August 2021 - The Birthplace of Country Music
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Tintype Photography: A Bridge from the Past to the Present

In our current special exhibit, Our Living Past: Platinum Portraits of Southern Music Makers, Timothy Duffy of the Music Maker Relief Foundation uses a photographic technology that was most popular in the late 19th century to photograph roots musicians today. The method he uses is most commonly called tintype photography, a form of wet-collodion photography that is quite complicated compared to modern photographic methods. So why does Duffy use this historic technique instead of a modern process?

A Black man is wearing a light colored fedora-style hat with a black sash on it; he also wears a light-colored suit and a tie decorated with paisleys. He has one hand on the neck of a banjo. His eyes are closed and he has a beautific smile on his face.
Little Freddie King. Photograph by Tim Duffy, courtesy of Music Maker Relief Foundation

Before we try to answer that, let’s explore what a tintype photo is and how it is made. Tintype, also called ferrotype, is one of the earliest forms of photography. Developed in the 1850s, this wet-collodion process requires a very large camera, a dark space, a plate, and a good understanding of chemistry. Once exposed, a direct positive image is created on a sheet of metal. This means there are no negatives of the image to make copies from, and so each tintype is completely unique!

Making a tintype is a complicated multi-step process where minor variations such as drying too quickly, light oversensitivity, or slight ripples in the surface of the chemistry can create errors in the final image. However, these “mistakes” are often what give these images their unique beauty. Many modern artists like Duffy sometimes intentionally play with these “mistakes” to create uniquely interesting photos!

Through a haze of black, grey, and white ripples you can see the face of a white man with light-colored hair. This self-portrait has been manipulated so it is not wholly realistic.
Self-Portrait. Photograph by Tim Duffy, courtesy of Music Maker Relief Foundation

What made tintypes stand out compared to other photographic methods of the age, such as ambroytypes or daguerreotypes, was the use of an iron plate instead of a glass one. The iron plate is where the name ferrotype comes from. Though the resulting images weren’t made of tin as the name would suggest, the term was commonly used, based on the cheap or “tinny” feeling of the photos that eventually became the primary identifier of the method. Because tintypes use an iron plate they are much more durable than images printed on glass. They were also less expensive to produce, and the finished product did not require additional, often expensive, protective casing.

In addition to their durability and affordability, tintypes were faster than previous methods. From start to finish the entire chemical process had to be completed in 15 minutes! These three features – speed, durability, and affordability – quickly helped tintypes become the most popular form of photography in the late 19th century. 

For the first time photographers could easily travel and take instant photographs for customers at events such as fairs and in both rural and urban settings. Photographers traveled out west where they recorded images of cowboys and covered wagons. They documented the Civil War, shocking the country with horrific images from battlefields as well as preserving the memory of individual soldiers for loved ones.

These special characteristics also made photography more accessible to a wider range of people. The popularity of tintype photography also coincided with the Emancipation Proclamation and end of the Civil War, meaning that for the first time African Americans were able to have their photographs taken in large numbers. 

A young Black boy wearing a large light-colored jacket and dark pants sits on a velvet chair or ottoman. A dog that resembles a Staffordshire or pit bull terrier sits at his feet.
Young boy with dog, circa 1870.
Photograph courtesy of Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Unfortunately, the same characteristics that encouraged widespread use also encouraged a lack of record-keeping. Because they could be created in a single sitting and given to the sitter or their loved one without excessive packaging, tintypes were frequently not documented with the name of either the sitter or the photographer. This means that although there are a large number of surviving tintype images that remain today, the stories behind them have all too often been lost.

Today, most of the people Duffy photographs are not what we would regard as famous within our celebrity-driven society. Often the sitters for his images are known within their communities but perhaps not far outside of them. However, they all have stories with deep roots and stories that beg to be shared. These musicians want to be remembered, and Duffy strives to ensure they will be. His tintypes take a small step toward correcting the past by documenting the present using a method that has historically given so many underrepresented people their first opportunity to document themselves for posterity.

