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Catching Up with Virginia’s Real Folk

On March 6, the museum opened a special exhibit called Real Folk: Passing on Trades & Traditions Through the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program. Two weeks later the museum closed its doors in accordance with the state mandate in response to the COVID-19 situation. Sadly that has meant we haven’t been able to share this wonderful exhibit with very many on-the-spot visitors, but happily we are able to share some of it with our virtual visitors! The curatorial team is hard at work on pulling together a virtual tour of Real Folk (so watch this space!), but in the meantime, we wanted to give you the chance to learn a little bit about the exhibit and the apprenticeship program right now.

Since 2002, the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program has drawn from a wide range of communities and traditional folkways to pair more than 150 experienced master artists with dedicated apprentices for one-on-one, nine-month learning experiences, in order to help ensure that particular art forms are passed on in ways that are conscious of history and faithful to tradition. The master artists are selected from applicants in all forms of traditional, expressive culture in Virginia – from decoy carving to fiddle making, from boat building to quilt making, from country ham curing to old-time banjo playing, from African American gospel singing to Mexican folk dancing. These crafts and traditions come from the Appalachian hills to the Chesapeake shore to new immigrant traditions brought to the state  – and everywhere in between! The Folklife Apprenticeship Program helps to ensure that Virginia’s treasured folkways continue to receive new life and vibrancy, engage new learners, and reinvigorate master practitioners.

Out of these apprenticeship pairings, deep friendships and relationships have grown as the master artists pass on their knowledge, skills, and passion for the various crafts and traditions, along with the history and cultural importance that attaches to each. For instance, Sharon Tindall, who worked with gifted quilter Nancy Chilton in 2014, specializes in early African American quilt patters and in working with fabrics that aren’t typically used in quilting, such as Malian mud cloth. She is also a quilt historian and has conducted substantial research in support of the theory that African American quilts contained coded messages that were integral to the success of the Underground Railroad.

Close up of Sharon Tindall's hand holding a bright red pin cushion, filled with yellow head pins, over a red and white cloth.
Sharon Tindall holds a pin cushion above some brightly colored cloth. © Virginia Folklife Program; photographer: Pat Jarrett

Several apprenticeships have focused on music, from music making to instrument building to the related art of dance. The variety of traditions on display within this realm is astounding, including African American gospel, Chickahominy dance, bluegrass fiddling, mandolin making, Sephardic ballad singing, steel drum making, and so much more. Because music is so central to the cultural heritage of southwest Virginia, numerous musicians, singers, and makers from this area have taken part in the program. Musician and luthier Gerald Anderson spent more than 30 years apprenticing in the shop of legendary instrument builder Wayne Henderson in Rugby, Virginia. Fellow musician Spencer Strickland recognized his mastery and skills, and asked if Gerald would take him on as an apprentice. Their time working together in 2005 turned into a deep friendship, musical partnership, and one of the longest running and most successful apprenticeships in the program’s history. Though barely out of his teens at the time, Spencer took to building instruments immediately, and the two soon opened their own shop in Gerald’s home in Troutdale. They also played and toured together as a duo and with the Virginia Luthiers. Gerald passed away unexpectedly in 2019, and Spencer has continued to build instruments and carry on Gerald’s memory.

Black-and-white image with a close up of two hands carving the body of a mandolin.
Working on a mandolin in Gerald Anderson’s workshop. © Virginia Folklife Program; photographer: Morgan Miller

Many of Virginia’s cultural traditions have been brought here by immigrant communities, and the state is all the richer from this. These immigrants have shared their heritage not only within their own communities, but also more widely through educational programs, touring and performances, the creation of larger cultural organizations, and partnerships with other groups. For instance, Nam Phuon Nguyen began playing the đàn bâu at 17, later touring throughout the United States with her family as the Nguyen Đinh Nghĩa Family and performing at prestigious concert halls and festivals. The đàn bâu – translated to mean “gourd lute” – is a monochord (one-stringed) instrument, which plays a central role in Vietnamese music. Guitarist Anh Dien Ky Nguyen met Nam Phuong while playing at a music club, and he asked her to teach him the đàn bâu, partnering with her in the apprenticeship program in 2011.

Nam Phuon Nguyen in a green dress stands beside a seated Anh Dien Ky Nguyen in a brown vest. He is playing the instrument while she instructs. The shelves behind them are full of knick knacks, bottles, and sculpture.
Nam Phuon Nguyen and Anh Dien Ky Nguyen work together on mastering the art of the đàn bâu. © Virginia Folklife Program; photographer: Pat Jarrett

These few images are just a taste of this fascinating and beautiful exhibit, and we hope that you will be able to visit it later in the year. In the meantime, you can engage with the exhibit in another way by listening in to Radio Bristol’s Toni Doman as she talks with Virginia Folklife photographer Pat Jarrett about his work with the apprenticeship program — check out Episode 60 on March 12, 2020 in the Mountain Song & Story archives here. And you can support the artists who are so important to Virginia’s cultural heritage by going to Virginia Folklife’s website and exploring TRAIN (Teachers of Remote Arts Instruction Network). Created in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic and its devastating impact on the livelihoods of artists, TRAIN connects interested students of all skill levels with a diverse range  of master musicians, craftspeople, and tradition bearers offering online instructional opportunities. Start your lessons today!

Finally, keep an eye on our website for a virtual tour of Real Folk coming soon!

Bristol Rhythm: The Roots & Branches

“Bristol is the absolute bedrock upon which the entire empire of country music and many tributaries therein are built.” ~ Marty Stuart

Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion began as a community bluegrass, old-time, and gospel music festival. Acts like Ralph Blizard and Reeltime Travelers led the lineup, and there was even a soup bean and cornbread dinner. In 2003 we really began to examine what it meant to honor the 1927 Bristol Sessions in addition to the influences those recordings have had on other genres of music.

2001 Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion festival program, an insert in the Bristol Herald Courier.
2001 Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion festival program, an insert in the Bristol Herald Courier.

