January 2022 - The Birthplace of Country Music
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The Way We Worked in Music and Song

Music and work have always gone hand-in-hand. Songwriters often use their craft to reflect the realities of day-to-day life – and for most of us, a big piece of our lives is given over to the time we spend doing our jobs. Therefore, it is no surprise to find songs across genres that tell stories of labor.

Our current special exhibit – The Way We Worked, here at the museum from the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service for just a few more days! – inspired the curatorial team to explore the connections between work and music, and in the process gave us a really wonderful playlist of labor-related songs. Check out some of these connections with the songs below and dig a bit deeper into this history with us!

A view of the Special Exhibits Gallery with visitors exploring the stand-up panel modules for The Way We Worked. In the foreground, a man with a dark jacket and a hoodie stands in front of the opening panel.

The Way We Worked on display in the museum’s Special Exhibits Gallery. © Birthplace of Country Music Museum

Songs that reflect different forms of labor or jobs are common in early hillbilly music, as well as in contemporary country. The songs are often particular to the time period in which they were written or look back on the past with nostalgia. Several different types of labor are commonly reflected in hillbilly music – especially farming, timber and lumber work, coal mining, and work on the railways – and those themes are also found in later country music.

Farming

At the turn of the 20th century, almost half of all Americans lived on farms. Farm work and a rural lifestyle was a major part of their lives, though farming for subsistence or profit was – and still is – difficult and uncertain. Artists like Ernest Stoneman sang about that uncertainty. For instance, his 1934 recording “All I Got’s Gone” reflected the impact of the Great Depression on rural people who had bought more than they could afford before it hit, only to lose everything once the stock market crashed so that they had to go back to subsistence farming or survive without much else to support them.

Other songs of the era focused on both the importance and the precariousness of the farming life, songs like Fiddlin’ John Carson’s “The Farmer is the Man (That Feeds Them All)” (1924) and “The Honest Farmer” (1925). Carson’s 1924 recording was later taken up and sung by Pete Seeger as a protest song. One of The Carter Family’s songs – “The Homestead on the Farm” (1929) – is told from the perspective on a man who has left his family farm behind to make his way in the world and remembers it fondly with lyrics like “You could hear the cattle lowing in the lane / You could almost see the fields of bluegrass green.”  Many modern country songs hearken back to the farming days with nostalgia and also celebrate the work that farmers do – for example, “International Harvester” by Craig Morgan (2006) and even “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy” by Kenny Chesney (1999)!

Timber

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, abundant and rich natural resources, coupled with low land costs, made Appalachia the site of a major boom in the logging industry. This brought huge changes in land ownership and usage – with land being taken over by outside investors and corporations – and often had devastating environmental and social effects on the region. And it wasn’t just the Appalachians that saw the growth of timber work; other areas of the country (and beyond) have a similar history, and as with farming, songs were sung about this common labor. For instance, the lyrics to “Once More a-Lumbering Go” was written down by a New England lumberman named John Springer in the 1850s, and several versions of the song were later recorded in the field by song collectors and ethnomusicologists. Smithsonian Folkways produced an album in 1961 called Lumbering Songs from the Ontario Shanties, and the library at the University of Wisconsin-Madison created a K-12 lesson plan about Wisconsin’s lumberjack songs. Later artists have also recorded songs about the timber industry, including Johnny Cash’s “The Timber Man” from his 1975 children’s album and Bill Stains with “The Logging Song” (1979).

Coal Mining

Coal mining has been a major part of Appalachian communities for over a century and holds a special place in the economic and environmental history of this region. Therefore, it is only natural that working in coalfields and living in coal towns has provided a source of musical inspiration for many, including songs about the hazards and dangers of this labor and the conflicts between workers and the coal companies that employed them. Blind Alfred Reed’s “Explosion in the Fairmount Mines” (1928) and Hazel Dickens’ “Black Lung” both highlight the very real dangers miners faced, both deep in the mines and after they’ve left them behind.

One of our favorite songs about coal mining is “Sixteen Tons,” written by Merle Travis and recorded by Bristol’s very own Tennessee Ernie Ford in 1955, along with a host of other artists over the years. Travis’s lyrics reflected the bravado of the men who toiled underground in dangerous conditions and then later sometimes came to blows in their down time, but most importantly it also focused on the struggles that miners and their families faced living in a company town and owing their bosses their wages to survive. With lines like “You load sixteen tons, what do you get / Another day older and deeper in debt” and “I owe my soul to the company store,” those economic hardships certainly become clear to the listener. Songs like Florence Reece’s “Which Side Are You On?” Joe Hill’s,” Hazel Dickens’ “They’ll Never Keep Us Down,” and numerous songs about union activist Joe Hill underline the struggle workers’ too often faced for safe working conditions and livable wages.

