Education Archives - The Birthplace of Country Music
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Country Music as an Academic Probe

“Country music”, along with its variations, is not often a term you’d associate with academia, at least not until you have a good understanding of the vast field of musicology. As a historian of music, I often find myself at the crossroads trying to explain what I study and how I study it. My succinct answer is, a historian of music studies music, but not strictly musicologically, but rather uses music to scrutinize history. This, in my opinion, is disparate from music historians, or musicologists with an emphasis on history, for whom the product of music itself is the central subject. As for country music historians, country music as an art form comes first and foremost, but that doesn’t mean it’s just about the music. As a genre with humble roots, one can’t talk about country and folk music without referring to historical and sometimes political contexts.

Today, country music is a recognized, albeit small, academic discipline with international appeal. One of American folk music’s early advocates, Charles Seeger (1886-1979) helped spearhead the founding of the Society of Ethnomusicology (SEM). Seeger envisioned for music to be communicated and studied musically, instead of merely through linguistics as crutch. He advocated the role of the (ethno)musicologist to be a transmitter of music but also critic of culture. The field today has mostly evolved a long way from the days of Seeger. Musicology nevertheless still relies heavily on textual analyses of music, which, tellingly, did not necessarily become a point of concern for professionals. Currently, country music in academia is taught primarily as a form of performing arts, and less as a theory or history. The International Country Music Conference (ICMC), founded in 1983,  has been held annually at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee since 1998. This year it runs from May 30th to June 1st.

A white man holding a baby plays a piano outside a trailer while a standing woman plays fiddle and two children sit on a bench beside her.
Ethnomusicologist Charles Seeger, Jr., with his wife, Constance, and their three sons, Charles III, John, and Pete. This photograph may be from a tour they made of the American South in a homemade trailer. Image is from the National Photo Company (1921) and is in the public domain.

For those who aspire to become professional musicians or work in the country music industry and adjacent, East Tennessee State University, Morehead State University, and Denison University offer degree programs in the genre. Other institutions in North America including the Berklee College of Music, USC Thornton School of Music, University of Miami, University of Saskatchewan MacEwan University offer, or have offered in the past, courses and an initiative on country music. The Country Music Foundation based in Nashville had published the Journal of Country Music from 1971 to 2007. The journals are archived and still accessible through many higher institutions, as well as the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum digital archive.

If you are interested in reading academic writings on country music, a good place to start is with anything by historian Bill C. Malone, professor of history emeritus at Tulane University. Country Music U.S.A. (1968) is inarguably the first academic history book on country music. The turn of the twentieth century saw the political bifurcation within country music, shown through monographs such as Charles K. Wolfe’s Country Music goes to War (2005) and Rednecks and Bluenecks: The Politics of Country Music (2007) by journalist Chris Willman. In recent years, academics have leaned more toward socio-political themes, displayed in work like Diane Pecknold’s Hidden in the Mix: the African American Presence in Country Music (2013), Nadine Hubbs’ Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music (2014), Peter La Chapelle’s I’d Fight the World: A Political History of Old-Time, Hillbilly, and Country Music (2019), and anthology Whose Country Music? Genre, Identity, and Belonging in Twenty-First-Century Country Music Culture(2022).

Collaged image of the cover of four books. Country Music U.S.A, Rednecks and Bluenecks: The Politics of Country Music, Hidden in the Mix: the African American Presence in Country Music, and Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music.

Just like the grassroots of country music itself, the academia of country music also reflects the debates that are present in the country music scene. The problem of “authenticity” has plagued various art forms and genres, but with a genre like country music, it is particularly prominent. Recently, philosophy professor Evan Malone published an excellent piece on the topic in the British Journal of Aesthetics in a 2023 issue. With references to a range of scholars with backgrounds from Anthropology to Aesthetics with an emphasis on country music, including Jack Bernhardt, John Dyck, Richard Shusterman, it demonstrates the versatile ways country music can be studied academically.

