February 2022 - The Birthplace of Country Music
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Instrument Interview: The Mandolin

“Instrument Interview” posts are a chance to sit down with the instruments of traditional, country, bluegrass, and roots music – from different types of instruments to specific ones related to artists, luthiers, and songwriters – and learn more about them. Several questions are posed, and the instruments answer!

Today I got a chance to have a talk with the mandolin, the instrument that puts the twang in country music.

So who are you, my friend?

I am the mandolin, a flat-backed, teardrop-shaped instrument, though there are mandolins with other shapes too. For instance, some mandolins have rounded bowl backs, and they are called the Neapolitan style. Another flat-backed style is the archtop mandolin, which includes extra scrolls and points on its body.

I have eight strings pitched in the high treble range – I’m sort of a small guitar with more strings. I’m often found in country songs, but I am particularly popular in bluegrass music where I take “breaks” to perform solo, highlighting the virtuosity of both me and my musician.

The image shows three mandolins of different shapes. The left mandolin is the bowl-back or Neapolitan-style instrument that has an ovoid (egg-shaped) body that is rounded out at the back; the middle mandolin is an archtop-style with a rounded body showing a curled scroll in the top left corner and points coming out from the body to the top right and right side; and the right-hand mandolin is a tear-dropped style with a rounded, bulbous body shape coming up to a tear-drop point at the neck.

Three different mandolin shapes: bowl back or Neapolitan (left), archtop (center), and teardrop (right).

Image from promusicvault.com

What makes you different from a guitar?

I am different from the guitar in several ways including my size. I am about half the size of the guitar, but to make up for that I have two more strings than the guitar. I also am not particularly resonant, which is something the guitar is known for. Rather, my strings stop ringing and go silent almost as soon as they are played. I also sing higher than the guitar due to my smaller size.

When did you come to be?

Coming out of the lute family, I was originally created in Central Europe in the medieval period – I’m particularly associated with Italy. I came across to North America with immigrants. Country musicians used me in their performances, but I am especially associated with bluegrass and brother acts.

How are you played?

I am plucked like most stringed instruments, often using a plectrum, but what makes me interesting is I am almost always played with a tremolo technique, this meaning the player rapidly plucks a string to keep the notes going. This is what gives music like bluegrass its upbeat sound.

How do you sound and fit in a band?

Due to the rapid plucking, I am typically in the background as a rhythmic instrument meaning when I play my notes and chords, I am helping to keep tempo, like my friend the drums. As mentioned earlier, one place I really shine is when I get to play solos. Then you really get to hear what I’m capable of!

Image of bronze statue of Bill Monroe wearing a suit and cowboy hat and playing his archtop mandolin. A metal historic marker is seen behind Monroe, commemorating the "birth of bluegrass."

This statue of famous mandolin player Bill Monroe stands beside the “Birth of
Bluegrass” sign outside the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee.
Credit: © Brian Crawford, Creative Commons

What music style do you enjoy being in the most?

For me it’s got to be bluegrass. That’s where I got my start with players like Bill Monroe, and where I’ve continued to be a major player, for instance, with artists like Marty Stuart. I can be in fast string runs like in the opening of “Bluegrass Breakdown” and in solos like in The Chick’s “Traveling Soldier “and Darius Rucker’s “This.”

What are some songs we’d know with you in them?

Well, some of my favorites include “East Tennessee Blues” By Bill Monroe, “Rocky Top” recorded by the Osborne Brothers, and The Chicks’ “Long Time Gone.” What most people don’t know is I have also been played in rock-and-roll music, as well as in songs like “Going to California” by Led Zeppelin and “Boat on the River” by Styx!

And finally, do you have anything you’d like to add?

Yes, if you see me in live music or hear me on the radio, be sure to notice how I am either keeping the rhythm or playing a sweet Bill-Monroe-style solo. It will be music to your ears!

Thank you so much! Have a great day!!!

Logan King is a History Education major and Music minor at Western Carolina University. He is from China Grove, North Carolina, about forty-five minutes from Charlotte. He enjoys the outdoors and music, and is passionate about education. He has been listening to country and folk music all his life; favorite artists include George Strait and Ronnie Milsap. He plans to graduate in the fall of 2023 and is so excited to have helped out at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum by interviewing the mandolin for today’s post!


Radio Bristol Spotlight: Zach McNabb and The Tennessee Esquires

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.

For today’s installment of Radio Bristol Spotlight we caught up with 19-year-old Zach McNabb, a musician who can turn out classic country covers with astounding precision. He joined us in-studio accompanied by his 17-year-old brother Caleb and Radio Bristol DJ Bailey George on guitar. Zach’s stunning gift for recreating the musical past has been gaining him fans both regionally, where he plays festivals and performs regularly at Gatlinburg’s Smoky Mountain Tunes & Tales, as well as internationally where he’s played on live streams for German Rock-a-Billy savant Randy Richter.

While at Radio Bristol, Zach and his band The Tennessee Esquires offered a handful of marvelous renditions of time-honored hits such as Johnny Cash’s popular tunes “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Get Rhythm,” and Don Gibson’s “Oh Lonesome Me.” Zach also gave insight into his passion for playing early country music, a trait rare in the growing Gen Z age of “digital natives” who are generally more familiar with putting their fingers to screens than to steel strings.