Railroads

Railroads were also a major industry – and hugely important to the transportation of resources like timber and coal – in the United States in the mid- to late-19th century and early 20th century, and large numbers of Americans worked for the railroad. Train songs were particularly popular in the early 20th century and covered a wide variety of subjects, including railroad construction and changing technology (for example, various songs about John Henry, the “steel-driving man”), rail travel, train bandits, the wandering hobo living life on the rails (Jimmy Rodgers’ “Waiting for a Train,” 1929), and even as a spiritual metaphor within sacred and gospel music (The Carter Family’s “The Little Black Train,” 1937). And sometimes songs turn the usual story on its head – for example, Amythyst Kiah recently recorded “Polly Ann’s Hammer,” a song based on the John Henry tale, though this time told from the perspective of Henry’s wife.

However, railway songs very often focused on train wrecks – an all-too-frequent danger of the early railroading years. Some lamented passengers who lost their lives, but most of them memorialized the crewmen killed in the line of duty on the rails, along with celebrating their heroism. Songs like Henry Whitter’s “Wreck of the Old 97” (1923), Blind Alfred Reed’s “The Wreck of the Virginian” and Mr. and Mrs. J. W. Baker’s “The Newmarket Wreck,” both recorded at the 1927 Bristol Sessions, and “Engine 143” by the Carter Family (1929) share the news of these tragedies in chorus and verse form. Later artists hearken back to these days in song too – for example, “The Great Nashville Railroad Disaster (A True Story),” recorded by David Allan Coe in 1980.

A black-and-white image of a steam locomotive on the railway with the cars behind it derailed from a bridge behind it. Several male workers and bystanders pose in front of the locomotive.

A train wreck near Benhams, Virginia, in the 1920s. Photograph reproduced with permission from the Bristol Historical Association

Work and Music

This post just touches on the tip of the iceberg for songs about work – there are so many out there, and so many themes and topics explored in those songs that there’s not room in one post to cover them all! For instance, just a few include Hattie Burleson’s “Sadie’s Servant Room Blues” (1928), which notes the indignities of work when you are required to work long hours for low pay, while being treated with little respect due to race; Dollie Parton’s “9 to 5” (1980), a beloved movie theme song that was inspired by a women’s activist movement that fought for equal pay and treatment in the workplace; Johnny Paycheck’s “Take This Job and Shove It” (1977), chronicling the frustration of a man who worked for years for little reward – and then, being a country song, he also lost his girlfriend or wife; and Sam Cooke’s “Chain Gang” (1960), a song that reflects the harsh realities of Southern justice through unpaid labor in the Jim Crow era.

You can check out the Virtual Speaker Series presentation we did on this topic in December here, along with three related playlists: here, here, and here! I hope this post and the music it celebrates give you a starting point for exploring the history of work through song!

The Way We Worked special exhibit is on display at the museum through Sunday, January 23 so come see it while it is still here! And tune into our Radio Bristol Book Club show on Thursday, January 27 at 12:00pm as we continue our exploration of work history through a discussion of Denise Giardina’s Storming Heaven, followed by an interview with the author.

René Rodgers is Head Curator at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. Erika Barker is the museum’s Curatorial Manager.

A Celebration of Black Contributions in Country Music

Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and organizations in the Tri-Cities area are marking this date with a variety of programs over the course of the month. For instance, later this week, our Museum Talk hosts will be chatting with Richard Josey, founder of Collective Journeys, about his DEAI (Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, Inclusion) work with the Virginia Association of Museums.

We also contributed a country music playlist for the Appalachian Peace Education Center’s MLK Day programs this past weekend. Country music has been influenced by a wide variety of different musical traditions over the years. Enslaved people from Africa brought the knowledge and memory of the banjo – a common instrument in country and bluegrass – with them when they were forcibly transported to these shores. And since its early days in the 1920s, Black artists have contributed to the history and sound of country and old-time music. Our playlist celebrates several of those artists.

Screenshot of the Spotify playlist listing the various Black country artists included on it.

The museum’s Spotify playlist to mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2022.