A conscious decision was made to expand the lineup to include more progressive acts like Leftover Salmon, Old Crow Medicine Show, Corey Harris, and Donna the Buffalo. This changed the entire landscape of our festival. Younger audiences were drawn to the music like never before and the energy downtown became absolutely electric.

In the second edition of our mini docu-series, we talk about how our expansion paved a wider path on that “road home” to Bristol’s music legacy by exploring its roots and far-reaching branches.

Sidebar: I get a little misty watching these videos. I think I’ve mentioned in previous blog entries that I began serving as a volunteer for the festival in 2002, prior to our third annual event. To hear country music icons like Marty Stuart and Jim Lauderdale speak so passionately about my hometown and Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion is life goals for me and many others who have worked so hard and truly believed in the magic we were creating.

“Within tradition there is always innovation and pushing forward.”~Amythyst Kiah

Amythyst Kiah at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion 2019.
© Birthplace of Country Music; Photographer: Eli Johnson

I am especially proud that our event plays a role in the success and evolution of so many artists, including my good friend Amythyst Kiah (also featured in the series) who just received her first Grammy nomination. Artists like Amythyst are true innovators, taking bits and pieces of what they’ve learned from the past and folding it into their work – making something completely new and relevant and exciting. Knowing what an important role Bristol has played in the art and careers of Amythyst – and so many others – is extremely satisfying.

In those early days I used to say we were the “little festival that could,” charging slowly and determinedly up that steep hill, struggling to reach our destination. Have we arrived? In many ways we have, but we continue to refine and grow each year. To everyone who has believed in Bristol Rhythm and helped push us along these past 20 years, we are eternally grateful. It’s been one heckuva ride!

Clothes Make the Man – and Woman – in Country Music

Perception has always been integral to country music. From the very beginning with Fiddlin’ John Carson’s debut in Okeh Record’s “Old Familiar Tunes” catalog to Garth Brook’s record-breaking stadium tours, the way country music has been marketed to the public has relied heavily on its appearance. It’s been something the genre has taken with pride, shunned with disdain, or constantly parodied throughout its history.

Garth Brooks on stage wearing jeans, a purple button-down shirt (untucked), and a black cowboy hat.
This photograph was taken during Garth Brooks’ 2015 concert tour, and while Brooks is wearing fairly everyday clothes – jeans and a shirt – he is also sporting his trademark black cowboy hat. Photograph from Flickr; user: fatherspoon

One of the most common perceptions about country music is the idea of the stereotypical country singer as a “lonesome cowboy” singing in a smoke-filled honky tonk to beer-drinking, blue collar workers in nasal, piercing tones. However, in the early 20th century, country music catalogs were filled with images of overall-wearing “hillbillies” playing fiddle and banjo breakdowns for square dancers in plaid shirts and gingham dresses. In the 1920s, country music was marketed to a specific type of audience, though of course, that did not mean that this specific audience was the only one buying the records. These listeners were conceived as displaced ruralites who saw the rapidly changing landscape around them as too fast-paced and carried with them a nostalgia for earlier times, times when parlor songs and mountain reels dotted the backcountry of Appalachia.

Record companies, therefore, often encouraged their artists to “play up” their rural heritage and soon records by groups with homespun names like Al Hopkins and His Hillbillies, Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers, and Uncle Dave Macon and the Fruit Jar Drinkers started selling by the thousands. Some of the first entertainment outlets to notice this association with country music and a created image or persona were the radio “barn dance” programs that were growing in popularity in the late 1920s. Radio listeners quickly developed attachments to their favorite performers, and soon, fans were showing up in droves outside of studio air rooms to catch a glimpse of this new genre of radio star. To keep alive the illusion of a “Good-Natured Get Together,” George D. Hay – founder of the WSM Barn Dance in Nashville (soon to be renamed as the Grand Ole Opry ) – sent a memo to his performers of string bands and soloists to encourage them to wear work clothes and straw hats. And over time he renamed his “string orchestras” to more hillbilly titles such as Dr. Humphrey Bate and His Possum Hunters and Paul Womack and the Gully Jumpers. Soon, The Grand Ole Opry stage was dominated by “hoedown bands” and remained largely that way until the late 1930s.

Black-and-white image of Dr. Humphrey Bate and His Possum Hunters, 6 band members all dressed in country or rural-style clothes, including suspenders, floppy hats, and work pants.
Dr. Humphrey Bate and His Possum Hunters were the first group to play country music over Nashville’s airwaves in 1924. Here they are shown as Grand Ole Opry members, having adopted the “Rube” dress code by 1929. From www.alchetron.com

Meanwhile in Chicago, the WLS National Barn Dance had a brand-new star on its own barn dance show. Inspired by Jimmie Rodgers and western poets such as Jules Allen and Carl T. Sprauge, yodeler and guitarist Gene Autry was bringing the heroic idea of the American cowboy to audiences across the country. Clad in a 10-gallon Stetson hat and strumming a plaintive guitar, Autry soon brought Depression-era audiences to a frenzy with his move to Hollywood to become “America’s Singing Cowboy,” inspiring future generations of country musicians to don cowboy hats and western wear.

Soon, this image of a cowboy’s life was adopted by fellow WLS star Patsy Montana, bringing “girl singers,” as they were called, to the fore – and offering a new image, independent of Mountain Men and traditional gender roles, in the romanticized image of the cowgirl. Patsy’s long cowhide skirt and pushed back cowboy hat embodied her free and adventurous spirit, characterized by her anthem “I Want to Be A Cowboy’s Sweetheart.” Overnight, female country performers dropped the gingham dress, “milk maid,” “pure mountain gal” personas for the exciting image of the American cowgirl.

