Yes, both are correct, but here is why I urge you to still say “App-uh-latch-uh.”
It’s something that has caused perhaps nearly as many arguments as politics. No one has (hopefully) ever gotten into an argument about whether or not they ordered a “car-mel” or “care-ah-mel” latte, but disagreements about Appalachia can become very heated very easily. Appalachia has several different pronunciations across the United States, but the two most common (and contentious) are “App-uh-latch-uh” and “App-uh-lay-shuh.” The former has traditionally been linked with the south, while the latter is more associated with the north.
So, who is right? To quote writer John Green: “The truth resists simplicity.” Both ways are correct, but which way you choose to say it can say more about you than you may realize.
Much like its pronunciation, the etymology of the word “Appalachia” is also debated. Before the Europeans arrived in North America, the Appalachian Mountains and their geographical components had a multitude of names. The Cherokee or Tsalagi called the Smoky Mountains Shaconage. Algonquin-speaking peoples called the White Mountains in New Hampshire Wobanadenok. To the Powhatan of eastern Virginia, the Blue Ridge Mountains were known as Quirank. The first people to live in the region were all independent nations with different languages and cultures. It wasn’t until later that the entire mountain range was grouped as a single region.
The consensus is that the current name derives from “Apalachee” (App-uh-latch-ee), the Spanish romanization of the name of a Native American people that lived in the Florida Panhandle, though exactly upon which expedition the Spanish encountered these Indigenous people is debated. Either way, variations of the name – such as “Apalachen” – began appearing on Spanish maps of the area in the 1560s. By the 1700s, the name was used to refer to the southern section of the mountain range, and the name “Appalachia” was eventually used for the entire mountain range by the end of the 19th century.
Southern Appalachia and Northern Appalachia may share a general geographical continuity, but could not be more different regarding culture, accents, and media portrayal. Popular media often makes a mess of the south, frequently portraying it as feral, uneducated, and backward. The way we speak appears to be particularly hard for Hollywood to nail down. Take, for example, Brad Pitt’s questionable “Smoky Mountain” accent in the 2009 film Inglorious Basterds. Southerners with a keen ear would have no trouble differentiating the tight Appalachian accent of someone like Dolly Parton from the hazy drawl of popular characters like Scarlet O’Hara. However, both of these accents can be heard in the beloved 1989 film Steel Magnolias – from Parton herself (Tennessee) and Julia Roberts (Georgia) respectively. To complicate matters even further, the film takes place in Louisiana, a linguistically and culturally distinct geographical area.
There are people living in Northern Appalachia – and beyond – who say “App-uh-lay-shuh.” Those people are not wrong, even though that is not how I say it. Just like there is no single southern accent, there is no single Appalachian identity. The fact that I grew up in East Tennessee is the main reason I say “App-uh-latch-uh.” Southern Appalachia is very much its own beast with its own culture, stereotypes, and – yes – dialect. The way we speak is as much a part of our way of life as the food we eat, the stories we tell, and the music we make. Just like sharing music can bridge the gap between people of two different cultures and heritage, so can something as simple as saying the name of our home the way we say it.
In other words: When in Southern Appalachia, do as the Southern Appalachians do.
Exploring the Birthplace of Country Music & Beyond
In our previous blog post, Walk the Line in Bristol, TN-VA, we offered an itinerary of must-sees if you’re looking for a safe weekend getaway to the birthplace of country music. In that article we hit a lot of highlights, but there is definitely more to see in Bristol and the surrounding area! Read on to discover what else there is to see when visiting:
NASCAR drivers and fans alike will tell you that there is nothing so thrilling as a race on the high banks at Bristol Motor Speedway. Known as “The Last Great Colosseum,” BMS has been a main attraction in Bristol since its very first race in 1961 – and there isn’t a bad seat in the house! BMS has taken enhanced safety measures for fans, drivers, crew, vendors, employees, and other guests to help keep everyone safe from COVID-19. Check out their policies by clicking here.
Bristol hosts races in several NASCAR touring series, including two major NASCAR Cup Series. Legendary drivers like Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip, Richard Petty, Jeff Gordon, and many more have all earned victories at the track, and – whether you are a sports fan or not – we highly recommend adding a night race at Bristol to your bucket list. If you have a camper, there are campgrounds all around the track where you can tailgate and celebrate or commiserate with fellow fans. The track hosts amazing vendors and special events all around the facility throughout race weekend to keep the family entertained. Between NASCAR events, BMS’s Thunder Valley dragway hosts NHRA Drag Racing, dirt track racing, and street fight racing events that are high-octane adventures all their own!
If you think Bristol is amazing on the surface, just wait until you explore what’s underneath at Bristol Caverns! Formed by the ancient Underground River 200 to 400 million years ago, Bristol Caverns is one of the oldest and most beautiful attractions in Northeast Tennessee.
