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Walk the Line in Bristol, TN-VA

Exploring the Birthplace of Country Music & Beyond

Navigating travel during a pandemic can be tricky, but it’s not impossible. So if you’re itching to get out on the open road for an overnight or weekend, why not visit Bristol and learn why we are world-renowned as the birthplace of country music? While you’re here, there are some must-sees in the region that you may not want to miss – including good spots around Bristol’s Historic Downtown where photo opportunities are just too good to be missed!

First Things First: Travel Safely!

One thing I learned early on was that state-run Welcome Centers are the cleanest and safest places to make a pit stop on the way to your destination. Most of them have automatic doors, sinks, toilets, soap and paper towel dispensers so you don’t have to touch common surfaces, and cleaning crews work around the clock to keep them sanitary.

Always remember to wear your mask, carry hand sanitizer, and distance from others in public spaces, and all our favorite restaurants in Downtown Bristol offer carry-out!

Where to stay?

A view of the bar at The Sessions Hotel in Historic Downtown Bristol, Virginia-Tennessee depicting bar stools at a bar with a phonograph, guitar, and amplifier.
The music-themed Sessions Hotel bar.
Photo credit The Sessions Hotel.

The Sessions Hotel

Themed with Bristol’s music history in mind, The Sessions Hotel transformed and connected several old buildings Downtown (including the former Bristol Grocery and Jobbers Candy Factory) to create a warm and restful place to lay your head while you explore. The rooms have a modern, industrial feel and come equipped with a Victrola Bluetooth radio. Once restrictions are lifted, you can bet there will be live music in each of the hotel’s spacious venues. There’s also an on-premises spa, a rooftop bar, and the award-winning Southern Craft BBQ restaurant. The hotel is also within walking distance to the Birthplace of Country Music Museum and everything Downtown!

What to see?

Birthplace of Country Music Museum
The Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Historic Downtown Bristol.
Photo credit Birthplace of Country Music.

Birthplace of Country Music Museum

The Birthplace of Country Music Museum, an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, tells the story of the 1927 Bristol Sessions recordings, explores how evolving sound technology shaped their success, and highlights how this rich musical heritage lives on in today’s music. Through text and artifacts, multiple theater experiences, and interactive displays – along with a variety of educational programs, music performances, and community events – the exciting story of these recording sessions and their far-reaching influence comes alive. Rotating exhibitions from guest curators and other institutions, including the Smithsonian, are featured throughout the year in the Special Exhibits Gallery. The museum also houses a collection of related objects, photographs and paper ephemera, and digital items. The Birthplace of Country Music (BCM) has achieved Healthy Business Certification from the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce & Industry, certifying that both its business office and the Birthplace of Country Music Museum has a disease prevention plan in place that meets guidelines set forth by the World Health Organization (WHO), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) for workplace health and pandemic response. Click here to view our health and safety guidelines.

Where to Eat?

Classic cars appropriately on display in front of The Burger Bar, established in 1942.
Photo credit The Burger Bar.

The Burger Bar

There are a number of great restaurants in Historic Downtown Bristol, all within walking distance of the museum, but The Burger Bar is required eating – not just for the amazing food, but for its country music history. Legend has it, The Burger Bar was the place Hank Williams had his last meal. This Bristol staple has a retro diner feel and a few items on the menu named for Hank’s songs, including the Hey Good Looking with savory mushrooms and grilled onions, the Your Cheatin’ Heart with green chiles, and the Move it on Over with BBQ sauce. My personal favorite, however, is the Burger Bar Famous Reuben on marble rye with corned beef so fresh it melts in your mouth! And don’t forget a side of parmesan fries…delish!

A collage of three photos, the first of a young girl posing by the Bristol sign, the second is a group of folks pretending to sing at the Take the Stage statue, and the third photo is of a man's feet straddled over the Tennessee-Virginia marker found in the middle of the road on State Street.
(L to R) Photo taken from selfie spot marked on the sidewalk near the Bristol sign,
a group “jam” at the Take the Stage statue, and walking the line in two states on State Street.
Photo credit Birthplace of Country Music.

Photo Ops
There are a number of selfie spots around Bristol that make for the perfect IG post:

  • The Bristol Sign – We recommend the magic hour around sunset when the lights first come on!
  • State Street’s Tennessee/Virginia markers – Located in the middle of State Street between the 400 and 800 blocks of State Street, visitors like to take pics of their feet “walking the line” between two states! Safety first recommended, but locals are used to seeing visitors pose and will often stop traffic for you!
  • Take the Stage Statue – Located on the edge of Cumberland Square Park across from the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, make like an old-time crooner and sing into the microphone between a guitarist and fiddler immortalized in bronze.
  • Country Music Mural – located in the Downtown Center on the 800 block of State Street, artist Tim White’s depiction of the major players behind the legendary 1927 Bristol Sessions just got a facelift and is ready for your close-up!

We highly recommend checking out Discover Bristol’s website for a Downtown walking tour, in addition to instructions for the self-guided Caterpillar Crawl scavenger hunt for kids! Kids can also make a little music of their own at Jerry Goodpasture Plaza.

Believe in Bristol is the best source Downtown Bristol events, attractions, restaurants, shops, and galleries. Be sure and visit their website before you visit!

Photo collage of three photos, the first of the exterior of the Southwest Virginia Cultural Center, an interior shot of the Carter Fold with Rita Forrester and Marty Stuart on stage facing a large crowd, and an exterior shot of the Ralph Stanley Museum
(L to R) The Southwest Virginia Cultural Center & Marketplace, Rita Forrester (owner of The Carter Fold) and Marty Stuart at The Carter Family Fold, and the Ralph Stanley Museum.
Photo credits Southwest Virginia Cultural Center & Marketplace, Carter Family Fold, Ralph Stanley Museum

Beyond Bristol
To make the most of your music-themed experience, we highly recommend taking time to visit a few other sites along The Crooked Road: Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail near Bristol:

  • The Carter Family Fold
    Temporarily closed due to the pandemic, The Carter Family Fold is 45 minute drive from Bristol to Hiltons, Virginia and a must-see for music lovers. Janette Carter, one of three children of A. P. and Sara Carter, established the Carter Family Fold to honor the memory of her parents and Maybelle Carter who played a historic role in helping give birth to the age of country music beginning in 1927. The Fold is known for its Saturday night performances where children of all ages dance to old-time, bluegrass, and early country music. There is a small museum on the property that was once a store ran by A. P. Carter, and A. P.’s family cabin was moved there from its remote site for visitation as well. Considered hallowed ground by country music artists and enthusiasts, Johnny Cash performed his final show there in 2003.
  • Southwest Virginia Cultural Center & Marketplace (formerly Heartwood)
    A 20-minute drive from Historic Downtown Bristol to Abingdon, Virginia, Southwest Virginia Cultural Center & Marketplace provides a welcome mat for travelers to Southwest Virginia and serves as a visitor center, retail center for local crafts, music venue and community space. You’ll find exhibits that highlight local artisans and sample the sights and sounds of the region through film in the facility’s experiential theater. Musicians can also pluck tunes in the center’s porch stage, and taste locally sourced foods in the cafe. Regular Thursday night performances are also held, visit their website for schedules.
  • Ralph Stanley Museum and Traditional Mountain Music Center
    Located in Clintwood, Virginia (a scenic one-hour and thirty-five minute drive from Bristol), travelers are encouraged to take an interactive musical journey through the career of Dr. Ralph Stanley at the museum named for the legendary performer. The Ralph Stanley Museum continuously preserves and promotes bluegrass music through workshops, seminars, and conventions. For workshop information and event schedules, check their events calendar often for updates. (Please note, this museum is closed until Spring 2021.)

