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Instrument Interview: The Jug

“Instrument Interview” posts are a chance to sit down with the instruments of traditional, country, bluegrass, and roots music – from different types of instruments to specific ones related to artists, luthiers, and songwriters – and learn more about them. Ten questions are posed, and the instruments answer! Today we caught up with the jug, a very interesting instrument who had a lot to say about what it’s like to be in a jug band.

1.  Tell me a little bit about yourself. 

I’m a jug that is used as an instrument. I play in a type of band that is called a jug band, but there are lots of other interesting instruments in these types of bands other than me. I’m a household object that was converted into a musical instrument.

2.  Jugs are made to be containers, so how did you become an instrument? 

I come from a long line of innovators. These are the type of creative people that make things from what they’ve got in their surroundings. Many early jug bands were made up of African American musicians from the world of vaudeville, musicians who performed in traveling medicine shows, and sometimes just people at home creating their own instruments. And jugs like me first started being recorded in jug bands in places like Kentucky and Tennessee in the 1920s and 1930s.

For some jug band musicians, perhaps they didn’t have the money for or access to instruments, and so they decided to pick up and modify things like jugs, washboards, spoons, and other things to make music to entertain themselves and their community. People have been making music out of everyday items and things they find just lying around for centuries.

Three Black musicians pose with their instruments. They all wear suits, the men to the left and right with bow ties and the middle man with either a normal tie or just his collar buttoned up. The man to the left wears a fedora-style hat, holds a banjo, and has a jug held towards his face by a "rack" around his neck. The middle man is seated and wears a fedora-style hat; he holds a guitar. The man to the right wears a flat cap and holds a harmonica.
Cannon’s Jug Stompers, a band formed by Gus Cannon with Noah Lewis and Ashley Thompson in the late 1920s. Supposedly Cannon first learned to play the banjo on an instrument he made from a frying pan and a racoon skin when he was a child. Image from Wikimedia Commons

3.  Can any old jug be an instrument? 

Sure! You can make music with any old milk jug or even something like a Snapple bottle, and I definitely encourage you to make music with anything you can find. Next time you find yourself with an empty bottle or jug, see how many ways you can make music with it. I promise it will brighten your day, and you won’t regret having a little fun making music. However, a jug is not much without the other instruments in the jug band.

4.  How are you played?

There are multiple ways to play a jug. Since it wasn’t originally intended to be an instrument, there are far fewer rules on how to do it right so feel free to improvise! Lots of people think that to play a jug, you blow across the top of the opening like you’d play a flute, but there’s actually a lot more spit involved than that. You could do it that way, but normally in a jug band, players will buzz into a jug with their lips like you’d do to play the trumpet.

5.  What do you sound like? And what about the band as a whole?

I make a sound that is kind of like a trombone-like tone, and it is often low on the musical scale. And the sound I make is also influenced by the material I am made of and my size. As a whole, a jug band typically plays music that sounds like a blend of blues, jazz, rag-time, and rock-and-roll. This is because jug bands were a precursor to all of these genres of music. Jug band music is a community and joy-based type of music, and since the instruments are so versatile and unique, it’s a great medium for innovation and creating new sound. This is how jug bands influenced the music from a variety of genres.

Three instruments hang on the back of a museum display case. The backing is blue. The top instrument is a small guitar made from a cigar box with a wooden neck. The middle instrument is a guitar made out of a circular ice bucket with a wooden neck. The bottom instrument is a large jug with a brown neck and shoulders and a cream body.
Various handmade and every day object instruments on display at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, Arizona. These include two guitars, one made from a cigar box and the other from an ice bucket, along with a jug used to make music. Photograph by Frank Kovalchek via Wikimedia Commons

6.  What are the roles of the different instruments in a jug band?

The washboard, the bones, and the spoons provide percussion and rhythm for a jug band. The washtub base, the jaw harp, comb and tissue paper, some other modified stringed instruments, as well as the jug take the other places in a jug band. Some bands have just a few of these instruments, but others have many more depending on the sound that the band is trying to achieve. And often more “typical” instruments like the guitar or banjo are also included in the band. It’s a bit of a mix-and-match situation.

7.  Why did people start making music with jugs? 

People started to make music with jugs for the same reason everybody starts to make music – because they love it and wanted to come up with a way to entertain themselves and the people around them. This motivation based on love comes into the origin stories of just about all instruments. Even the simple ones like me. Throughout history, it has taken innovation and the creative use of ordinary objects and different materials to make music.

8.  When instruments are more accessible today, why do people still play the jug? Why are you and other homemade instruments still relevant? 

One reason that jug bands are still relevant is that the history of music is something that should be remembered and celebrated, and playing the music is one of the best ways to learn about it. Another way jug bands stay relevant is through modern music. Folk musicians and other musicians take inspiration from the unique sound of a jug band and adapt it to contemporary music. This brings a historical element to their music as well as a new and interesting sound. The main reason overall that a jug band and its instruments are still relevant is that the instruments are fun to play and listen to, and just about anyone can learn to play because a lot of the instruments are ones that you can find easily or make.

This photograph shows a band on a dark stage. The group is made up of six white musicians, including a woman with curly hair on guitar, a man with longish dark hair and a plaid shirt on harmonica, a man with a black shirt on washtub bass, a man in a tank top on drums, a man in a black shirt with the spoons, and a man wearing a hat and a plaid shirt on the washboard.
The Happy Fun Thyme Trouble Jug Band performing in 2019. At the far back left, you can see a washtub bass being played, while the two other musicians in the back of the group play the spoons and washboard. Image from Wikimedia Commons

9.  How do homemade instruments like you fit into an Appalachian/Southern identity?

Both of these identities consist very much of holding things like community as a high priority. There’s not much people like to do more than get together and listen to music. Also, very important to a Southern and Appalachian identity is resilience in the face of adversity. In an area that struggles with poverty, the people are known for finding creative and innovative ways to do things like make music – and to produce wonderful instruments to help them do so!