Legend has it that Native Americans used the caverns as an escape route during clashes with settlers. Cameras are welcome, and you’ll definitely want to glimpse back upon the wonderous and dramatic sights found inside all three levels of the colorful chambers that wind 180 feet below to the cavern floor. Bristol Caverns is opened year-round, seven days a week (except certain holidays). Call ahead to book a tour and inquire about health and safety rules for social distancing in the wake of COVID-19: 423-878-2011.
Beyond Bristol To make the most of your experience, we highly recommend taking time to visit a few other sites in the region:
Bays Mountain Park & Planetarium Just down the road in Kingsport, Tennessee, Bays Mountain Park & Planetarium offers a plethora of nature- and science-focused adventures including hiking trails, a state-of-the-art Planetarium Theater, and animal habitats including wolves, bobcats, raptors, and reptiles.
Barter Theatre Barter Theatre opened in Abingdon, Virginia, in 1933 and is the longest-running professional Equity theatre in the United States. Also the State Theater of Virginia, the Barter got its name because theatergoers were able to pay for tickets to shows in vegetables, dairy products, and livestock. Known as a launching pad for the careers of many iconic actors and actresses and its award-winning productions, the Barter is making use of the outdoor Moonlite Drive-In to host shows during the pandemic.
Hands On! Discovery Center and Gray Fossil Site The Hands On! Discovery Center at Gray Fossil Site is an all-ages science center full of fun and interactive exhibits including a musical Tesla coil, giant building blocks, a three-story Paleo Tower, and an art studio. Guests are invited to engineer a rocket, create a masterpiece, and get up close and personal with an active fossil dig site dating back 5 million years. The facility is open with modified COVID-19 safety precautions and an adjusted schedule for your safety.
Want to know more about exploring Bristol, Northeast Tennessee, and Southwest Virginia? Visit our partner websites and plan your trip!
In this time during a devastating pandemic, where each day seems to
last a year in itself, thinking about sustainability can be difficult. However,
we in the museum community still need to look towards the future and plan to
meet that challenge. First, as museum professionals our job is to preserve and
interpret cultural objects or intangible heritage – from vintage sheet music to
the tune and lyrics themselves. This is why we exist, receive donations, and
are funded by tax dollars, corporate monies, and private contributions. The
mission of a museum is to hold the public’s trust utilizing ethical,
educational, and sustainable methods, and to measure plans for the future so as
to never lose that public trust and support.
Second, in a world besieged with climate change, water shortages, trash pile ups, and other environmental impacts, museums need to look to the future to further assist their communities – and to preserve their own holdings – by demonstrating proactive sustainable measures. As a representative of their town, city, or other local area, museums must do their part and continue their role as public educator.
So what things can we do to help while working in a museum? First, a few simple things, amongst others: recycle, use less water, watch our paper use (e-newsletters are our friend!), reuse what we can (wash the plastic forks after an event), make good choices in our supplies, and monitor our electricity usage as far as possible – for instance, using LED lights in exhibit cases not only conserves energy but it helps to preserve artifacts. And sustainability can also be addressed in larger ways. For example, some museums are being redesigned to be more environmentally friendly, or in some cases completely carbon-neutral such as the new science museum being built in Lund, Sweden.
And as central educational centers for the public, what we do to lessen our environmental impact is viewed by our public. Those of us whose mission intersects with the natural and scientific world can, of course, produce programming and exhibits that teach environmental care and principles. But even if our mission is not focused that way – for example, a music museum like us – leading by example is another pathway to sharing sustainability goals and actions with our community. We can even use what we know to assist those in our community take similar steps. For instance, through BCM’s festival branch, our Green Team works to make green changes and encourage recycling at our annual music festival.
And so, museums today are working on a better future environmentally and taking what steps we can to help. But besides this, what other goals can museums express for sustainability? We hold collections of culture, science, and art – tangible and intangible – and educate the public on their value, for those here now and for generations afterwards. But to continue to exist and be relevant, we need to be responsive to changes in our world. In what ways can we do this? To answer this, museums are going to need to fully open their doors, all too often appearing, at least to some, as intrusive monoliths in a city’s landscape compared to the daily activities performed around them. For instance, the Georgian-styled archives, the Greek Revival art museum, etc. A redesign is needed by many institutions, not just of their façade, but of how the community views the museum itself.
We in museums have to ask many, many, questions. Who is our audience?
What are their expectations? Where do we fit in our community? And how can we
help? How can we sustainably preserve the history, art, and cultural heritage
for future generations? How can we make our mission resonate with different
ethnic, religious, and cultural groups? How do we not become obsolete in a
quickly changing world?
Even during this time of Covid-19 taking over our “normal” lives, museums are proving how necessary they are. Yes, most – if not all – are closed, but still they are active in their communities. Some are offering their large parking lots for testing or food pickup. Many museum professionals are assisting with supply gathering or sewing of masks. Museums are using social media and their own websites to offer activities for children (and adults) now at home full time, or to demonstrate science experiments, or to show virtual exhibits. And the public is responding and consuming all this extra content with gusto. And while doing so, museums are still deemed important and needed, even when closed. Hopefully, due to these creative and innovative ways museum professionals are still interacting with their audiences, people will return when we open back up.