    Want to know more about exploring Bristol and Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee? Visit our travel partner websites:

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






Thomas Edison: From “Mary Had a Little Lamb” to Recorded Music

On December 24, 1877, inventor Thomas Edison filed for a patent for his “talking machine” or cylinder phonograph. This technology was transformative, successfully reproducing recorded sound and thus setting the stage for our experience of listening to the music we love whenever and wherever we want to!

To celebrate this important date in sound history, it is worth briefly exploring the story of Edison’s early work in recorded sound. Other inventors had already made inroads with different technologies that facilitated communication and transmitted sound – for instance, Samuel Morse with the telegraph in 1844, and Alexander Graham Bell with the telephone in 1876. However, the recording and playback of sound had not been achieved before Edison’s work, the result of several months of diligent labor on the concept of the phonograph. He marked his success with the recording and playback of his own recitation of the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and his remembrance of this occasion can be heard below. Later Edison noted: “I was never so taken aback in my life – I was always afraid of things that worked the first time.”

Two months after filing, the patent for Edison’s phonograph was issued on February 19, 1878. At first, Edison thought that his machine would be primarily useful in the business world as a correspondence and dictation device. Along with that function, however, he envisioned various other uses, including the connection to playing music:

  • Phonographic books for blind people
  • A device for teaching elocution
  • The reproduction of music
  • A “family record” machine to record memories, sayings, last words of dying relatives, etc.
  • Music boxes and toys
  • “Talking” clocks that could keep you on schedule
  • To preserve languages and their pronunciation
  • An educational resource to preserved teachers’ lessons and explanations for later referral
  • To record telephone conversations
Left: A baby doll with porcelain head (bald), metal body with speaker area at top of torso, and articulated wooden limbs. Right: A 19th-century drawing of a man standing in front of a large cabinet Edison phonograph with what look like earphones plugged into the machine.
Left: In 1890, Edison’s company began producing “talking” doll toys that contained small wax cylinder playback machines. Frankly, this is the stuff of nightmares… Right: In late 1889, “coin-in-the-slot” phonographs were introduced in San Francisco, giving people the chance to listen to songs at 5 cents each. The first of these used an Edison phonograph as its base machine. Photograph taken at the National Museum of American History; artist’s rendering of a coin-slot phonograph from radiomuseum.org

The general way these early cylinder phonographs worked was that a person would talk (or sing) into the large end of an acoustic recording horn, which fit into a machine housing a diaphragm and stylus. The sound wave vibrations caused a carriage arm to move across a metal cylinder wrapped in tinfoil (later these became wax cylinders) upon which the stylus inscribed a continuous vertical groove – thus recording the sound being made, which could then later be played back and listened to with delight!

Edison bowed out of the phonograph field for almost 10 years as he concentrated on creating and mass-producing the electric light bulb – creating light out of the darkness in wealthy homes and many cities. But when he returned to the technology of recorded sound, he was continually innovating and producing new models and types of phonographs, and one of his subsidiaries – Columbia Phonograph Company – had also been producing cylinder recordings of popular music of the day. As with most technology, competitors arose and new versions and innovations were developed throughout this time, including the graphophone of Alexander Graham Bell, Chichester Bell, and Charles Sumner Tainter and Emile Berliner’s disc gramophone, and the switch from acoustic horn to electric microphone recording. And with them, and over the following years, came more and more musical recordings by different companies and within a variety of genres – from what is widely considered the first “satisfactory” musical recording (of Italian tenor Enrico Caruso) in 1902 to the later early “hillbilly” tunes of the 1920s that we know and love.

A black-and-white photograph of a large room filled with different musical instruments, including two pianos, a small drum, and what looks to be a small organ, along with several phonograph machines.

Edison’s phonograph experimental laboratory in Orange, New Jersey, in 1892. Image from the Library of Congress

This blog post shares only one small part of Edison’s story – and an even smaller part of the story of recorded sound. If you want a much fuller history of Edison’s work and impact, there is much to be found on the internet – including a great article from the Library of Congress. Interestingly, research has also uncovered several older instances of recorded sound – that of the French inventor Edouard-Leon Scott, whose invention, the phonautograph or phono-autograph, produced a sound recording almost 20 years before Edison’s phonograph, including a snipped of the song “Claire de Lune.” Check out this NPR transcript of an interview with Patrick Feaster, one of the researchers, as he describes the discovery, noting: “It’s the earliest recognizable recording of the human voice, the earliest recording of a vocal musical performance, the oldest recognizable snippet of sound in any recognizable language. So, it’s a lot of firsts.”

Museum Store Artisan Spotlight: Debbie Grim Yates, Susan Prior Fields & John Gunther

A general shot of The Museum Store focused on the front display table -- goods seen here include a large colored metal boot, a folk art piece based on the Bristol Sign, wood and fabric baskets, Farm & Fun Time t-shirts and a Season 1 print, glassware, and jewelry.
The Museum Store in the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.
© Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Earl Neikirk

Back in November, we began our first in a series of blogs highlighting three talented artisans whose work we have commissioned to sell in The Museum Store at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. These creatives elevate the idea of a souvenir to heirloom status, and this month we continue our series by featuring three more artists whose unique, handmade pieces are true masterpieces.

Photo of a ceramic tray with flower designs and a crossed banjo and guitar with musical themed mug and flower vase.
Debbie Grim Yate’s music-themed pottery.
© Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Earl Neikirk

Debbie Grim Yates

Debbie Grim Yates began her pottery career with an apprenticeship under Robin and Bet Mangum of Sparta, North Carolina in 1993. Like most potters, Debbie quickly became addicted to the clay and, over time, her pottery work evolved into a full-time pottery business in her home studio in beautiful Konnarock, Virginia near Whitetop Mountain. Her love of the work and the resulting quality of her finished pottery has helped her business to grow each year. Debbie’s shop is a trail site on the Smyth County Artisan Trail, and she is a member of ‘Round the Mountain Artisan Network. In addition to The Museum Store, Debbie also sells her pottery at the Southwest Virginia Cultural Center & Marketplace and Holston Mountain Artisans in Abingdon, along with numerous other craft shops in Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina. She works primarily with stoneware clay, making wheel-thrown and slab-built functional and decorative pottery.

