March 2024 - The Birthplace of Country Music
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The Importance of Intergenerational Learning

By KT Vandyke. KT is a musician, songwriter and luthier who owns and operates Frog Level Guitar Shop located in Bristol, Virginia. KT is also a recipient of the Greater Bristol Folk Arts & Culture Team’s Central Appalachia Living Traditions (CALT) Tradition Bearer Fellowship in 2022-23. This fellowship provides financial support, professional development, and public presentation opportunities for people working in traditional or folk arts and culture.

“Slow down, and move steady.” “Don’t rush, speed leads to mistakes.” I can still hear those words echo in my mind, as I float over my workbench above a 1915 Washburn parlor guitar. It’s been in my shop in need of extensive repairs but at the moment I’m french polishing a coat of shellac on the back to seal some crack repairs. “Don’t stay in one area too long.” “Stay in constant motion.” A variety of little phrases like that will leek their way into my consciousness numerous times throughout any given day, on any given job. Typically they arrive in a voice that isn’t my own. The voice of my former mentor Walter Skip Herman. I still hear the cadence and timbre of his voice during those moments. They’re a part of my daily and personal philosophy, but honestly I don’t think I could get rid of them if I wanted to.  

Two men with their backs facing the camera inspect a broken guitar inside of a small guitar repair shop. The room is filled with tools and instruments.
Walter “Skip” Herman (left) and KT Vandyke (right) in the original Frog Level Guitar Shop in Abingdon, VA.

I first met Skip while I was working at Front Row Music in Abingdon, VA. I had been there only a couple months, and Skip, being the resident luthier, would pass through to pick up and drop off various repair jobs that we couldn’t handle in house (which was most jobs). It was there I witnessed the magic he could work on an instrument that was down on its luck. There were a lot of cracks, rewires, and neck resets, but one repair job in particular always stuck out to me. An older lady brought in a 1958 Gibson B25 acoustic guitar that was in dire straits. It had belonged to her late husband who passed it down to his teenage grandson to learn how to play on (the guitar was in near mint condition). The grandson was interested in the guitar but not playing acoustically, so with drill and knife in hand he drilled multiple tone and volume knobs in the top, and input jack, and carved out the sound hole to fit a humbucker pickup. Skip was able to replace the top with a piece of red spruce that was of similar grade and vintage as the original top, reset the neck, refinish and set up the instrument and restored it to a level of quality it hasn’t seen since it left the store it was bought from. I was absolutely flabbergasted at his ability to restore what I would consider a lost cause condemned to a future of an aesthetic wall hanger, or, perhaps far worse, a canvas for a trendy Pinterest art project.

Instruction on an ongoing guitar repair job in Frog Level Guitar Shop on the workbench.

 Over the following years, Skip and I struck up an acquaintance that would develop into a very fruitful and lifelong friendship. Skip was a retired petroleum and mechanical engineer, and prior to our meeting, had been searching for an interested party to take over his duties and business for a number of years. He had founded his business Frog Level Guitar Shop, located in Abingdon, VA, around 1984 while spending time on leave from his job on Gulf coast offshore oil rigs. For the better part of three decades he served the greater southern Appalachian Mountain region, performing work for a number of collectors and stores, as well as a notable clientele that ranged from Jackson Brown to Jorma Kaukonen to Tony Rice.   

The 1958 Gibson B25 acoustic guitar with two drill holes prior to it’s repair.

Around the back half of 2016 I began to spend more and more time with Skip in his shop, mainly being an obnoxious fly in the room (compared to the less distressing fly on the wall). That would grow from a weekly endeavor to a daily habit. It was immensely fascinating to witness him work on a wide variety of miracles on numerous dilapidated instruments that came through the door. He would painstakingly walk through each step making sure to answer any long-form question that might pop into my head. I soaked up any tiny morsel of information he would throw my way, much like a sponge in the Sahara absorbing any miniscule molecule of moisture.  

This continued until November of 2019, when he reached out to me and announced his official retirement from the trade. He would proceed to make me an offer that would change the trajectory of my life from that moment forward. He offered to sell the business to me, and allow me to work in his shop until I could find proper accommodations (which to my surprise would take well over two years to acquire). Throughout that time frame he was unflinching in his patience and support, always encouraging me to face any hardships head on with a potent and unsympathetic devotion. In April of 2023 I was finally able to construct my own shop space and move Frog Level Guitar Shop from Abingdon to just off Benhams Road in Bristol, VA.  

Frog Level Guitar Shop sign outside of the original location in Abingdon, VA.