And our communities will continue to support us as we evolve with our community. Sustainability is based on change, resilience, and an understanding that normal can shift to something new in the face of different attitudes, resources, situations, and perspectives. This can be seen right now as we are all dealing with the uncertainties of this pandemic – in the midst of this, museums are proving that they can work with other organizations and community partners to help and be relevant, even with their doors closed to the public. The future is more uncertain than ever right now, but we museum professionals are on the front lines and will continue to assist our communities in many diverse ways.
And so, on this 50th anniversary of Earth Day, we will continue to search
for other methods we can help lessen our negative impact on the environment and
plan for future changes our museum can do such as updating an HVAC system or
using natural light to illuminate and heat the museum. But as well, we will
reach out to our community, and the community of museums, schools, libraries,
and other institutions, to set programs and exchange ideas on how we can have a
better impact on our audiences and – well, the whole earth – to sustain our
importance and social need.
We are living in
extraordinary times right now, making many feel unsettled and anxious as we
face a host of uncertainties. For me, music often acts as a balm to troubled
thoughts and worries, and so while the museum is closed and we are all working
to protect each other, we wanted to share a variety of ways that you can
experience the Birthplace of Country Music at home by connecting with us
through music, stories, activities, and history!
Obviously, the best way to engage with the museum’s content is to come through our doors and spend time in the permanent exhibits. However, when that’s not possible, we wanted to be sure that people had the chance to learn more about the Birthplace of Country Music Museum and the history we celebrate – and so we have created a series of content-focused videos that share short introductions into aspects of that history, enough to whet your appetite for visiting us in the future! You can check these out on the BCM YouTube channel or as they are released onto our social media pages. We are also in the process of creating some virtual content related to our current special exhibit – Real Folk: Passing on Trades & Traditions Through the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program – which opened only two weeks before the museum closed due to COVID-19. We hope to have that ready that soon!
Educational and Fun Activities
Along with the content-focused videos, we’ve also started sharing educational and fun resources on our website. We have downloadable coloring sheets and activities, along with videos of a mini banjo-making craft and 78 record trivia. Check out this link to access these. And keep checking back as we hope to share more puzzles, coloring sheets, and other fun items in the future.
Radio Bristol Book Club
Each fourth Thursday of the month, four readers from the museum and the Bristol Public Library come together for a live on-air conversation about a book that ties into the museum’s content, regional and wider music heritage, and Appalachian culture and stories. Since the Radio Bristol Book Club started in 2019, we’ve read children’s and adult books, fiction and non-fiction, and all of the discussions have dug deep into the themes and questions raised in the books, the author’s style and voice, how it connects to our community or our own histories, and more. Each episode also includes related music, and we sometimes also get the chance to talk to the author! You can access several of our previous book club shows here, and we invite you to start reading with us and listen in to future shows, including Rocket Boys by Homer Hickam Jr. (April 23), Clapton’s Guitar: Watching Wayne Henderson Build the Perfect Instrument by Allen St. John (May 28), Halfway to the Sky by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (June 24), and Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam by Pope Brock (July 23), to name just a few of the next book picks.
As a music organization, we are able to share some wonderful performances via our YouTube channel. Over the past few years, we’ve uploaded a whole host of videos of artists and bands who have performed at the museum, on Radio Bristol, and at our festival and other venues. You can access these performances here. We are also sharing Quarantine Sessions – while Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion is still months away, festival artists are getting together to contribute music for these special performances. You can view the videos on our YouTube channel, and subscribe and share from there! And our downtown partner Believe in Bristol is also sharing Facebook Live performances from a variety of local and regional favorites via their Border Bash Social Distancing Series. These are just another way music is bringing us all together during this time of uncertainty. Don’t forget to support these hardworking and talented artists by buying their CDs and merchandise online.
Be sure to connect with
us on social media for daily content from all three branches of the
organization – the museum, festival, and radio station are all active on
Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. All of our platforms are great places to
learn about “this day in country music,” the legacy of Bristol Sessions and
related musicians, early links to many of our other online resources, and more.
The Birthplace of Country Music Museum is a Smithsonian Affiliate, and as such, we want to honor that connection by sharing just a few of the free digital resources that are available through the Smithsonian. The Smithsonian Learning Lab has a whole host of distance learning opportunities. Our personal favorite is their Smithsonian Learning Activities Choice Board, which provides several fun and educational activities related to science, social studies, culture, and the arts. There is a new issue released each week – check out Issue 3 to find one of our contributions, a songwriting mad lib, in the culture section! Another great resource is the National Museum of American History’s O Say Can You See blog, filled with great reads about American history and the amazing items and stories found in the Smithsonian collections. The Smithsonian’s newest museum, the National Museum of African American History & Culture, has created several “collections” via the Learning Lab that explore history, art, life, and culture through the African American lens. And while you’re stuck at home, it’s a great chance to grow your very own flowers and vegetables – Smithsonian Gardens has some classroom resources that can help.