Gene Autry with June Storey to the left and Patsy Montana to the right, all three wearing cowboy hats and cowboy/cowgirl outfits.
Gene Autry and Patsy Montana (right) grew from being Chicago radio stars on the WLS National Barn Dance to being among America’s top stars appearing in several motion pictures. They are seen here with June Storey in a Hollywood publicity still from the early 1940s. Chicago Tribune historical archive photograph

Among this new group of independent female performers was Rose Maddox, who, along with her brothers, pushed hillbilly and cowboy performance to new heights with their eccentric and electric performance style. The Maddox Brothers & Rose grew to prominence on the west coast in California in the immediate post-World War II era, and their proximity to Hollywood fashion designers lead to one of the clothing designs most associated with country music – the rhinestone western suit. Designers like Nathan Turk and Nudie Cohn had been creating wardrobes for western movie stars like Gene Autry and Tex Ritter for years, but the innovation of rhinestones and brash and bright colors insured the Maddox Brothers & Rose not only stood apart musically from other country and western bands in the nation, but now they could truly bill themselves as “America’s Most Colorful Hillbilly Band”! Soon performers such as Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, and Little Jimmy Dickens were knocking on Cohn’s door and “Nudie suits” became the most prominent form of country music stage attire of the mid-20th century.

The Rockin' Rollin' album cover for the Maddox Brothers & Rose shows all of the male band members in green, highly decorated suits and cowboy hats, with Rose in a matching cowgirl-style outfits covered in fringe and beadwork.
This album cover shows The Maddox Brothers & Rose in the late 1940s wearing matching highly-decorative outfits, accented by embroidery, fringe, and rhinestones, that were designed by tailor Nathan Turk.

Country music has always had an interesting way of presenting itself. From the mountaineer attire of the 1920s to the loud and bold Nudie suits of the 1950s – and all the other clothing-enhanced personas in between (think of Johnny Cash’s “The Man in Black” and Minnie Pearl, for instance) – country music has reflected elements of our own nation’s history: plaintive and nostalgic in the days of the Depression to excited and flashy in the post-war economic boom of the 1950s, and beyond. Perception has always played an important part in how the nation saw country music and how country musicians and record companies saw the nation. Country music and its attire has, and always will be, an important marker not only of who we are but the people who made us that way.

A Rose by Any Other Name…Celebrating Musicians through Flora and Fauna!

Today is the anniversary of Johnny Cash’s birth date. He was born on February 26, 1932 in Kingsland, Arkansas, the son of sharecroppers who were struggling through the Great Depression. Despite – and indeed, perhaps because of – this early hardship, Cash went on to become one of the most iconic and influential country musicians in the history of the genre.

Johnny Cash in a black decorated shirt and holding his guitar on stage in front of a mic; he smiles out at the audience.
Johnny Cash on stage. From the Robert Alexander Collection at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum

So, what you ask, does this have to do with the naming of flora and fauna species, or binomial nomenclature as it’s known in the scientific community? Johnny Cash and his musical impact is rightly celebrated and recognized in a variety of different ways – through a US postage stamp with his image to a museum dedicated to his life and legacy in Nashville to numerous industry and national awards and honors to the many artists who have been inspired by Cash and his songs. I, of course, knew all about these honors, but then I found out that he had also been celebrated in a really interesting and relatively under-the-radar way: by having a spider named after him!

First, a little bit about how binomial nomenclature works. This “two-term naming system” is a formal way to name species of living things. Both names are based in Latin grammatical forms, but they do different things: the first name is called the generic name, identifying the genus that the species belongs to; the second name is called the specific name, identifying the species within the genus. Therefore, scientific names for flora and fauna can share the first name because the genus may cover many species, but their second name will always be unique. And that second name is where scientists get creative!

Now, back to Johnny Cash: In 2016, a previously unknown tarantula species was discovered in the course of a larger research project. This particular species was found in abundance near Folsom Prison in California, and its coloring was dark, almost black. And from these two links – Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” and “The Man in Black” nickname – the tarantula was named Aphonopelma johnnycashi.

Image of the Aphonopelma johnnycashi tarantula -- a large black spider with a hairy abdomen and long legs.
A male Aphonopelma johnnycashi. © Dr. Chris A. Hamilton

Johnny Cash isn’t the only musician who has had a species named after him. While the specific names within binomial nomenclature can be inspired by many things – such as the location where they were found, to commemorate a scientific mentor or teacher, inspired by another language or culture where the meaning matches the animal or plant in question, etc. – there are many species names after celebrities.

Here are just a few:

  • Myrmekiaphila neilyoungi, a species of trap door spider discovered in 2007 (the scientist loves Neil Young’s music)
  • Scaptia beyonceae, a species of horse fly with a shiny golden abdomen discovered in 2011 and named after Beyoncé
  • Synalpheus pinkfloydi, a type of shrimp discovered in 2017 (this shrimp stuns and kills its prey with small “sonic booms” made by its snapping claws – kind of like standing too near an amp during a Pink Floyd concert!)
  • Orectochilus orbisonorum, a species of whirligig beetle, black on top and white on the bottom, that was discovered in 2008 and named after Roy Orbison
  • Cirolana mercury, an East African isopod (crustacean); this species is found off the coast of Zanzibar (where Freddie Mercury was born)
  • Gaga germanotta and Gaga monstraparva, where both genus and species within a group of ferns honor Lady Gaga and her fans (due to the appearance of the fern being akin to some of Gaga’s costumes and her “paws up” salute; even more interesting is that the DNA for this potential new genus of ferns had GAGA spelled out in its base pairs!)
  • Macrocarpaea dies-viridis, a type of night-blooming flower discovered in Ecuador and named after the band Green Day (dies-viridis is Latin for green day)
  • Anillinus docwatsoni, a species of ground beetle discovered in 2004 and named after Doc Watson
  • Desis bobmarleyi, an Australian intertidal species of spider discovered in 2017 and inspired by Marley’s song “High Tide or Low Tide”
  • Japewiella dollypartoniana, a type of lichen so-named due to its abundant growth in the mountains of East Tennessee
  • Phialella zappai, a species of jellyfish discovered in 1987 (named in a ploy to meet Zappa after the musician said “There is nothing I’d like better than having a jellyfish named after me.”)