There isn’t a day that goes by where I do not experience some minute moment of reflection surrounding the variety of windfalls of tremendous luck and ridiculous number of what-if’s. Most of the time I typically land on the same question: where would I be today had I not met Skip Herman? It’s quite safe to say that I would not be engaged in the work I’m currently doing. I suspect that my station in life would be drastically different. Perhaps I would’ve moved on from my obsession with music, which has always been a proverbial North Star for me. Like so many who hung it up in exchange for a more secure form of employment. It’s hard to tell honestly, and, despite the fact that I hypocritically engage in such day-dreaming regularly, I find it to be a waste of time. I prefer to count my blessings, of which there are many. I’m so incredibly appreciative of not only Skip and the great gifts and responsibilities that he has bestowed upon me, but the plethora of friends, peers, cohorts, mentors, and acquaintances that I have met and befriended since my departure into the world of lutherie. 

                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Skip and KT at the luthiery workbench.

In the final days of working in Skip’s workshop, he shared his feelings about the importance of the work that we do. He expressed that music making is a central and healthy activity for any community, and those who participate in it, despite their proficiency, are engaging in an age-old tradition that speaks to every aspect of life. From the hymnals being chanted in churches, to the front porch jams and kitchen ceilidhs. From the work and prison songs to children’s lullabies and nursery rhymes, music is an integral part of our society. Now more than ever it’s so important to keep the music alive by keeping it prevalent and accessible, for ourselves, for our future generations.  

Skip and KT outside the Frog Level Guitar Shop Cabin in Abingdon, VA.

Additional Resources: 

  1. Intergenerational learning: Proven benefits for both elders and youth
  2. Intergenerational Learning and Its Impact on the Improvement of Educational Processes


Pick 5: Songs to Celebrate International Women’s Day

By Andrea Price. Andrea is a student at East Tennessee State University studying history, museum studies, and Appalachian studies. This semester she is an intern with the Birthplace of Country Music learning about museum management, educational programming, and marketing. When not busy researching and writing, she enjoys the outdoors, spending all her money on concert tickets, and listening to her favorite country and bluegrass hits. 

As a history major and lover of country music, I am excited to share with you my picks of songs for International Women’s Day and some of the stories behind the artists!

“Wildflowers,” Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Emmylou Harris

Is there anything more iconic than Dolly Parton? Well, maybe Dolly forming the female supergroup Trio with stars Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris in 1987. In a world of radio charts and limited air time (especially for women), it can be easy to view other performers as competition. Alternatively, you can take notes from these three world class musicians and choose friendship in the form of beautifully crafted harmonies and paperdoll album artwork. This song in particular makes my list because of its theme of growing up and exploring the world outside the gardens of home. As a “wild rambling rose seeking mysteries untold,” I love the empowering feeling of freedom granted to me by this trio on the road they’ve so excellently paved as women in music. 

“You’re Lookin’ at Country,” Loretta Lynn

As the most awarded lady in country music, Loretta Lynn proved that the pinnacle of success could be achieved by overcoming whatever obstacles life threw her way. Throughout her career, Loretta had multiple songs banned from country radio as she tackled controversial topics in several of her songs. Loretta’s music may have been autobiographical, but her blunt honesty and stubborn nature connected with many of the women who tuned in to her performances. I’ve always loved “You’re Lookin’ at Country” for its outright display of Loretta’s unapologetic ‘what you see is what you get’ attitude. Nowadays, this is my soundtrack to carefree confidence and unabashed action. 

“Keep on the Sunny Side,” Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters

I could never write about women of country music without including one of the women who started it all – Maybelle Carter. After recording with her family at the 1927 Bristol Sessions, Maybelle continued her career as a performer throughout her lifetime and became known as the “Mother of Country Music.” Maybelle revolutionized country style guitar playing with her popularization of the playing style known as the “Carter Scratch,”  was integral in the guitar becoming a lead instrument, and is credited with transforming the way the autoharp is played. I truly believe country music would not be where it is today without the influence of Maybelle Carter and her enduring legacy as an innovator and trailblazer. This song reflects the continuation of Maybelle’s career as she shared her passion with her daughters and passed the baton to the next generation of country music. 

“Mean (Taylor’s Version),” Taylor Swift

Before she was the princess of pop, Taylor Swift was dominating country radio and sweeping award shows with her catchy early 2000s country chart toppers. “Mean” is a single from her third studio album Speak Now which was single handedly written by Swift after critics claimed she didn’t write her own songs. This song in particular, which took home Grammy wins for Best Country Song and Best Country Solo Performance in 2012, directly addressed those critics with an earworm of a chorus. Watching this saga unfold while I was growing up, I was inspired by Swift’s courage to stand up to the bigger man and prove herself worthy of the rooms she would one day dominate. I’ll always be indebted to Taylor Swift for the confidence I gained by singing “Mean” at the top of my lungs while I forgot what the girls at school and the comments on social media said about me. 