El Watson, Tarter & Gay, and the Tennessee Chocolate Drops played on early country music recording sessions in East Tennessee (though their songs were categorized at the time as “race records” rather than “hillbilly records”). El Watson was the only African American musician to record at the 1927 Bristol Sessions, putting down two songs: “Narrow Gauge Blues” and “Pot Licker Blues.” He also played bones on a few songs recorded by the Johnson Brothers, and Charles Johnson played guitar on Watson’s recordings – these are some of the earliest integrated recordings in country music. Ralph Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company came back to Bristol in 1928 to record more musicians from this area, and this time the sole African American act was a duo called Tarter & Gay. As with El Watson, they recorded two sides – “Brownie Blues” and “Unknown Blues” – that were marketed as race records. The Tennessee Chocolate Drops – made up of brothers Howard and Roland Armstrong and Carl Martin – recorded “Knox County Stomp” for Vocalion at the Knoxville Sessions in 1930.

Lesley Riddle worked with A. P. Carter as they traveled around Southern Appalachia to collect songs for The Carter Family to perform and record. He also taught them several songs, including “The Cannon Ball,” and his guitar playing influenced Maybelle Carter’s guitar style. Riddle later moved to Rochester, New York, where he sometimes played music in small venues around the city in the 1960s and 1970s. He met Mike Seeger in 1965 and recorded music for him and performed as part of the urban folk revival.

Elizabeth Cotten, guitarist and banjo player, was an important influence in American folk music; her connection to the Seeger family, especially Mike Seeger, played an important role in her amazing musical talent being recognized and celebrated. Her style and repertoire – based on earlier African American music and instrumental traditions and delivered in her unique left-handed playing – impacted a variety of musicians who followed her. Honored as a National Heritage Fellow in 1984 and winner of a Grammy at the age of 90, the Smithsonian recognized her as a “living treasure” before her passing in 1987.

Black-and-white photograph of Black musician Elizabeth Cotten. She is wearing a light-colored long-sleeve shirt and plays a guitar.

Elizabeth Cotten playing guitar. Credit: Library of Congress

Brownie McGhee, born in Knoxville but raised in Kingsport, made his mark in music locally, but also put down songs for a recording session in Chicago in the 1940s. Alan Lomax later recorded McGhee, providing an important record of his musical talent – and as with other Black musicians whose music intersected with early traditional and old-time music, he was also active in the folk revival. McGhee recorded “Sittin’ Pretty” with fellow artist Sonny Terry.

DeFord Bailey, a talented harmonica player, was the first African American artist to perform on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville in the 1920s. Bailey was nicknamed “the harmonica wizard” by George Hay, WSM’s station manager – one of his most famous pieces on the show was “Pan American Blues,” which recreated the evocative sounds of a locomotive. Bailey recorded for various labels and performed live throughout the South and Midwest, but sadly his music career was curtailed by a business dispute; he later opened a shoeshine parlour.

These early African American performers gave way to later musicians who have made their own mark on country and old-time music. Charley Pride, once a Negro league professional baseball player, rose to fame in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He became a very popular country music star and is one of only three Black members of the Grand Ole Opry. “All I Have to Offer You (Is Me)” was his first number one hit.

This album cover shows an image of Black musician Charley Pride looking off into the distance over green fenced fields and trees. He is wearing a black jacket with a light-colored collared shirt underneath.

Album cover for Charley Pride’s Country, released in 1979 by Reader’s Digest.

Dom Flemons and Rhiannon Giddens are founding members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, an important Black string band; they now have thriving solo careers. Both artists use their music to illuminate African American histories. In 2018, Flemons released an album focused on Black cowboys through Smithsonian Folkways. He chose to feature “Lonesome Old River Blues,” a song originally recorded by Roy Acuff and the Crazy Tennesseans in the 1930s, on this album in order to illuminate the influence of African American traditions on early country music. Giddens’ musical output has consistently helped to tell the story of the Black experience, and she recently led an all-female banjo “supergroup” called Our Native Daughters that shares African American histories and stories from the female perspective. Her version of “Freedom Highway,” a 1964 Civil Rights protest song, is taken from her second solo studio album and features fellow artist Bhi Bhiman.