Black-and-white image shows a young dark-haired white man wearing a white shirt and dark pants. He is seated and playing a guitar, and there are various framed images on the wall behind him, along with a display of microphones, and a studio space with various pieces of equipment is seen through a doorway.

Zach McNabb shot in the Big Tone Records studio. Photo courtesy Travis Stevenson

The talented teen grew up just outside of Johnson City in Carter County, Tennessee, and began showing an interest in music at an early age. Picking up the guitar at eight years old, McNabb was introduced to Johnny Cash by his guitar teacher who recognized that he had a natural inclination towards country-sounding rhythm. Homeschooled in rural Tennessee with his four siblings and raised by a supportive family whose history is steeped in Southern gospel, it begins to make sense why the young musician gravitated towards country music. McNabb later offered asides about his musical family – both parents play at Sunday worship services, and his Baptist preacher Paw-Paw is infamous for carting around cardboard boxes in the trunk of his car, all full of self-released gospel CDs to hand out after prayer meetings.

With extra time on their hands due to learning at home, both Zach and his younger brother Caleb dedicated themselves to focusing on their musical technique. Zach absorbed full songs to play and sing, and Caleb studied the classical violin from the age of five and transcribed that knowledge to the stand-up bass he now plays to accompany his brother. The two began “playing out” at music venues around the area at just 15 and 13 years old. They also attended the Birthplace of Country Music Museum’s Pick Along Summer Camp, where Zach says the scope of his interest in early country music was greatly broadened. He also made connections with other musicians with similar interests, such as bandleader and performer on the Farm and Fun Time Noon Show Kody Norris, for whom Zach has manned merch tables at music festivals.

In 2019 McNabb released his first album from Big Tone Records, the Bristol-based, vintage-gear-focused studio. Complete with 1950s slapback echo, McNabb’s seamless vocal performance is remarkably unique, blending influences from classic country and bluegrass singers, reminiscent of singers like Jimmy Skinner and Hank Snow.


Zach McNabb and The Tennessee Esquires’ version of “Wreck of the Old 97,” recorded live to tape at Big Tone Records.

Looking towards the future, Zach currently attends college at Northeast State where he is studying entertainment technology with the hope of applying what he learns to live performances and expanding his breadth of recording techniques for future releases. McNabb shows a true dedication to his artistic vision and stated that one of the things that draws him most to country music is the “honesty and rawness of it.” He feels it’s a type of music that’s easy to connect to, with straightforward empathetic storytelling centered on real-life events. He also enjoys that performances connect families and friends, bringing people together to hear live music.

Before leaving the studio, we filmed Zach and his band’s rendition of “Sittin’ on Top of the World,” a tune that has become synonymous with American traditional music and has been recorded by countless artists. Zach revealed that his version is heavily influenced by Carl Perkin’s 1958 recording of the song, and we know you all will enjoy hearing it performed by this amazing artist on the rise!

Zach McNabb and The Tennessee Esquires performing “Sittin’ on Top of the World” at Radio Bristol.

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: Come Sing, Jimmy Jo

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!

This month we are reading Come Sing, Jimmy Jo, a children’s book by Katherine Paterson. The story follows James Johnson as he sings and plays the music he loves. But approaching fame as the centerpiece of his family’s band on television – and the change of his performing name to Jimmy Jo – bring mixed feelings and anxiety. Jimmy Jo isn’t sure that this new music is for him, and he’s sad to leave his mountain home to be on stage. How does he reconcile these feelings and responsibilities with the music that is a part of him and with still being just a kid? Aimed at children 10 years and up, this book makes for a great story for adults too!

Book cover shows a young white boy with light hair and glasses singing and playing guitar in the front yard of a wooden house. He is wearing a t-shirt and jeans. Behind him, an older gray-haired woman sits on the porch listening to him. She wears a light-colored dress.

Katherine Paterson’s website shares this beloved author’s many achievements and accolades, but for many of us, the Paterson book that had the most impact on us is the wonderful but cry-inducing Bridge to Terabithia. However, she has written a multitude of books – more than 40, in fact, including 18 novels for children and young people. She has twice won the Newbery Medal, for Bridge to Terabithia in 1978 and Jacob Have I Loved in 1981. The Master Puppeteer won the National Book Award in 1977 and The Great Gilly Hopkins won the National Book Award in 1979 and was also a Newbery Honor Book. For the body of her work, she received the Hans Christian Andersen Award in 1998, the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award in 2006, and in 2000 was named a Living Legend by the Library of Congress.

Not only is she a prolific author, but she also gives her time and passion to children’s literature and reading. She is a vice-president of the National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance and is a member of the board of trustees for Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is also a honorary lifetime member of the International Board of Books for Young People and an Alida Cutts lifetime member of the US section, USBBY. She was the 2010-2011 National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature.

In this image, an elderly white woman sits in a wooden chair with trees and meadow behind her. She is wearing a blue long-sleeved top with a long necklace.

Author Katherine Paterson.

Please make plans to join us on Thursday, February 24 at 12:00pm for the discussion of Come Sing, Jimmy Jo by Katherine Paterson, followed by a conversation with the author! 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 March is LGBTQ: Fiction and Poetry from Appalachia by Jeff Mann; we’ll be discussing it on Thursday, March 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.