May 2021 - The Birthplace of Country Music
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Pick 5: Songs about Travelling

For our “Pick 5” blog series, we ask members of the Radio Bristol team or our BCM staff 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 and friends of the museum and radio station, 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!

For this “Pick 5” post, we have a special guest blogger – Meghan Zuzolo, a student at Western Carolina University who helped us with social media and content creation as part of an honors student project led by Assistant Professor Lyn Burkett this past spring. Meghan chose songs that are about traveling to and from places for different reasons, thinking about loved ones while you’re – or they are – gone, and the good feelings that traveling gives us. Traveling has always been a theme in music, from the very earliest recordings to the most recent. And after this past year of “safer at home,” social distancing, and quarantine, traveling, and missing far-away friends and family, is probably on all of our minds!

“Hey, Porter,” Johnny Cash

“Hey, Porter” was released by Johnny Cash in June 1955. This tune describes the story of a man on a train ride to Tennessee who keeps on asking how long it will be until they reach their destination. The passenger in the story makes it very clear that he is excited to make it back home, perhaps to his family or a loved one. I picked this song because I think everyone can relate to the feelings of excitement of returning home after being gone for too long or having a loved one return home.

“We Shall All Be Reunited,” Alfred Karnes

“We Shall All Be Reunited” was recorded by Alfred Karnes at the 1928 Bristol Sessions and released in 1929. This song describes the story of how loved ones and family members may travel far away and pass away, but we will be united in the afterlife. I chose this song because I enjoy the hopeful message that no matter how far away you are from your loved ones, or maybe those who have passed, one day we will see them again.

 “Carrying Your Love with Me,” George Strait

“Carrying Your Love With Me” was released by George Strait in 1997. In this song, Strait describes having to be away from the one he loves, but no matter what, he carries the love of his significant other with him when he’s gone.

“It’s my strength for holding on
Every minute that I have to be gone.

I’ll have everything I’ll ever need
Carrying your love with me.”

I chose this song because I think everyone can or has been able to relate to this song at some point in their lifetime. Whether you are the one who has had to be away from the ones you love, or you’ve had someone that you love that had to be away for a period of time, this is an uplifting song that can be a reminder that the ones you love are with you, always in your heart.

“Sailing,” Christopher Cross

“Sailing” was released by Christopher Cross in 1979. This tune focuses on how liberating and relaxing being out on the open water can be.

“Sailing takes me away to where I’ve always heard it could be.
Just a dream and the wind to carry me
And soon I will be free.”

I chose this song because I think everyone has their own version of sailing, whether it be taking a drive on a nice Sunday afternoon, watching the sunset, or just spending time with those you love. Everyone has something in their life that makes them feel free and takes them away from the stress of everyday life, and I think this song is a gentle reminder of that.

“Travelin’ Man,” Ricky Nelson

“Travelin’ Man” was released by Ricky Nelson in 1961. This song is about a man who travels the world and sees beautiful women everywhere he goes! I picked this song because I think it’s a happy and uplifting song, and it’s a reminder that there is beauty everywhere in the world. I also appreciate the way the song takes the listener with him to the many different places he visited, from Mexico and Berlin to Polynesia and Hong Kong.

* The “featured image” for this blog post is from Pixabay.

Are We There Yet? On the Road to Bristol Rhythm

What a year.

As I sit here collecting my thoughts, that phrase plays over and over in my head like needle skipping a record. What. A. Year.

I mean, here I am, still working from my home office more than a year later which is really just a desk shoved into the corner of my dining room – where I’ve been since March 2020 when COVID hit. Hubby got his second COVID shot in January of this year. I finally finished mine up in April. My 12-year-old daughter just got her first shot, and like on so many road trips I’ve taken throughout my lifetime, I can’t help but wonder, are we there yet? Are we finally getting to a place where life looks somewhat normal? Man, I hope so.

Through it all, BCM has kept a skeleton crew of distanced, full-time office and museum staff, the rest of us going in as needed, but mostly working from home to limit exposure. It’s been really different, but I’m totally cool with it. I am so grateful to work for an organization that values the health and well-being of their team and to work with so many caring individuals. Our staff has, thankfully, escaped the virus because of these measures and boy am I ever grateful that we’ve managed to keep our team working while so many other businesses have faced layoffs. I’m also really grateful for the freedom of working in t-shirts, leggings, and sweatpants sans make-up.

Selfie photo of blogger sitting at home office computer.
Dumb home office selfie, no make-up. Sweat pants not shown to protect the innocent.

That’s not to say BCM wasn’t affected by the pandemic we were hit pretty hard financially due to the temporary closure of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, the stoppage of any live and in-person events or activities, and the cancellation of Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion in 2020. However, we made adjustments, raised money, received some grants we were eligible for, and got through it. In the end, we’d like to think the entire ordeal made us stronger as an organization. We are a pretty tight knit group, like family, and I’m just so thankful we are all still here.