In my very own first year of PhD for a final’s assignment, I assembled a lecture in history on medieval Celtic and African musical traditions and their manifestations in Appalachian folk music—a connection that often surprises non-listeners. Outside of traditional academia, current events surrounding and within country music have been covered by journalists and critics, such as Emily Nussbaum’s 2023 piece for The New Yorker.

Alas, it is challenging to include a more thorough academic country music discography here. In an effort to keep this blog digestible, I am only able to give you taste of the available literature and must leave many scholars out of this post. I encourage you to start your own reading journey and dive into the academic world of country music with me. As country music enters a new phase both artistically and in popularity, we can certainly anticipate further exciting discussions in the near future!

Image of a young Chinese-American woman with long black hair and wearing a grey long sleeve shirt.
Emily Lu, PhD Candidate at Florida State University.

Guest Blogger Emily Lu is a PhD candidate in History at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida.

The Transformative Power of Traditional Music: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Dulcimer. Part II

My time at ETSU taught me a lot of things. I think the most important lesson it taught me was that I didn’t know as much as I thought I did. It started changing my worldview as well. I learned a lot about what it means to be Appalachian and the cultural inheritances that come with it. I grew as a musician, but I also began to think differently about my identity and the kind of person I wanted to be.

My work study was as a literacy tutor at a local elementary school, where I was assigned to a first-grade class led by a teacher named Claudette Decker. She became a friend and advisor to me. It was at her insistence that I began incorporating instruments in my work. Initially, I played a tune or two at the end of class before I left, but it became a way to connect with some of the more withdrawn children. It made learning more fun and helped some of them feel more comfortable opening up. It made me remember how powerful music was for me as a child.

I was becoming more serious as a dulcimer player now and had a better instrument. I met my first dulcimer teacher that spring: Jim Miller. He noticed my case one day and asked about it. We had a conversation and soon I was taking lessons with him. He took my understanding of the dulcimer to a new level. Our sessions felt like a break from the daily grind. Dulcimer became my joy.

Three people play instruments together in chairs in front of mics. The woman on the left is playing a guitar. The man in the middle is playing a mandolin. The woman on the right is playing a dulcimer.
Roxanne playing dulcimer with Jim and Cheri Miller.

After graduation, I worked as a preschool teacher. I continued using music in my work as much as I could, and the dulcimer was especially well-liked. I can’t even tell you the number of times I’ve had to play a rendition of “Baby Shark” on it. I worked in childcare right up until the start of the pandemic.

The pandemic was a watershed moment for me. I was out of work and gigs had dried up, but it was during this time that I met my second dulcimer mentor: a man named Don Burger. Don and his wife Deborah became sort of like surrogate grandparents to me during the pandemic. He led a dulcimer group in Jonesborough, but I only got to have a couple of in-person meetings with the group before everything shut down, and the group moved to meeting online using video call software like Zoom. It was something to look forward to each week; there weren’t many things going on, and this provided us with the opportunity to come together safely.

Two people in chairs playing dulcimer together outside.
Roxanne and Don Burger

Don taught me taught me a lot about dealing with life and other people. He was more like a guru who happened to play dulcimer. He operated a small, now-defunct festival called Jonesborough Dulcimer Days and recruited me to help him keep it going during the pandemic. We would bring musicians into town and host them where we’d had our dulcimer meetings. Artists would perform for the small number of people in attendance, as well as viewers at home, via social media streams. He and I also set up around Jonesborough on different days and played our dulcimers publicly, often recording videos to share on social media. This gave me an opportunity to meet a number of dulcimer players, reunite with my old teacher Jim, and also play semi-regular gigs. In many ways, the pandemic was like a reset button for my life. It was a scary time, but on the other hand, I got to work on my craft and spend time doing things I enjoyed with people I cared about.

