June 2021 - The Birthplace of Country Music
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Will the Circle Be Unbroken? A Personal Commentary on the Cycle of Various Changes in Country Music

For some, country music appears to be a genre that hasn’t changed much over time – too often, there is a perception of it being pretty much the same, no matter what song or artist is on the playlist. But over the years, it really has changed – from the subjects of the songs to the styles to the variety and diversity of its influences. We’ve seen the “big bang” of early commercial country music at the 1927 Bristol Sessions with artists like Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, honky-tonk blues, the Nashville sound, outlaw country, traditionalists, and so much more.

Over the past decade or so, it feels like we’ve seen a conforming era in the sound of country music. As a country music fan, I can’t count how many times I’ve said or heard the words: “I don’t like new country music, only old country music.” When Taylor Swift emerged as a country artist, I was right there for it. I burned “Our Song,” “Tim McGraw,” and the Fearless album onto a CD as quick as I could. But after a while, Taylor Swift wasn’t so country anymore – and she wasn’t the only one. And so soon, I fell away from new artists because I felt like they were clinging too much to pop music, or really over-doing the country sound.

Within the last five years, however, I’ve once again started listening more and more to new country. Artists like Luke Combs, Kacey Musgraves, and most notably, Tyler Childers have become especially popular in country music. These artists seem to be moving towards a revival of that country sound I’ve been craving. They haven’t necessarily strayed away from a pop sound, but they don’t sing solely about the stereotypical boots, tractors, beer, and women either. For me, it feels like they’ve brought back the country sound with real emotion – from “Dime Store Cowgirl” and “Whitehouse Road” to “When It Rains It Pours.”

When I listen to these artists, I definitely feel the connection to 1990s country, which was a very successful decade for the genre. We saw unforgettable artists like Garth Brooks, Shania Twain, the Chicks, and many more come to the stage, and their legacy and music is still insanely popular almost 30 years later. Not only did the 1990s see these successful and “modernizing” artists, but there was also a roots revival in country music where some musicians hearkened back to earlier bluegrass and hillbilly stars and took a step away from a commercialized sound.

While we have seen numerous waves between the popularity of country-pop and traditional country, we can connect our dear fondness of that old-time sound to the 1927 Bristol Sessions and other early recording sessions of “hillbilly music.” The Bristol Sessions led to the mainstream commercialization of the traditional sound we’ve now been listening to for almost 100 years. When we’re relaxing outside on a hot summer day to the embrace of fiddles, tangy harmonies, and the sounds of music floating through the air, we must give credit to that foundational moment at the Bristol Sessions.

The box set cover has the title "The Bristol Sessions: The Big Bang of Country Music, 1927-1928 at the top with an image of the Bristol sign and State Street, probably in the 1930s or 1940s.
Cover of The Bristol Sessions box set from Bear Family Records.

So, how does this compare to what we are experiencing today in country music? While I think we do find ourselves within the roots revival and traditional influences of the genre, we also have to look at how society is today – we naturally have major divisions in the genre over the sound that is created and viewed as “country,” but now we also have divisions within politics and social activism that are also being expressed through music. We also have greater technological advances that allow the industry to produce many different styles of country music, even some we might not have heard before.

And so, for me, I think as the cycle continues to go on, we will never see exact repeats and can never exactly compare one cycle to a previous one, but we will always have the influence of country music’s history as part of this wonderful musical story.

* Title images: The Carter Family (courtesy of Dale Jett); Garth Brooks (Fatherspoon); Kacey Musgraves (BruceC007)

Caitlyn Carter is an honors student and psychology major at Western Carolina University. She is a fan of country music and enjoys exploring different trends of the genre between decades.

June Carter Cash: A Life in Country Music

Today – June 23 – is June Carter Cash’s birthday. At the age of 10, Valerie June Carter stepped in front of the mic for the first time with The Carter Family, and from there her role and legacy in the musical realm only grew stronger.

This image shows a senior class spread from a yearbook. June Carter is seen on the right-hand page in the bottom right of four student photographs. She is wearing a light colored top or dress. At the bottom of the picture is her autograph, which reads: "Luck, June Carter / Valerie June Carter Cash." To the left of the four photographs are the names of the students with their activities listed below their names.
Before she became a full-time performer and country music icon, June was your typical high school senior. This yearbook hinted at her musical career in the clubs and activities she participated in, including girls’ chorus and choir, but also in the later autograph she wrote on her senior portrait photograph after she was famous!