Elizabeth Cook performing on the State 
Street Stage at Bristol Rhythm 2019.
Elizabeth Cook at Bristol Rhythm 2019.

As I look back on all the things we’ve collectively missed since COVID while trying to figure out how to tastefully incorporate sweatpants and leggings into my wardrobe upon return to the office I’m reminded of how big of a role live music has had in my life and how it helped grow Bristol into what it is today. Not having outdoor concert events in downtown Bristol all last summer was a real bummer, and I am so glad to see venues slowly reopening and booking live music again. I am ready to emerge from my casual-wear cocoon and get back to something close to normal and live music on State Street this summer is the medicine my soul needs after such a long draught!

A group of people dancing on stage at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion with the band, including the blog author.
Me acting a fool at Bristol Rhythm in 2017 with Southern Culture on the Skids.

After all, what is the birthplace of country music without live music? It’s the life force of our very existence! A few venues are already dipping their toes back into the water, and it’s so good to see our local musicians getting back to work!

Road to Bristol Rhythm show graphic.

Virginia is for Lovers has partnered with BCM to bring the Road to Bristol Rhythm outdoor concert series to State Street this summer, which will take place on the lawn at The Sessions Hotel. Morgan Wade, Jim Lauderdale, and Amythyst Kiah are all slated to perform with their full bands, and tickets are on sale now. Each act is scheduled to perform at the festival in September, and the series is designed to give us a taste of the awesomeness that is Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion amazing live music by stellar artists performing in a fabulous setting in Historic Downtown Bristol. I have missed it SO much, and I know I’m not alone!

Band performing in front of an audience.
Birds of Chicago on Cumberland Square Park Stage, Bristol Rhythm 2018

Be watching out for an exciting new initiative to promote Bristol’s live music scene on the horizon with both cities of Bristol working with Bristol Motor Speedway, Believe in Bristol, BCM, and other agencies to create awareness for all the live music events happening here this summer and leading up to the big 20th anniversary of Bristol Rhythm this September. I can’t wait! My love is so deep for the festival, I’m working through whether or not to revive my Golf Cart Karaoke sessions with festival artists in 2021 or doing more stage hopping to see as many bands as possible all weekend. What do you think? I’ll set up an IG Stories poll so you can help me decide!

The Root of It: Joseph Decosimo on Dick Burnett

Radio Bristol is excited to share “The Root of It,” a new series connecting today’s influential musicians to often lesser known and sometimes obscure musicians of the early commercial recording era. The sounds and musicians we hear today on platforms like Radio Bristol can often be traced back to the sounds of earlier generations. What better way to discover these connections than to talk to the musicians themselves about some of the artists that have been integral in shaping their music? These influences, though generally not household names, continue to inspire those who dig deep to listen through the scratches and noise of old 78s, field recordings, and more, finding nuances and surprises that inevitably lead them on their own unique musical journeys. 

For this installment of “The Root of It,” we spoke with banjo and fiddle extraordinaire Joseph Decosimo. Joseph was raised in Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau and has had a lifelong passion for the music of the region centered upon banjo and fiddle. Through his illustrious performing and recording career with projects like The Bucking Mules and The Rocky Creek Ramblers, and through his solo work, Joseph celebrates and reimagines the music of the Cumberland Plateau, Central Appalachia, and the broader American South. Currently based in Durham, North Carolina, Decosimo continues to engage with traditional music not only through performance but also through scholarship as a recent PhD in American Studies at the University of North Carolina. By exploring the history of a tune and theme that has permeated old-time traditions for generations, Joseph shared some of the artists that inspire him and his music.

A man standing on a screened in porch with the side of the house and trees/yard showing behind him. He is bearded and wearing glasses,a tan sweater, a baseball cap, and dark pants. He holds in fiddle in one hand and a bow in the other.
Joseph Decosimo with fiddle.

Joseph Decosimo:

Last spring, I found myself visiting a little city park down the hill from my house in Durham. There’s a stand of persimmon trees there, surrounded by a tangle of blackberry bushes that are slowly reclaiming a field. I don’t know that I’ve ever paid much attention to blackberry blossoms, but something about that early pandemic moment led me to attend to the smaller details – smells, sights, sounds – of the natural world. In this corner of the park, these five-petaled blackberry blossoms burst into clouds of linen whites and soft pinks against a backdrop of late spring greens. I hadn’t noticed them before. The blossoms were graceful and delicate. And they were gone almost as quickly as they came.