These are just a few of the MANY plants and animals with names inspired by musicians and other well-known people. And referring back to the great Dolly Parton, while it’s not related to binomial nomenclature, she has also been honored through naming in another scientific endeavor – the genetic cloning of Dolly the Sheep in Scotland in 1997. Dolly was named after Parton because part of her DNA came from a mammary gland cell of a Finn Dorset sheep. Knowing Dolly Parton’s self-deprecating humor and her graciousness, one imagines that she found this interesting honor both amusing and wonderful!

A close-up shot of Dolly the Sheep on display at the National Museum of Scotland.
Dolly the Sheep passed away in 2003 and is now preserved in taxidermy form at the National Museum of Scotland. From Wikimedia Commons, image courtesy of Toni Barros

And so with that, we can marvel at the wide-ranging inspiration that comes to scientists as they go about their important work – and how it connects to our love of music. Sometimes a celebrity-inspired name is the perfect way to get people engaged and excited about the biodiversity of our planet. As Dr. Chris Hamilton, namer of our Cash-monikered spider, notes: “It’s a really important mechanism for reaching out to the public and getting them involved,” Hamilton said. “We want the public to love these new species, too.”

Bristol Rhythm: Celebrating 20 Years in 2020

Nearly 20 years ago, City of Bristol Tennessee Councilman David Shumaker had an idea to host a music festival in Historic Downtown Bristol. Bristol had recently been named the official “birthplace of country music” by the U.S. Congress in 1998, and Shumaker thought a great way to celebrate our legacy was to develop a music festival. He began talking to the City of Bristol’s Community Relations Director Terrie Talbert, and with a lot of hard work, a community call out for volunteers, and months of planning, the first Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion was held in October 2001.

Since then, the festival has grown from 7,500 to over 40,000 attendees each year. In addition, the festival hosts 120 bands on 16 stages throughout the three-day weekend in September. Bristol Rhythm has earned many accolades, including being named as one of Rolling Stone’s “Top 20 Tours and Festivals.”

This year, we are taking a look back at the festival with a fun docuseries called Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion: Celebrating 20 Years in 2020.  Our marketing team has been working with Loch & Key Productions to pull together the interviews, old video footage, and photographs to make this film series possible.

Three photos: 
Top: Jim Lauderdale being interviewed in the museum's Immersion Theater for the docu-film.
Center: Executive Director Leah Ross being interviewed in the museum's Performance Theater for the docu-film.
Bottom: A close-up of the "director's chair" bearing the Birthplace of Country Music logo during filming for the docuseries.

The docuseries includes four episodes, and the first episode focuses on how the festival began all those years ago. You can check out Episode 1 below:

Click on Play Button to View Video

We will share the other three episodes in the coming months, available via our YouTube Channel.

We would love to know if you attended during the first few years of Bristol Rhythm, and if so, please share some of your favorite memories with us! 

Not All Who Wander Are Lost: Celebrating A. P. Carter on His Birthday

Today is the anniversary of A.P. Carter’s birth – he was born on December 15, 1891 in Maces Spring, Virginia. A.P. was the driving force behind The Carter Family, and his place in music history is strong and true. Numerous books and articles chronicle the Carters’ musical journey and their legacy and impact – my personal favorites are Mark Zwonitzer and Charles Hirshberg’s Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone and David Lasky and Frank Young’s graphic novel The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song. Their story has also been told through television, radio and film – from Ken Burns’ Country Music documentary series to The Winding Stream by Beth Harrington.

A blog post does not seem sufficient to explore the full life of A.P. Carter, but we wanted to celebrate this special day and so I’ve instead pulled together five interesting details from A. P.’s story.

Lightning Strike

A.P. was full of quirks – from his daydreaming to his wandering ways to the tremor he carried with him his whole life. A.P.’s mother Molly Bays Carter attributed her firstborn son’s shaking to a thunderstorm she encountered one day when she was pregnant with him. She was standing under an apple tree when lightning struck, the energy traveling down to the ground and all around her – as Zwonitzer and Hirshberg report, Molly always said that this lightning strike “shot such a bolt of fright into her swollen belly that the baby inside would be afflicted with that very nervous energy for each and all of his days.” The tremor that affected A.P.’s body also came through in his voice, which carried a bit of a quaver when talking and singing. And the nervous energy seemed to push A.P. to always be on the move, hitting the road for days on end, and keeping his mind busy and turned inward.

Black-and-white photograph of A. P. Carter sitting in a chair outside, looking straight at the camera. Two women can be seen in the background behind him though they are not the subjects of the picture.
A rare moment when A.P. was sitting still. Courtesy of Dale Jett

All in a Day’s Work

While A.P.’s dream was to make money from music – a dream that he, with Sara and Maybelle, fulfilled – that wasn’t the only work he did. As with so many people during the early part of the 20th century, working hard, and doing a multitude of jobs, was a necessity to take care of family. When A.P. met Sara for the very first time, he was a traveling fruit tree salesman. (Incidentally, he was so struck by Sara – and her singing voice – on this first meeting that he bought from her rather than the other way around; he went home with an order for a set of dishes.) He also farmed his land and worked sawmills at various times, and then after his music career came to an end, he set up a grocery store in Maces Spring, though from all accounts he didn’t keep regular hours and his business wasn’t as brisk as he would probably like. However, his store served as a gathering place, and one imagines a place where music was made, perhaps leading him on to his dream of a permanent home for music-making, fulfilled in his daughter Janette’s establishment of the Carter Family Fold after A.P.’s passing.

Frontal view of the A.P. Carter Grocery Store, now The Carter Family Museum. It is a small white building with two peaked eaves at each end.