Amythyst Kiah, a local musician and singer from Johnson City, Tennessee, did her degree at ETSU in the Bluegrass, Old-Time, and Country Music program and contributed to the exhibit content at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. She is part of the Our Native Daughters group and has recently released a new Rounder Records solo album, Wary + Strange. Her song “Black Myself” was first released on Songs of Our Native Daughters and then re-released on Wary + Strange – the song’s powerful lyrics, coupled with Kiah’s amazing voice, pack a real punch.

Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton is a young singer and multi-instrumentalist originally from the Watts district of Los Angeles, California. His playing styles are akin to pre-WWII blues and jazz in the vein of artists like Fats Waller, Bessie Smith, and Lonnie Johnson. The Southern roots of his grandparents who moved from Louisiana to California in the mid-1950s provided the influence that became his signature sound. The song we feature is “Railroad Bill,” the B-side of a single released on Evangelist Records of London, England, which also happens to be a product of his first-ever professional recording session. Paxton has appeared in the documentary film The American Epic Sessions, as well as voicing a character in the animated miniseries Over the Wall. We have been very lucky to have Paxton play here at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum and the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion Festival.

Texas-born Charley Crockett is a blues, country, and Americana singer-songwriter with 15 albums under his belt starting with 2015’s A Stolen Jewel through to his 2021 release Music City USA. Crockett has been steadily gaining popularity and is an established part of authentic roots music’s current youth movement. Also having appeared at the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion, Crockett has garnered a faithful local fanbase. The track “Jamestown Ferry” is a mid-tempo honkytonk number from 2017.

This image shows an African American man playing guitar and singing into a mic on an outdoor stage. He wears a light-colored cowboy hat, sunglasses, and a patterned shirt in blues and greens.

Charley Crockett performing on stage at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion in 2021. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Billie Wheeler

These African American artists are just a few of those that have made their mark on roots, country, and old-time music. We hope you enjoy our playlist, and that it leads you deeper into this history and music!

About the Authors

René Rodgers is Head Curator at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. Scotty Almany is the museum’s Digital Media, Programming, & Exhibit Logistics Manager.

Radio Bristol’s Best of 2021

Well, 2021 was quite the year. Despite the hardships we all faced, one thing’s for sure – we learned artists are incredibly inspiring at both adapting and creating under difficult circumstances, helping us to navigate through trying times and challenging situations, and for that we are exceedingly grateful. And so, as we step into the new year, Radio Bristol wanted to be sure to share some of our top albums of 2021 with you.

Amidst the isolation of the pandemic, many artists took time off from touring, and quite a few returned with a multitude of creative work. This list highlights some standout records that were in heavy rotation at Radio Bristol in 2021, but is certainly by no means a comprehensive list of all the music that we loved this year. We hope there are some artists listed here that you may not be familiar with. If so, we encourage you to go check them out (just click on the links provided). We bet you’ll love them too! And don’t forget the importance of supporting the arts by purchasing music and merchandise directly from the artist.

Daddy’s Country Gold – Melissa Carper

Melissa Carper’s Daddy’s Country Gold is a rare, sparkling nugget of country music realness. After wandering all over the United States as a working musician, playing breweries, festivals, and street corners, Carper wheeled into Nashville to make 12 of the most thoughtfully executed tunes of 2021. Recorded to tape at Nashville’s vintage gear clad studio, The Bomb Shelter, and produced by Andrija Tokic (Alabama Shakes, Hurray for the Riff Raff), this album offers a warm reel to reel sound, and Carper’s exceptional vocals and timeless songwriting create a country-western meets earthy jazz lounge feeling.

Melissa Carper from a recent performance on Radio Bristol’s Farm and Fun Time singing “Would You Like to Get Some Goats.”

Music City USA – Charley Crockett

Charley Crockett, the “do-it-yourself” cowboy, has officially arrived on the national country music stage with six critically acclaimed self-released albums, millions of YouTube views, and a Grand Ole Opry debut under his belt. Amidst the pandemic, Crockett released Welcome to Hard Times to a growing audience, and with its timely lyrics and hard-core “classic country” production, Crockett’s fanbase expanded exponentially. In 2021 Crockett released two further albums: one a tribute to Texas songwriting legend James Hand, and the other Music City USA. Charlie Crockett amazes us with his ability to turn out high-quality albums at a record pace, and this one is no exception. From the R&B drenched “I Need Your Love” to the witty title track chock-full of commentary on the music industry to the reflective tear-in-my-beer ballad “The World Just Broke My Heart,” Music City USA makes it clear that Crockett is on one heck of a roll!