Don and Deborah moved back to New York towards the end of the pandemic, and I was deeply saddened to see them leave. However, Don left me with a couple of things. He recommended me as his replacement for teaching ukulele at the Memorial Park Community Center. I would also inherit a dulcimer class there from a man named Willis Jones after he became too ill to continue teaching. Being able to work with older adult students was a good experience because I could teach them about music, and they would often share stories or give me advice based on their life experiences. There’s a lot of valuable learning to be done in an environment like that.

Don also made an important connection for me. He introduced me to a man named Brian Mills, who runs a nonprofit called Art Transforms. It’s an organization that provides supplemental music and art education for students in the Johnson City School System. Don wanted to offer a two-week summer school class where students could learn about the dulcimer and build their own from cardboard using a kit. Since he was leaving, I was brought in to conduct the class. It ended up being very well-received, and we have continued it every year since.

When I heard about the Tradition Bearer’s fellowship, I didn’t initially think much about it, but some friends encouraged me to apply. I reluctantly did so, but didn’t want to get my hopes up. When I received word that I had been approved, I was overjoyed. It was a chance to expand on the work I was already doing with the dulcimer. It was also an opportunity to get more people involved with making music and keeping an Appalachian tradition alive. I used the funds to purchase as many cardboard dulcimer kits as I could and partnered with local schools, nonprofits, and the Birthplace of Country Music Museum to provide dulcimer-building workshops for as many people as possible, many of them children from lower-income backgrounds.

three images of a woman teaching. One with children sitting in a circle playing dulcimer. One with children learning to build cardboard dulcimers. One with a woman teaching adults to build cardboard dulcimers.
Roxanne in various dulcimer teaching roles.

The last few years of my life have been especially healing. I’ve been able to let go of a lot of the pain and bitterness of the past. I’ve also come to have a new level of appreciation for not only the dulcimer, but for teaching and community building. I’ve been able to connect with more people and introduce the dulcimer to a wider demographic. It feels like I am finding my place, and I’m very grateful for what feels like a second chance at life.

When I think about how music has changed things for me, it makes me want to share that possibility with others. Music makes the good days better and the bad days bearable. Music has helped me embrace my Appalachian roots and gain a greater appreciation for them. It’s also given me strength in the face of persecution. Our identities, our communities, our traditions, and our stories matter. Music can not only keep all of these alive but strengthen them. It is my hope that music can be a source of strength and refuge for all who need it.

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. 







Thank You, Teachers!

Today is National Teacher Appreciation Day, also known as National Teacher Day. The National Education Association notes that this is “a day for honoring teachers and recognizing the lasting contributions they make to our lives.”

Here at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, we can’t sing the praises of teachers high enough – we love working with them and finding new ways to connect with teachers and their students. Teachers do too many amazing things for us to list them all. However, we are going to share our top six reasons why teachers ROCK, and because we are a music museum, we are using the guitar – a fundamental instrument of country music – and its six guitar string notes, listed from the bottom string up, as our inspiration: E B G D A E!

A graphic of a hand holding the neck of a guitar. The six strings are labelled bottom string to top string as EGBDAE/123456.

Graphic of a guitar neck with the strings labelled bottom to top as EBGDAE/123456. ©

E String

Being a teacher is hard, but despite the challenges faced, teachers strive to encourage and excite their students to learn, think critically, and explore the world around them every single day. We often see the evidence of this with the student who come through our doors – many of them have learned about early country music or local history or technology in their classrooms already, priming them for a more meaningful experience and providing us with a lot of great questions and observations as we share the museum with them.

B String

And this leads to the tangible outcome of this prep – when teachers bring students to the museum. We are so grateful for the school field trips that are scheduled at the museum, and we’ve seen the number of these tours continually grow since we opened in 2014. Some teachers and students are coming for the first time; other educators bring their classes year-after-year. They come from our local Bristol, TN/VA schools, the Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia region, and even further afield, including schools in Georgia, Northern Virginia, and Iowa!

Not only do teachers bring students to visit the museum, but they also put a lot of effort into the planning of and during these field trips, which always makes the experience better for all of us.