10.  Is there anything else you’d like to add about yourself? 

Before I leave, I’d like to emphasize the importance of making music with whatever you find in your environment and doing it for fun. If it wasn’t for people looking around for ways to have a good time making music with things like jugs and seemingly silly household objects, we wouldn’t have the blues and rock music that we love today. So next time you feel like being silly and making music with a strange object, do it. You might just invent a new genre of music!

Gracie Osborne was an intern at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum this past summer, helping with curatorial work and visitor experience. She is an anthropology student at Radford University.

June Carter Cash: A Life in Country Music

Today – June 23 – is June Carter Cash’s birthday. At the age of 10, Valerie June Carter stepped in front of the mic for the first time with The Carter Family, and from there her role and legacy in the musical realm only grew stronger.

This image shows a senior class spread from a yearbook. June Carter is seen on the right-hand page in the bottom right of four student photographs. She is wearing a light colored top or dress. At the bottom of the picture is her autograph, which reads: "Luck, June Carter / Valerie June Carter Cash." To the left of the four photographs are the names of the students with their activities listed below their names.
Before she became a full-time performer and country music icon, June was your typical high school senior. This yearbook hinted at her musical career in the clubs and activities she participated in, including girls’ chorus and choir, but also in the later autograph she wrote on her senior portrait photograph after she was famous!

June Carter was born into the “first family of country music,” as one of three daughters of Ezra and Maybelle Carter, and she came into this world just two years after the famous 1927 Bristol Sessions, where The Carter Family recorded for the very first time. June lived the majority of her life in the spotlight – after the original Carter Family disbanded in 1943, she (at the age of 14), along with sisters Helen and Anita, began singing as part of the family’s professional act, Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters. Even though they gained a lot of popularity under that name, Maybelle changed the band’s name to The Carter Family two years after A. P. Carter died in 1960. They released their first album, The Carter Family Album, on Liberty Records soon after. June also got a solo deal while preforming with the Carter Sisters.

The Carter Family Album cover is a reddish-orange color with a leather bound, old photograph album shown in the center. The photograph album is labeled with the record's title "The Carter Family Album" and has an oval picture of Mother Maybelle, June, Anita, and Helen in the center.

The cover of The Carter Family Album has the look of an old family photograph album.

June played many instruments including the harmonica, banjo, guitar, and autoharp. Not only did she have a solo career and a career with her family group, but she also had a career with her third husband, Johnny Cash. Together they won a Grammy in 1967 and 1970, and June also won three Grammys of her own, two of which she won after she passed away in 2003. That same year Country Music Television (CMT) included June on their “40 Greatest Women of Country Music” list.

June’s marriages connected to important musical legacies. Her first marriage was to Carl Smith, one of the most successful male country artists in the 1950s. Before June and Carl got divorced, they had one daughter, Rebecca Carlene, together. Today Carlene Carter is a singer-songwriter who is continuing the county music family legacy – her most recent album Carter Girl, is filled with three generations of Carter Family music. Carlene performed at the grand opening of the museum in 2014 too! You can read Carlene’s tribute to her mother on the blog here.

June married Johnny Cash, the “man in black” himself, in 1968, and they were together until June’s death in May 2003. June and Johnny were introduced to each other backstage at the Grand Ole Opry in 1965, though each of them was aware of the other through their music. In the years before they got married, June and Johnny performed and recorded together several times. June co-wrote “Ring of Fire,” which became one of Johnny’s most famous songs and topped the charts for seven weeks. Together Johnny and June had one son, John Carter Cash, who is also continuing the country music legacy of his family as a record producer and singer-songwriter.

Unlike her first and last unions, June’s second marriage – to Edwin “Rip” Nix – was not a marriage of two musical stars. Nix was a football player, racecar driver, and police officer, but their daughter Rosie also became a singer-songwriter. Sadly, she passed away in 2003, the same year as her mother, from carbon monoxide poisoning.

From the beginnings of the original Carter Family with Maybelle, Sara, and A. P. to June’s career as a country music icon to June’s children following in her and their grandmother’s footsteps, the lineage of Carter country musicians has strong roots and branches – a family born into, raised by, and innovating country music.

Julia Underkoffler is a summer intern at the Birthplace of Country Music. She is a rising senior at Shepherd University in West Virginia, majoring in historic preservation and public history and minoring in gender and women’s studies.

The Root of It: J. P. Harris on Roscoe Holcomb

Radio Bristol is excited to share “The Root of It,” a blog series connecting today’s influential musicians to often lesser known and sometimes obscure musicians of the early commercial recording era. The sounds and musicians we hear today on platforms like Radio Bristol can often be traced back to the sounds of earlier generations. What better way to discover these connections than to talk to the musicians themselves about some of the artists that have been integral in shaping their music? These influences, though generally not household names, continue to inspire those who dig deep to listen through the scratches and noise of old 78s, field recordings, and more, finding nuances and surprises that inevitably lead them on their own unique musical journeys.