Over That Road I’m Bound – Joachim Cooder

Layered loops of twinkling Kalimbas over clawhammer banjo and swelling fiddle reels, all nestled among lush vocal harmonies, make this collection of Uncle David Macon tunes recorded by Joachim Cooder on Over That Road I’m Bound absolutely unique and spellbinding. Released on Nonesuch Records, Cooder reveals an atypical approach to old-time music while paying homage to the Opry star and song collector who also bent melodies to his own purposes. And don’t just listen to the record – check out live performances of the songs, which showcase the influence of world and folk music alongside Cooder’s innovative performance style.

Left: Charley Crockett's album cover has a photograph of a young mand with dark and short beard wearing a cowboy hat, suede jacket, and jeans. Right: Joachim Cooder's cover shows a head portrait of a young white man looking back over his shoulder at the camera in a central white circle. He has dark hair and a beard, and he wears a cowboy hat. An overlay of mauve coloration is seen on his portrait.

Album artwork for Charley Crockett’s Music City USA and Joachim Cooder’s Over That Road I’m Bound. 

Long Time Coming – Sierra Ferrell

Currently selling out venues across the country, West Virginia native Sierra Ferrell and her 2021 release Long Time Coming are well worth the hype! Released this past August on Rounder Records, Long Time Coming chronicles unrequited love, thoughts on the struggle of existence, and an un-ending search for genuineness. Co-produced by 10-time Grammy winner Gary Paczosa, and featuring cameo performances by popular bluegrass artists such as Billy Strings and Sarah Jarosz, Ferrell’s album mixes together musical ideas from bluegrass, jazz, and early country to create a sound that seems like it’s being played from the horn of an old Victrola. Now a rising star of the Americana music scene, Ferrell has been igniting music enthusiasts nationwide. We’ve been lucky to work with her numerous times at Radio Bristol!

Blue Blue Blue – Noel McKay

Raised in Lubbock, Texas, Noel McKay’s rust-dusted vocals and reflective and undeniably engaging songwriting makes him a natural successor to legendary Texas songwriters such as Guy Clark who discovered McKay singing at a small venue back in 1993. In Blue Blue Blue, his most recent release, McKay unveils a solid collection of some of the best country-folk around. Accompanied by old-timey fiddles, well-curated acoustic guitar solos, and tasty percussion shuffles, this album is sure to satisfy listeners looking for a real-deal country-and-western sound. McKay’s knack for writing catchy and humorous tunes make listening to Blue Blue Blue an absolute treat.

Left: Album artwork shows a young white woman surrounded by flowers. She has light brown hair and is looking into the distance; she wears a pink-looking top and a big hat. Right: A middle-age white man with dark hair holds a guitar and looks up into the distance.

Album artwork for Sierra Ferrell’s Long Time Coming and Noel McKay’s Blue Blue Blue.

Wary + Strange – Amythyst Kiah

Regional favorite Amythyst Kiah released debut album Wary + Strange on Rounder Records this year, and the album has since exploded onto the Americana music scene. After recording with the all-women-of-color supergroup, Our Native Daughters, and writing the single “Black Myself,” which gained Kiah a Grammy nomination, Wary + Strange was one of our most anticipated albums of 2021. Blaring with alt-rock-tinged summits, alongside virtuosic valleys of old-time inspired fingerpicking and harmonic pedal steel, Kiah’s remarkable powerhouse vocals shine through in expressive vistas of political discourse and raw vulnerability. This album is a must-listen and delivers on every level of musicality.

An intimate performance from Amythyst Kiah at the Radio Bristol studio where she did a debut performance of the song “Firewater” from her 2021 release Wary + Strange on Rounder Records.

Ten Thousand Roses – Dori Freeman

Galax, Virginia-based artist Dori Freeman’s newest release Ten Thousand Roses effortlessly explores a wealth of musical genres including indie, rock, and pop while holding true to her Appalachian roots and distinctive vocal vibrato. Observations about socioeconomics, classism, and the female experience dance across well-crafted melody lines as Freeman once again proclaims her extraordinary talent for songwriting. We’ve been on team Dori for a long time, and it’s been amazing watching her journey.

 Scatter & Gather – Shay Martin Lovette

Recorded at the acclaimed Rubber Room Recording Studio in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, with producer Joseph Terrell (Mipso), Shay Martin Lovette’s sophomore album, Scatter & Gather, has been a breakthrough favorite on Radio Bristol this year. The Western North Carolina-native takes you on a sonic journey where bluegrass and progressive indie-folk brush shoulders. The album is embellished with polished folk-rock arrangements and mindful poetics, offering self-actualized philosophies on ecology, relationships, present-ness, and compassion.