A large theater space with school students seated while a white man in a red shirt and khaki pants talks to them from the stage floor.

A student group is introduced to the museum and the orientation film by docent Richard Horner. © Birthplace of Country Music

G String

We are also lucky to get useful guidance from teachers. Through school tour surveys, teacher in-service workshops, and one-on-one conversations, educators provide us with amazing feedback that help us to improve our programs for students and teachers alike. In 2020 and 2021, we worked with a focus group of teachers from the Bristol, TN/VA public schools to hear about their ideas, suggestions, wants, and needs for our museum-based lesson plan project, and we also had our first teacher intern who helped us on the project and to deliver two impactful in-service workshops for K-12 educators. The insights we gained from this experience were invaluable!

D String

The teachers we partner with strive to develop creative and interesting ways to engage their students with the museum and its content. We’ve had so many positive experiences working with different classes and learning groups – from the YWCA TechGYRLS production of a radio show to mark the Smithsonian’s Museum Day Live! event; the fun activities we’ve done with the Virginia Middle School after-school club (including square dancing, the science of sound, and an upcoming instrument petting zoo); the class that had been immersed in Johnny Cash’s music before our Johnny Cash/Folsom Prison special exhibit in 2022; and talking to a high school class about the things that go into curating a small exhibit, how to write museum labels, and ways to engage people with their own content.

Left: A group of 8 young girls pose together in front of a chalkboard that says "YWCA TechGYRLS Radio Program 1pm." Right: A large group of male and female students pose in the Johnny Cash exhibit. They are all wearing black in honor of "the man in black"!

Left: The YWCA TechGRYLS pose with the notice of their radio show in the museum lobby. Right: A group of students honor the “man in black” by wearing all black when visiting 1968: A Folsom Redemption in 2022. © Birthplace of Country Music

A String

As we said earlier, being a teacher is a hard job. But the teachers we know are amazing advocates for their students and for the joy of learning. And they are ALWAYS doing so much to support their students, to help them thrive, to be a positive person in their life, and so much more.

And they also advocate for us – by bringing their classes to the museum, by sharing events and other opportunities we offer to students and their families, and by letting our community know that the museum is an important educational asset.

E String

Finally, the teachers who visit the museum  encourage smiles and laughs from their students throughout their time with us. They play Banjo Bingo; they sing along in the karaoke booth; they give a whole host of answers to one of our favorite questions: how many grooves are on a record?; they dance in the Immersion Theater; and so much more. They show the kids that you can learn AND have fun at the same time!

Left: Sullins Academy's Head of School and one of its teachers try out a student activity for the special exhibit Things Come Apart. They are both kneeling on the ground putting together a "vehicle" from PVC pipe. Right: A group of Sullins Academy students pose around their PVC pipe vehicle. There are six white students - 3 boys, 3 girls - and they are doing funny faces and poses.

Sullins Academy teachers and students took part in a vehicle-building exercise as part of the Things Come Apart special exhibit at the museum in 2017. © Birthplace of Country Music

Rene Rodgers is the Head Curator of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum and oversees its educational programming. She loves teachers!

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Do you remember coming back to school and being asked to write an essay on “How I Spent My Summer Vacation”? Well, sometimes as adults, we get asked to do this too!

I spent part of my summer vacation – a much-needed respite from my 7:00am to whenever job as a North Carolina educator – learning about museum education at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. For three intense weeks, I completed an internship for my educational leadership doctoral program at Appalachian State University, working with the curatorial staff to design and implement a two-day in-service training for area teachers about the museum’s educational resources and helping to develop museum content lesson plans. Having worked in K-12 and community college education, I was not new to teaching; however, museum education is uniquely different, and this opportunity taught me an expansive amount. Most importantly I learned how museums are a vital non-traditional educational method, and this experience provided me with a fuller appreciation of their importance and impact on our communities and our history.