June Carter was born into the “first family of country music,” as one of three daughters of Ezra and Maybelle Carter, and she came into this world just two years after the famous 1927 Bristol Sessions, where The Carter Family recorded for the very first time. June lived the majority of her life in the spotlight – after the original Carter Family disbanded in 1943, she (at the age of 14), along with sisters Helen and Anita, began singing as part of the family’s professional act, Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters. Even though they gained a lot of popularity under that name, Maybelle changed the band’s name to The Carter Family two years after A. P. Carter died in 1960. They released their first album, The Carter Family Album, on Liberty Records soon after. June also got a solo deal while preforming with the Carter Sisters.

The Carter Family Album cover is a reddish-orange color with a leather bound, old photograph album shown in the center. The photograph album is labeled with the record's title "The Carter Family Album" and has an oval picture of Mother Maybelle, June, Anita, and Helen in the center.

The cover of The Carter Family Album has the look of an old family photograph album.

June played many instruments including the harmonica, banjo, guitar, and autoharp. Not only did she have a solo career and a career with her family group, but she also had a career with her third husband, Johnny Cash. Together they won a Grammy in 1967 and 1970, and June also won three Grammys of her own, two of which she won after she passed away in 2003. That same year Country Music Television (CMT) included June on their “40 Greatest Women of Country Music” list.

June’s marriages connected to important musical legacies. Her first marriage was to Carl Smith, one of the most successful male country artists in the 1950s. Before June and Carl got divorced, they had one daughter, Rebecca Carlene, together. Today Carlene Carter is a singer-songwriter who is continuing the county music family legacy – her most recent album Carter Girl, is filled with three generations of Carter Family music. Carlene performed at the grand opening of the museum in 2014 too! You can read Carlene’s tribute to her mother on the blog here.

June married Johnny Cash, the “man in black” himself, in 1968, and they were together until June’s death in May 2003. June and Johnny were introduced to each other backstage at the Grand Ole Opry in 1965, though each of them was aware of the other through their music. In the years before they got married, June and Johnny performed and recorded together several times. June co-wrote “Ring of Fire,” which became one of Johnny’s most famous songs and topped the charts for seven weeks. Together Johnny and June had one son, John Carter Cash, who is also continuing the country music legacy of his family as a record producer and singer-songwriter.

Unlike her first and last unions, June’s second marriage – to Edwin “Rip” Nix – was not a marriage of two musical stars. Nix was a football player, racecar driver, and police officer, but their daughter Rosie also became a singer-songwriter. Sadly, she passed away in 2003, the same year as her mother, from carbon monoxide poisoning.

From the beginnings of the original Carter Family with Maybelle, Sara, and A. P. to June’s career as a country music icon to June’s children following in her and their grandmother’s footsteps, the lineage of Carter country musicians has strong roots and branches – a family born into, raised by, and innovating country music.

Julia Underkoffler is a summer intern at the Birthplace of Country Music. She is a rising senior at Shepherd University in West Virginia, majoring in historic preservation and public history and minoring in gender and women’s studies.

The Root of It: J. P. Harris on Roscoe Holcomb

Radio Bristol is excited to share “The Root of It,” a blog 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 prolific songwriter and banjo player J. P. Harris. For years Harris has travelled internationally performing his unique take on honky tonk-flavored country music. Harris is also well versed in old-time music, spending much of his early years at fiddlers conventions where he delved headfirst into traditional old-time fiddle tunes and songs. His latest release on Freedirt RecordsDon’t You Marry No Railroad Man – is a testament to the old-time influences that have inspired his music through the years. One of those influences is the East Kentuckian Roscoe Holcomb. One of those voices you just don’t forget after hearing him for the first time, Holcomb was also an incredibly gifted guitar and banjo player. He experienced international acclaim during the folk revival in part due to the documentary High Lonesome, which was shot by renowned artist and musician John Cohen. Harris spoke with Radio Bristol about the influence and inspiration the music of Roscoe Holcomb has had upon his own music.