Left: Photograph of a young white woman with blond hair, casually pulled back a bit from her forehead. She is staring straight at the camera, and she wears a floral-looking top. She has a tattoo on her right shoulder. Right: Album cover for Shay Martin Lovette's Scatter and Gather shows an artistically created meadow with mountains in the background and a river flowing from the mountains. Rays of color beam out from the top of the mountains.

Portrait of Dori Freeman, and album artwork for Shay Martin Lovette’s Scatter & Gather.

Haywire Duff Thompson

Duff Thompson is co-founder of New Orleans-based label Mashed Potato Records – which records to old Ampex tape and specializes in capturing the glimmering and organic. He recently released his debut album Haywire, a record filled with mindful orchestral arrangements, slapback echo, and swishing stripped-down percussion. This album feels like a Phil Spector pop-infused daydream. Atmospheric standout tracks like “You’re Pretty Good’” and “Sleight of Hand” make it a perfect soundtrack for a lazy day, or one for envisioning positive vibes for the new year.

New Orleans musician Duff Thompson performing “Rock and Roll Will Break Your Heart” in a live session shot this past year in the Radio Bristol studio.

Long Lost – Lord Huron

Materializing seductive country nods way out on the West coast, LA-based band Lord Huron’s newest album Long Lost is a transformational soundtrack. Theatrical strings swirl around a silhouette of hazy Western meets surf rock-inspired guitar lines. Swimming with dreamy vocal harmonies that drift along to a jangling laid-back tambourine, fuzzy radio excerpts introduce the tracks, and accompanying music videos feature mysterious blurred-out faces in classic country attire. Long Lost has created an expansive buzz around the band, which was originally formed in 2010.

 Headwaters – Alexa Rose

Asheville-based artist Alexa Rose’s release Headwaters is a beautiful snapshot inside the mind of a blossoming songwriter. Recorded at Delta-Sonic Studios in Memphis, Tennessee, and produced by Bruce Watson of Big Legal Mess Records, the album displays lucid lyrical realizations amidst a mesmerizing auditory backdrop. Headwaters fuses the droning of heavy progressive rock guitars with Appalachian folk-influenced narrative ballads, creating a fresh approach to the form. This new album has been winning Rose a dedicated following and landing the emerging artist opening slots for major national acts such as Watch House, Hiss Golden Messenger, and Parker Milsap.

Left: Lord Huran album cover shows a painting of a white man wearing a red jacket and brown pants, holding a guitar. His face is blurred out into streaks of color on a blue background. Right: Alexa Rose's album cover is a photograph of a white woman lying down (just her face). She has dark hair and eyes and is staring straight into the camera. The whole image is bathed in blue.

Album artwork for Lord Huron’s Long Lost and Alexa Rose’s Headwaters.

Reckless – Morgan Wade

Growing up in Floyd, Virginia, a town known for its ties to early country music, Morgan Wade absorbed music from an early age while attending bluegrass jams with her grandfather. Now in her mid-20s, this past year Wade signed a major recording contract with Sony and released her debut album Reckless to a growing fanbase. Produced by Sadler Vaden, well known as the lead guitarist for Jason Isbell & the 400 unit, the album merges influences from pop, rock, folk, and country. The album’s pop-country adjacent sound claims new ground by employing hues of late 1980s grunge and authentic songwriting that exposes Wade’s struggle with addiction and mental health.

 Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan! – Aaron Lee Tasjan

Blasting synths and catchy 1980s inspired glam-rocks choruses make the 2021 release Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan! a gleaming cluster of outstanding tunes. Taking sonic cues from the likes of David Bowie and Tom Petty, and combining them with folk storytelling sensibilities, Tasjan has excelled with an innovative take on the craft of songwriting. Introspective lyrics about inner-truth, gender identity, and disillusionment with technology make this album an extremely compelling listen.

Left: Morgan Wade album cover showing a young white woman with blondish-brown hair parted in the middle. She is holding both hands up to her face, covering most of it so you can just really see her eyes. Both hands are heavily tattooed. Right: Aaron Lee Tasjan's album cover shows a young white man with dark hair from mid-thigh up, with the image cut off midway across his head/face. He is wearing a sweater vest with the words "Tasjan Tasjan Tasjan" on it, and there is blue sky and a pink cloud behind him.