For this installment of “The Root of It,” we spoke with prolific songwriter and banjo player J. P. Harris. For years Harris has travelled internationally performing his unique take on honky tonk-flavored country music. Harris is also well versed in old-time music, spending much of his early years at fiddlers conventions where he delved headfirst into traditional old-time fiddle tunes and songs. His latest release on Freedirt RecordsDon’t You Marry No Railroad Man – is a testament to the old-time influences that have inspired his music through the years. One of those influences is the East Kentuckian Roscoe Holcomb. One of those voices you just don’t forget after hearing him for the first time, Holcomb was also an incredibly gifted guitar and banjo player. He experienced international acclaim during the folk revival in part due to the documentary High Lonesome, which was shot by renowned artist and musician John Cohen. Harris spoke with Radio Bristol about the influence and inspiration the music of Roscoe Holcomb has had upon his own music.

A white man with close-cropped dark hair and a large dark beard sits in front of a table covered in fruit, vegetables, bread, and wine bottles -- set up very much like a Renaissance still life. He is wearing a white long-sleeve shirt and brown pants. His sleeves are slightly pushed up to reveal lots of tattoos.

Portrait of J. P. Harris by Libby Danforth.

J.P Harris:

As most Americans my age had, I’d heard little snippets of traditional American folk music over the course of my lifetime, but grew up removed from direct exposure to any of its subsets. As a teenager living and traveling on my own, often to far-flung corners of the country via hitchhiking or freight trains, my affinity for folk music and the stories therein grew immensely. And at this time, my interaction with the internet was virtually nonexistent, and it didn’t yet contain the endless well of digitized recordings, downloadable music, or streaming platforms we are so familiar with today.

As a result, I feel I grew into my taste in music in what was to be the last era of “oral tradition.” Amongst my community of friends and travelers, people traded dubbed cassettes, often with little or no information about the recordings, or maybe the occasional burnt copy of a CD. Oftentimes the label would simply read “blues” or “banjo music,” and we relied on our memories to retain any detail about who was playing, where they were from, and when it was recorded.

This is essentially the story of my introduction to Roscoe Holcomb (born 1912 as Halcomb in Daisy, Kentucky). A mix tape made by a friend arrived in the mail unlabeled, and one track in particular raised the hair on my arms and made me shudder at each vocal turn – so much so that eventually the track became garbled and nearly unlistenable from the repeated rewinding of that section of tape. I would later learn that the tune was “Darling Cory,” a song that became entrenched in my own repertoire.

A white man standing in front of an old wooden shed and ladder. He wears a light-colored hat, shirt, and pants, along with glasses, and holds a big-head banjo in his hands ready to play. Dark trees can also be seen in the background.

Roscoe Holcomb with banjo in Daisy, Kentucky, 1959. Bob Dylan described Holcomb as an artist with “a certain untamed sense of control.” Photo by John Cohen

However, it wasn’t until a few years later, in a local record store, that I once again heard that utterly unmistakable tone of voice and rushed to the clerk to ask what was playing on the house speakers. I purchased the album in question right then and there – An Untamed Sense Of Control from Smithsonian Folkways – and, for months, became lost in the lush landscape painted by Holcomb’s songs, hardly listening to anything else in my pickup as I drove to and from job sites each day, soaking up his many styles of guitar and banjo playing on the record.

Before discovering Roscoe Holcomb, I’d never heard an artist of his era playing such a diverse catalog of songs and styles, veering from a hymnal to the blues to dark mountain ballads. The variation in song style never left one guessing if it was still Holcomb singing, his voice plaintive and unrestrained. Learning of his life story (Holcomb worked as a road builder, farmer, coal miner, and finally as a full-time musician in his final years), my affinity only grew deeper – at the time, I was primarily working as a carpenter, logger, and heavy equipment operator. My musical tastes were a mix of early blues, early country, old time, and bluegrass, all of which you could hear Holcomb playing on any given album, and he became a sort of one-stop-shop for me for many years.

There are endless early professional or field recordings I could reference for the influences that still prevail in my own music career. Each one’s unique regional style or era-specific sound is a part of the intrigue of traditional American music, but none did I find where the musician had so obviously melded what they heard in a wider sense. Holcomb would at one turn play “Fair Miss In The Garden,” a ballad with obvious roots in 18th or even 17th-century British Isles traditions and common in Appalachia, then he would pivot to the bluesy “Frankie and Johnny,” a song so widespread that it would’ve been thought of as “pop music” during Hocomb’s youth in the 1920s and 1930s. This melding of styles surely gave me a new perspective on traditional music; before this, I had viewed them as altogether separate genres, unable to combine into the singer’s own personal stylistic interpretations.

White couple -- the woman is to the left and man to the right. She has dark hair and is wearing a white frilly-edged sleeveless shirt and dark pants/skirt; he is wearing a light-colored button-down shirt, big glasses, and a hat. He has one arm across her shoulders. They are standing in front of a white house.

Roscoe and wife Ethel Holcomb captured by the brilliant artist and New Lost City Rambler John Cohen.

It can only be assumed that Holcomb’s exposure to these other kinds of music not native to his rural Kentucky home came through his work in the mines and on construction crews, where likely both white and Black laborers from across the southeast were crossing paths and inadvertently sharing musical cultures, as evidenced by Holcomb’s “Mississippi Heavy Water Blues” or the instrumental “Knife Guitar.”

Although his music is no secret to most traditional enthusiasts (Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, and The Stanley Brothers have all cited him on many occasions), Roscoe Holcomb remains to this day the first “gateway artist” I recommend to anyone trying to discover this largely unknown, yet vibrant, world of American music.

* To learn more about J. P. Harris or to check out his latest record Don’t You Marry No Railroad Man, releasing on June 25, visit www.ilovehonkytonk.com.


J. P. Harris’ Dreadful Wind and Rain featuring Chance McCoy with a nice rendition of “Mole in the Ground.”

Celebrate Record Store Day with History!