In addition to her pottery, Debbie is also an accomplished musician combining a soft but powerful singing voice with the ability to play the banjo, fiddle, guitar, and mandolin. She and husband Tim perform as Acoustic Heritage. Both Debbie and Tim came from musical families, and she hopes to pass on both her pottery trade and her family’s legacy of music-making to her two daughters.

Honeysuckle flowers made from intricate yellow and green beads.
Susan Prior Fields’ floral beadwork.
Photo credit: Susan Prior Fields

Susan Prior Fields

One of The Museum Store’s most prolific and popular artisans is Susan Prior Fields. Susan is self-taught and highly skilled in the craft known as beadwork or “beading” and has utilized that talent to create handcrafted art pieces for more than 30 years. To create her beaded flower and tree sculptures and floral-inspired jewelry, she says that she utilizes “repetition, pattern, precise technique, color, sheen, and translucency, all inspired by nature and thousands of tiny seed beads.” Susan’s flowers are done in the “French method” using wire and beads. The flowers appear fragile but are very robust, strong, and permanent. Her trees are very labor-intensive and most take up to three months to complete. Susan’s jewelry consists of a variety of different tiny beads stitched one bead at a time to create a wearable piece of art.  Each of Susan’s jewelry pieces normally takes one to two full days to create.

Susan has lived in Abingdon, Virginia, for 50 years. She and her husband Charles have two daughters, Suzanna (Richmond, VA) and Gwen (Chattanooga, TN), and one grandson. Suzanna Fields is an award-winning artist whose work is in notable public and private collections. Check her out at www.suzannafields.com. You can also visit Susan Prior Fields on Facebook to see more beautiful creations by the artist.

A wooden ladder-like pieces displaying several different colored scarves on the rungs.
John Gunther’s colorful scarves.
© Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Earl Neikirk

John Gunther

A native of Flint, Michigan, one time self-described “peace and love hippie” John Gunther now resides on the outskirts of Abingdon, Virginia, with his wife Janet. John was one of the original juried artisans signed to The Museum Store in 2014. His colorful, luxurious, affordable, and hand-woven chenille scarves have proven popular with museum patrons for themselves and as gifts. Each scarf is a colorful work of art with a cozy, silky feel that becomes even softer with age. The Museum Store also carries some of John’s woven aluminum art pieces, which he has sold coast-to-coast.

John received a loom as a gift while still a student at Michigan State University and began to learn and understand the diverse uses and possibilities of woven fabrics mixed with other materials such as woods or metals. He graduated MSU in 1972 and lived in Wyoming for a short time before moving to this region. Early in his weaving career, John focused totally on “functional” weaving, making things like shelving, lighting, floor coverings, and wearable clothing, which he sold at local and regional craft shows. Since the 1990s, John has been more focused on “artistic” weaving with his scarves, landscapes using dyed merino wool, and woven creations using aluminum sheeting as his medium. He continues to find new directions to express his art. Visit his website at GuntherWeavings.com to see more examples of his beautiful work.

Each of these artisans, along with around 50 others, are featured in The Museum Store at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. Museum admission is not needed when visiting The Museum Store, and it’s a great destination for holiday shopping. Most artisan items for sale in The Museum Store are not sold online due to inventory limitations. To peruse other items sold in The Museum store, click here.

*Note: There’s perhaps nothing more personal than a gift of the arts, so be sure and stop by the museum – and our wonderful downtown – to support local artisans and small businesses!

Museum Store Artisan Spotlights: Johnny Glass, Paula Kahn & Anne Vaughan

A look inside The Museum Store at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum featuring WBCM Radio Bristol Farm and Fun Time t-shirts and framed poster, a colorful metal sculpture that doubles as a giant cowboy boot and umbrella stand, artwork made from the letters of car license plates that mimic the famous Bristol Sign that reads "Bristol VA - Tenn A Good Place to Live," glass fruit and vases, pottery, and baskets.
The Museum Store in the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.
© Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Earl Neikirk

The Birthplace of Country Music Museum prides itself on its world-class exhibits, but did you know that attention to detail also carries over into The Museum Store? The goal: To create a gallery-like shopping experience for visitors by offering one-of-a-kind crafts and goods handmade by local and regional artisans. From sculptural, glass-blown collectibles to intricately beaded music-themed handbags, great care is taken to choose pieces that elevate the status of your typical souvenir. The majority of these bespoke items are destined to become treasured keepsakes and family heirlooms.

In this edition of our blog, and in future blogs, we will highlight many of the juried artisans we have commissioned to sell work in The Museum Store. And their work is a joy to behold. To paraphrase the words of Asheville, North Carolina photographer Tim Barnwell‘s book Hands in Harmony: Traditional Crafts and Music in Appalachia, “Traditional music and handcrafts are both expressions of the creative mind and the accomplished hand.”

A ceramic tray holding a blown glass peach, pear, and strawberry made by Glass by Glass Studios.
Glass fruit by Glass by Glass Studios in The Museum Store at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.
© Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Earl Neikirk

Johnny Glass: Glass by Glass Studios

Perhaps his name was a self-fulfilling prophecy as Johnny Glass is a master creator of hand-blown glass. Based in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Los Angeles, California, Johnny travels cross-country demonstrating his art at various craft shows and venues in a mobile studio he custom designed and built himself. He is so self-sufficient, in fact, that he can bring his full glassblowing studio to any location and have it fully operational within 12 hours to serve as a classroom in which to teach others or to provide demos.

A native of Knoxville, Tennessee, Glass earned his undergraduate degree at Tennessee Tech, going on to study under some of the best-known glass artists in the country both in California and Washington. Glass is currently working on his Masters in Fine Arts at Tulane University in New Orleans where he has earned a full scholarship. He works part time at the college’s extensive glass studios taking care of the facilities and their six furnaces.

Johnny’s mission is to bring awareness and renew interest in the art of glass, and his life’s ambition is to teach what he’s learned at a major university. At The Museum Store, you’ll find his signature pumpkins in addition to paperweights, mugs, vases, Christmas trees, and much more.