A.P. Carter’s grocery store, now a museum devoted to The Carter Family. © Southern Foodways Alliance

A Way with Words

A.P.’s penchant for wandering in his search for new (old) songs is well known – a habit referred to as “songcatching.” Along the way, A.P. went back into the hills of Appalachia and into the factories in the urban areas, always on the hunt for a song he hadn’t heard before. He didn’t always go on this search on his own, and his songcatching travels with African American musician Lesley Riddle are also a familiar element of the Carter history. A.P. met Lesley, also known as “Esley,” in Kingsport, Tennessee – initially as a source of good songs to learn. Soon they were traveling together, which must have been challenging as they passed down the roads and into the towns of a segregated South. Often A.P. had to find a separate place for Lesley to stay and eat, either with friends, family, or others who didn’t discriminate based on the color of his skin. Lesley had a head for remembering the tunes and lyrics of the songs they heard, acting like a “human recorder” in some ways, and they spent a lot time going over the songs they brought home and working them up with Sara and Maybelle. Lesley noted that there were times when he’d have to get up and walk away just to have a break from that intense focus. But all that songcatching led the Carters to a wonderfully huge and varied repertoire, including songs A.P. wrote himself, a discography that is one of the most influential in country music history.

A.P.’s Guitar

The museum was fortunate to have a piece of A.P.’s musical career on display a few years ago at our first special exhibit, The Carter Family: Lives and Legacies. On loan from his grandson Dale Jett, A.P.’s 1936 Martin 000-28 style guitar had a story to tell. A.P. bought this guitar in a pawn shop in San Antonio or Del Rio, Texas for $65–$75 dollars. In the 1930s, Martins were being made out of the best materials with the best craftspeople – all handmade rather than by machines, and this guitar’s top was made from spruce found in the Appalachians and considered the best tone wood. While A.P. isn’t really known for his guitar playing and he certainly didn’t play an instrument too often for The Carter Family performances or recordings, he did play this Martin on border radio from time to time, and it can be seen in a promotional Christmas card from this period that featured the musical family. The guitar is still played today by Jett.

Left: A.P. Carter's guitar on display in a case at the museum -- behind the guitar is a pink-shaded panel with a quote from Dale Jett about the guitar. Right: Dale Jett, Wayne Henderson playing the A.P. Carter guitar, and a member of staff at the museum, on stage in the Performance Theater.
A.P. Carter’s guitar on display at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum; Dale Jett and Wayne Henderson play and discuss A.P.’s guitar at a museum program. Left: © Birthplace of Country Music; Right: Courtesy of Tom Netherland

1941

So much of life is down to the vagaries of chance, and A.P.’s story is no different. The Carters’ place in country music – indeed, in American music as a whole and beyond – is significant. But their story still has a “what if” element, and that comes from the Life Magazine photo shoot that happened in the fall of 1941. Focusing on the original Carter Family and their children, the photo shoot took place in Virginia with the intention of a story about the Carters and their music appearing in the magazine later that year. However, the photo spread never appeared as it was pushed off the pages by the bigger news of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The photographer Eric Schaal did keep one of the images – a portrait of himself with A.P. – framed in his home, later saying that A.P. “was the most exotic subject he’d ever photographed.” And so the question remains: What would have happened to the Carters, and to A.P., if that spread and their story had been published to the wide and varied audience found in the readership of Life?

Screenshot of Dust-to-Digital's tweet on A.P.'s birthday in 2018, noting the Life photoshoot and with a black-and-white photograph of A.P. from that shoot. He sits holding his guitar in a room with flowered wallpaper.
Portrait of A.P. Carter taken for Life Magazine photo shoot in 1941. From Dust-to-Digital’s Twitter feed

“Tell It to Me”: The Johnson City Sessions 90th Anniversary

“Can you sing or play old-time music?”

This question was asked by Columbia Records in an advertisement in the Johnson City Chronicle on Wednesday October 3, 1928. That advertisement, seeking musicians specializing in regional old-time music, ran in various papers in Johnson City in anticipation of recording sessions spearheaded by visionary producer Frank Walker and now known as the Johnson City Sessions of 1928–29. Though more obscure than the famed Bristol Sessions that took place a year prior, the Johnson City Sessions, only 25 miles down the road, illustrate a more diverse and possibly equally important catalog of music that continues to have a significant impact on folk and roots musicians to this day.

Newspaper advertisement asking for a musicians of "unusual ability" of all types to come record.
Original Columbia Records advertisement published in the Johnson City Chronicle on October 3, 1928. Image from Ted Olson and Tony Russell’s The Johnson City Sessions 1928-1929, Bear Family Records: 2013

Ted Olson, writer and researcher of the Johnson City Sessions Bear Family 4 CD boxset, notes:

“The Johnson City Sessions were one of several significant location recording sessions conducted by commercial recording companies in Appalachia during the 1920s and 1930s. But the Johnson City recordings were unique. More than those from the other rival sessions of that era, they documented the broad sweep of the Appalachian song and tune repertoire, from the traditional to the contemporary, from the familiar to the obscure, and from the serious to the silly. While some of the recordings made in Johnson City during 1928 and 1929 were in the country music mainstream, other recordings stood out as truly unusual, even avant grade, anticipating future directions for as-yet-unborn music genres such as bluegrass, revivalistic folk, rock ‘n’ roll, and Americana. And looking back at those sessions 90 years later, one can’t help but wonder if country music might have taken a different course had the Great Depression not obliterated the distribution and potential influence of those exuberant, truth-telling Johnson City recordings. People in the 1930s depended upon art – and particularly music – to guide them out of the Depression, and the Johnson City recordings could have helped set a higher standard for relevancy in country music moving forward.”

Some of the songs recorded during these sessions have become standards in old-time repertoire including “Tell It to Me,” a riotous tune from the Grant Brothers who a year prior recorded in Bristol as the Tenneva Ramblers, or “The Coo Coo Bird” from the great Clarence Ashley, an artist whose music career was rejuvenated during the folk revival. “Old Lady and the Devil,” by Bill and Belle Reed, later found a home on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, a collection that would influence countless folk musicians including a young Bob Dylan.