Record Store Day, celebrated on June 12, was established in 2007 to support independent and small business record stores, and it has become a highlight for the record-buying public. The height of record store popularity ranged from the 1950s to the 1980s, but wherever you purchase your music these days, it’s obvious that vinyl is having a resurgence in popularity. Taylor Swift recently broke a modern era record for vinyl sales in a single week. So, in celebration of Record Store Day, here’s a brief look at the history of recording records.

Customers browsing and buying records in a record store. Records are on display on a central table and in rows of boxes, while the walls are decorated with album covers, t-shirts, and a sign about Record Store Day.

Record Store Day 2014 at Drift Records in Totnes, United Kingdon. Photo by Sophie means wisdom, Wikimedia Commons 

The first audio recording and playback machine was invented by Thomas Edison. It worked by carving the audio into a piece of metal foil wrapped around a cylinder. The original purpose of this invention, called the phonograph, was not for listening to music for pleasure but as a machine to record short notes for business meetings. Edison actually never thought of his invention as a means for music or entertainment, and these early cylinders certainly weren’t viewed as items for posterity – the recordings could only be played back a few times before they were too degraded to hear. Later, through the work of other inventors, cylinders began to be coated in wax, which provided a slightly better sound with more playbacks. 

Emile Berliner improved upon this invention by converting the bulky and hard-to-store cylinders into flat discs. With the invention of these more durable discs, listening finally started to take the shape we now know and love. Berliner’s hand-cranked invention to listen to these discs was dubbed the gramophone, which is where the Grammy Awards get their name and their trophy gets its shape in honor of this piece of music-listening history.

Technology is always a story of constant evolution and, usually, improvement. Eldridge Johnson, a machinist who worked with Berliner to improve the gramophone, founded the Victor Talking Machine Company and began making and his own version of the playback machine, as well as producing 78 records that were made with a new and improved technique resulting in a higher quality sound. With changes in the recording technology – including the electric microphone and the electric amplifier – recorded music became more and more popular from the 1920s. And technology continued to develop over the years with a whole host of different record playing machines and changes in the format of records – from the early 78s to the later 33 1/3 and 45rpm records. The museum’s collections hold a multitude of the older 78s, while 33 1/3s, or LPs, are most widely sold now.


Left: A small Victrola phonograph on display at the museum. Top right: A cylinder player and cylinders. Botom right: A modern record player with a 45rpm record on it. Credits: © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Neil Staples; Photo by Petit Louis, Wikimedia Commons; Photo by Alan Levine, Wikimedia Commons

The invention of magnetic tape offered a clearer sound and portable listening, and record technology faded into the background, but the appeal of listening via records never quite died. A surge in popularity of record listening in the 1960s ushered in a golden age of records that lasted through the 1970s. And once again innovation came to the fore, influencing musical styles and techniques – for instance, in the 1980s and 1990s, hip hop artists created new and unique tracks from the sounds that were on the records using mixers and samplers.

In the past few years, a new wave in the popularity of vinyl has increased the appeal of owning and listening to music on records. Popular artists are releasing their albums on vinyl to be sold in record stores, big and small, as well as box stores with growing shelf space for these records. Record players are easy to find at affordable prices, and some of these modern players now offer multiple listening formats including cassette players, CD players, AUX jacks, and Bluetooth connection. This lets you listen to your music in just about any format you want. 

Despite vinyl records not being as convenient as the common digital technology, there is something really special about owning the physical song etched into a disc and building a collection of your favorite albums – and it’s not just about the record itself, but also about the cover artwork and the liner notes. And so, embrace vinyl once again, and celebrate this Record Store Day by going out to your nearest record store and treating yourself to an addition to your collection – or starting one! Because even if it’s the first record you’ve ever bought or your 101st, there’s nothing quite like the first play of a new record.

A set of shelves (4 high) filled with records. A Star Wars-themed "record tote" is on display on the 3rd shelf.

Museum staff member Scotty Almany is an avid record collector. © Scotty Almany

The Root of It: Joseph Decosimo on Dick Burnett

Radio Bristol is excited to share “The Root of It,” a new series connecting today’s influential musicians to often lesser known and sometimes obscure musicians of the early commercial recording era. The sounds and musicians we hear today on platforms like Radio Bristol can often be traced back to the sounds of earlier generations. What better way to discover these connections than to talk to the musicians themselves about some of the artists that have been integral in shaping their music? These influences, though generally not household names, continue to inspire those who dig deep to listen through the scratches and noise of old 78s, field recordings, and more, finding nuances and surprises that inevitably lead them on their own unique musical journeys. 

For this installment of “The Root of It,” we spoke with banjo and fiddle extraordinaire Joseph Decosimo. Joseph was raised in Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau and has had a lifelong passion for the music of the region centered upon banjo and fiddle. Through his illustrious performing and recording career with projects like The Bucking Mules and The Rocky Creek Ramblers, and through his solo work, Joseph celebrates and reimagines the music of the Cumberland Plateau, Central Appalachia, and the broader American South. Currently based in Durham, North Carolina, Decosimo continues to engage with traditional music not only through performance but also through scholarship as a recent PhD in American Studies at the University of North Carolina. By exploring the history of a tune and theme that has permeated old-time traditions for generations, Joseph shared some of the artists that inspire him and his music.

A man standing on a screened in porch with the side of the house and trees/yard showing behind him. He is bearded and wearing glasses,a tan sweater, a baseball cap, and dark pants. He holds in fiddle in one hand and a bow in the other.
Joseph Decosimo with fiddle.