A dramatically lit black-and-white photo showing a white man sitting in front of some large camera equipment. In the background, you can see several stringed instruments leaning against and hanging on the wall.
Tim Duffy at work in his studio. Photograph courtesy of Music Maker Relief Foundation

Duffy’s process is not just taking a photograph – it’s also a theatrical event! Modern cameras can take hundreds of photographs in a minute. Duffy takes an hour to properly get just one photograph. Once he has his shot set up, the moment is captured instantly, and it cannot be retaken easily. In addition to the stress of getting it right on the first try, the studio itself can be intimidating. The giant camera glares at the sitter, and when combined with an extended blinding light, it can feel like the world has stopped for a moment. But these musicians do not shy away from the lenses. They are true performers and are not intimidated by the camera but rather seem to confront it and come out triumphantly.

Left: Black-and-white image of a Black woman shown from the shoulders up. She is wearing a feathered headdress with hanging pearls and beads, and she has an exuberant look on her face.
Right: A white woman with long dark hair and intense blue eyes seen from the chest up. She is wearing big circular earrings and a sparkly top/dress, and she is holding a fiddle  with a rooster's head carved on the top of its neck.
Left: Pat “Mother Blues” Cohen. Right: Martha Spencer. Photographs by Tim Duffy, courtesy of Music Maker Relief Foundation

Roots musicians connect us to the past through music by carrying on these traditions and skills. Modern tintypes do something similar by challenging our sense of time visually. Duffy bridges this gap by using one to propel the other, and in the process, he shows us a new side to both.

The Our Living Past special exhibit will be on display at the museum through September 30, 2021. We are also hosting a concert performance by Pat “Mother Blues” Cohen on Saturday, September 25 at 7:00pm.

Erika Barker is the museum’s Curatorial Manager.

Image shows the Community Case where several photographs are displayed across the back wall of the case, along with explanatory text. Four original glass-plate negatives are arranged in the base of the case, along with a small tintype.
Our summer interns Gracie and Julia created a display on historic tintypes and other examples of early photography in the museum’s Community Case. Be sure to check it out if you visit the museum!
© Birthplace of Country Music Museum; photographs on loan from Nina Rizzo

The Root of It: Nora Brown on Lee Sexton

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 Brooklyn, New York native Nora Brown. At the early age of six, Nora took an interest in old-time banjo music from the regions of Eastern Kentucky and Tennessee. She began traveling down south to learn from masters steeped in this musical tradition, including Eastern Kentucky banjo player Lee Sexton. Flash forward ten years later, and Nora is an inspiring and influential performer who has released successful projects on Jalopy Records, performed all over the country, and been asked to be a part of renowned series such as NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts and more. Below, Nora shares her musical journey that inevitably led to meeting and learning from Letcher County’s Lee Sexton, who much like Nora, learned two-finger and drop thumb banjo styles at an early age.


Nora Brown performing “Miner’s Dream” based on a version she learned from a Virgil Anderson recording.

Nora Brown:

Like most people, I love being told stories. Whether it’s a firsthand experience being retold or a book being read aloud, listening to a story is something I’ll always enjoy. I remember when I was younger, staying over at my grandparents’ house, before bed I’d beg my grandmother – Nan – to tell me what she called “Rockaway stories.” As a child growing up in the Bronx, Nan would take the IRT (Interborough Rapid Transit) line to the BMT (Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit) line out to the far Rockaways where she would stay with her grandmother for the summer. Upon my requests, she would sit at the end of my bed and tell me about when Aunt Peggy got caught clipping roses from a neighbor’s flower-filled garden or about her grandfather who refused to leave the bungalow during hurricane season, stationed with his pipe and by the radio through the storm. It didn’t matter how many times I heard these stories, the best part about this was hearing her recall those memories from years ago.

