fieldsa, Randall Starnes, and Ken Britton. The painting depicts several Tennessee musicians, including operatic singer Grace Moore, composer and pianist Richard Trythall, founder of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra Bertha Walburn Clark, guitarist Willie Sievers of the Tennessee Ramblers, jazz pianist Donald Brown, rock singer Tina Turner, and bluegrass musician Jimmy Martin.

All portraits are head and shoulders. The left-hand image shows Jim Lauderdale with two different graphic floral backgrounds behind him. He is white man wearing a black jacket and a white collared shirt, and his white shoulder length hair is swept back from his forehead. The Top right image shows Bob Marley (a Black man with dreadlocks wearing a sleeveless black shirt with colored trim), Minnie Pearl (a white woman in a blue country-style dress and wearing a straw floral hat with the price tag hanging off one side), Amy Winehouse (a white woman wearing a black short-sleeve shirt and her black hair is pulled back into a bouffant-style with the length hanging down and sideswept bangs), and James Brown (a Black man wearing a cream-colored suit). The bottom right image shows Patsy Cline (a white woman with brown hair pulled back from her face and wearing a black jacket and polka-dot collared shirt) and Stevie Ray Vaughn (a white man wearing a white cowboy hat with red band, a blue sleeveless tee, and holding a red electric guitar).

Courtesy of Theron Corse, Nashville Public Art blog

We come next to the Nashville Fences of Fame located on several fences surrounding Columbine Park in Berry Hill. The project of painting these fences of the musical greats began in 2016 by artist Scott Guion and was commissioned by The House of Blues. A wide array of musicians from incredibly different genres are painted throughout the area – for instance, one fence alone depicts Jim Lauderdale, Nina Simone, Emmylou Harris, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Greg Allman, Jerry Garcia, Joni Mitchell, and Otis Redding.

An image of a large cream-colored wall with a cariacature-style portrait of Blind Alfred Reed to the right on the wall. His dark hair is in a pompadour style, his ear is unusually big, and he holds his fiddle to his chin. He wears a greyish blue suit; the words "Blind Alfred Reed" are written to the left of the portrait.

Photograph © Denise Smith

In 2014, artist Jeff Pierson painted a wonderful mural depicting the 1927 Bristol Sessions artist Blind Alfred Reed on a brick wall on Mercer Street in Princeton, West Virginia. Pierson was commissioned by Princeton’s Community Improvement Committee to paint a series of important folks from Princeton on various walls around town. While researching Princeton local legends, he came across information about Blind Alfred Reed and was taken aback to learn his interesting story. When he proposed making Reed the subject of one of the murals, the committee didn’t even know who Reed was – but they were soon convinced of his importance and in due course his likeness could be found on one of the city’s walls as public art! Due to the demolition of the building, the mural is being moved to a new site in the town.

Next up is the San Antonio Gateway Mural, locally known as La Musica de San Anto. Located on the west side of San Antonio, the mural was painted in 2008 by local artist David Blancas after it was commissioned by San Anto Cultural Arts to bring awareness to the musical heritage of San Antonio. The mural features members of the country band “The Texas Tornados” and Tejano (a style of music derived from Mexican-Spanish vocal traditions and Czech and German dance music) musicians such as Lydia Mendoza, amongst others. A contemporary of Mother Maybelle Carter, Mendoza also played on the border radio station XERA. (Check out this fascinating article about the similarities between Mother Maybelle and Lydia Mendoza from NPR.)

An image of a wall mural in a graphic style showing two African-American musicians. The man (Sleepy John Estes) is singing and playing a guitar) and the woman (Tina Turner) is singing and has a big hairstyle. Words from their songs and about Brownsville radiate from their images to the right.

Image sourced from a review on TripAdvisor

Another great mural can be found at the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center in Brownsville, Tennessee, which also includes the Tina Turner Museum. In 2014 a mural of Brownsville natives Tina Turner and Sleepy John Estes was painted on the side of the museum by Union University art students. And while Sleepy John Estes is a well-regarded blues artist that influenced musicians like The Beatles, and Tina Turner is more well-known as “The Queen of Rock-n-Roll,” I would argue this is a bona fide country music mural because Tina Turner made her musical debut as a solo artist with a country album in 1974! If you haven’t listened to Tina Turns the Country On!, I highly recommend turning the record on now!

Last but not least on our grand country music mural tour is a painting of Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion 2021 headliner Tanya Tucker. You can find the mural in Spirit Square in the “Country Music Capital of Canada”: Merritt, British Columbia. The wall-sized portrait of the singer was painted by local artist Michelle Loughery and members of the Merritt Youth Mural Project, a program designed to work with local young artists and “youth at risk.” Tucker was even there for the unveiling of the mural in 2006!