A white man with close-cropped dark hair and a large dark beard sits in front of a table covered in fruit, vegetables, bread, and wine bottles -- set up very much like a Renaissance still life. He is wearing a white long-sleeve shirt and brown pants. His sleeves are slightly pushed up to reveal lots of tattoos.

Portrait of J. P. Harris by Libby Danforth.

J.P Harris:

As most Americans my age had, I’d heard little snippets of traditional American folk music over the course of my lifetime, but grew up removed from direct exposure to any of its subsets. As a teenager living and traveling on my own, often to far-flung corners of the country via hitchhiking or freight trains, my affinity for folk music and the stories therein grew immensely. And at this time, my interaction with the internet was virtually nonexistent, and it didn’t yet contain the endless well of digitized recordings, downloadable music, or streaming platforms we are so familiar with today.

As a result, I feel I grew into my taste in music in what was to be the last era of “oral tradition.” Amongst my community of friends and travelers, people traded dubbed cassettes, often with little or no information about the recordings, or maybe the occasional burnt copy of a CD. Oftentimes the label would simply read “blues” or “banjo music,” and we relied on our memories to retain any detail about who was playing, where they were from, and when it was recorded.

This is essentially the story of my introduction to Roscoe Holcomb (born 1912 as Halcomb in Daisy, Kentucky). A mix tape made by a friend arrived in the mail unlabeled, and one track in particular raised the hair on my arms and made me shudder at each vocal turn – so much so that eventually the track became garbled and nearly unlistenable from the repeated rewinding of that section of tape. I would later learn that the tune was “Darling Cory,” a song that became entrenched in my own repertoire.

A white man standing in front of an old wooden shed and ladder. He wears a light-colored hat, shirt, and pants, along with glasses, and holds a big-head banjo in his hands ready to play. Dark trees can also be seen in the background.

Roscoe Holcomb with banjo in Daisy, Kentucky, 1959. Bob Dylan described Holcomb as an artist with “a certain untamed sense of control.” Photo by John Cohen

However, it wasn’t until a few years later, in a local record store, that I once again heard that utterly unmistakable tone of voice and rushed to the clerk to ask what was playing on the house speakers. I purchased the album in question right then and there – An Untamed Sense Of Control from Smithsonian Folkways – and, for months, became lost in the lush landscape painted by Holcomb’s songs, hardly listening to anything else in my pickup as I drove to and from job sites each day, soaking up his many styles of guitar and banjo playing on the record.

Before discovering Roscoe Holcomb, I’d never heard an artist of his era playing such a diverse catalog of songs and styles, veering from a hymnal to the blues to dark mountain ballads. The variation in song style never left one guessing if it was still Holcomb singing, his voice plaintive and unrestrained. Learning of his life story (Holcomb worked as a road builder, farmer, coal miner, and finally as a full-time musician in his final years), my affinity only grew deeper – at the time, I was primarily working as a carpenter, logger, and heavy equipment operator. My musical tastes were a mix of early blues, early country, old time, and bluegrass, all of which you could hear Holcomb playing on any given album, and he became a sort of one-stop-shop for me for many years.

There are endless early professional or field recordings I could reference for the influences that still prevail in my own music career. Each one’s unique regional style or era-specific sound is a part of the intrigue of traditional American music, but none did I find where the musician had so obviously melded what they heard in a wider sense. Holcomb would at one turn play “Fair Miss In The Garden,” a ballad with obvious roots in 18th or even 17th-century British Isles traditions and common in Appalachia, then he would pivot to the bluesy “Frankie and Johnny,” a song so widespread that it would’ve been thought of as “pop music” during Hocomb’s youth in the 1920s and 1930s. This melding of styles surely gave me a new perspective on traditional music; before this, I had viewed them as altogether separate genres, unable to combine into the singer’s own personal stylistic interpretations.

White couple -- the woman is to the left and man to the right. She has dark hair and is wearing a white frilly-edged sleeveless shirt and dark pants/skirt; he is wearing a light-colored button-down shirt, big glasses, and a hat. He has one arm across her shoulders. They are standing in front of a white house.

Roscoe and wife Ethel Holcomb captured by the brilliant artist and New Lost City Rambler John Cohen.