Introducting elementary school teachers to the Birthplace of Country Music Museum’s lesson plans. © Birthplace of Country Music

When most people think of school and learning, they think of sitting in desks in a classroom. Field trips to museums were treats awarded to the class and provided a break from the mundane everyday classroom monotony. This assessment isn’t wrong, but this internship taught me that there is much more to museums than what we experience in mere field trips. The Birthplace of Country Music Museum is a fun place to visit, filled with music and several interactive technologies for visitors to engage with the music. However, it is also a living educational gem, where the special exhibit is always changing and the curatorial staff is constantly seeking ways to improve the content and to provide visitors with memorable information.

Teaching is ongoing at the museum. When school groups visit, students get an introduction to the story of the 1927 Bristol Sessions and view a film about its history and impact before embarking on a scavenger hunt to learn more. They can also enjoy a game of Banjo Bingo, a fun, interactive way for them to learn about the instruments used in these important recording sessions. The museum’s Special Exhibits Gallery also offers a space for learning focused on different topics throughout the year – from music, Appalachian culture, explorations of art and portraiture, or even wider histories like Civil Rights or the history of work in America. These lessons are often wrapped in an interactive discussion about the artifacts and images on view. Even though students may not even realize it, they are learning valuable information despite not being in a traditional educational venue. The museum is teaching and providing a valuable avenue to provide education in a non-traditional way.

Three images:
Left-hand image: Four sets of lesson plans, two of which have blue and teal covers with their titles "The 1927 Bristol Sessions Story" and "The Instruments of the 1927 Bristol Sessions," and two of which are draft texts for lesson plans on technology and the science of sound and artists/personalities from the 1927 Bristol Sessions.
Top right: The author Amy Myers stands in front of several teachers seated at round tables in a large room. Amy is a white woman with blonde hair; she is wearing a black and white dress and is holding one of the lesson plans up next to a PowerPoint slide presentation.
Bottom right: A group of teachers sit at round tables in a large room. Near the brick wall at the back two teachers (one white man with a white shirt, one white woman with brown hair and a blue top) stand up -- one holds a poster they have created as a group for one of the learning activities.
Working with the curatorial team on the museum’s K-12 lesson plans project and sharing museum educational resources at the July teacher in-service gave me a unique insight into the enormous potential of museum education – and how fun it can be! © Birthplace of Country Music

Further, the Birthplace of Country Music Museum is an important asset to the Bristol community and as a vehicle to explore the history of the region. The premise of the museum focuses on how country music grew out of the 1927 Bristol Sessions, but the museum’s content delves deeply into the rich culture of the Appalachians, a culture that has made Bristol the place it is today. Further, the expansive musical heritage of Bristol is alive and well at this museum, preserving vital information for the community and enabling generations to learn about and to understand their past. The importance of the museum’s role in preserving the area’s history cannot be understated. It is an integral part in preserving the community’s rich heritage.

The list of everything I learned while working at the museum could go on and on, but honestly these facets impacted me the most. The Birthplace of Country Music Museum is a beautiful venue that is dedicated to educating visitors about its history grounded in the region’s music. The staff are amazing, tireless professionals, dedicated to the museum’s mission. I am very thankful for this opportunity afforded me to work alongside these folks and to learn primarily from the curatorial staff. It has changed my outlook on non-traditional education, and I now carry the positive impact of the museum and the Bristol region with me wherever I go. Not only did this experience change how I view museums in general, but it made me further appreciate the role they fulfill in the educational realm. 

Check out the museum’s Education page to learn more about their offerings to the local community and K-12 educators. The museum’s suite of K-12 lesson plans will be uploaded to the website soon.

Amy Myers interned at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in 2021, helping curatorial staff to plan and produce museum lesson plans and deliver a two-day teacher in-service program. She is working on her Ph.D. in Educational Leadership at Appalachian State University, while also working as a teacher in the North Carolina school system.

To App-uh-latch-uh or To App-uh-lay-shuh…That is the Question

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.