Portrait of Tenneva Ramblers with Jimmie Rodgers -- two seated musicians and two standing.
The Grant Brothers, a.k.a. the Tenneva Ramblers, recorded at both the 1927 Bristol Sessions and the Johnson City Sessions. They are pictured here with Jimmie Rodgers. PF-20001/1745_01 from the John Edwards Memorial Foundation Records (20001) in the Southern Folklife Collection at Wilson Special Collections Library, University Libraries, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

This impact is being celebrated in downtown Johnson City on Saturday, October 19, during an all-day event to mark the 90th anniversary of these sessions. The event will feature leading folk and roots artists, including Dom Flemons, Willie Watson, Amythyst Kiah, Bill and the Belles, Nora Brown, The Brother Boys, and many more. Roy Andrade, Associate Professor and head of the Old-Time Program at East Tennessee State University, notes that “the 90th anniversary of the Johnson City Sessions is exciting for those of us involved in old-time music in this town – the music is still very much alive here and the celebration will help us remember that the story is still being written.” And featured artist Amythyst Kiah says that the celebration is timely in that “the Johnson City Sessions is a celebration of the roots of American music and the preservation of a musical legacy that has captured the imagination of people all over the world.”

Left: Amythyst Kiah in jean jacket, eyes closed and singling with her banjo on stage. Right: Willie Watson, in striped jacket and hat, with his guitar.
Amythyst Kiah is one of the many talented artists who will be featured at the 90th Anniversary celebration of the Johnson City Sessions. Willie Watson will be headlining Saturday’s festival. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Billie Wheeler

We invite you to be a part of this legacy by joining us at the Johnson City Sessions anniversary event on October 19 from 11:00am to 10:00pm – the event is free and open to the public! Radio Bristol will broadcast live from the Main Stage throughout the day, and you can also tune in here. Other activities include a square dance, children’s stage, vendors, and a record fair. Also of note, in celebration of the 90th anniversary, Bear Family Records has released a CD with 26 tracks from the sessions: Tell It To Me: Revisiting the Johnson City Sessions, 1928–1929.

Ken Burns’ Country Music: It’s FINALLY Here!

We don’t know about you, but we are EXCITED! After several years of prep by the filmmakers – including extensive interviews, research time in archives and libraries, conversations and debates, music performances galore, long road trips and late nights, and editing and production – PBS’s Country Music: A Film by Ken Burns is finally here!

The first 2-hour episode – “The Rub (Beginnings – 1933)” – airs on PBS on Sunday, September 15 at 8pm ET, and its blurb notes: “‘Hillbilly music’ reaches new listeners through phonographs and radio, launching the careers of country music’s first big stars – the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers.” For those of you who know us already, you know that the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers recorded for the very first time here in Bristol, Tennessee-Virginia at the now famous 1927 Bristol Sessions. And you know that our town celebrates this history and its impact and legacy in so many ways, including the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion, and Radio Bristol. (By the way, if you didn’t know this, it’s a cool history so come visit us!)

Left: A view down Bristol's State Street. Center: Several musicians on the Ryman stage in front of a packed audience. Right: Johnny Cash sitting on a cash with several instruments around him.
PBS promotional images from Country Music. Left: Episode 1 (Downtown Bristol, c.1927. Courtesy of Bristol Historical Association ). Center: Episode 5 ( The Grand Ole Opry at the Ryman Auditorium, Nashville, c, 1960. Courtesy of Les Leverett photograph, Grand Ole Opry Archives). Right: Episode 5 (Johnny Cash at his home in California, 1960.  Courtesy of Sony Music Archives).
 

For us, seeing this musical heritage recognized and celebrated by a filmmaker like Ken Burns is pretty amazing. The documentary features Bristol’s story and the many people who were part of that story, exploring their integral role in the development of early commercial county music. Over eight episodes and sixteen and a half hours of viewing, the film traces the path of country music – “a uniquely American art form” – from its influences and origins in ballads, blues, and sacred music through its evolution into different sounds and manifestations and then on to its global popularity today. Viewers will get the chance to see footage and photographs, and hear stories and histories, never before revealed, along with interviews with over 80 artists. This is TV worth watching.

BCM was fortunate to get to spend some time with the Country Music filmmakers and their wider team during the research process and then again in March 2019 as the Country Music kick-off road show hit the highways and byways. Back in 2014, not long after the museum opened, we shared some of our own research into the photographs and media used in the museum with Florentine Films, later giving them access to some of our collection for digital scanning and research purposes. We also had a fun day facilitating filming with a local phonograph collector, spending time with him beforehand to find the perfect machine and then getting to watch the filming in action a couple of months later!

Left: Bob Bledsoe sitting on a couch with four members of the BCM team, each holding a wax cylinder. Several phonographs can be seen in the background. Right: A phonograph with a red morning glory horn is central in the picture with film crew around it working lights and image.
Left: Bob Bledsoe with his phonographs and the BCM team on the day we scoped out which phonograph would get to be in a Ken Burns’ documentary. Right: The film crew at work on getting the right digital footage of the phonograph. © Birthplace of Country Music

And then, on Sunday, March 24, 2019, Burns – along with his Emmy Award-winning creative team including producers Dayton Duncan and Julie Dunfey – arrived in Bristol on a large tour bus to kick off the promotion for Country Music. They were also joined by Old Crow Medicine Show’s frontman Ketch Secor, whose love of the history of country music made him a frequent collaborator with the team. This event at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum was the start of their 30-city promotional road show tour. You can hear more about that event in our blog post here.

Top left: Ken Burns and Ketch Secor talking into mics during the Q&A at the museum; Top right: Secor, Burns, Dayton Duncan, and Julie Dunfey pointing to the PBS logo on their road show bus; Bottom left: Burns being interviewed by media in the museum's exhibits; Bottom right: Burns in the museum's exhibits with the head curator.
During his time at the museum, Burns and his team took a private tour of the exhibits, led by Head Curator Rene Rodgers, which was followed by a reception in the museum’s Special Exhibits Gallery. Local and national journalists got the chance to speak directly with the filmmakers, who later provided a real treat for the event attendees: a short screening with a clip from the film and an in-depth Q&A session. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Earl Neikirk

What’s great about a Ken Burns project is that not only is all of the research and in-depth stories and interviews presented via the film itself, but there will also be a host of ways to explore the subject even more deeply – from a book to the soundtrack (as a 2-disc CD and a 5-disc DC box set) to vinyl LPs to DVDs and Blu-Rays of the full show. The DVD and Blu-Ray extras include a preview program, a behind-the-scenes look at how the film was made, and material gleaned from hours of interviews. All of these items will be on sale and available at The Museum Store!

