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The Way We Worked in Music and Song

Music and work have always gone hand-in-hand. Songwriters often use their craft to reflect the realities of day-to-day life – and for most of us, a big piece of our lives is given over to the time we spend doing our jobs. Therefore, it is no surprise to find songs across genres that tell stories of labor.

Our current special exhibit – The Way We Worked, here at the museum from the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service for just a few more days! – inspired the curatorial team to explore the connections between work and music, and in the process gave us a really wonderful playlist of labor-related songs. Check out some of these connections with the songs below and dig a bit deeper into this history with us!

A view of the Special Exhibits Gallery with visitors exploring the stand-up panel modules for The Way We Worked. In the foreground, a man with a dark jacket and a hoodie stands in front of the opening panel.

The Way We Worked on display in the museum’s Special Exhibits Gallery. © Birthplace of Country Music Museum

Songs that reflect different forms of labor or jobs are common in early hillbilly music, as well as in contemporary country. The songs are often particular to the time period in which they were written or look back on the past with nostalgia. Several different types of labor are commonly reflected in hillbilly music – especially farming, timber and lumber work, coal mining, and work on the railways – and those themes are also found in later country music.

Farming

At the turn of the 20th century, almost half of all Americans lived on farms. Farm work and a rural lifestyle was a major part of their lives, though farming for subsistence or profit was – and still is – difficult and uncertain. Artists like Ernest Stoneman sang about that uncertainty. For instance, his 1934 recording “All I Got’s Gone” reflected the impact of the Great Depression on rural people who had bought more than they could afford before it hit, only to lose everything once the stock market crashed so that they had to go back to subsistence farming or survive without much else to support them.

Other songs of the era focused on both the importance and the precariousness of the farming life, songs like Fiddlin’ John Carson’s “The Farmer is the Man (That Feeds Them All)” (1924) and “The Honest Farmer” (1925). Carson’s 1924 recording was later taken up and sung by Pete Seeger as a protest song. One of The Carter Family’s songs – “The Homestead on the Farm” (1929) – is told from the perspective on a man who has left his family farm behind to make his way in the world and remembers it fondly with lyrics like “You could hear the cattle lowing in the lane / You could almost see the fields of bluegrass green.”  Many modern country songs hearken back to the farming days with nostalgia and also celebrate the work that farmers do – for example, “International Harvester” by Craig Morgan (2006) and even “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy” by Kenny Chesney (1999)!

Timber

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, abundant and rich natural resources, coupled with low land costs, made Appalachia the site of a major boom in the logging industry. This brought huge changes in land ownership and usage – with land being taken over by outside investors and corporations – and often had devastating environmental and social effects on the region. And it wasn’t just the Appalachians that saw the growth of timber work; other areas of the country (and beyond) have a similar history, and as with farming, songs were sung about this common labor. For instance, the lyrics to “Once More a-Lumbering Go” was written down by a New England lumberman named John Springer in the 1850s, and several versions of the song were later recorded in the field by song collectors and ethnomusicologists. Smithsonian Folkways produced an album in 1961 called Lumbering Songs from the Ontario Shanties, and the library at the University of Wisconsin-Madison created a K-12 lesson plan about Wisconsin’s lumberjack songs. Later artists have also recorded songs about the timber industry, including Johnny Cash’s “The Timber Man” from his 1975 children’s album and Bill Stains with “The Logging Song” (1979).

Coal Mining

Coal mining has been a major part of Appalachian communities for over a century and holds a special place in the economic and environmental history of this region. Therefore, it is only natural that working in coalfields and living in coal towns has provided a source of musical inspiration for many, including songs about the hazards and dangers of this labor and the conflicts between workers and the coal companies that employed them. Blind Alfred Reed’s “Explosion in the Fairmount Mines” (1928) and Hazel Dickens’ “Black Lung” both highlight the very real dangers miners faced, both deep in the mines and after they’ve left them behind.