The photograph show a display mannequin showcasing a grey t-shirt, red scarf, and musician brooch. The t-shirt has the word [app-uh-latch-uh] on it.

Soon after the museum opened, we sold t-shirts that spelled out the “correct” pronunciation of Appalachia – it generated debate from our visitors and also 435 shares on the related social media post! © Birthplace of Country Music

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.

A vintage map focused on the Carolinas and Georgia, with Virginia  showing at the top of the map. Various regions, rivers, and other topographical features are marked, including the Appalachian Mountains chain, which are marked as Apalachean Mountains.

A map from the mid-1700s with “Country of the Apalaches” and “Apalachean Mountains” labeled. Found on, source: David Rumsey, Historical Map Collection, Carolina and Georgia (by Emanuel Bowen and John Gibson, 1758)

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.

Writer Sharyn McCrumb opines on the ways to pronounce “Appalachia.”

Safer Travels to Bristol, Above and Below!

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:

A young girl with long braids stands up in her seat to take in the view of a NASCAR race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Racing at Bristol Motor Speedway is a bucket list event the whole family will enjoy!
Photo courtesy of Bristol Motor Speedway

Bristol Motor Speedway

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.

A black Corvette competes in Bristol Motor Speedway's Thunder Valley Street Fights event.
Street Fights at Bristol Motor Speedway’s Thunder Valley.
Photo courtesy of Bristol Motor Speedway

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!

A stunning view of the Underground River inside Bristol Caverns.
The breathtaking Underground River inside Bristol Caverns.
Photo courtesy of Bristol Caverns

Bristol Caverns

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.

A lit and gated pathway inside Bristol Caverns.
A lit walkway inside Bristol Caverns highlights the beauty underground.

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!

Discover Bristol 
Believe in Bristol 
Northeast Tennessee Tourism Association
Visit Southwest Virginia 

Earth Day 2020: Sustainability, Museums, and Their Communities

Today is Earth Day – and not just any Earth Day, but the 50th anniversary of Earth Day – a date that is traditionally marked by environmental action and conversations about sustainability.

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.

Looking up towards the glass ceiling of the building, the photo shows several colorful birds (blue, green, pink, orange, and red) in flight made of plastic bottles.

This display called Birds of a Feather is by Patti Lawrence. Made out of reused plastic bottles, it highlights environmental issues. Photo courtesy of Kingsport Office of Cultural Arts and the City of Kingsport Higher Ed. Center

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?

A picture of the Louvre's front facade with the glass pyramid Louvre extension in front of it.

The Louvre Museum and Pyramid, a temple next to a modern interpretation of a temple.
Photo by Yeo Khee on Unsplash

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. 

For more information, here are some great resources: Principles for Sustainable Museums; Sustainability and Museums; and Museums, Environmental Sustainability, and Our Future.

Be a Part of the Birthplace of Country Music at Home!

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!

Radio Bristol

While our DJs aren’t able to come into the studio for live broadcasts, we are still sharing new segments of most of our Radio Bristol programs via the dial at 100.1FM, our smartphone app, and the website. Radio Bristol is the perfect place to get your music and history fix. We’ve got daily shows like Early Morning Americana and On the Sunny Side; shows focused on regional music such as Old Kentucky Bound, Appalachian Travels, and Born in the Mountain; shows that delve into different musical genres such as Grass Cuttin’ Time, Folk Yeah!, Transmissions Under the Wire, and Hillbilly Wonderland; shows that share deep dives into music history and Appalachian tales like Mountain Song and Story, Ozark Highlands Radio, and Sound Sessions from Smithsonian Folkways; Radio Bristol’s old-fashioned radio variety show Farm and Fun Time via the Farm and Fun Time Noon Show and Farm and Fun Time Weekly; and more. For a full list of Radio Bristol offerings, including archived shows, check out this link and start listening – you are sure to find your musical nirvana!