Not being open to visitors is a strange experience for us – we miss welcoming the public through our doors to explore the museum’s exhibits, participate in our public programs, enjoy live performances, and more. While we are closed, we are committed to sharing great online content with you, a little respite from the day-to-day uncertainties. We hope that it brings a smile to your face and that you learn something new – if so, please share with your friends and networks and give us a “like.” That will give US a smile! And in the meantime, thank you for being an important part of the Birthplace of Country Music community.
A special thanks to the many museums out there creating amazing digital content while their doors are closed, especially the Field Museum whose “Experience the Field at Home” inspired this blog post.
Every people has to have its own stories… If we don’t have our own stories then we don’t have our own soul: we don’t have our own deepest possession, which is ourselves and our own unfolding… Unless we cherish and savour our own [stories], then we’re not going to know who we are and…we’ll become strangers to ourselves… We’ve got to hold up a mirror to ourselves and create our own stories. ~ Leonard N Cohen
Writing is a valuable, sometimes vital, tool in human
Storywriting is a particular talent: the memorialisation of personal experiences, tales, and narratives bequeathed by family or friends, teachers or mentors.
The Origin Project is an in-school writing program co-founded by best-selling author and film director Adriana Trigiani and myself, an education advocate and long-time friend. It sprouted six years ago from the idea that Appalachia’s stories are national treasures, and its children should celebrate their roots. Our program inspires young people to discover and liberate their inner voices through the craft of writing about their unique origins; it celebrates diversity and inclusion. The Origin Project provides young people with the literary tools and confidence to harvest their unique heritages; it galvanizes their curiosity about, and respect for, each other.
from 40 students in Big Stone Gap, Adri’s hometown, The
Origin Project has grown organically to serve more than 1,500 students in
17 schools. We regularly import renowned authors – so far, David Baldacci, Meg
Wolitzer, Margot Lee Shetterly, Mary Hogan, and Laurie Eustis – to meet with
the students and share their personal writing experiences.
Each fall, our students are given a personal journal and thereafter work on multiple projects or stories that speak of and to their heritage. Their work is professionally published at the end of the year in an anthology, presented to each student and made available in school and public libraries. The Origin Project is integrated with the Virginia Standards of Learning curriculum and collaborates with each student at her/his skill level to conceive, develop, and hone ideas into short stories, poems, plays, interviews, or other art.
It is a joyful surprise to read our students’ work, witness their
growth, and observe the budding of their self-esteem. Through their creative
writing with The Origin Project, our students “hold up a mirror” to themselves
and thereby reclaim their “own deepest possession”: themselves and their “own
When Adri asked me to join her in founding The Origin Project, I had never been to Appalachia; upon my arrival, I even mispronounced its name. Over the past six years, I have fallen in love with the rolling blue mountains framing this extraordinary place that is home to magical people with unique stories to tell. Listening to students share tales of their heritage – of celebrations of Mamaws and Papaws and of personal successes and heartaches – has enriched my own life. I believe other readers of our annual anthologies experience similar reactions. Virginia has become my home-away-from-home.
Last year The Origin Project embarked on a collaboration with the Birthplace of Country Music. We brought a group of our students to the Birthplace of Country Music Museum to tour For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights, a temporary special exhibit made possible through NEH on the Road, a special initiative of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and Mid-America Arts Alliance. The experience provided a unique opportunity for our young writers to discover, through imagery portraying eye-opening events, some of the history of the Civil Rights movement in Appalachia and beyond. As Head Curator René Rodgers guided and informed our students, we learned that much of what was portrayed in this exquisite exhibit was rarely read or discussed in their curriculum. The culmination of the visit to the museum was a poetry workshop led by Langley Shazor, poet and president of The Casual Word. Langley provided the students with typewriters to drop them into the timeframe of the exhibit, and after a lesson on how to operate them, the students created emotional, profound poems that will be published in this year’s anthology.
In the weeks ahead, we look forward to exposing as many of our students as possible to Reading Appalachia: Voices from Children’s Literature, another temporary special exhibit on loan from the East Tennessee Historical Society and currently on display at the museum – one that will provide a priceless opportunity for them to “walk into the pages of a story of childhood in Appalachia!”
Eagerly awaiting the arrival of The Origin Project Book Five, we are busy planning five unveilings
to celebrate the creations of our published authors. We are thrilled and
excited to hold one of these events at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum
in May. We are deeply grateful to these new partners and friends, and look
forward to many collaborations in the future!
As a group of campers were finishing up
lunch one day, I was preparing to take everyone to the park for some recreation
time and a bit of a mental break from their hard work. As I was about to ask
who wanted to carry the sidewalk chalk, a few students approached me with a
“Miss Erin, instead of playing
games, can we bring our instruments to the park so we can practice?”