Storytelling and oral traditions have served as a vital part of various cultures throughout the world. In West Africa, griots – also known as jalis – held the responsibility of learning and passing on oral history in the form of storytelling or song. Cool fact: an instrument often used in the griot tradition to accompany storytelling is the khalam or xalam, which happens to be an ancestor of the banjo! This position was extremely valued in the time when recording history was not easy; griots would serve as advisers for royal persons as they not only existed as living archives but were also extremely familiar with the geography of their region. The griot tradition continues to be practiced today in many parts of West Africa, demonstrating the power and timelessness of storytelling – that it continues to be empowering to honor the history of your community and tell the stories of those who came before you.

An old white man wearing a dark long-sleeved shirt with jean overalls and a white baseball / trucker-style cap. He is clean-shaven. He sits in front of some old oil barrels, tires, and other items in a yard area.
Master banjo player Lee Sexton at his Letcher County home in Eastern Kentucky. Photograph by Benton Brown

I have had the pleasure of spending time with an incredible person and musician: Lee Sexton. Living in Linefork, Kentucky, on the land he grew up on, Lee was a former coal miner and master banjo player. I had listened to Lee a lot and played a couple of his tunes prior to meeting him, but learning directly from him and hearing his stories changed my relationship with the music I play completely. The first time I went down to visit Lee, I felt really nervous, the kind of nervousness that you feel in your fingers – kind of an ache. I think this feeling probably stemmed from my belief that our differences in place of origin would create a divide between us, preventing any mutual connection. This feeling would persist as we pulled into his driveway and as he yelled “Come in” from the couch inside his home in response to our knocking. As we sat down and shared tunes, stories, and food, slowly my nervousness dissipated and was replaced with a feeling of comfort and security. I think that the act of sharing music or sharing a story with someone is not only incredibly generous, but ties the sharer and receiver together through their new shared experience.

A young white girl with blondish hair and wearing a plaid long-sleeve shirt, light-colored pants, a bucket hat, and converse sneakers has her arm around an old white man in a dark long-sleeved shirt and overalls. He is seated and wearing a white baseball cap and holding a wooden cane. She is standing beside him. Trees and an old wall can be seen in the picture too.
Nora Brown at 12 years old with Lee Sexton. Photograph by Benton Brown

Prior to my first visit with Lee, I hadn’t had the experience of learning from someone who had grown up with the tradition and learned the same way – person to person. Lee reminded me of the power of storytelling. Spending time with him taught me that there is much more to traditional music than just learning the old songs, that stories told alongside them provide context that gives them meaning. Lee has helped me build a personal connection to the music I play and has made me understand why so many of us love it so much.


Home performance of Lee Sexton at 90 years old playing a two-finger version of “Cumberland Gap” with Nora at 12 years old.

Lee Sexton playing an inspired version of “St. Louis Blues.”

Nora Brown’s latest project Sidetrack My Engine on Jalopy Records releases September 23, 2021, and her debut release Cinnamon Tree can be purchased at Norabrown.bandcamp.com. For more information about Nora and her music, visit norabrownmusic.com.

Nora Brown is a talented banjo player from New York. Kris Truelsen is the Program Director at Radio Bristol.

Album cover design showing a pinky-brown background with different groupings of white birds drawn so that they are all heading upwards to form a pyramid-like design. The album's title of Sidetrack My Engine is shown in green at the bottom of the album cover.
Nora Brown’s upcoming project on Jalopy Records  “Sidetrack my Engine” releases September 23.

From The Vault: The 1927 Sears, Roebuck Catalogue

Want to know what’s behind our closed museum vault door? With “From the Vault,” we take you behind the scenes to learn more about some of the interesting objects in our museum collections. 

Long before the invention of the internet and being able to purchase goods online, you would have to travel to the nearest store or market to get the items you wanted, or even make them yourself. But that all changed with the introduction of mail-order shopping – and today being National Mail-Order Catalog Day makes it the perfect time to dive into that history and our collection to explore this history more!