“Girl Goin’ Nowhere,” Ashley McBryde 

In the world of modern country music, no one does it quite like Ashley McBryde. With an array of hits, it was hard to nail down just one for this blog post but “Girl Goin’ Nowhere” is a song I’ve obsessed over since my first listen. As a love letter to the naysayers, this song is a perfect anthem for proving everyone wrong. Several times in my life I’ve felt like all eyes were on me hoping I would make a fatal mistake or throw in the towel on my seemingly unattainable dreams. Ashley’s lyricism and incredible stage presence are frequent reminders to me that one day when my dreams have been achieved I’ll get to have my moment “where they said I’d never be is exactly where I am.” 


Letterpress and The Cardboard History of Blue Ridge Music

by David Winship, Guest Blogger

Getting the word out takes on a special significance when one talks about the method that the visual word is produced. Many have heard of the history of printing, that Gutenberg produced the first movable type in Europe. Some know that over the following five hundred years, printers used a variety of technologies, from monotype to linotype and letterpress to offset printing to our modern digital processes. Yet few recognize the threads that run through the centuries of printing that are reflected in the current exhibit at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum entitled, A Cardboard History of Blue Ridge Music.”

A scene inside of a letterpress print shop. Posters are hung in a line against a brick wall. Wooden letters and type face are on a shelf under the posters. A black hand press and box full of type is on the table under the shelf.
A variety of posters which have come from the Sign of the George Press at King University, Bristol, TN. 
A large black printing press inside of the print shop, a brick wall is surrounding the space.
The Chandler and Price press, workhorse of the Sign of the George Press.

These posters that anchor the exhibit were produced with handset and letterpress printed type, some from small local print shops and some from more established print shops, such as Hatch Show Print in Nashville. The posters used primarily wooden type, which could be up to 5” in height to grab your attention. Some of the smaller type up to 1” were metal. Both types would have been arranged and fastened together to be printed on presses that had their origins in the early days of printing, both presses that were flat bed operated manually and presses that were motorized.

In the early days of country music, hand bills that could be put up in stores and stations advertised the location of music shows. The posters of this collection are primarily from the 40s through the 70s and advertised concerts and small festivals. They were printed on thick cardboard, were cheap and easy to produce, and were expected only to last from the time of posting to the time of the show and then thrown away. The fact that many have survived is a tribute to both the stability of the printed form and the diligence of those who recognized their historical importance.

Letterpress printing is a trade that has gone out of favor with the coming of more modern techniques, but has reemerged as a craft in the art field. When many of the old shops closed or were converted, often the type was scrapped, the presses were sold for their weight in cast iron, and the typecases ended up as showcases for knick-knacks. For those materials and equipment that survived, the current recognition of hand-crafted art will prolong the legacy of the printing trade.

Letterpress refers to both the type of medium which is being printed, as well as the technique and presses which are used for printing. In this context, the letters are individual or monotype. This means that each letter has to be uniquely selected and arranged to form the words. These lines of type are then firmly locked into a frame, which is then printed on a press.

A closeup of a right hand is holding metal typeface letters.
Composing a body of type before printing.

 Pictures that accompany the text can be made mechanically or by hand, cut from wood, linoleum or engraved. When the copy is set and prepared, ink is applied by rollers, either by hand or mechanically on the larger presses. Unique to this process is that the letters are created and set in reverse, essentially backward, so that when the impression is made it comes out right side up and readable. 

Locally in Bristol at King University, the Sign of the George Press has had a resurgence with the support of the Digital Media Art and Design Department. The Press was started by Dr. George P. “Pat” Winship in the late 60s as a way to show his English students the methods that authors like William Shakespeare had to manage to get their literary works into print. Dr. Winship had a small press when he was growing up as the son of a rare books librarian and he continued the press by accumulating type and presses from the printshops that were going out of or away from the letterpress business as they modernized. The press at King is operated by Winship’s son David, a retired public-school educator who grew up with the press.

Four people are standing around a vintage printing press, looking at the press as one man operates it.
Lee Jones, left, and Joe Strickland, right, at the press with students. Both are professors with the DMAD (Digital Media Art and Design) Department at King University.



The Birthplace of Country Music Museum will offer a hands-on workshop at the Museum on March 16, which will allow participants the opportunity to learn about letterpress printing, produce a poster of their own, and to tour the exhibit. Participants will also have the opportunity to tour the Sign of the George Press on King University campus to get a close up look at the printing process.