The first time I heard this question, I was surprised and impressed by the desire of our Pick Along students to continue playing instruments rather than a game of kickball. But as the days and weeks continued, I begin to receive this request over and over again. In hindsight, I realize that it is not surprising at all that a child would want to play their instrument over other activities. Learning a musical instrument is engaging. It is a connection to others. It’s actually…A LOT of fun.
Each summer for the past four years, the Birthplace of Country Music has welcomed aspiring young musicians with an eagerness to learn more about traditional folk instruments and regional music history to our annual Pick Along Summer Camps. This is my third year working as director for these camps, and I am thrilled to share a bit about what we do here in June and July.
Pick Along Summer Camps offer an option of beginner or intermediate instruction on the camper’s instrument of choice: acoustic guitar, banjo, or fiddle. Campers are given a wonderfully engaging introduction to the old-time music that is so closely bound to the history of this region. They play and sing songs that are not only ballads and folk songs passed down through generations, but also many that were a part of the 1927 Bristol Sessions.
We start our beginner weeks by having an “instrument zoo,” where campers are given a brief introduction to each instrument offered for study. They are then assigned to their groups for the week and spend the mornings learning skills in technique, chords, melodies, and group collaboration. In the afternoons, they work with staff from the museum’s radio station, Radio Bristol, in creating their own radio program, which is recorded and played at their final group performance, which is open to their families, BCM staff, and museum visitors.
The week wraps up with performance opportunities, including the most popular one – “busking” at Blackbird Bakery. They perform tunes for all of the visitors grabbing baked goods and doughnuts. We have a great time playing and singing, and we always have requests to play more regularly! And, of course, they get a sweet treat for themselves!
Last summer, in a twist of good fate, Radio Bristol’s Farm and Fun Timeprogram lined up with the same week as our intermediate camp. The campers created their own Farm and Fun Time Junior program and were asked to perform it during the live broadcast that Thursday evening. You can watch their stellar performance here.
One Friday, during a rare moment of downtime, several of the beginner students asked if they could share songs they had written that week. One of our special guest instructors had asked the students to try their hand at telling a story through song, which proved to be inspiring! To perform this song publicly was optional, so I was impressed with the handful that chose to stand in front of their fellow campers and not only play, but also sing their own words and music.
Many of these students take their excitement and love of music outside of our Pick Along camps with continued private instrument lessons, playing local open mic nights, volunteering for BCM’s Family Fun Days, and attending community jams, including the one held monthly at the museum. Some of our campers have also been invited to play with Tyler Hughes at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion and at the Southwest Virginia Cultural Center & Marketplace (formerly Heartwood) in Abingdon, Virginia (now Southwest Virginia Cultural Center & Marketplace). A handful of return campers have also worked with us as Junior Counselors, assisting instructors and working with beginner camp attendees.
Each week of camp creates its own stories and memories. There are quiet, subtle breakthroughs, and there are the exciting, flashing lights-type of moments. In the process of learning music, one is just as important as the other. I’m very grateful to be a part of this arts education program that sets the stage for big and small victories – and for a lifetime of loving to learn and play music.
January 6 is National Technology Day – and so it seemed the perfect time to explore some of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum from the technology side of things! We’ve picked five elements of the content or the museum itself that tell just a little of the technology story here:
Recording and Playback Machines
The museum shares the story of the 1927 Bristol Sessions, but it also explores how sound technology shaped their success and evolved over the years. Inventions such as recording and playback machines played important roles. For instance, in 1877, Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, which was instrumental in distributing music in the early 20th century, including the songs recorded at the 1927 Bristol Sessions. Writing an article in 1878 on “The Phonograph and its Future,” Edison listed other possible uses for his invention beyond playing music, including elocution and other educational lessons; audio books (before Audible and iTunes!); to create sound effects for children’s toys; and most intriguingly, “family records,” where the last words of dying family members could be saved for posterity, like that of other great characters of the day.
Other innovators contributed to the development of this type of playback technology. In 1881, Alexander Graham Bell invented the graphophone, an improved version of the phonograph developed by Edison, and in 1894, Emile Berliner invented the disc gramophone method, which used different machines to record and then to play back the sound. Where earlier recording and playback machines used cylinders, either coated in tin foil or wax, Berliner’s gramophone used flat disc records.
The museum is a high-tech, interactive experience, one that is filled with music and sound. And because of that, it had to be designed strategically and carefully in order to provide the best possible experience to our visitors. For instance, the acoustic engineer advised the architects and exhibit designers on ways to define walls and ceilings to contain sound or keep it from bouncing around the open gallery spaces or the theater. The firm also worked closely with the technology team and media producers to define how the sound of each audio or audio/video production is delivered into the space. The goal was to provide an immersive experience, yet minimize unwanted “bleed” of sound between programs. Innovative acoustic wall panels and fabric mean that the acoustic technology is seamless and becomes a part of the museum experience itself, while speakers embedded underneath the pews in the chapel theater space mean that visitors feel like they are right in the middle of the congregation and they can often even feel it in their seats!