A lovely chinquapin beaded necklace interlaced with white beads and a fossil pendant on a display form beside a smaller display of long chinquapin beaded earrings by Chicuapin Designs.
Handcrafted jewelry by Chinquapin Designs at The Museum Store in the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.
© Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Earl Neikirk

Paula Kahn: Chinquapin Designs, LLC

Since childhood, Franklin, North Carolina native Paula Kahn has always enjoyed playing with chinquapins – those smooth, mahogany-colored bead-sized nuts found in the center of prickly burrs.

“When I was little, we used to string them and wear them to school as necklaces,” said Paula, and with that inspiration, she has incorporated her fascination with these tiny tree pearls into her own line of jewelry.

“You boil the chinquapins, you dry them in an attic under a screen, and you drill them one at a time to make a bead.”

Paula now lives in Abingdon, Virginia, working on her unique jewelry with the help of her husband and her 90-year-old father. The chinquapins she uses come from trees on her farm, trees that have a family pedigree as they were imported from her father’s former farm near Franklin, North Carolina, where she grew up. She creates to bring awareness, as she puts it, to younger generations who may not have an inkling of how popular the chinquapin nut once was.

One of The Museum Store’s original juried artisans, Paula has recently started combining the chinquapins with geodes, fossils, and gems she acquires from Franklin, which is known as the “Gem Capital of the World.” This has resulted in a significant increase in sales of her creative jewelry in The Museum Store and elsewhere.

Two display forms adorned with colorfully beaded chains with stone and coin pendants and a smaller display of long earrings that coordinate with the necklaces.
Handmade jewelry by Anne Vaughan Designs at The Museum Store, Birthplace of Country Music Museum.
© Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Earl Neikirk

Anne Vaughan Designs

Anne Vaughan began creating jewelry in her home back in 2006 after the birth of her second child, leaving her career in education behind to forge a new path. In the beginning she made one piece per day from the basement of her home in Floyd, Virginia, increasing exponentially to a total of around 60,000 pieces of jewelry made up to today. Her business has grown so much that she now employs four local women part-time to help with jewelry assembly. Today her jewelry can be purchased in dozens of art galleries, museums, festival booths, and high-end boutiques across the country.

Anne uses a diversity of production techniques along with quality gemstones, handmade flower clusters, vintage and repurposed jewelry parts, and multi-colored pearls in her work, with new lines being created every couple of weeks to keep things new and fresh for her sellers.

“Operating a small business is so challenging, but you learn so much,” said Vaughan. “I am always searching out new techniques and methods that I can incorporate into my work.”

Each of these artisans, along with around 50 others, are featured in The Museum Store at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. Museum admission is not needed when visiting The Museum Store, and it’s a great destination for holiday shopping.

*Note: There’s perhaps nothing more personal than a gift of the arts, so be sure and stop by the museum on #ArtistsSunday November 29 and support our local artisans and small businesses! The day is dedicated to encouraging consumers to shop with artists and give something special, unique, and handcrafted this holiday season.

Radio Bristol Book Club: Woman Walk the Line

Welcome to Radio Bristol Book Club! Each month, readers from BCM and the Bristol Public Library come together to celebrate and explore one book inspired by our region’s rich Appalachian cultural and musical heritage. We invite you to read along and then listen to Radio Bristol on the fourth Thursday of each month at 11:00am when we will dig deep into the feelings and questions raised by the books, learn more about the authors, and celebrate the joys of being a bookworm!

The cover of the book is blue and cream with the main title in red. Several female country musician's names are written in cursive font on the blue part of the cover.
The cover of Holly Gleason’s Woman Walk the Line gives an inkling of the many women who are represented within its pages.

Our book for November is Woman Walk the Line: How the Women in Country Music Changed Our Lives edited by Holly Gleason. Full-tilt, hardcore, down-home, and groundbreaking, the women of country music speak volumes with every song. From Maybelle Carter to Dolly Parton, k.d. lang to Taylor Swift, these artists have provided pivot points, truths, and doses of courage for women writers at every stage of their lives. Whether it’s Rosanne Cash eulogizing June Carter Cash or a seventeen-year-old Taylor Swift considering the golden glimmer of another precocious superstar, Brenda Lee, it’s the humanity beneath the music that resonates.

Woman Walk the Line is a collection of deeply personal essays from award-winning writers and musicians – from Holly George Warren and Madison Vain to Grace Potter and Patty Griffin – on country music’s femme fatales, feminists, groundbreakers, and truth tellers. The book speaks to the ways in which artists mark our lives at different ages and in various states of grace and imperfection – and ultimately how music transforms not just the person making it, but also the listener.

Holly Gleason is a Nashville-based writer and artist development consultant. She’s written for Rolling StoneThe Los Angeles Times, The New York TimesOxford American, No Depression, PASTE, Lone Star Music, Texas Music, Spin, Musician, CREEM, Interview, PLAYBOY, The Palm Beach Daily News, The Vineyard Gazette, Tower Pulse, Request, Rockbill, Bam, Rock & Soul, and Mix. She loves songwriters, roots music, country, R&B and very early rap, as well as life moments, fame and its impact on who we are. Her book Woman Walk the Line was published in 2017 and has become a favorite read of a variety of country stars!

Picture of woman with long reddish brown hair, wearing glasses, a red and blue striped top, scarf, and big hoop earrings.
Author Holly Gleason. © Allistair Ann

Be sure to tune in on Thursday, November 19 at 11:00am – a week earlier than normal due to Thanksgiving the following week – to hear the book club discussion about Woman Walk the Line, followed by an interview with the author. You can find us on the dial at 100.1 FM, streaming live on Radio Bristol, or via the Radio Bristol app. And be sure to pick up a copy and read it ahead of time. We look forward to sharing our thoughts on this wonderful musical journey!

Looking ahead: Our book pick for December is Mama, Me, and the Holiday Tree by Jeanne G’Fellers, which we’ll be discussing on Thursday, December 17 (a week early due to Christmas Eve). Happy reading!

Pick 5: The 1928 Bristol Sessions

If you are reading this blog post, you are probably familiar with why Bristol is considered by many to be the Birthplace of Country Music. During late July and early August of 1927, Ralph Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company recorded several artists and acts at the Taylor-Christian Hat Company building – two of these became known as the “first family of country music” (The Carter Family) and the “father of country music” (Jimmie Rodgers). And Rodgers also became one of the best-selling and most influential country acts of all time.

Eager to repeat the previous year’s success, Peer returned to Bristol in the fall of 1928 to record more regional artists. Though none of the recorded performers from the 1928 Bristol Sessions achieved the fame and influence of the The Carter Family or Jimmie Rodgers, these sessions yielded a fascinating body of work that is overshadowed by the storied 1927 sessions. Both casual and hardcore fans of country music owe it to themselves to check out the 1928 Bristol Sessions – and here are a few choice cuts to get you started:

“Angeline the Baker,” Uncle Eck Dunford

Uncle Eck Dunford of Galax, Virginia, came to Bristol with Ernest Stoneman in 1927. A comedian who recorded several spoken word skits, Dunford’s musical selections were lighthearted as well. A song from the pen of Stephen Foster, “Angeline the Baker” – often called “Angelina Baker” – has become a standard in acoustic music circles, but Dunford’s recording is the sole recording of the song in the pre-war country music discography.