The official graphic for Bailey George's Honky Tonk Hit Parade shows an image of Bailey wearing cowboy-style shirt and hat.

Bailey George’s Honky Tonk Hit Parade is another genre-specific Radio Bristol show. © Birthplace of Country Music Museum

Listen While I Tell

The BCM blog – Listen While I Tell: From Bristol’s Birthplace of Country Music & Beyond – is a great place to explore BCM’s work and content further. Sharing several posts each month, the blog brings you behind-the-scenes views into the work that we do each day at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion music festival, and Radio Bristol; content-driven stories related to early country music history; features on instruments and musicians; and explorations of the continuing music traditions in this region. For instance, you can check out our “Instrument Interviews” where different and sometimes famous instruments are asked 10 interview-style questions. Or perhaps you want to learn more about some of the artists who performed in Bristol in 1927. You can find out about our DJs’ favorite songs, albums, and musicians through “Pick 5” or “Off the Record,” or hear stories from our annual music festival. We also dig deep into our collections with our “From the Vault” posts, share insights into exhibit content and educational programming, and sometimes just look at some quirkier things. Check out the blog today – and feel free to let us know if there’s a topic you’d like to see us cover in the future!

The blog's landing page on the website has the title above, a featured post below, and then several links to recent posts underneath that.

The landing page for the Listen While I Tell blog. © Birthplace of Country Music
The BCM banjo coloring sheet includes information about the banjo's origins along with the picture for coloring in.

A BCM coloring sheet: the banjo. © Birthplace of Country Music

Museum Content

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.

The four readers for the July 2019 book club are pictured around the Radio  Bristol studio mic; three readers are holding the book up.

July 2019’s book club read Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone? about the Carter Family. © Birthplace of Country Music

On-Line Performances

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.

A close-up of Davina playing the keyboards, dressed all in black and with a hat. The band's trombonist is seen in the background.

Davina and the Vagabonds on the museum’s Performance Theater stage during Farm and Fun Time. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Billie Wheeler

Social Media

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.

A close-up of one of the Smithsonian garden displays where the plants have been chosen and arranged to look like an under-sea coral reef, including metal fish sculptures.

One of the many Smithsonian gardens along the National Mall in Washington, DC. Image by René Rodgers

Smithsonian Resources

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.

Thank You!

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.

The Origin Project: Children Telling Appalachian Stories

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 endeavour. 

Story writing 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.

Left: Adriana Trigiani standing on stage at the Barter Theater with an audience full of school children. Center: Three 4th-grade students holding Cynthia Rylant's book and copies of the school project lap books. Right: Adriana Trigiani posing with a young student in the Barter Theater.
Left and right: Adri and The Origin Project students at the Barter Theatre Kickoff Celebration in 2018. Center: Flatwoods Elementary School 4th-grade reading students with lap books made in response to When I Was Young in the Mountains by Cynthia Rylant. Photographs courtesy of Linda Woodward

Starting 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.

The cover of The Origin Project Book Four (2018), which looks like a stained glass view of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The Origin Project Book Four, published May 2018. Photograph courtesy of Linda Woodward

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 unfolding.”

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.

Nancy sitting in a rocking chair in a school classroom, surrounded by 2nd-grade students as she reads to them.
Reading Lorraine: The Girl Who Sang the Storm Away by Ketch Secor to Flatwoods Elementary School 2nd graders. Photograph courtesy of Linda Woodward

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.

Left: Langley Shazor, wearing a cloth cap, and Rene Rodgers, in a plaid flannel shirt, standing in front of the opening panel to For All the World to See (a picture of Gordon Parks with his camera). Right: Langley stands behind several students working on typewriter's in the museum's Learning Center.
Left: Langley Shazor and René Rodgers talk to The Origin Project students about For All the World to See and using the exhibit’s visual imagery for inspiration. Right: Students use old-fashioned typewriters to tap into their creativity after visiting the exhibit. Photographs courtesy of Linda Woodward

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!