Orthophonic reproducers were an outgrowth of the electric microphones being used to record performers in the late 1920s. Electric recording captured a wider range of sound frequencies and produced recordings in which the instruments and voices sounded much more like live instruments and voices than they had on previous acoustic recordings. These reproducers were designed to be more sensitive to the nuances in the electric recordings, making the listener’s experience more pleasurable and true-to-life. The Bristol Sessions in 1927 were recorded using this process and many claimed that the Orthophonic recordings sounded even better than the live performances! Electric recording and Orthophonic machines, like later compact discs or HDTV, were a technological revolution that helped change the shape of the music industry.
The Radio Station
During the planning stage of the museum, the exhibit content team discussed ways to make the space focused on radio history into an engaging experience for our visitors. The result? Radio Bristol, a live radio station! With help from a team of radio industry advisers, BCM applied to the FCC for a low-power FM license, secured the antennae, transmitter and equipment necessary for broadcasting, and created a working radio studio in the museum. And that’s where the technology gets really interesting because the station uses vintage equipment from older Bristol radio stations, refurbished and repurposed for today. For instance, a Raytheon console from 1940s WCYB Radio, sourced from local radio buff and collector William Mountjoy, was rebuilt by engineer Jim Gilmore, retired engineer from TNN. One of the mics in the radio studio is from local station WOPI and was used by Tennessee Ernie Ford when he was a DJ there. And there are numerous ways to deliver music in the station – from a record turntable to a live recording booth to the digital ease of tablets and MP3s. The station is what we call high-tech vintage!
Finally, sometimes the technology isn’t an object from our collections or an innovative way to present the museum’s content. Rather it is found in educational programs where we share the story of that technology. For instance, for the past two years, museum staff and volunteers have participated in the Kingsport Mini Maker Faire where we have presented information about the museum’s exhibits and engaged in a variety of sound demonstrations, including an example of amplification and a homemade Chladni plate! We also offer a “History of Listening” lesson, available in the museum and to schools and other groups. Throughout history music has been experienced in a variety of ways, especially as advances in technology have developed over time. This lesson explores these technological changes and then compares how listening to music transitioned from being a mostly community-based activity, often through live performance, to listening either alone or together in person via technology and the virtual environments of cyberspace.
Each year on September 6, bookworms across America celebrate National Read A Book Day. Though this is a fine thing to celebrate, reading is, of course, important and pleasurable every day of the year. If one wants to learn more about country music history, what better place to start than with a book? While you can find all of the selections below through online sellers, these and other fine selections can also be found at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in our museum store – so stop on by and pick one up. Here are just a few of my favorites to get you started!
Country Music Originals: The Legends and the Lost by Tony Russell
If you want to learn more about the important players in the world of country music, Tony Russell’s Country Music Originals is a great place to start. World-renowned scholar Russell presents biographies of figures in country music from the earliest days of recordings until the late 1940s. Highlighting superstars such as Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family and celebrating obscure figures such as Bernard “Slim” Smith and John Dilleshaw, Russell provides articles that are short enough to be approachable for the casual reader, but also in depth enough to spark interest for further reading. It’s a great place to start your country music reading journey!
Don’t Give Your Heart to a Rambler: My Life with Jimmy Martin, the King of Bluegrass by Barbara Martin Stephens
While bluegrass music is widely regarded as having been born in late 1945, one could argue that the music did not achieve the “high lonesome” sound until a young guitar player and singer from Sneedville, Tennessee, joined Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys in late 1949. Jimmy Martin is widely regarded as “The King of Bluegrass” and is one of most charismatic and controversial figures in bluegrass. Don’t Give Your Heart To A Rambler was written by Barbara Martin Stephens, Martin’s longtime partner and the driving force behind his rise to success in the music business. Barbara spares her readers no gritty details as she gives an inside look into life with the King. Through all the abuse and hardship she suffered in her personal life, Barbara was still able to become the first female booking agent on music row. Nothing short of inspiring, this book is a must-read for all bluegrass fans and those interested in women in country music.
Dixie Dewdrop: The Uncle Dave Macon Story by Michael D. Doubler
Uncle Dave Macon is one of the most iconic figures of early country music, and his style of banjo playing and showmanship has inspired countless musicians – and so Dixie Dewdrop tells the story of one of country music’s first stars. Michael Doubler, the great-grandson of Uncle Dave, spins a narrative that ties together Uncle Dave’s personal life and the music and culture of the world in which Uncle Dave lived, giving readers a glimpse into a different side of this legendary performer. If you’re curious about this book and Uncle Dave Macon, you can join Doubler at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum at 1pm on Sunday, November 4 for a special talk and book-signing.
In Tune: Charley Patton, Jimmie Rodgers and the Roots of American Music by Ben Wynne
Before record companies began marketing music to specific audiences, music flowed across cultural lines, and the line between traditional African American and white rural music was blurred. With the wonderfully informative In Tune, Ben Wynne compares and contrasts these two giants of roots music within that context. Both men were born in Mississippi around the same time, and both passed away much too early in their musical careers and their lives, dying within a year of each other. Though from separate sides of a deeply segregated society, these men lived hard lives and had experiences that were remarkably similar. This book provides commentary on the social dynamics that shaped country music, and it gives readers a detailed look into the lives and legacies of these two important figures.