Joseph Decosimo:

Last spring, I found myself visiting a little city park down the hill from my house in Durham. There’s a stand of persimmon trees there, surrounded by a tangle of blackberry bushes that are slowly reclaiming a field. I don’t know that I’ve ever paid much attention to blackberry blossoms, but something about that early pandemic moment led me to attend to the smaller details – smells, sights, sounds – of the natural world. In this corner of the park, these five-petaled blackberry blossoms burst into clouds of linen whites and soft pinks against a backdrop of late spring greens. I hadn’t noticed them before. The blossoms were graceful and delicate. And they were gone almost as quickly as they came.

There’s a musical idea that circulates through Southern fiddle repertoires, taking on the name “Blackberry Blossom” after these delicate and understated flowers that precede the summertime berries with their clash of tartness and sweetness. (My friend Kerry Blech offers a handy primer on the fiddle tune’s recorded life.) The most widely circulating versions, inspired perhaps by Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith’s mid-1930s recording of the tune, takes a turn towards the tart – overlaying a puckeringly sour chord change over the first few beats of the tune’s second part. Over time, most players, perhaps following the lead of the Nashville studio musicians who accompanied fiddler Tommy Jackson, have decided to turn this chord into a minor chord – a rather grand gesture given the subtlety of the namesake blossom. Whatever the case, most folks have decided to resolve the tension of the tune. This variety of “Blackberry Blossom” has come to be the dominant one, spread far and wide by radio and recordings and frequently heard at bluegrass and old-time jams alike.


Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith’s rousing version of “Blackberry Blossom,” featuring the Delmore Brothers and recorded for Victor Talking Machine Company in 1935.

However, deep within this bramble of musical creativity, another strain of blackberry blossoms can be found. This rare strain is known for its ethereal beauty and tantalizing subtlety. These sprout along the West Virginia and Kentucky line. On an old field recording from the 1930s, Kentuckian Fiddlin’ Ed Morrison offers an origin for the piece, explaining: “This tune was learned from General Garfield by my father during the Civil War. He whistled it all the time on his march up Big Sandy River to Middle Creek.” You can hear Morrison’s version here. Morrison’s fiddling neighbor, the legendary blind fiddler Ed Haley, explored all the territory the tune could muster as he busked around Ashland, Kentucky. In the placement of their fingers on the violin’s fingerboard, both Morrison and Haley located the tune in an unquestionably tart tonal space. At a fiddle contest in Paintsville, Kentucky, Dick Burnett, another blind musician, heard a fiddler named Bob Johnson play the piece. Johnson, in turn, had heard Haley playing it somewhere along the Ohio River. After the contest, Burnett cornered Johnson and had him play the tune over and over until it fell under Burnett’s fingers.

Black-and-white photograph of a dark-haired man seated on a chair outside. He has a large moustache and is holding his fiddle to his shoulder with the bow poised to play.

Pictured is Fiddlin’ Ed Morrison whose father Christian Morrison allegedly learned “Blackberry Blossom” from the whistling of Col. James Garfield (he did not become a general until later) in 1863 during the Civil War activity in Kentucky. Photo and sound clip (linked in paragraph above) courtesy of Kerry Blech via Florida State Fiddlers Association

Burnett stored the tune away in his mind and carried it back to Monticello, Kentucky. In the process, the tart angles and tones of Haley’s version softened into something more ambiguous and delicate – something more gently rolling like the hills around Monticello. By the time Burnett made it down to Atlanta to fiddle the piece for Columbia in April of 1930, his fingers had pushed the notes of the melody into a place of beautiful uncertainty. The twists and turns and more certain tartness of Haley’s setting gave way to something simultaneously sweet, tart, and delightfully ambiguous. Burnett’s rendition conveys a smoky quality that prevents things from being seen or heard with total clarity or certainty.

I realize that this post is supposed to be about a musician whom I’ve found influential, and I’ve burned through a lot of words describing a tune. But it’s hard for me to think about a lot of these older players and not think about a specific tune. And so let me turn my attention fully to Dick Burnett whose rendition of “Blackberry Blossoms” I find so compelling. I’m pretty sure that Dick Burnett isn’t my favorite old fiddler. There’s a good chance that his longtime playing partner Leonard Rutherford might be, but my preferences for these kinds of things change with the weather. I love trying to fiddle his version of “Blackberry Blossoms” – it’s slippery and subtle. I enjoy playing his slippery “Wild Good Chase” – a piece that I learned from mentor Clyde Davenport. As a young man, Davenport learned it from hearing Burnett play it at the courthouse in Monticello. These are fun tunes to play, however, I’m sharing some thoughts on Dick Burnett because he links a network of traditional musicians whose music has inspired and charmed me over the last two decades. I guess Burnett serves as the common thread running through a handful of my favorite artists from the Upper Cumberland region along the Tennessee/Kentucky line.

Black-and-white photograph of a dark-haired, clean-cut man seated in a chair in front of a white picket fence. He holds a banjo on his lap, ready to play.
Dick Burnett with banjo.

There’s Retta Spradlin – one of my favorite old singers and banjo players. She sang a powerfully beautiful version with her banjo of “Man of Constant Sorrow” that she learned from Burnett as he was traveling through her rural community. Burnett played an important role in popularizing the song, and his neighbors sang some fine versions that treated his version as a jumping off point. There’s the fiery fiddler John Sharp who spent time playing music with Burnett and his musical partner Rutherford. In Burnett and Rutherford’s repertoire and stylings, we hear traces of the local Black fiddle tradition as performed by their neighbor and aesthetic companion Cuje Bertram. Bertram’s slippery approach to the fiddle and subtle infusions of vibrato into tunes like “Billy in the Lowground” can also be heard in Burnett and Rutherford’s take on the tune. It’s this world of musicians that captivate me.