A shot of The Museum Store entrance with promotional displays related to Ken Burns' Country Music.
The Country Music display at The Museum Store. © Birthplace of Country Music

Everything to do with Country Music has been a thrill for us – from being able to help the Florentine Films team in a small way to getting to be the first leg on the promotional road show to seeing Bristol’s important musical history honored and celebrated in the resulting documentary. It has also been wonderful to see Burns talking about Bristol as a place that people should come visit as part of their pilgrimage to truly explore the history of country music – we hope to see you here soon! But most of all, we are so grateful to see the overwhelming passion, engaged interest, and profound understanding that Burns and his team have shown when they talk about country music. This is music and history that we love, and we are proud to see it represented in such a deeply respectful way.

* The first four episodes of Country Music will begin airing on Sunday, September 15 and run through Wednesday, September 18, and then episodes 5–8 will air the following week on Sunday, September 22 through Wednesday, September 25 at 8:00–10:00 p.m. ET.

Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan at the Bristol sign in March 2019. Courtesy of Tennessee Department of Tourist Development; photographer: Ed Rode

Mamas, DO Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys (or Cowgirls)!

Today is the National Day of the Cowboy, marked in several states on the fourth Saturday of July every year. Country music, in the past and the present, is filled with the images of cowboys and cowgirls, and so we thought we’d mark today with our own celebration of cowboys with a music twist!C

Cowboy songs are said to have originated as a way to soothe nervous and apt-to-stampede cows on cattle drives out west. The yodels and soft crooning sounds in the songs would help to obscure the noises of the night that tended to spook the herd and also act as a kind of lullaby. The songs themselves often reflected a wide range of music, including old ballads, popular Tin Pan Alley tunes, Mexican songs, and blues forms. John A. Lomax published Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads in 1911, detailing 112 songs that he gathered through requests in newspapers and academic venues and by visiting known cowboy haunts. The first edition had a handwritten foreword by President Theodore Roosevelt.

Google cowboy songs today, and you can find numerous “best cowboy songs” lists, each with the individual author’s subjective preferences – from the well-known, and copyright challenged,“Home on the Range” to The Highwaymen’s “The Last Cowboy Song” to “Good Ride Cowboy,” Garth Brooks’ tribute to rodeo rider and sing Chris LeDoux. My personal favorite has always been “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” a love that began with the Alvin and The Chipmunks version of 1981 when I was a kid and thankfully later evolved to the much-better version by Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings!

In line with cowboy music, there have been numerous musical cowboys on radio, records, and screen throughout the years. Gene Autry, “The Singing Cowboy,” did it all: singing, writing songs, acting, rodeo riding. He even owned a Major League baseball team in California for over 30 years. Autry has five stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, recorded over 600 songs – many of which were also written or co-written by him, starred in 93 films, and hosted his own television show. He is most well-known for “Back in the Saddle Again,” but his biggest hit wasn’t about the American West or cowboys at all – instead it was the Christmas classic, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

Grave of Gene Autry with a large memorial in the ground with his name and numerous accolades from American hero to Gentleman.
Gene Autry’s grave notes him as “America’s favorite cowboy” and “A believer in our western heritage.” Photograph by Arthur Dark from Wikimedia Commons

Roy Rogers and Dale Evans epitomize the musical cowboy and cowgirl. As a husband-and-wife team, they recorded songs and acted together; Evans was also a prolific songwriter. The song that is most associated with them is “Happy Trails.” Rogers, known as “The King of the Cowboys,” also brought his palomino Trigger and dog Bullet into many of his films and television shows. An exhibit on Evans at the National Cowgirl Museum & Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, Texas, shares this quote from her, the perfect tribute to the cowgirl’s strength and independence:

“‘Cowgirl’ is an attitude really. A pioneer spirit, a special American brand of courage. The cowgirl faces life head-on, lives by her own lights, and makes no excuses. Cowgirls take stands; they speak up. They defend things they hold dear.”


Left: Cover of Dale Evans comic book showing Evans in cowgirl gear with a palomino horse; Center: Signature and impressions in concrete noting To Sid, Many happy trails, Roy Rogers and Trigger, with handprints, footprints, and hoof prints. Right: Roy Rogers and Dale Evans in matching western wear.
Left: Dale Evans was featured in her own comic book series in the 1940s and 1950s.
Center: Roy Rogers’ and Trigger’s “signatures” at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood. Photograph by NativeForeigner on Wikimedia Commons
Right: Roy Rogers and Dale Evans at the 61st Academy Awards. Photograph by Alan Light on Wikimedia Commons

Patsy Montana, born Ruby Rose Blevins, was another singing cowgirl. While visiting the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1933, Montana auditioned for a crooner role but ended up working with the Prairie Ramblers on WLS’s National Barn Dance, where she performed for around 20 years. She was the first female country music performer to have a million-selling record with “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart,” which was released in 1935. Her influence can be seen in later singers such as Patsy Cline and Devon Dawson, who provided the singing voice of Jessie the Yodeling Cowgirl from Toy Story.

Dom Flemons Smithsonian Folkways album Black Cowboys, released in 2018, explores the history, music, and culture of the American Wild West from the perspective of the thousands of African American cowboys who also rode the ranges and pioneered the trails out west. Flemons’ album, and the research he did into the subject, underlines that cowboys weren’t exclusively white, despite popular imagery. One interesting character noted by Flemons is Bass Reeves, who became the first black deputy U.S. Marshall out west but also may have been the inspiration for the character of the Lone Ranger! Songs on the album include the familiar “Home on the Range,” “Goodbye Old Paint,” which was credited to a former slave and later cowboy, and an original song by Flemons that honors black movie cowboy Bill Hickett.