Linthead Stomp: The Creation of Country Music in the Piedmont South by Patrick Huber
Geography and country music go hand-in-hand, and regionalisms are part of what makes early country music so diverse. Bristol with its significant music history is heralded as the “Birthplace of Country Music,” but in reality, American roots music was shaped all across the nation. Patrick Huber explores the impact of textile mills in the Piedmont region of the Carolinas in Linthead Stomp. With a high population of displaced rural southerners seeking work in the mills, a new market for early country music entertainment was opened. Rural music moving to town also changed the music, and the changes that were taking place in the 1920s and 1930s in the Piedmont set the stage for country music as we know it. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in the commercialization of country music.
And finally a “special mention”: Country Music Records: A Discography, 1921–1942 by Tony Russell
All of the books previously mentioned are easily digestible reads for the casual country music fan. However, if you find yourself hungering for all the facts about early county music records, this is the book for you. Roughly the size of your local phone book and twice as dense with information, this book contains the dates, locations, and personnel of every commercial country record recorded before 1942. A must have for any diehard country music fan and connoisseur of fine shellac.
So…I’ve given you my favorites. Now tell us: what are your favorite music reads?!
And while the museum views itself as an educational resource, some of OUR most important resources are the teachers who bring their students through our doors and take what they learned in the museum back to their classroom. And so today, we wanted to share a blog post about the educator’s experience in our museum – and say a HUGE thank you to all the teachers who enhance their students’ learning through a variety of creative lessons and activities, who support the kids in their classrooms in ways big and small, and who work hard to set the foundation to make the next generation into curious, interested, and engaged adults!
The Birthplace of Country Music is always looking to find great ways to engage with students and teachers and with families looking for entertaining learning experiences. This is an essential part of our mission. We do this in a variety of ways from school tours to educational programming to fun family activities and through all three of our outlets: the museum, the radio station, and the festival. Check out our blog post here to learn more about some of these activities. We are also fortunate that our museum’s permanent exhibit enables us to approach our content from multiple angles – for instance, music and its history, Appalachian culture, local history, and technology, to name a few.
But we also have the wonderful resource of our Special Exhibits Gallery and the variety of traveling and temporary exhibits that are displayed there – and these present us with the opportunity to bring a variety of other interesting and relevant educational opportunities to our local and regional schools and our community. We hosted the Smithsonian’s Things Come Apart exhibit last summer and fall, and it is a great example of how a special exhibit can address a host of learning goals – due to its heavy STEAM focus, we saw several school groups visit the exhibit and we experienced firsthand how teachers can use our content as a supplement to their curriculum.
One school – Sullins Academy – decided to make the most of all that Things Come Apart offered, and we asked their Head of School Roy Vermillion to blog about their experience, sharing with us and our readers how the exhibit enhanced their learning goals – and was just all around good fun!
“Sullins Academy’s faculty and staff had a chance to experience the wondrous exhibit Things Come Apart last summer right as it opened. We came to the museum for one of our faculty workdays, which gave us the chance to dig deep into this Smithsonian exhibit firsthand and to actually see how touring and working with the content of this exhibit could benefit our students.
After having lots of fun ourselves, we booked several of our classes to visit the Birthplace of Country Music Museum to see this exhibit focused on various common items that had been taken apart and presented in a most unique and artistic format. STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) education is such an important part of our school’s curriculum, and the Things Come Apart tour supported and affirmed the importance of providing such opportunities for our students. The experience gave our students the opportunity to view things differently and to begin to understand the complexity of items and the engineering that goes into the manufacturing of such objects.
The tour enjoyed by our faculty, as well as our students, was enhanced with a fortuitous chance to have a hands-on experience through a variety of Smithsonian Spark!Lab activities where groups worked together to create a product specific to a particular need. These makerspace centers encouraged the groups to collaborate in order to solve a problem, which further enhanced what was taken away from this educational “Beyond the Classroom” experience.
The principles highlighted in this exhibit also carried through into our classrooms back at Sullins – for instance, prior to visiting the museum, our eighth-grade students actually disassembled a broken cell phone to see all the components and applied what they would see at the exhibit to a real-life experience.
This exhibit was important to Sullins because it gave us a unique educational opportunity to enhance our students’ learning experience. It also served as an inspiration for our students to explore and to experiment as they participated in their own Things Come Apart projects back at school.
We encourage everyone to take advantage of the myriad of opportunities a facility like the Birthplace of Country Music Museum is able to bring to our community. We are fortunate to have the availability of such an innovational entity from which we can garner these unique and important educational opportunities for ourselves and the children we serve.”