While I thoroughly enjoy Burnett’s playing, singing, and cutting up, I’m writing about him because I wanted to write about his “Blackberry Blossoms” and because he speaks to ways that music can flow through and create communities. I’m interested in the network of musicians of which he was a part. He links a world of repertoire, artistry, and sound that inspires my own music making. Over the last two years, the repertoire and aesthetics of Burnett’s world has inspired a forthcoming recording project.

Burnett’s music recalls a way of knowing these old pieces and making music that eludes recording technologies and industries. Part of the beauty of his “Blackberry Blossoms” is felt in the way that the tune shifted in his hands. This older stuff resists being fixed in the grooves of a record, on a bit of magnetic tape, or as a digitized abstraction. It eludes formal educational programs and fiddle camps. It’s a reminder of the fact that this is ultimately ear music. It’s music that we pull into ourselves and make something with, music that invites us to trace relationships and discover communities of taste. It’s about repertoire as shared experience and concepts open to exploration. It’s durable stuff.

*To learn more about Joseph Decosimo, visit www.josephdecosimo.com and be sure to check out his latest project “The Aluminum Wonder” featuring rare banjo tunes played in various banjo styles. And be on the lookout for a new solo project featuring collaborations with Alice Gerrard, Cleek Schrey, Joe and Matt O’Connell, and Stephanie Coleman.

1927: From Babe Ruth to Country Music

Today is National Babe Ruth Day!

Did you know that the summer of 1927 saw a whole host of important historic and cultural milestones, including Babe Ruth’s home run record and, of course, the 1927 Bristol Sessions? Author Bill Bryson’s book One Summer: America, 1927 explores that amazing summer in his usual charming and fact-fueled style, and – along with today’s celebration of Babe Ruth – serves as inspiration for this April 27 blog post, which goes down rabbit holes and tangents to explore other 1927 connections!

But first, what does Bryson’s book cover? Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight from New York to Paris in the Spirit of St. Louis on May 20—21 is one of the topics, along with Calvin Coolidge’s presidency and his decision not to run for a second full term in 1928 and the Great Mississippi Flood, which had its beginnings in 1926 and ended up covering 27,000 square miles in water and displacing thousands of people from their homes and land. Bryson also tackles the controversial trial and execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, anarchists accused of armed robbery and murder; the introduction of Ford’s new Model A car; and the release of the first talkie, The Jazz Singer. And then, of course, Bryson shares the story of the New York Yankees’ achievements on the baseball diamond in the summer of 1927 – with 110 wins and 44 losses, a sweeping victory in the World Series against the Pittsburgh Pirates, and Babe Ruth hitting his 60th home run of the season on September 30, setting a record that wouldn’t be broken for 34 years.

Left: Black-and-white image of Babe Ruth -- a large man -- standing in a baseball stance with the bat on his shoulder. The baseball stadium is in the background.
Top right: The small silver Spirit of St. Louis is suspended from the ceiling of the museum. It's name is written on the airplane's nose.
Bottom right: A red old-fashioned looking car.

Babe Ruth photographed in his batting stance (National Photo Company Collection, Library of Congress); the Spirit of St. Louis on display at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.; and a Ford Model A car (Wikimedia Commons).

So what about country music? Well, of course, the summer of 1927 also saw the Bristol Sessions being recorded between July 25 and August 5. With performers like Ernest Stoneman – an experienced and prolific musician in the burgeoning hillbilly music industry – and hugely impactful newcomers like The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, along with a host of other interesting artists and recordings, the 1927 Bristol Sessions became known as “the big bang of country music.” Sadly, the Sessions did not make it into Bryson’s book – maybe they’ll make an appearance in a later edition, fingers crossed! – though the Library of Congress has recognized them as among the 50 most significant sound recordings of all time.

Large metal historic marker with the Tennessee symbol of three stars on a blue background with red border at the top. The words briefly describe the Bristol Sessions. A brick building can be seen in the background.

This historic marker about the 1927 Bristol Sessions is located next to the Birthplace of Country Music’s offices at 416 State Street, the former site of the Taylor-Christian Hat Company building where the 1927 Bristol Sessions were recorded. © Bristol Herald Courier

But are there other country music stories to be found in 1927? Interestingly, we can connect Charles Lindberg to country music through two 1927 recordings by Vernon Dalhart: “Lindbergh (The Eagle of the USA)” and “Lucky Lindy!” Both of these records sold well, and a couple of other hillbilly performers also had big hits in 1927 – Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers with “John Henry (Steel-Drivin’ Man)” and Charlie Poole & The North Carolina Ramblers with “White House Blues.”

Three record labels:
Left, red label for Champion Records detailing the title and performer's name.
Center, black Columbia label detailing the title and performer's name.
Right, black Columbia label detailing the title and performer's name.

Record labels for Vernon Dalhart’s “Lindbergh (The Eagle of the U.S.A.),” Gid Tanner’s “John Henry (Steel-Drivin’ Man),” and Charlie Poole’s “White House Blues.”

There were also several country and bluegrass stars born in 1927:

  • Bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley (February 25)
  • Carl Smith (March 15), known as “Mister Country” and once married to June Carter
  • Charlie Louvin (July 27), part of the Louvin Brothers and a member of the Grand Ole Opry
  • Nudie-suited performer and TV personality Porter Wagoner (August 12), who introduced Dolly Parton to the world in 1967 via The Porter Wagoner Show
  • Jimmy C. Newman (August 29), country music performer and Cajun singer-songwriter
  • Songwriter Harlan Howard (September 8)
  • Leon Rausch (October 2), known as “the voice” of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys
  • Patti Page (November 8), crossover pop and country artist
  • Bob Ferguson (December 30), a musician and producer who was instrumental in establishing Nashville as country music’s center

For a few more musical connections to 1927, first take a look at the pages from a 1927 Sears Roebuck catalog. While these catalogs were produced yearly and so this isn’t unique to 1927, it is a great insight into what kinds of instruments you could buy from Sears Roebuck and what the 1927 prices were! And then there were two milestones in American radio history that are tied to 1927. The U.S. Federal Radio Commission (later known as the FCC) began to regulate radio frequencies on February 23, 1927. And on September 18 of that year, the country saw the debut of CBS, which went on air with 47 radio stations, later becoming a powerhouse in the new technology of television.