Back in the 1800s, the railroads were hugely important in America, used for passenger travel, freight transport, and within specific industries like timber and coal. For Richard Warren Sears, the railroad was also his way of life. He worked as a railway station agent in North Redwood, Minnesota, which is also where Sears got into the merchandise industry. One day, he bought a shipment of watches after its delivery was refused by a jeweler. Sears then sold the watches to other station agents for a low price, making a profit for himself in the process. He had so much success with this initial foray into retail that he soon created his own company called R. W. Sears Watch Company.

A black-and-white portrait of a white man with dark hair and a big moustache. He is wearing a dark suit and patterned tie.
Richard Warren Sears. From Wikimedia Commons

In 1887 Sears met Alvah C. Roebuck, a watch repairman, and they moved the company to Chicago. In the same year, they also sent out their first mail-order catalog, which sold jewelry, diamonds, and of course, watches. Together in 1893, they created a new mail-order business that they called Sears, Roebuck and Company, and they began selling even more types of goods. The railroad again played a role in Sears’ business as trains, as well as the postal service’s Pony Express, helped to transport the merchandise they sold.

This advent of mail-order catalogs was transformative for customers. As the Sears, Roebuck Catalogue expanded and the goods for sale continued to grow, you could buy anything from jewelry and watches to musical instruments and houses! In 1897 – 30 years prior to the 1927 Bristol Sessions – customers could order an Edison phonograph from the Sears, Roebuck Catalogue, and the guitar that Maybelle Carter used on those Bristol recordings was also from the catalog. Besides guitars, the Sears, Roebuck Catalogue also sold violins (or fiddles), banjos, ukuleles, mouth organs (harmonicas), accordions, cornets, trombones, saxophones, trumpets, mellophones (French horns), clarinets, piccolos, flutes, drums, cymbals, triangles, tambourines, pianos, and all the accessories you could ever need for your instruments!

A catalog page for a 10-room Colonial style house showing a drawing of the front elevation of the house with manicured gardens in front. Below the drawing is a plan of both floors, along with a textual description of what can be found in the house.
An illustration and plan for a Colonial-style house for sale in the 1921 Sears Modern Homes Catalogue. Public domain image

Here at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, there is a facsimile of the 1927 Sears, Roebuck Catalogue on display in the permanent exhibits, along with other copies in the museum vault. As a museum intern this summer, I focused on the museum’s collections, which gave me the chance to thoroughly inventory the vault, and this catalog always seemed to draw me in. I grew up in the age of the internet, where you can buy everything and anything – to me, the Sears, Roebuck Catalogue seems like the past version of Amazon!

Left image: Catalog cover is red with a picture of a man and woman sitting close togethe poring over the Sears catalog in the woman's lap. A black terrier dog with a pink box is at their feet. A globe proclaims "Buy from the World's Largest Store" in the bottom left corner, and a woman's head (with a fashionable hat) and shoulders is seen in the bottom right corner.
Right image: A page with the heading Supertone Guitars shows 7 guitars of different sizes and embellishments with written descriptions and prices over most of the page, and there are then two Hawaiian-style guitars in the bottom right of the page.
Cover and instrument page from the 1927 Sears, Roebuck Catalogue. Like Maybelle, many musicians in the 1920s and 1930s got their instruments from these pages, where they could find a wide range of affordable options. Birthplace of Country Music Museum Collection

Even though the Sears, Roebuck Catalogue was discontinued before I was born, I have many memories of my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and parents telling me about receiving these catalogs, especially right before the holidays. The Christmas holiday issue in particular – called the Sears Wishbook – would include even more products than normal, especially toys and other gifts. My relatives would always tell me that they would circle the items that they wanted, and their parents would plan their present shopping from there.

The Sears, Roebuck Catalogue is a great example of a collections item that on first glance doesn’t seem to be about music – or even history – but that connects to the 1927 Bristol Sessions story and also reveals historical and economic context to the time in which the artists from those recordings lived.