This post highlights just a few of the music heritage murals out there, but it’s a great introduction to this highly visible and community-driven public art. Murals are a fascinating look into our history and culture, and you can learn more about the history of murals with this article from The Community Rejuvenation Project in the Bay Area. And, I wanted to give an honorable mention to some local mural trails: The Mountain City Music Mile and The Appalachian Mural Trail.

Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion: The Road Home

Poster from an early Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion festival. The illustration shows the Bristol Train Station in the background with a musician with a guitar on their back walking down the tracks.

The spirit of Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion touches many of us on a deeply personal level. Since it began in 2001, it’s become a part of who we are as a community and a place where we can gather with our tribe to celebrate our music culture, life, and each other. We are so grateful for all of you who have made it a tradition to gather here each year with your friends and family with so much love in your hearts. Getting the festival to where we are today hasn’t been easy, but it has been a joy; a journey shared by everyone who has helped us evolve into what we are today.

In 2020 we had asked our friends at Loch & Key Productions to help us create a short docuseries about the origins of the festival for our 20th anniversary that September. We released the videos, but then the pandemic hit. We were forced to cancel our beloved festival, and the videos didn’t get the love they deserved. So now we are re-releasing them with faith that vaccines will extinguish COVID-19, at the very least to a manageable degree.

In episode one, the first of three videos (a fourth has not yet been released), we spoke with former Bristol, Tennessee Mayor David Shumaker, the “Father of Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion,” and former Bristol, Tennessee Community Relations Director Terrie Talbert about the origins of Bristol Rhythm and how we came together as a small group of people with big dreams for Bristol and our historic downtown – which was, at the time, very much in need of a comeback.

In episode two of our docuseries, a few artists who have performed at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion and continue to be champions for us and our region – including Marty Stuart, Jim Lauderdale, Dom Flemons, and Amythyst Kiah – speak about Bristol’s authentic music roots.

The third episode in the series gets to the heart of what makes Bristol Rhythm special, and why it will continue to be a place where artists and fans come to pay homage to the our region’s rich music heritage.

Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion is like coming home, plain and simple. We hope you will take that journey September 10–12, 2021 and join us for our 20th anniversary – and bring friends, family, coworkers, and anyone who loves good music! We’ll be back with a fourth episode of our docuseries very soon!

To App-uh-latch-uh or To App-uh-lay-shuh…That is the Question

Yes, both are correct, but here is why I urge you to still say “App-uh-latch-uh.”

It’s something that has caused perhaps nearly as many arguments as politics. No one has (hopefully) ever gotten into an argument about whether or not they ordered a “car-mel” or “care-ah-mel” latte, but disagreements about Appalachia can become very heated very easily. Appalachia has several different pronunciations across the United States, but the two most common (and contentious) are “App-uh-latch-uh” and “App-uh-lay-shuh.” The former has traditionally been linked with the south, while the latter is more associated with the north.

The photograph show a display mannequin showcasing a grey t-shirt, red scarf, and musician brooch. The t-shirt has the word [app-uh-latch-uh] on it.

Soon after the museum opened, we sold t-shirts that spelled out the “correct” pronunciation of Appalachia – it generated debate from our visitors and also 435 shares on the related social media post! © Birthplace of Country Music

So, who is right? To quote writer John Green: “The truth resists simplicity.” Both ways are correct, but which way you choose to say it can say more about you than you may realize.

Much like its pronunciation, the etymology of the word “Appalachia” is also debated. Before the Europeans arrived in North America, the Appalachian Mountains and their geographical components had a multitude of names. The Cherokee or Tsalagi called the Smoky Mountains Shaconage. Algonquin-speaking peoples called the White Mountains in New Hampshire Wobanadenok. To the Powhatan of eastern Virginia, the Blue Ridge Mountains were known as Quirank. The first people to live in the region were all independent nations with different languages and cultures. It wasn’t until later that the entire mountain range was grouped as a single region.

The consensus is that the current name derives from “Apalachee” (App-uh-latch-ee), the Spanish romanization of the name of a Native American people that lived in the Florida Panhandle, though exactly upon which expedition the Spanish encountered these Indigenous people is debated. Either way, variations of the name – such as “Apalachen” – began appearing on Spanish maps of the area in the 1560s. By the 1700s, the name was used to refer to the southern section of the mountain range, and the name “Appalachia” was eventually used for the entire mountain range by the end of the 19th century.