Cover of Dom Flemons' Black Cowboys with an illustration of Flemons with a guitar over his shoulder.
Dom Flemons’ Black Cowboys album cover. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings

This is just a small selection of music-related stories about cowboys and cowgirls, but hopefully it gives you a taste to listen and learn more – and to start celebrating every year on National Day of the Cowboy!

From the Vault: Without a Yodel – The Manuscripts of W. E. Myer and His Lonesome Ace Label

Yodeling? Maybe for Jimmie Rodgers, but not for the little-known W. E. Myer.

William Evert Myer (1884—1964) was an entrepreneur from Richlands, Virginia, who tried his hand at producing a successful record label called Lonesome Ace. Sadly he felt the crushing blows dealt by the Great Depression instead. A man of many interests and talents, Myer taught school, studied law, and worked on the accounts of a coal company before following his musical dream. He sold phonographs and records in his store and also wrote several songs – or “ballets” as he called them – preserving them in a set of manuscripts that were recently donated to the Birthplace of Country Music Museum’s collections.

Black-and-white portrait of W. E. Myer as a young man -- dark hair, dark suit, high collar and striped tie.
William Evert Myer. Gift of Dwight Dailey and Robyn Raines, in memory of their great-grandfather W. E. Myer

Unlike much of the rest of the listening public at this time, Myer didn’t like Jimmie Rodgers’ popular yodeling sound. Indeed, he immortalized his thoughts on this subject with his Lonesome Ace record label. Each record was blazoned with Charles Lindbergh’s plane The Spirit of St. Louis and bore the motto “WITHOUT A YODEL”! Lonesome Ace’s promotional material also declared: “Every song has a moral,…and all subjects are covered without the use of any ‘near decent’ language which is so prevalent among many of the modern records.” Myer’s quirky label and his work to release records were the culmination of all of his hopes: a removal of yodeling from the lexicon of American popular music and a desire to shares his musical loves.

Myer’s strong opinions led him to seek out more well-known musicians as a way to market his own songs. Most of all, he wanted his songs to be performed by musicians he liked, and one of his grandest notions was to have the famed country-blues musician Mississippi John Hurt set lyrics that Myer wrote to music. He sent Hurt several of his compositions, and Hurt set three of them to music he chose: “Waiting for You” and “Richlands Woman” set to his own melodies and “Let the Mermaids Flirt with Me,” ironically set to Jimmie Rodgers’ “Waiting for a Train.” This last song was a wild mixture of country, blues, and legendary sea creatures that was later recorded by musician Tom Hoskins in 1963.

Typed lyrics to "Let the Mermaids Flirt With Me," including copyright date of 1929 and the note "By William E. Myer." The lyrics included 6 verses and a chorus, and there is a pencil-written number 15 at the bottom of the page.
“Let the Mermaids Flirt with Me” tells the sad tale of a man who is unhappy in his home life and missing a sweetheart so he looks to burial at sea as sweet respite amongst the mermaids. Gift of Dwight Dailey and Robyn Raines, in memory of their great-grandfather W. E. Myer

Myer also approached traditional musician Dock Boggs, a banjo-frailing, hard-drinking coal miner from a musically inclined family in West Norton, Virginia. Boggs had recorded with The Magic City Trio, led by Fiddlin’ John Dykes, with New York’s Brunswick Records in March 1927, the same year as the Bristol Sessions. During the succeeding years, he did well playing in his local community for various dances and events, much to the chagrin of his wife. And In 1929 Boggs recorded with the Lonesome Ace label, producing four sides of Myer’s “ballets” with his own choice of tune, but following Myer’s advice with “False Hearted Lover’s Blues” by setting it to Myer’s suggestion of Boggs’ “Country Blues.” Even with Boggs’ skill and Myer’s entrepreneurship, the Great Depression led to the decline of the record label and Dock’s career as a musician. Myer declared bankruptcy in 1930 after releasing only three records, and Dock pawned off his banjo to make ends meet.

Close up of the Lonesome Ace record label showing the biplane in flight at the top of the label with the words The Lonesome Ace "Without a Yodel" underneath the image.
The Lonesome Ace record label for Dock Boggs’ recording of Myer’s “Old Rub Alcohol Blues.” From discogs.com

However, this was not the end of Dock Boggs or of W. E. Myer’s music. During the folk revival of the 1960s, Boggs was rediscovered by folk musician and folklorist Mike Seeger, who traveled to Virginia and located Boggs at his home near Needmore. Boggs had recently purchased another banjo, and after Seeger heard him play it, he convinced Boggs to perform at various folk festivals and clubs. This rediscovery brought a renewed love by the American public for the music of Dock Boggs, which continues through today.

Myer, though not revitalized by the folk revival, continues to be known because of his association with Boggs and other important musicians. The stories told to us by his family underline what a remarkable character Myer was, and his manuscripts, which are now part of the museum’s collection, highlight this even further. With song titles like “Old Rub Alcohol Blues” and “Milkin’ the Devil’s Billy Goat” – and one of my personal favorites “The New Deal Won’t Go Down,” which supported President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program – it is clear that Myer’s songs reflected a wide range of interests and stories! And while Myer’s Lonesome Ace may not be well-known or prolific, it certainly played a noteworthy role in the folk music of Southern Appalachia – even “without the yodel”!

The typewritten lyrics to "Milkin' the Devil's Billy Goat," including the copyright date of 1929 and "By William E. Myer" at the top of the page. The song consists of 7 verses and the chorus.
The lyrics of “Milkin’ the Devil’s Billy Goat” chastises and judges “tattlers.” Gift of Dwight Dailey and Robyn Raines, in memory of their great-grandfather W. E. Myer

Along with the William E. Myer manuscripts, the donors generously gave the museum several other items related to their great-grandfather, including the collector’s edition of The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records Vol. 2 (1928-32), which contains the duets by Emry Arthur and Della Hatfield of the two Myer’s songs they recorded.