Three images of Sears Roebuck 1927 catalog:
Left, the catalog cover shwoing a man and woman poring over the catalog together, with a dog or cat at their feet. A woman in a big hat is in the corner of the cover, and the words The Roaring Twenties are seen at the bottom.
Center: A page filled with different banjos with descriptions and prices.
Right: A page filled with different guitars with descriptions and prices.

This facsimile of the 1927 Sears Roebuck catalog is in the museum’s collections and on display in our permanent exhibits. © Birthplace of Country Music

These are just a few of the stories and historical or cultural moments from 1927 – there are many, many more beyond my primary focus here on music connections. And so to finish this post off, why don’t you go down your own rabbit hole? The Smithsonian, always a great source of information on any and all topics, can get you started with a trove of treasures that all connect to the year 1927, some discussed above, some more obscure, but all interesting. You can check out these objects and images here.

Melodious Murals: Public Art as an Expression of a Community’s Musical Identity

Murals are one of the oldest known forms of human artistic expression. What people decided to paint on the walls of their domestic and community spaces can tell us a lot about the time and society in which they lived. For example, in the first known cave painting made in Indonesia 45,500 years ago, humans depicted animals and other humans they interacted with every day. During the Renaissance, murals of great religious scenes were painted on the walls and ceilings of churches, underlining the political, cultural, and financial power of the church during the 16th century. And, within the 20th century, we have seen a dramatic rise in murals being made for arts-sake, to make a political statement, or to highlight local color and culture.

So, let’s take a look at some murals that are special for all of the aforementioned reasons and because they tell a story you’re probably interested in if you’ve found your way to this blog: the story of country music.

This aerial view shows the side of a building painted with a wall-sized mural. Two music notes bookend the central painting that bears these words at the top "Bristol, Tenn-VA / Birthplace of Country Music." The central painting show several people or groups of people in a graphic/realistic style, from left to right: Ralph Peer (in a grey suit and with grey hair), The Carter Family (A.P. Carter wearing a greenosh suit stands beside of Sara in a pink dress and holding an autoharp with Maybelle sat in front of them in a blue dress and playing her guitar), Ernest and Hattie Stoneman (he is wearing a brownish suit and white cowboy hat and holds his guitar, she is standing behind him in a green dress with a bonnet-style hat on and playing the fiddle), and Jimmie Rodgers (dressed as a railway worker with engineer's cap, blue jacket, and red bow tie, he has his guitar and is holding two thumbs up). In the center is a Victor record and a microphone with 1927 on it.

Courtesy of Eddy Gray, Tri Cities Captured Photography

We’ll start with a mural that is a Bristol, Tennessee-Virginia must-see: Bristol’s Country Music Mural. The mural is located at 810 State Street, a public square that is used for the weekly farmers’ market, community events, and to host one of the stages at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion. The mural is 30 feet by 100 feet, taking up the entire side of a building, and features the big players and iconic images from the 1927 Bristol Recording Sessions: Ralph Peer, The Carter Family – A. P., Sara, and Maybelle, a Victor record and microphone, Ernest and Hattie Stoneman, and Jimmie Rodgers. First painted in 1986 by local artist, musician, and radio DJ Tim White, the mural was recently refurbished to great effect during the summer of 2020.

A long rectangular mural with a cityscape shown behind the people in front. Different musicians and singers are shown throughout the foreground in a folk-art type style -- some are playing instruments, others are singing.

Source: Knoxville Public Arts

Next stop on our virtual tour of murals with a country music connection is the Knoxville Music History Mural. The mural is located at 116 East Jackson in Knoxville, Tennessee, and it was designed by Knoxville artist Walt Fieldsa in collaboration with local art teacher Tifanni Conner and her students at Laurel High School. The mural was then painted by local artists, including Fieldsa, Randall Starnes, and Ken Britton. The painting depicts several Tennessee musicians, including operatic singer Grace Moore, composer and pianist Richard Trythall, founder of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra Bertha Walburn Clark, guitarist Willie Sievers of the Tennessee Ramblers, jazz pianist Donald Brown, rock singer Tina Turner, and bluegrass musician Jimmy Martin.

All portraits are head and shoulders. The left-hand image shows Jim Lauderdale with two different graphic floral backgrounds behind him. He is white man wearing a black jacket and a white collared shirt, and his white shoulder length hair is swept back from his forehead. The Top right image shows Bob Marley (a Black man with dreadlocks wearing a sleeveless black shirt with colored trim), Minnie Pearl (a white woman in a blue country-style dress and wearing a straw floral hat with the price tag hanging off one side), Amy Winehouse (a white woman wearing a black short-sleeve shirt and her black hair is pulled back into a bouffant-style with the length hanging down and sideswept bangs), and James Brown (a Black man wearing a cream-colored suit). The bottom right image shows Patsy Cline (a white woman with brown hair pulled back from her face and wearing a black jacket and polka-dot collared shirt) and Stevie Ray Vaughn (a white man wearing a white cowboy hat with red band, a blue sleeveless tee, and holding a red electric guitar).