It can only be assumed that Holcomb’s exposure to these other kinds of music not native to his rural Kentucky home came through his work in the mines and on construction crews, where likely both white and Black laborers from across the southeast were crossing paths and inadvertently sharing musical cultures, as evidenced by Holcomb’s “Mississippi Heavy Water Blues” or the instrumental “Knife Guitar.”

Although his music is no secret to most traditional enthusiasts (Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, and The Stanley Brothers have all cited him on many occasions), Roscoe Holcomb remains to this day the first “gateway artist” I recommend to anyone trying to discover this largely unknown, yet vibrant, world of American music.

* To learn more about J. P. Harris or to check out his latest record Don’t You Marry No Railroad Man, releasing on June 25, visit www.ilovehonkytonk.com.

J. P. Harris’ Dreadful Wind and Rain featuring Chance McCoy with a nice rendition of “Mole in the Ground.”

Celebrate Record Store Day with History!

Record Store Day, celebrated on June 12, was established in 2007 to support independent and small business record stores, and it has become a highlight for the record-buying public. The height of record store popularity ranged from the 1950s to the 1980s, but wherever you purchase your music these days, it’s obvious that vinyl is having a resurgence in popularity. Taylor Swift recently broke a modern era record for vinyl sales in a single week. So, in celebration of Record Store Day, here’s a brief look at the history of recording records.

Customers browsing and buying records in a record store. Records are on display on a central table and in rows of boxes, while the walls are decorated with album covers, t-shirts, and a sign about Record Store Day.

Record Store Day 2014 at Drift Records in Totnes, United Kingdon. Photo by Sophie means wisdom, Wikimedia Commons 

The first audio recording and playback machine was invented by Thomas Edison. It worked by carving the audio into a piece of metal foil wrapped around a cylinder. The original purpose of this invention, called the phonograph, was not for listening to music for pleasure but as a machine to record short notes for business meetings. Edison actually never thought of his invention as a means for music or entertainment, and these early cylinders certainly weren’t viewed as items for posterity – the recordings could only be played back a few times before they were too degraded to hear. Later, through the work of other inventors, cylinders began to be coated in wax, which provided a slightly better sound with more playbacks. 

Emile Berliner improved upon this invention by converting the bulky and hard-to-store cylinders into flat discs. With the invention of these more durable discs, listening finally started to take the shape we now know and love. Berliner’s hand-cranked invention to listen to these discs was dubbed the gramophone, which is where the Grammy Awards get their name and their trophy gets its shape in honor of this piece of music-listening history.

Technology is always a story of constant evolution and, usually, improvement. Eldridge Johnson, a machinist who worked with Berliner to improve the gramophone, founded the Victor Talking Machine Company and began making and his own version of the playback machine, as well as producing 78 records that were made with a new and improved technique resulting in a higher quality sound. With changes in the recording technology – including the electric microphone and the electric amplifier – recorded music became more and more popular from the 1920s. And technology continued to develop over the years with a whole host of different record playing machines and changes in the format of records – from the early 78s to the later 33 1/3 and 45rpm records. The museum’s collections hold a multitude of the older 78s, while 33 1/3s, or LPs, are most widely sold now.

Left: A small Victrola phonograph on display at the museum. Top right: A cylinder player and cylinders. Botom right: A modern record player with a 45rpm record on it. Credits: © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Neil Staples; Photo by Petit Louis, Wikimedia Commons; Photo by Alan Levine, Wikimedia Commons

The invention of magnetic tape offered a clearer sound and portable listening, and record technology faded into the background, but the appeal of listening via records never quite died. A surge in popularity of record listening in the 1960s ushered in a golden age of records that lasted through the 1970s. And once again innovation came to the fore, influencing musical styles and techniques – for instance, in the 1980s and 1990s, hip hop artists created new and unique tracks from the sounds that were on the records using mixers and samplers.

In the past few years, a new wave in the popularity of vinyl has increased the appeal of owning and listening to music on records. Popular artists are releasing their albums on vinyl to be sold in record stores, big and small, as well as box stores with growing shelf space for these records. Record players are easy to find at affordable prices, and some of these modern players now offer multiple listening formats including cassette players, CD players, AUX jacks, and Bluetooth connection. This lets you listen to your music in just about any format you want. 