Cover artwork for Morgan Wade’s Reckless and Aaron Lee Tasjan’s Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan!.

The Ballad of Dood & Junita – Sturgill Simpson

Following Sturgill Simpson’s wildly successful releases of Grass Cutting Vol I & II, his most recent concept album, The Ballad of Dood & Juanita, is an immersive 27-minute long experience, dedicated to telling the tale of a historical Appalachian couple in a poetic western-inspired fashion. Employing the same group of all-star players from his last two albums – the “Hillbilly Avengers,” comprised of bluegrass heavy hitters such as Sierra Hull, Tim O’Brien, and Stewart Duncan – The Ballad of Dood & Juanita is an alluring stylistic departure from Simpson’s previous recordings.

The Ballad of Dood & Juanita album cover is cream-colored with brown text and line drawing. The drawing is of a man in western gear (cowboy hat, bandana around his neck, shirt and pants, boots) with a horse behind him and a dog by his side. He holds the horse's reins and a shotgun in one hand.

Cover artwork for Sturgill Simpson’s The Ballad of Dood & Juanita.

And so there you have it – just a few of the records that captivated us in 2021. We’d love to hear what caught your ear! We can’t thank you enough for your overwhelming support and for being a part of our community. We look forward to 2022 and talented musicians bringing us another great year of music. We’ll do our best to keep you up-to-date on the most exciting and upcoming talent.

Happy New Year from Radio Bristol!!

Kris Truelsen is the Program Director at Radio Bristol, and Ella Patrick is the Production Assistant at Radio Bristol. Both are also working musicians.

Radio Bristol Book Club: Storming Heaven

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! If one of your resolutions for 2022 is to read more books, Radio Bristol Book Club is a great way to help you meet that goal – so read along with us!

Our first book of 2022 is Denise Giardina’s Storming Heaven. This 1988 novel follows the journeys of four residents of Annadel, West Virginia, who live in the midst of conflict between the mining community and the coal industry that dominates the small town. From activists and union men to a local nurse and a Sicilian immigrant whose sons lost their lives in the mines, Giardina uses their personal and every day stories to explore “forgotten events in history,” including the Battle of Blair Mountain, the largest labor uprising in United States history. Giardina’s book is a complement to The Way We Worked, a Smithsonian exhibit currently on display at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. This exhibit traces the history of work in America over the last 150 years, including the impact of unionization on workers’ rights and working conditions. The museum has also created a supplementary display focused on local and regional work history, and one section of the display explores coal mining and includes a wide variety of objects and images loaned to us from the Buchanan County Historical Society. The exhibit will be open through January 23, so be sure to stop by and visit it before it goes!

The cover of the book is dark green with the title in a pink or peach color. Below the title and author, an image of a coal town in the mountains is seen with a railroad track leading into it from the right side of the picture.
The cover to Denise Giardina’s Storming Heaven.

Denise Giardina was born and raised in West Virginia. Storming Heaven, her second book, was a Discovery Selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club and received the 1987 W. D. Weatherford Award for the best published work about the South. She is the author of Good King Harry, Saints and Villains, The Unquiet Earth, Fallam’s Secret, and Emily’s Ghost. Her Appalchian novels have been taught in university courses. Giardina has been ordained as a deacon in the Episcopal Church, and she is also a community activist and a former candidate for governor of West Virginia.

An older white woman sitting in a wooden rocking chair. She is wearing a green-patterned floral dress with a brownish cardigan, and she is holding a microphone while she talks to an audience.
Denise Giardina speaking at Appalachian State University in 2015.

Please make plans to join us on Thursday, January 27 at 12:00pm for the discussion of Storming Heaven by Denise Giardina. The book is available at the Bristol Public Library, so be sure to pick up a copy and read it ahead of time. We look forward to exploring this book on-air, and if you have thoughts or questions about the book 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! You can find us on the dial at 100.1 FM, streaming live on Radio Bristol, or via the Radio Bristol app.

Looking ahead: Our book pick for February is the children’s book Come Sing, Jimmy Jo by Katherine Paterson; we’ll be discussing it on Thursday, February 24. Check out our full list of 2022 Radio Bristol Book Club picks here, where you can also listen to archived shows!

Rene Rodgers is Head Curator of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum and a voracious reader.