“Unknown Blues,” Tarter and Gay

Stephen Tarter and Harry Gay were the sole African-American act to record at the 1928 Bristol Sessions. A rare glimpse into the scene of bluesmen who were active around Kingsport, Tennessee, before the Second World War, this record leaves me wanting more than the two sides the duo recorded. Featuring clear vocals and two guitars playfully intertwined, it is no surprise this duo was a hit with audiences across the Tri-Cities.

“Goodnight Darling,” Clarence Greene

Cranberry, North Carolina’s resident master musician Clarence Greene made the trek across the mountains to record in Bristol in 1928. A fiddler who is often associated with Clarence “Tom” Ashley, Greene plays the guitar and sings on this side of his sole Bristol Sessions release.

”I’ll Be Happy,” The Stamps Quartet

The Stamps Quartet was established in 1924 as part of the Stamps Music Publishing Company (Dallas, Texas), a company that sold hymnals. It is a bit of an oddity that a non-regional group recorded in Bristol in 1928, but this recording highlights the beautiful gospel quartet singing that is often overlooked as a significant part of early country music.

“I Truly Understand, You Love Another Man,” Shortbuckle Roark and Family

The 1928 Bristol Sessions and Columbia’s 1928 Johnson City Sessions were recorded so close geographically and timewise that it is no surprise some artists appeared on recordings by both labels. George “Shortbuckle” Roark is one such musician, and both sessions yielded absolute classics in the old-time music cannon. I’ve also shared a bonus selection from the Johnson City recordings below – “I Ain’t A Bit Drunk,” George Roark

Instrument Interview: The Bones

“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 talk with the bones.

What are you?

I am a type of percussive instrument known as a “concussion idiophone,” which refers to me being made of up of similar objects that make a sound when struck together. I’m also called the “rhythm bones,” which gives you a clue to the role I play in music.

Two views of two sets of bones, made of animal bones. One is larger than the other, and they are each connected by a leather cord.
The Birthplace of Country Music Museum has two sets of circa 1927 bones in our collection, donated by Dom Flemons in 2015.

Where do you come from?

I’ve been around for a long time, and you can find versions of bones all the way back to several ancient cultures. Archaeologists have excavated bones (as instruments) from graves and tombs in prehistoric Mesopotamia and Egypt, and also discovered images of musicians playing the bones on Greek pottery. There is also evidence of the bones being played in the Roman Empire and ancient China. More recently – that is, in the 18th and 19th centuries – I came to North America with Irish and English immigrants, who used the bones as a way to keep a steady beat for their jigs and reels.

A pottery sherd with a red-figure dancer, gender unclear holding two bones-like instruments in their hands.

Fragment of a terra cotta red-figure kylix, Greek, 510-500 BC. The image is of a dancer using a bones-like instrument as part of the performance. Public domain

Are you really made from bones?

My original versions were made from animal bones, usually the rib or shin bones of sheep, cows, and sometimes horses. I’m often slightly curved, reflective of the natural shape of these bones, and I typically measure between 5 and 7 inches in length. While modern bones are still made from animal bones, you can also find ones made from wood and plastic. A variety of woods can be used, such as cherry, mahogany, walnut, and maple, with different woods producing different tones as is seen in other wooden instruments.

How are you played?

Players hold a pair of bones between their fingers with the convex sides facing one another; one is held fairly tightly and the other more loosely. By shaking the wrist, the bones hit one another, creating a loud “clack.” The connection between the two bones is carried by the momentum from the player’s arm and hand movements rather than any effort to force the bones to knock together. In North America, players tend to play with a pair of bones in each hand, while in Ireland the tradition is to play one-handed.

It’s hard to get a sense of what the movement looks like and the resulting sound by describing it, so check out Dom Flemons playing the bones. It’s actually quite amazing – and beautiful – to watch:

What type of music are you typically found in?

You can hear bones being played in a wide variety of genres, such as traditional Irish and Scottish music, blues, bluegrass, zydeco, French-Canadian music, and Cape Breton (in Nova Scotia) traditions.

Because bones were also often used by African American musicians, they became a common facet of 19th-century minstrel shows – where white performers appeared in blackface; later Black entertainers appeared in minstrel shows too – and the bones’ popularity in the United States grew within this context. One of the first bones-playing minstrel performers was Frank Brower, and the first documentation of him playing the bones in front of an audience are from 1841 in Virginia. He played with a much larger pair of bones than is usual today – two 12-inch lengths of horse rib bones!

An image of an exhibit case with William Sidney Mount's "The Bone Player" -- a black musician wearing a hat, jacket, waistcoat, and cravat-like tie, and holding two pairs of bones in his hands.
This image of William Sidney Mount’s “The Bone Player,” 1857, is on display in the museum exhibits. © Birthplace of Country Music Museum

Are there famous musicians associated with the bones?

There are many famous bones players! Freeman Davis, known by his stage name “Brother Bones” and also as “Whistling Sam,” was born in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1902. He recorded several songs in the 1940s and 1950s, appeared in three movies, and performed at Carnegie Hall and on The Ed Sullivan Show. His most famous recording is “Sweet Georgia Brown,” which became the Harlem Globetrotters’ theme tune in 1952. He took bones playing to an intense high of four bones in each hand and even playing knives like bones!

DeFord Bailey, best known for his wonderful harmonica playing and as a regular on the Grand Ole Opry in its early days, included bones playing in his performances along with yo-yo tricks and guitar picking. He was country music’s first African American star.

John Burrill learned to play the bones in his teens during the Depression. One viewer described Burrill’s style of bones-playing as looking like his arms were upside-down windshield wipers. Over the years, Burrill played with a host of other musicians and acts, including the Brattle Street Players, Steve Baird, Clifton Chenier, Spider John Koerner, Molly Malone, and even the Infliktors, a punk band. When asked what key he played in, his reply was “the skeleton key”!

Peadar Mercier was a percussionist in the Irish band The Chieftains, playing both the bodhran and the bones. He was with them from 1966 to 1976.

Dom Flemons, one of the founding members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops and now a solo artist, is known as the American Songster, whose “repertoire of music covers over 100 years of early American popular music.” Flemons is a talented multi-instrumentalist, playing banjo, guitar, harmonica, jug, quills, fife, and, of course, the bones. He has bones made out of cow rib and shin bones that he plays in the double-handed style.