The experiences of Sullins Academy’s students and teachers really reflect the goals of our museum: to provide an educational and inspirational experience, one that brings real engagement to those who visit us and acts as a support for learning within our local community and schools. And they also reflect the dedication of our teachers and educators to bring out the curiosity of our children and get them excited about learning.
As we move forward, we embrace the excitement of engaging with students – and all of our every day visitors – in order to share our resources with them and highlight the value that museums – and teachers – bring to communities like ours on a daily basis.
Guest blogger Roy Vermillion is Head of School at Sullins Academy in Bristol, Virginia. Head Curator René Rodgers provided context to his guest post. Thank you to teacher Sarah Hampton for sharing her wonderful pictures of the students at the museum and in the classroom.
Each year February is highlighted as Black History Month. This call to recognize the central role of African Americans in our history was first put forward by Dr. Carter Goodwin Woodson in 1926. As a blog post on the National Museum of American History website notes: “When mainstream history either largely ignored or debased the Black presence in the American narrative, Dr. Woodson labored to inject a fair portrayal of African Americans into the national record.”
At first glance, you might not think that the history of early country music intersects a great deal with African American history. However, the intersections exist and are significant, and we’ve explored some of these in the Birthplace of Country Music Museum – for example, in the development of genre, with musicians who had impact on early commercial country music, and of course, through the African origins of the banjo, an instrument now indelibly linked to country and bluegrass music. And there has been a continuing presence of African Americans in country music beyond the early commercial years, for instance with artists like Charlie Pride and the celebration of black stringband music by the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Hidden in the Mix: The African American Presence in Country Music by Diane Pecknold explores these connections more deeply.
Prior to the recording music industry, musical categories such as blues or rock or country did not really exist. However, the recording and marketing of music created a need to target audiences in order to make money, and so record executives began advertising music and musicians based on what they assumed different audiences would like, leading to the development of a variety of genres.
One of these genres was known as “race records,” commercial recordings that were aimed specifically at African American audiences. Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues,” produced by OKeh Records in 1920, was one of the first recordings in this new genre. Selling around 8,000 copies per week over several months, the popularity of “Crazy Blues” proved to record executives that there was a market and an audience for “race records.” Companies began developing catalogues aimed at these audiences, and they often hired black talent scouts and agents to find musicians to record. Much of these early recordings were focused on blues artists.
Despite the seeming segregation of audiences – with black audiences targeted through “race records” and “hillbilly records” marketed to white audiences – the lines between genres were often crossed with musicians, styles, and songs from each influencing the other. And, of course, just because a record was marketed to a particular audience doesn’t mean that other audiences didn’t listen to and buy that record.
The Bristol Sessions involved few African American musicians. Each of the two Bristol recording sessions held by Ralph Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company – the 1927 and 1928 Bristol Sessions – featured only one such act. At the 1927 Sessions, El Watson recorded two instrumental harmonica pieces, “Pot Licker Blues” and “Narrow Gauge Blues.” The fairly arbitrary categorization of genre is reflected in the marketing of Watson’s recordings – Victor released Watson’s two sides in the label’s “race records” series, while two similar blues-inspired harmonica pieces by white musician Henry Whitter were marketed as “hillbilly records” and promoted predominantly to white audiences. There is little information about El Watson to be found in the historical record, but we do know that Peer was very much impressed by Watson’s sound and musical skills, inviting him to record four more songs with Victor in New York: “Fox Chase,” “Sweet Bunch of Daisies,” “Bay Rum Blues,” and “One Sock Blues.” It’s also likely that he recorded with Columbia Records in Johnson City, Tennessee, in 1928. With both of these later recordings, Watson played the traditional instrument of the bones, and it is likely that he played the bones on some 1927 Bristol Sessions recordings too.
The duo of Tarter & Gay recorded the next year at the 1928 Bristol Sessions. As with Watson’s recordings, the two numbers recorded by these talented musicians – “Brownie Blues” and “Unknown Blues” – were also issued in Victor’s “race records” series. Before they recorded in Bristol, Stephen Tarter and Harry Gay had performed live for white and black audiences at dances, and the style reflected on their Bristol Sessions recordings touches upon ragtime and stringband music, amongst others.
And then, of course, there’s Lesley Riddle, a hugely influential musician who worked closely with A. P. Carter in his search for songs and music worth playing and turning into hits. And don’t forget: Riddle has also been credited with teaching Maybelle Carter a specific style of guitar picking, and her mastery of this style is now well known and revered as the Carter scratch. His significance to the history of early commercial country music cannot be overstated – you can read all about his impact and influence in our blog post here.
Today there are criticisms aimed at setting aside a month or a week or a day of the year to commemorate important historical subjects – for instance, the question of whether setting aside a designated time to explore those histories means that they aren’t fully integrated into the study and understanding of American history. While in some ways the name of our museum – the Birthplace of Country Music Museum – might seem to narrow our focus, through exhibits, programming, and even collections we have tried to bring together the histories and voices of a variety of musicians and communities in order to underline just how much American music has been built and created from the intersection of different styles, different stories, different artists, and different backgrounds.