Courtesy of Theron Corse, Nashville Public Art blog

We come next to the Nashville Fences of Fame located on several fences surrounding Columbine Park in Berry Hill. The project of painting these fences of the musical greats began in 2016 by artist Scott Guion and was commissioned by The House of Blues. A wide array of musicians from incredibly different genres are painted throughout the area – for instance, one fence alone depicts Jim Lauderdale, Nina Simone, Emmylou Harris, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Greg Allman, Jerry Garcia, Joni Mitchell, and Otis Redding.

An image of a large cream-colored wall with a cariacature-style portrait of Blind Alfred Reed to the right on the wall. His dark hair is in a pompadour style, his ear is unusually big, and he holds his fiddle to his chin. He wears a greyish blue suit; the words "Blind Alfred Reed" are written to the left of the portrait.

Photograph © Denise Smith

In 2014, artist Jeff Pierson painted a wonderful mural depicting the 1927 Bristol Sessions artist Blind Alfred Reed on a brick wall on Mercer Street in Princeton, West Virginia. Pierson was commissioned by Princeton’s Community Improvement Committee to paint a series of important folks from Princeton on various walls around town. While researching Princeton local legends, he came across information about Blind Alfred Reed and was taken aback to learn his interesting story. When he proposed making Reed the subject of one of the murals, the committee didn’t even know who Reed was – but they were soon convinced of his importance and in due course his likeness could be found on one of the city’s walls as public art! Due to the demolition of the building, the mural is being moved to a new site in the town.

Next up is the San Antonio Gateway Mural, locally known as La Musica de San Anto. Located on the west side of San Antonio, the mural was painted in 2008 by local artist David Blancas after it was commissioned by San Anto Cultural Arts to bring awareness to the musical heritage of San Antonio. The mural features members of the country band “The Texas Tornados” and Tejano (a style of music derived from Mexican-Spanish vocal traditions and Czech and German dance music) musicians such as Lydia Mendoza, amongst others. A contemporary of Mother Maybelle Carter, Mendoza also played on the border radio station XERA. (Check out this fascinating article about the similarities between Mother Maybelle and Lydia Mendoza from NPR.)

An image of a wall mural in a graphic style showing two African-American musicians. The man (Sleepy John Estes) is singing and playing a guitar) and the woman (Tina Turner) is singing and has a big hairstyle. Words from their songs and about Brownsville radiate from their images to the right.

Image sourced from a review on TripAdvisor

Another great mural can be found at the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center in Brownsville, Tennessee, which also includes the Tina Turner Museum. In 2014 a mural of Brownsville natives Tina Turner and Sleepy John Estes was painted on the side of the museum by Union University art students. And while Sleepy John Estes is a well-regarded blues artist that influenced musicians like The Beatles, and Tina Turner is more well-known as “The Queen of Rock-n-Roll,” I would argue this is a bona fide country music mural because Tina Turner made her musical debut as a solo artist with a country album in 1974! If you haven’t listened to Tina Turns the Country On!, I highly recommend turning the record on now!

Last but not least on our grand country music mural tour is a painting of Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion 2021 headliner Tanya Tucker. You can find the mural in Spirit Square in the “Country Music Capital of Canada”: Merritt, British Columbia. The wall-sized portrait of the singer was painted by local artist Michelle Loughery and members of the Merritt Youth Mural Project, a program designed to work with local young artists and “youth at risk.” Tucker was even there for the unveiling of the mural in 2006!

This post highlights just a few of the music heritage murals out there, but it’s a great introduction to this highly visible and community-driven public art. Murals are a fascinating look into our history and culture, and you can learn more about the history of murals with this article from The Community Rejuvenation Project in the Bay Area. And, I wanted to give an honorable mention to some local mural trails: The Mountain City Music Mile and The Appalachian Mural Trail.

Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion: The Road Home

Poster from an early Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion festival. The illustration shows the Bristol Train Station in the background with a musician with a guitar on their back walking down the tracks.

The spirit of Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion touches many of us on a deeply personal level. Since it began in 2001, it’s become a part of who we are as a community and a place where we can gather with our tribe to celebrate our music culture, life, and each other. We are so grateful for all of you who have made it a tradition to gather here each year with your friends and family with so much love in your hearts. Getting the festival to where we are today hasn’t been easy, but it has been a joy; a journey shared by everyone who has helped us evolve into what we are today.

In 2020 we had asked our friends at Loch & Key Productions to help us create a short docuseries about the origins of the festival for our 20th anniversary that September. We released the videos, but then the pandemic hit. We were forced to cancel our beloved festival, and the videos didn’t get the love they deserved. So now we are re-releasing them with faith that vaccines will extinguish COVID-19, at the very least to a manageable degree.

In episode one, the first of three videos (a fourth has not yet been released), we spoke with former Bristol, Tennessee Mayor David Shumaker, the “Father of Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion,” and former Bristol, Tennessee Community Relations Director Terrie Talbert about the origins of Bristol Rhythm and how we came together as a small group of people with big dreams for Bristol and our historic downtown – which was, at the time, very much in need of a comeback.

In episode two of our docuseries, a few artists who have performed at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion and continue to be champions for us and our region – including Marty Stuart, Jim Lauderdale, Dom Flemons, and Amythyst Kiah – speak about Bristol’s authentic music roots.

The third episode in the series gets to the heart of what makes Bristol Rhythm special, and why it will continue to be a place where artists and fans come to pay homage to the our region’s rich music heritage.

Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion is like coming home, plain and simple. We hope you will take that journey September 10–12, 2021 and join us for our 20th anniversary – and bring friends, family, coworkers, and anyone who loves good music! We’ll be back with a fourth episode of our docuseries very soon!

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 http://www.virginiaplaces.org/geology/appalachians.html, 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