Julia Underkoffler is a senior at Shepherd University in West Virginia, majoring in Historic Preservation and Public History. She was a Birthplace of Country Music Museum intern this past summer, when she worked on the museum collections, within the museum’s frontline team, and on various other curatorial tasks.

Radio Bristol Spotlight: Shay Martin Lovette

Radio Bristol is proud to offer a platform to local and regional artists who are often underrepresented on a national level yet deserving of that audience. In expanding upon Radio Bristol’s core mission, we are pleased to bring you our latest series – Radio Bristol Spotlight – highlighting top emerging artists in our region. Through interviews and performances, we will learn more about the musicians who help to make Southern Appalachia one of the richest and most unique musical landscapes in the world.

This past month we met up with Boone, North Carolina-based songwriter Shay Martin Lovette, whose sophomore album Scatter & Gather has been garnering a lot of regional attention. Shay, an Appalachian native, grew up in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, home to MerleFest, currently one of the country’s largest music festivals. The festival, coined by its founder Doc Watson as “traditional plus,” brings in bands from all aspects of roots music genres, and Watson’s catchphrase certainly encompasses Shay’s writing. Greatly influenced by the music of the region, both from proximity and from his songwriter father, Shay holds to his musical background in bluegrass while taking divergent turns into a new landscape of metaphysical songwriting and experimental indie folk. During his on-air performance at Radio Bristol, Shay shared a few songs from the new record and talked about his recording process with producer Joseph Terrell, who hails from the acclaimed stringband quartet Mipso.

Black-and-white image of a man walking towards the camerain front of what looks to be a closed-down strip mall or old motel. The man has shoulder-length dark hair and a scruffy beard. He is wearing jeans, black shoes, and a jean jacket with numerous patches and badges on it.
Songwriter Shay Martin Lovette of Boone, North Carolina, wrote most of the tunes from his newest release, Scatter & Gather, in a cabin on Goshen Creek. Photo by Chris Frisina

To kick off the in-studio, Shay delved into a misty-eyed waltz with the new album’s song “Parkway Bound.” Accompanied by dobro player Aaron Ballance, Shay lyrically painted an expansive picture of beauty encapsulated by the Appalachian Mountains. The first line – “A pocket of clouds catch the Blue Ridge, the summits are quilted in ice” – lays the groundwork for the mystifying tune. Amidst its dynamic musical swells, which feel like echoes of a rolling landscape, Shay also offers something below the surface of his refined artistry. Shay’s appearance was deceivingly unassuming at first; amidst a thatch of neatly parted hair and a nervous but rather welcoming smile, a listener might not expect to experience the depth relayed within his songwriting. Further investigation unveils much: a detailed account of self-contained philosophy and reverence for the present moment – where Daoist meets Hillbilly – thoughts possibly formed at the rustic cabin on remote Goshen Creek where much of Scatter & Gather was written.

The album cover looks like a letter press style print and shows mountains with a river running from them through a green meadow. Above the mountains in geometric design is a sunburst made up of different colors and patterns.
Shay Martin Lovette’s Scatter & Gather was released May 2021.

A slew of nationally acclaimed musicians brought in by producer Joseph Terrell are included on Scatter & Gather. With mandolin from Watchhouse (formerly Mandolin Orange) artist Andrew Marlin, and accompaniment from band members of Mipso along with Mount Moriah, it is no wonder some of North Carolina’s biggest talent lined up to record with Shay at the Rubber Room in Chapel Hill. Simply put, the writing is dang good. Combining elements of live tracking with polished production, the album feels at once refined and organic. This release is great for fans of the late 1960s Laurel Canyon sound and feels like a dream where Nick Drake and James Taylor shook metaphorical hands with Jason Isbell. Stand-out tracks from the album include “Never Felt So New,” a transient folksy romp tinged with synthesizer, and “Sourwood Honey Rag,” an instrumental tune that nods towards Shay’s influence from Doc Watson and love of traditional Appalachian music.