I’ve heard of someone called “the Rhythm Bones King.” Who was he?

The Rhythm Bones King is a man called Joe Birl. In 1945 Birl applied for a patent for his black molded plastic bones that bore a groove to help keep the bones from slipping out of a player’s hand. Birl produced and sold around 150,000 pairs of these plastic rhythm bones. After the plastic mold broke, he made wooden rhythm bones with his patented grooved design. He passed away in 2012, and Joe Birl Jr. continued to sell bones made in his father’s design.

Left: Joe Birl’s original plastic rhythm bones; Center: A store placard advertising the sale of rhythm bones; Right: A photograph of customers holding Birl’s rhythm bones in a store. All objects from the Dom Flemons Collection at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum

Were you played at the Bristol Sessions?

I was! Black musician El Watson played me when he accompanied the Johnson Brothers on two recordings – “Two Brothers Are We” and “I Want to See My Mother (Ten Thousand Miles Away).” He also accompanied them on harmonica for their recording of “The Soldier’s Poor Little Boy,” and Charles Johnson played guitar on Watson’s two harmonica recordings, “Pot Licker Blues” and “Narrow Gauge Blues.” These are some of the earliest integrated country music and blues recordings.

Are there other instruments related to you?

There are many other types of percussive instruments that are used in a similar way to the bones. For instance, clappers – consisting of two solid pieces made of wood, metal, ivory, and even plastic that are slapped together – are found in a lot of musical traditions, from China, Japan, Korea, and Thailand to medieval France and modern Western symphony orchestras.

Castanets are made of two concave shells joined with string at one edge. They are usually made of chestnut wood, and they are played two-handed. Castanets are also used in several musical traditions, such as Spanish, Portuguese, Swiss, Moorish, Ottoman, Sephardic, and Italian.

Playing the spoons is especially common in American folk music and often seen in jug bands. Like the bones, the spoons are held in one hand and played against each other as a percussive instrument. To see some amazing spoon playing, check out Abby the Spoon Lady.

Anything else you want to share with us?

Remember singing the nursery rhyme song “This Old Man” when you were a child? Well, that song is thought to refer to bones playing! The first verse goes like this (and so on):

“This old man, he played one,

He played knick-knack on my thumb;

With a knick-knack paddywhack,

Give a dog a bone,

This old man came rolling home.”

A paddywhack is a ligament – known as the nuchal ligament – in the neck of sheep and cattle.

*Want some of your own bones? Then stop by The Museum Store where you can buy wooden bones (and spoons) made by local artisan Walt Messick of Mouth of Wilson, Virginia.

Radio Bristol Book Club: Hiding Ezra

Welcome to Radio Bristol Book Club! Each month, readers from BCM and the Bristol Public Library come together to celebrate and explore one book inspired by our region’s rich Appalachian cultural and musical heritage. We invite you to read along and then listen to Radio Bristol on the fourth Thursday of each month at 11:00am when we will dig deep into the feelings and questions raised by the books, learn more about the authors, and celebrate the joys of being a bookworm!

October’s book, Hiding Ezra by Rita Sims Quillen, is set in the Appalachian hills of southwest Virginia during World War I. It is a poignant and moving story with endearing characters who are struggling with the difficulties of war. At a time when families are forced into lives seemingly out of their control, Ezra Teague finds himself having to choose between his country and his family. This beautifully written narrative is a story that centers on love and consequences, and it’s also a story about what is morally right or wrong in questions of the heart. Ezra must make an incredibly difficult decision about which path his life will take, but one thing we do know is this: Ezra is not a coward, and he’s not a pacifist; rather he is a farmer, a Christian, and a family man. Hiding Ezra, which was published in 2014, was a finalist in the 2015 DANA Awards competition, and a chapter from the novel was included in a scholarly study of Appalachian dialect, Talking Appalachian.

The cover of Hiding Ezra is a pencil drawing of a white clapboard church with a woman and several children standing at the window and a man sitting (hiding?) outside on the ground beside the church.
The cover to Rita Sims Quillen’s Hiding Ezra. The cover art was drawn by renowned Appalachian artist Willard Gayheart.

Rita Sims Quillen knew of her literary future from an early age – indeed, she started telling her teachers in the 4th grade that she would be a writer when she grew up. Her whole life, she has loved and devoured books, and she has written novels and poetry centered on the Appalachian Mountains and the people who live here. While writing poetry is her first love, Quillen was also a teacher, retiring after 33 years of community college teaching in Tennessee and Virginia, later specializing in American and Appalachian literature and acting as co-editor to the textbook A Southern Appalachian Reader. Her poetry book Something Solid to Anchor To was published in 2014, and another poetry collection, The Mad Farmer’s Wife (2016), was a finalist for the prestigious Weatherford Award in Appalachian Literature from Berea College.

Quillen is also a multi-instrumentalist, playing guitar, mandolin, piano, dulcimer, autoharp, bass, and bodhran, and she has recently begun writing songs. She won first place in the 2015 Gathering in the Gap Songwriting Contest and was also a finalist in the Richard Leigh Songwriting Competition that same year. Rita lives and farms on Early Autumn Farm in Scott County, Virginia.

A blonde woman wearing a blue top and pants with a lavender scarf around her neck. She is standing at a wooden fence gate and you can see a black cow behind her in the distance.
The author Rita Sims Quillen on her farm. Taken from author’s website

Be sure to tune in on Thursday, October 22 at 11:00am to hear the book club discussion about Hiding Ezra, followed by an interview with the author! You can find us on the dial at 100.1 FM, streaming live on Radio Bristol, or via the Radio Bristol app. And be sure to pick up a copy and read it ahead of time. We look forward to sharing our thoughts on this wonderful musical journey!

Looking ahead: Our book pick for November is Woman Walk the Line: How the Women in Country Music Changed Our Lives by Holly Gleason which we’ll be discussing on Thursday, November 19 (a week early due to Thanksgiving). Happy reading!

The Power of Music: Suffrage Songs

Today is the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which states “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” In other words, it finally gave American women the right to vote and be represented.

Congress ratified this amendment on June 4, 1919, but it still needed to be affirmed by 3/4 of the states in order to become law. Suffragettes and their supporters had been working for this day since 1832, and the very first amendment for women’s right to vote was introduced in 1878, taking 42 years to reach ratification. The road was long and hard with women fighting through words, negotiation and diplomacy, and acts of civil disobedience to gain the right to vote. American democracy has been a beacon to many outside our shores, but it makes one pause to think that women only gained this basic right 100 years ago.