A vintage map focused on the Carolinas and Georgia, with Virginia  showing at the top of the map. Various regions, rivers, and other topographical features are marked, including the Appalachian Mountains chain, which are marked as Apalachean Mountains.

A map from the mid-1700s with “Country of the Apalaches” and “Apalachean Mountains” labeled. Found on http://www.virginiaplaces.org/geology/appalachians.html, source: David Rumsey, Historical Map Collection, Carolina and Georgia (by Emanuel Bowen and John Gibson, 1758)

Southern Appalachia and Northern Appalachia may share a general geographical continuity, but could not be more different regarding culture, accents, and media portrayal. Popular media often makes a mess of the south, frequently portraying it as feral, uneducated, and backward. The way we speak appears to be particularly hard for Hollywood to nail down. Take, for example, Brad Pitt’s questionable “Smoky Mountain” accent in the 2009 film Inglorious Basterds. Southerners with a keen ear would have no trouble differentiating the tight Appalachian accent of someone like Dolly Parton from the hazy drawl of popular characters like Scarlet O’Hara. However, both of these accents can be heard in the beloved 1989 film Steel Magnolias – from Parton herself (Tennessee) and Julia Roberts (Georgia) respectively. To complicate matters even further, the film takes place in Louisiana, a linguistically and culturally distinct geographical area.

There are people living in Northern Appalachia – and beyond – who say “App-uh-lay-shuh.” Those people are not wrong, even though that is not how I say it. Just like there is no single southern accent, there is no single Appalachian identity. The fact that I grew up in East Tennessee is the main reason I say “App-uh-latch-uh.” Southern Appalachia is very much its own beast with its own culture, stereotypes, and – yes – dialect. The way we speak is as much a part of our way of life as the food we eat, the stories we tell, and the music we make. Just like sharing music can bridge the gap between people of two different cultures and heritage, so can something as simple as saying the name of our home the way we say it.

In other words: When in Southern Appalachia, do as the Southern Appalachians do.


Writer Sharyn McCrumb opines on the ways to pronounce “Appalachia.”

Radio Bristol Book Club: Where the Dead Sit Talking

Welcome to Radio Bristol Book Club! Readers from BCM and the Bristol Public Library come together each month to celebrate and explore a 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 dig deep into the themes and questions raised by the books, learn more about the authors, and celebrate the joys of being a bookworm!

A beautifully written Native American coming-of-age story, Where the Dead Sit Talking follows 15-year-old Sequoyah’s journey through the foster care system in rural Oklahoma in the late 1980s. Scarred by years of trauma living with a mother struggling with drug addiction, Sequoyah keeps mostly to himself in his new foster home until he meets fellow house-mate Rosemary, a 17-year-old artist. The two connect over their shared Indigenous heritage and journey through the foster care system, but the uncertainty of their living situation and the trauma that has come from that presents itself as a major hurdle the two will have to face – together or on their own.

The book cover is red with a black graphic of an eagle in the Native art style at the top of the cover and the title in white beneath it. It has a sticker on it saying "National Book Award Finalist."

The cover of Where the Dead Sit Talking by Brandon Hobson bears a striking Indigenous art-inspired graphic.

Author Brandon Hobson is an assistant professor of Creative Writing at New Mexico State University and a teacher at the Institute of American Indian Arts. He has three other published novels – the most recent one, The Removed, has been lauded as “a striking new benchmark for fiction about Native Americans” by the LA Times. Where the Dead Sit Talking, published in 2018, was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction, winner of the In the Margins Book Award for Fiction, and an NPR Code Switch Best Book of the Year. Hobson is also an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation Tribe.

A man with dark brown hair and a short beard sits on the floor in front of a window. He is wearing glasses, a plaid/flannel shirt, and jeans. Beside his is an old typewriter on a table.
Author Brandon Hobson.

Please make plans to join us on Thursday, March 25 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 so be sure to pick up a copy and read it ahead of time. The librarians will be happy to help you find the book. We look forward to sharing our thoughts on Hobson’s difficult and important story!

If you have thoughts or questions about this book that you would like to share with our readers (and listeners!), you can email info@birthplaceofcountrymusic.org (subject line: Radio Bristol Book Club) – and your insights might appear on air with us!

Looking ahead, we will be reading Affrilachian Tales: Folktales from the African-American Appalachian Tradition by Lyn Ford for our April book club, airing on Thursday, April 22, 11:00am. You can see the full 2021 Radio Bristol Book Club list here.