Shay closed out our session with an acoustic rendition of one last song, “Something Wild (All the Way Through),” also from his new record. Like the ripples of a mountain stream, Aaron’s dobro glided alongside the song’s melody as Shay joined in with an emotive performance on harmonica. This song signals a proclamation for the rising songwriter to embrace that they “sang it for the sweet unknown” and are joyful for the “something wild” that’s got a hold of them. You can watch Shay and Aaron’s performance filmed live at Radio Bristol below. To hear more from Scatter & Gather or to order from the limited run of vinyl, visit Shay’s Bandcamp site.

Ella Patrick is a Production Assistant at Radio Bristol. She also hosts Folk Yeah! on Radio Bristol and is a performing musician as Momma Molasses.

Radio Bristol Book Club: Weaver’s Daughter

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!

Author Kimberly Brubaker Bradley writes August’s Radio Bristol Book Club book, Weaver’s Daughter, a heartwarming historical novel about a pioneer family living in the Southwest Territory (now Tennessee) in 1792. The protagonist, Lizzy Baker, and her two sisters must navigate the hard work that comes with living the farm life, and so they help their mother by weaving to make extra money for the family.

The cover image shows a young white girl with long brown hair in pioneer dress bending over a loom or worktable with yarn piled nearby.

However, the most challenging obstacle for the Baker family is dealing with 10-year-old Lizzy’s sickness. Around harvest time each year, Lizzy suffers greatly with an affliction that doctors and natural medicine cannot seem to remedy. She struggles to breathe, and each year it only seems to get worse. Family and neighbors rally together to help Lizzy, but nobody is sure what ails her or how they can help. Hezzy and Nan, Lizzy’s sisters, have their wants and cares in the pioneer life, but nothing else matters when you are afraid your sister might die. 

Taking their minds off their own worries, all the girls are excited when a new family from Charleston, South Carolina, the Beaumonts, arrive and move in practically next door to the Baker family in a rundown log cabin. What is this wealthy family doing so far from home, and will the community and the Baker family accept the newcomers into their lives? Weaver’s Daughter is an incredible story about family, love, friendship, community, and the bonds that tie all these together.    

A headshot of the author showing her from the chest/shoulders up. She is a white woman with long brownish hair and blue eyes; she is wearing glasses. She has on a royal blue V-neck sweater with lighter blue trim, dangly earrings, and a pendant on a black leather necklace rope.
Portrait of Kimberly Brubaker Bradley.

Kimberly Brubaker Bradley lives on a 52-acre farm in Bristol – right on the border of Tennessee-Virginia and nestled in the Appalachian Mountains. Bradley was a chemistry major at Smith College in North Hampton, Massachusetts, where a classmate suggested she take a course in children’s literature. Newbery Medalist Patricia Maclachlan was the instructor, and both she and Bradley soon realized Bradley had a gift for writing. After college, Bradley started medical school as planned but dropped out after six weeks to pursue her dream of being an author. Although her books are marketed for children and teens, adults have discovered her fine writing and storytelling and have become true fans. Bradley has published 17 books, which have won several awards and honors. Her children’s books, The War That Saved My Life, received the Newbery Honor award in 2016, and Fighting Words received the Newbery Honor Book in 2021. 

Please make plans to join us on Thursday, August 26 at 12:00pm for the discussion of Weaver’s Daughter. 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 wonderful children’s book, and if you have thoughts or questions about the story that you would like to share with our readers, you can email info@birthplaceofcountrymusic.org (Subject line: Radio Bristol Book Club) – your book insights might appear on air with us!

Looking ahead: Our book pick for September is the graphic novel The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song by David Lasky and Frank M. Young; we’ll be discussing it on Thursday, September 23. Check out our full list of 2021 Radio Bristol Book Club picks here, where you can also listen to archived shows!

* Tonia Kestner is the Executive Director at the Bristol Public Library.