A line of women crowd in front of a building. They are wearing early 20th century clotes, and one of the women looks out from the line and directly at the camera.
Women line up to vote for the first time in Bristol, Tennessee-Virginia, after passage of the 19th amendment. Image courtesy of Bristol Historical Association

The Birthplace of Country Music Museum is fortunate to have two poster exhibits that explore this complex history, the people who fought to be recognized, and the acts that brought them to victory on August 18, 1920. The first – Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence – comes to us from the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. This exhibit traces the story of women’s suffrage, of inclusion in and exclusion from the franchise, and of our civic development as a nation while also examining the relevance of this history to Americans’ lives today. The second – To Make Our Voices Heard: Tennessee Women’s Fight for the Vote, created by the Tennessee State Museum and the Tennessee State Library and Archives – digs deep into the history of the woman’s suffrage movement, Tennessee’s dramatic vote to ratify the 19th Amendment in 1920, and the years that followed. Both of these exhibits will be on display by September 1 and are definitely worth a visit over the next few months!

Right: The introductory panel for Votes for Women bears text and images on the subject, including a woman dressed in classical garb in front of a government building and a portrait of Ida B. Wells. Center: The graphic poster reads "Votes for Women" and "Equality is the sacred law of humanity" and bears the image of a woman's head with wings at her hair and a sculpture of a double-headed axe behind her. Left. The introductory poster for To Make Our Voices Heard has portraits of several suffrage leaders, text, and a picture of suffragettes marching.
Right and left: The introductory panels to the Votes for Women and To Make Our Voices Heard exhibits. Center: Graphic poster from the suffrage movement. Equality Is the Sacred Law of Humanity, c. 1903–1915; Lithograph by Egbert C. Jacobson Courtesy of Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University

As a music museum, there is one thing we know for sure: music has power and impact, and so I wanted to explore some of the songs that helped fuel the suffrage movement. Artists have long used songs to throw light on the world around them – for instance, Hazel Dickens and other musicians who highlighted the tribulations and dangers of Appalachian coal mining communities or the anthems, often with their origins in African American spirituals and traditional hymns, that powered Civil Rights activists in the struggle. Music is a way for people to express their contemporary burdens and their dreams for a better future.

The women of the suffrage movement also lifted themselves up with song, highlighting the rights they were fighting for and inspiring them in that fight. The lyrics to these songs were often set to popular tunes or traditional hymns, thus making them easier to sing and remember. For instance, “Human Equality,” written in the 1870s by William Lloyd Garrison, was sung to the tune of another popular song used in support of labor reform and abolition. While not about women’s right to vote, the poem”Rights of Woman,” written by “A Lady” in 1795, declared women free and was later set to the tune of “My Country Tis of Thee.” “Daughters of Freedom” was published in 1871 and was composed by Edward Christie with lyrics by George Cooper, while a song by Frank Boylen from 1881 asked “Shall Women Vote?” America being the melting pot that it is, some songs also came from immigrant sources, such as “Damen Rechte (Suffragettes),” a popular Yiddish song that not only called for women’s right to vote but also extolled other freedoms and equality in society at large. Some songs were also written specifically for suffrage marches and meant to be played by brass bands, such as “Fall in Line.” Around 1880, D. Estabrook wrote “Keep Woman in Her Sphere,” which on first glance seems to be anti-women’s rights with various men declaring that women should stay in their traditional roles and not expect equal rights. However, the last verse turns this notion on its head with the assertion:

I asked him “What of woman’s cause?”
The answer came sincere —
“Her rights are just the same as mine,
Let woman choose her sphere.

Left: The sheet music cover has bold script with the title of the song, and notes that it is for solo quartet and records the names of the composer and lyricist. Center: A female suffragette band marches down a wide city street. Left: The cover of the Songs of the Suffragettes album is bright pink and has an illustration of a suffrage meeting, with several people around a large table and an audience ranged behind them.
Right: Cover of the sheet music to “Daughters of Freed! The Ballot Be Yours.” Library of Congress. Music Division, Microfilm M 3500 M2.3.U6A44
Center: National American Woman Suffrage Association parade held in Washington, D.C., March 3, 1913. LC-B2- 2505-7, Bain News Service photograph collection, Library of Congress
Left: Unfortunately, very few suffragette songs were recorded at the time of their usage, but you can hear many of these rousing songs on the Smithsonian Folkways recording Songs of the Suffragettes, sung by Elizabeth Knight.

Where there was a fight for women’s rights, however, came societal and political push back – also expressed through music. Songs that mocked the suffragettes’ struggle and emphasized women’s “proper” place abounded, such as “Since My Margaret Became a Suffragette,” “The Anti-Suffrage Rose,” “Mind the Baby, I Must Vote Today,” and “Your Mother’s Gone Away to Join the Army” both published in the early 1910s. Various songs also questioned the other changes women were embracing, often deemed as “unladylike.” This was especially true as women pushed for less restrictive clothes like the “Bloomer costume,” which was attacked in the 1851 song “The Bloomer’s Complaint.” Women riding bicycles were also seen as a sign of these times; indeed, Susan B. Anthony viewed bicycles as doing “more to emancipate woman than any one thing in the world.” “Eliza Jane,” a song from 1895, brought all these horrors together – less restrictive clothing, bicycles, and the desire to vote!

Was there any connection between suffrage and the songs of early country music? I don’t know of any hillbilly songs that embrace the suffrage movement in song, but there are certainly a few songs that reflect the changes that were happening on this front and give hints to women moving beyond their stereotypical roles. For instance, The Carter Family’s “Single Girl, Married Girl,” recorded at the 1927 Bristol Sessions and sung only by Sara and Maybelle, contrasts the freedom of the singleton with the restrictions a married woman bears taking care of husband, babies, and home. And as with the anti-suffrage songs, there were also reactions from hillbilly musicians to the ways women’s roles were changing. Blind Alfred Reed, another 1927 Bristol Sessions singer, later recorded “Why Do You Bob Your Hair, Girls?,” which declared that “every time you bob it, you’re breaking God’s command,” and “Woman’s Been After Man Ever Since,” which bemoaned the early days of Eve in the Garden of Eden and all the ways women were trying to be like men in contemporary society. More disapproval of women’s ways can be found in Ira and Eugene Yates recording “Powder and Paint” from the Johnson City Sessions in 1929.

Finally, it’s worth noting a couple of great songs that teach the history of the suffrage movement and celebrate its achievement. The first is from a much-loved slice of my childhood, Schoolhouse Rock“Sufferin’ till Suffrage,” sung by the wonderful Etta James. And then, of course, there is Dolly Parton (it’s ALWAYS Dolly…). In 2018, she contributed to 27: The Most Perfect Album, “a collection of songs about the Constitutional amendments that have shaped our democracy, and yet are often at the center of fierce political debate.” Dolly’s song about the 19th amendment starts with a brief spoken introduction to the suffrage story, and soon transitions into a rousing song about the fight for the vote.