Despite vinyl records not being as convenient as the common digital technology, there is something really special about owning the physical song etched into a disc and building a collection of your favorite albums – and it’s not just about the record itself, but also about the cover artwork and the liner notes. And so, embrace vinyl once again, and celebrate this Record Store Day by going out to your nearest record store and treating yourself to an addition to your collection – or starting one! Because even if it’s the first record you’ve ever bought or your 101st, there’s nothing quite like the first play of a new record.

A set of shelves (4 high) filled with records. A Star Wars-themed "record tote" is on display on the 3rd shelf.

Museum staff member Scotty Almany is an avid record collector. © Scotty Almany

Radio Bristol Book Club: Satan Is Real: The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers

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

June’s book, Satan is Real: The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers, is a memoir written by Charlie Louvin with Benjamin Whitmer and with a moving foreword by Kris Kristofferson. This is the incredible story of a musical career started by two brothers, Charlie and Ira, who were born in the Appalachian mountains of Alabama. The brothers learned their harmony-style singing through the “Sacred Harp” tradition of the Baptist Church. They both started out singing gospel music, but added secular music into their repertoire later in their career.

The cover of the book is iconic because it is also the cover art from an album they released in 1959 of the same name. It features the figure of Satan made of plywood and paint and created by the brothers themselves; the Louvins are singing in the foreground with fire raging all around them. This cover is metaphor, reflecting some of the things the brothers must have really felt in their lives – Ira dealt with several demons during his life including alcohol and depression, and while Charlie surely fought with some of his own demons too, he was considered a “God-fearing and church-going” man. One fine example of what this book has to offer along those lines is the story about the attempted murder of Ira; his wife shot him six times after he tried to strangle her with a telephone cord, and he survived. Ira’s wife told the police “if that sonofabitch isn’t dead, I’ll shoot him again.” Music, mayhem, mandolins, and a very talented brother duo – what’s not to like?

The book cover shows a tall grinning Satan figure in the background, surrounded by fire, with the two Louvin Brothers in white suits and black ties singing in the foreground.

Charlie Louvin was born July 7, 1927 in Henagar, Alabama. As a teen, he began to sing with his brother Ira as part of a local radio program in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The brothers sang a mix of traditional and gospel music in a style that they had learned while in their church choir, blending rich harmonies together. After Charlie served for a brief time in World War II, he and Ira moved from Knoxville to Memphis working as postal clerks during the day and making musical appearances in the evenings. Once again, Charlie left to serve in the military, this time in the Korean War, and the brothers then relocated to Birmingham, Alabama.

The Louvins were gospel musicians, but they were later convinced by one of their sponsors that “you can’t sell tobacco with gospel music,” and they began to add secular music into their sets. They made appearances at the Grand Ole Opry and became official members in 1955. The Louvins released several singles, and over 20 of these reached the country music charts. Their harmonic style served to influence future artists such as Emmylou Harris (whom Charlie later played alongside in September 2010) and The Byrds. The brothers split up in 1963, and Ira died of a car crash in 1965. In 2001 the Louvin Brothers were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Charlie Louvin worked on rebuilding his career in the early 2000s working on classic songs, a new song that was a tribute to Ira, and gospel numbers. Charlie continued to make music and appearances until he underwent surgery for pancreatic cancer. Louvin died from complications six months after surgery in his Wartrace, Tennessee, home on January 26, 2011. He was 83 years old.

 Charlie Louvin sings at a mic labeled WSM/Grand Ole Opry at center stage with other musicians and equipment around and behind him. He is wearing grey pants, a white shirt and Stetson, and a blue blazer.
Charlie Louvin performing on the Grand Ole Opry stage. Image from Wikimedia Commons, author: Cliff

Please make plans to join us on Thursday, June 24 at 12:00pm for the Radio Bristol Book Club readers’ reactions to Satan is Real, which will be followed with an interview with Brett Steele, Charlie Louvin’s former manager! 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 discussion on this fascinating memoir. And if you have thoughts or questions about this book that you would like to share with our readers – and our listeners – 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 July is Sharyn McCrumb’s Appalachia by Sharyn McCrumb; we’ll be discussing it on Thursday, July 22. Check out our full list of 2021 Radio Bristol Book Club picks here, where you can also listen to archived shows!