There’s a musical idea that circulates through Southern fiddle repertoires, taking on the name “Blackberry Blossom” after these delicate and understated flowers that precede the summertime berries with their clash of tartness and sweetness. (My friend Kerry Blech offers a handy primer on the fiddle tune’s recorded life.) The most widely circulating versions, inspired perhaps by Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith’s mid-1930s recording of the tune, takes a turn towards the tart – overlaying a puckeringly sour chord change over the first few beats of the tune’s second part. Over time, most players, perhaps following the lead of the Nashville studio musicians who accompanied fiddler Tommy Jackson, have decided to turn this chord into a minor chord – a rather grand gesture given the subtlety of the namesake blossom. Whatever the case, most folks have decided to resolve the tension of the tune. This variety of “Blackberry Blossom” has come to be the dominant one, spread far and wide by radio and recordings and frequently heard at bluegrass and old-time jams alike.


Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith’s rousing version of “Blackberry Blossom,” featuring the Delmore Brothers and recorded for Victor Talking Machine Company in 1935.

However, deep within this bramble of musical creativity, another strain of blackberry blossoms can be found. This rare strain is known for its ethereal beauty and tantalizing subtlety. These sprout along the West Virginia and Kentucky line. On an old field recording from the 1930s, Kentuckian Fiddlin’ Ed Morrison offers an origin for the piece, explaining: “This tune was learned from General Garfield by my father during the Civil War. He whistled it all the time on his march up Big Sandy River to Middle Creek.” You can hear Morrison’s version here. Morrison’s fiddling neighbor, the legendary blind fiddler Ed Haley, explored all the territory the tune could muster as he busked around Ashland, Kentucky. In the placement of their fingers on the violin’s fingerboard, both Morrison and Haley located the tune in an unquestionably tart tonal space. At a fiddle contest in Paintsville, Kentucky, Dick Burnett, another blind musician, heard a fiddler named Bob Johnson play the piece. Johnson, in turn, had heard Haley playing it somewhere along the Ohio River. After the contest, Burnett cornered Johnson and had him play the tune over and over until it fell under Burnett’s fingers.

Black-and-white photograph of a dark-haired man seated on a chair outside. He has a large moustache and is holding his fiddle to his shoulder with the bow poised to play.

Pictured is Fiddlin’ Ed Morrison whose father Christian Morrison allegedly learned “Blackberry Blossom” from the whistling of Col. James Garfield (he did not become a general until later) in 1863 during the Civil War activity in Kentucky. Photo and sound clip (linked in paragraph above) courtesy of Kerry Blech via Florida State Fiddlers Association

Burnett stored the tune away in his mind and carried it back to Monticello, Kentucky. In the process, the tart angles and tones of Haley’s version softened into something more ambiguous and delicate – something more gently rolling like the hills around Monticello. By the time Burnett made it down to Atlanta to fiddle the piece for Columbia in April of 1930, his fingers had pushed the notes of the melody into a place of beautiful uncertainty. The twists and turns and more certain tartness of Haley’s setting gave way to something simultaneously sweet, tart, and delightfully ambiguous. Burnett’s rendition conveys a smoky quality that prevents things from being seen or heard with total clarity or certainty.

I realize that this post is supposed to be about a musician whom I’ve found influential, and I’ve burned through a lot of words describing a tune. But it’s hard for me to think about a lot of these older players and not think about a specific tune. And so let me turn my attention fully to Dick Burnett whose rendition of “Blackberry Blossoms” I find so compelling. I’m pretty sure that Dick Burnett isn’t my favorite old fiddler. There’s a good chance that his longtime playing partner Leonard Rutherford might be, but my preferences for these kinds of things change with the weather. I love trying to fiddle his version of “Blackberry Blossoms” – it’s slippery and subtle. I enjoy playing his slippery “Wild Good Chase” – a piece that I learned from mentor Clyde Davenport. As a young man, Davenport learned it from hearing Burnett play it at the courthouse in Monticello. These are fun tunes to play, however, I’m sharing some thoughts on Dick Burnett because he links a network of traditional musicians whose music has inspired and charmed me over the last two decades. I guess Burnett serves as the common thread running through a handful of my favorite artists from the Upper Cumberland region along the Tennessee/Kentucky line.

Black-and-white photograph of a dark-haired, clean-cut man seated in a chair in front of a white picket fence. He holds a banjo on his lap, ready to play.
Dick Burnett with banjo.

There’s Retta Spradlin – one of my favorite old singers and banjo players. She sang a powerfully beautiful version with her banjo of “Man of Constant Sorrow” that she learned from Burnett as he was traveling through her rural community. Burnett played an important role in popularizing the song, and his neighbors sang some fine versions that treated his version as a jumping off point. There’s the fiery fiddler John Sharp who spent time playing music with Burnett and his musical partner Rutherford. In Burnett and Rutherford’s repertoire and stylings, we hear traces of the local Black fiddle tradition as performed by their neighbor and aesthetic companion Cuje Bertram. Bertram’s slippery approach to the fiddle and subtle infusions of vibrato into tunes like “Billy in the Lowground” can also be heard in Burnett and Rutherford’s take on the tune. It’s this world of musicians that captivate me.