A (Safe) Weekend Getaway to Bristol

The COVID-19 pandemic may have foiled our plans for Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion this year, but you don’t have to cancel your trip. Bristol, Virginia-Tennessee is a great little getaway, and it’s the perfect opportunity to experience things you’d otherwise miss hopping from stage to stage at the festival. Plus, a Bristol visit is more economical than trips to larger cities and way less crowded – a great option for satisfying your need to travel while keeping your distance during the pandemic.

Get a Room

View of Bristol sign and mountain range from Lumac rooftop bar above The Bristol Hotel.
The view from Lumac rooftop bar above The Bristol Hotel.
Photo credit The Bristol Hotel

Maybe in festivals past you haven’t been able to snag reservations at the fabulous Bristol Hotel or gotten to see the newly opened – and stunning – Sessions Hotel, which honors our cities’ legacy as the birthplace of country music. Both hotels are located in our Historic Downtown so they are steps away from everything State Street has to offer, plus they have amazing dining options. From drinks with a view at Lumac or The Rooftop to fine dining at Vivian’s Table or Southern Craft, each location offers all the comforts of home in a sophisticated atmosphere. Vision Day Spa and Salon is slated to open in September at The Sessions Hotel, so call ahead to book that much-needed spa package! The Sessions Hotel also offers a package that includes a visit to the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. Both hotels are taking social distancing precautions for your safety. Call ahead for more information.

The Museum

The Birthplace of Country Music Museum.
Birthplace of Country Music Museum.
Photo credit Birthplace of Country Music

Speaking of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, fans of Bristol Rhythm may not always have time to stop and explore it during the festival. Planning a trip to Bristol apart from the event allows time to dig into the musical history of the region and the legacy of the 1927 Bristol Sessions – the reason the festival exists! An affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, this award-winning, interactive museum offers an unforgettable experience that’s truly world-class. Come for the permanent exhibits, and the stories they tell, and you can also explore different special exhibits. Right now, we have Real Folk: Passing on Trades & Traditions through the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program (through August 30). And coming soon you will be able to explore Honky Tonk: Portraits of Country Music, 1972-1981, featuring the photographs of Henry Horenstein, on display September 29, 2020 through March 28, 2021, along with two small displays celebrating the women’s suffrage movement and the centennial anniversary of women gaining the right to vote from the Smithsonian Institution and the Tennessee State Museum. Additionally, your health and safety is priority one at the museum. Masks are required by all guests, volunteers, and staff, groups are socially distanced, and heightened sanitizing practices are firmly in place. Learn about the museum’s Healthy Business Certification by clicking here, or click here to watch a brief video about the museum’s safety measures.

The Underground Scene

Photo of the inside of Bristol Caverns.
Majestic Bristol Caverns.
Photo credit Bristol Caverns

“Far below the earth’s surface, in the timeless beauty of Bristol Caverns, a strange and exciting experience awaits…” reads the website description for this wondrous attraction that Native Americans used as an attack and escape route by way of underground river. A popular location for school tour groups, these caverns are a rite of passage for elementary school kids across the Tri-Cities region. During the pandemic, school tours are likely on hiatus, so September would be a great time to check it out. Tours are scheduled every half hour and masks are required. Schedule in advance to guarantee a more private and socially distanced experience. A little further away in Blountville, Tennessee, Appalachian Caverns is dog friendly and offers primitive tent camping.

Park It

Three men playing Disc Golf at Steele Creek Park.
Disc golf, obstacle course, biking, and hiking at Steele Creek Park.
Photo credit DiscoverBristol.org

Steele Creek Park in Bristol, Tennessee and Sugar Hollow Park in Bristol, Virginia are terrific for light hiking and biking excursions. A few trails within Steele Creek offer a bit more of a challenge. Sugar Hollow offers on-site camping for RVs with social distancing and health screening required. The Nature Center, train, and paddle boats at Steele Creek are closed for now, but the disc golf course is super-fun and a great excuse to get outside for some friendly competition.

Jump in the Lake

Lovely view overlooking South Holston Lake with fluffy clouds in the sky.
South Holston Lake
Photo credit DiscoverBristol.org

Bordered by the Cherokee National Forest, South Holston Lake is an outdoors playground, with over 10,000 acres of reservoir and 160 miles of shoreline. Boat rentals are available at Laurel Marina or Painter Creek Marina and there are lots of little islands and coves to explore once you’re out on the open water. Each location has a restaurant on-site or you can pull into a guest slip at Lake View Dock’s Wheelhouse for lunch or dinner. Social distancing is a rule at the restaurants, and some marinas require masks unless you are dining.

Go Fish

2 fishermen showing off the catch of the day for the camera. One man is giving a thumbs up, the other is holding a nice sized fish.
Catch of the day!
Photo credit South Holston River Lodge

South Holston River is a fly fisher’s paradise and considered one of the best locations for smallmouth bass and trout in the Southeast. Go your own way or let one of the pros at South Holston River Lodge take you on a guided journey surrounded by natural beauty. Cabins at the Lodge are also available for rental, and the lodge is taking extra precautions for health and safety during the pandemic.

Ride “The Snake”

Deep sh-shaped curves along HIghway 421, what  motorists call The Snake 421
The Snake 421 weaves through the Cherokee National Forest.
Photo credit Dave Richard

Top off your weekend with a nice Sunday drive along The Snake 421, a favorite among motorcycle and sports car enthusiasts. Journey from State Street to State Route U.S. 421 along a 37-mile section of road between Bristol and Mountain City, Tennessee that offers 489 curves. The journey takes you across South Holston Lake, over three mountains, and down to lovely Shady Valley, Tennessee. Keep an eye out for bears and other wildlife and don’t forget the Dramamine. On the way there or back, be sure to take a quick drive across South Holston Dam, the third-largest earthen dam in the world. There’s a picnic area and a small visitors’ center installation on site where you can learn more about this amazing project. Fun fact: 342 families and 559 graves were relocated in order to build the dam, which was completed in 1950. The flooding inspired author William Hill to write the fictional novel Dawn of the Vampire, where he imagines the undead rising from the depths to prey on the living. Chilling!

Other Fun Stuff

The iconic Bristol sign reads: Bristol VA Tenn A Good Place to Live
The Bristol Sign.
Photo credit Briana Morris

So whether it’s a stay-cation or a full-blown weekender, a trip to Bristol could be just what the doctor ordered for pandemic blues as long as you play it safe. Downtown is filled with great restaurants and breweries that offer curbside service and/or distancing, and there are also lots of great spots to picnic and unwind. If you want to learn more about what’s happening Downtown, visit BelieveInBristol.org, and for more on Bristol and the surrounding region, visit DiscoverBristol.org.