While I thoroughly enjoy Burnett’s playing, singing, and cutting up, I’m writing about him because I wanted to write about his “Blackberry Blossoms” and because he speaks to ways that music can flow through and create communities. I’m interested in the network of musicians of which he was a part. He links a world of repertoire, artistry, and sound that inspires my own music making. Over the last two years, the repertoire and aesthetics of Burnett’s world has inspired a forthcoming recording project.

Burnett’s music recalls a way of knowing these old pieces and making music that eludes recording technologies and industries. Part of the beauty of his “Blackberry Blossoms” is felt in the way that the tune shifted in his hands. This older stuff resists being fixed in the grooves of a record, on a bit of magnetic tape, or as a digitized abstraction. It eludes formal educational programs and fiddle camps. It’s a reminder of the fact that this is ultimately ear music. It’s music that we pull into ourselves and make something with, music that invites us to trace relationships and discover communities of taste. It’s about repertoire as shared experience and concepts open to exploration. It’s durable stuff.

*To learn more about Joseph Decosimo, visit www.josephdecosimo.com and be sure to check out his latest project “The Aluminum Wonder” featuring rare banjo tunes played in various banjo styles. And be on the lookout for a new solo project featuring collaborations with Alice Gerrard, Cleek Schrey, Joe and Matt O’Connell, and Stephanie Coleman.

Radio Bristol Book Club: Trampoline

Welcome to Radio Bristol Book Club where readers from BCM and the Bristol Public Library are coming together each month to celebrate and explore books 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 12:00 noon when we will dig deep into the themes and questions raised by the books, learn more about the authors, and celebrate the joys of being a bookworm!

Trampoline is the story of 15-year-old Dawn Jewell, her life with her family in eastern Kentucky, and the struggles that she faces. Dawn is sarcastic, takes issue with authority, and is laboring over the concept of who she is versus who she wants to become. So, a fairly typical teenager – but, as everyone knows, those times feel anything other than normal. Compounded by her choice to join her Mamaw’s social fight against the already economically strapped area’s main industry “Big Coal,” thus finding herself a persona-non-grata in her own town, comfort is hard to come by for our protagonist. Though Trampoline features Gipe’s perfectly complementary drawings, this is no comic book and certainly more novel than graphic. This work is written in a traditional sense that will appeal to those who relate to the setting as well as those who may be passing through. Will Dawn stay and find her way through, or choose flight over fight and abandon the mountains that need her possibly more than she needs them? Read Trampoline with us and find out!

The cover of the book is a black-and-white pen drawing showing a young girl with dissheveled hair, glasses, and a graphic t-shirt. She looks to the side.
The cover of Robert Gipe’s Trampoline with his distinctive drawing style.

Author Robert Gipe was born in Kingsport, Tennessee. He now resides in Harlan County, Kentucky, where he directed the Southeast Kentucky Community & Technical College Appalachian Program (1997 to 2018). He is also a producer of the Higher Ground community performance series, has directed the Southeast Kentucky Revitalization Project, coordinated the Great Mountain Mural Mega Fest, co-produces the Hurricane Gap Community Theater Institute, and advises on It’s Good To Be Young in the Mountains, a youth-driven conference. He formerly worked for the Appalshop Art Center in Whitesburg, Kentucky, as well. In 2015 Gipe won the Weatherford Award for outstanding Appalachian novel for Trampoline, his very first novel. This volume is now accompanied by second (Weedeater, 2018) and third (Pop, ​2021) books as a series, all three of which are published by Ohio University Press.

The author is a white man with strawberry blond hair and beard. He is wearing a grey t-shirt with two green snakes in the central design and a pair of black-rimmed glasses. He is seated on some steps surrounded by potted plants, including tomatoes.
This portrait of author Robert Gipe was taken by Amelia Kirby.

Please make plans to join us on Thursday, May 27 at 12:00pm for the book discussion, which will be followed with an interview with author Robert Gipe! 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 this book’s interesting story and engaging format. And if you have thoughts or questions about this book that you would like to share with our readers, you can email info@birthplaceofcountrymusic.org (Subject line: Radio Bristol Book Club) – and your book insights might appear on air with us!

Looking ahead: Our book pick for June is Satan is Real: The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers by Charlie Louvin; we’ll be discussing it on Thursday, June 24. Check out our full list of 2021 Radio Bristol Book Club picks here, where you can also listen to archived shows!