One of our favorite songs about coal mining is “Sixteen Tons,” written by Merle Travis and recorded by Bristol’s very own Tennessee Ernie Ford in 1955, along with a host of other artists over the years. Travis’s lyrics reflected the bravado of the men who toiled underground in dangerous conditions and then later sometimes came to blows in their down time, but most importantly it also focused on the struggles that miners and their families faced living in a company town and owing their bosses their wages to survive. With lines like “You load sixteen tons, what do you get / Another day older and deeper in debt” and “I owe my soul to the company store,” those economic hardships certainly become clear to the listener. Songs like Florence Reece’s “Which Side Are You On?” Joe Hill’s,” Hazel Dickens’ “They’ll Never Keep Us Down,” and numerous songs about union activist Joe Hill underline the struggle workers’ too often faced for safe working conditions and livable wages.

Railroads

Railroads were also a major industry – and hugely important to the transportation of resources like timber and coal – in the United States in the mid- to late-19th century and early 20th century, and large numbers of Americans worked for the railroad. Train songs were particularly popular in the early 20th century and covered a wide variety of subjects, including railroad construction and changing technology (for example, various songs about John Henry, the “steel-driving man”), rail travel, train bandits, the wandering hobo living life on the rails (Jimmy Rodgers’ “Waiting for a Train,” 1929), and even as a spiritual metaphor within sacred and gospel music (The Carter Family’s “The Little Black Train,” 1937). And sometimes songs turn the usual story on its head – for example, Amythyst Kiah recently recorded “Polly Ann’s Hammer,” a song based on the John Henry tale, though this time told from the perspective of Henry’s wife.

However, railway songs very often focused on train wrecks – an all-too-frequent danger of the early railroading years. Some lamented passengers who lost their lives, but most of them memorialized the crewmen killed in the line of duty on the rails, along with celebrating their heroism. Songs like Henry Whitter’s “Wreck of the Old 97” (1923), Blind Alfred Reed’s “The Wreck of the Virginian” and Mr. and Mrs. J. W. Baker’s “The Newmarket Wreck,” both recorded at the 1927 Bristol Sessions, and “Engine 143” by the Carter Family (1929) share the news of these tragedies in chorus and verse form. Later artists hearken back to these days in song too – for example, “The Great Nashville Railroad Disaster (A True Story),” recorded by David Allan Coe in 1980.

A black-and-white image of a steam locomotive on the railway with the cars behind it derailed from a bridge behind it. Several male workers and bystanders pose in front of the locomotive.

A train wreck near Benhams, Virginia, in the 1920s. Photograph reproduced with permission from the Bristol Historical Association

Work and Music

This post just touches on the tip of the iceberg for songs about work – there are so many out there, and so many themes and topics explored in those songs that there’s not room in one post to cover them all! For instance, just a few include Hattie Burleson’s “Sadie’s Servant Room Blues” (1928), which notes the indignities of work when you are required to work long hours for low pay, while being treated with little respect due to race; Dollie Parton’s “9 to 5” (1980), a beloved movie theme song that was inspired by a women’s activist movement that fought for equal pay and treatment in the workplace; Johnny Paycheck’s “Take This Job and Shove It” (1977), chronicling the frustration of a man who worked for years for little reward – and then, being a country song, he also lost his girlfriend or wife; and Sam Cooke’s “Chain Gang” (1960), a song that reflects the harsh realities of Southern justice through unpaid labor in the Jim Crow era.

You can check out the Virtual Speaker Series presentation we did on this topic in December here, along with three related playlists: here, here, and here! I hope this post and the music it celebrates give you a starting point for exploring the history of work through song!

The Way We Worked special exhibit is on display at the museum through Sunday, January 23 so come see it while it is still here! And tune into our Radio Bristol Book Club show on Thursday, January 27 at 12:00pm as we continue our exploration of work history through a discussion of Denise Giardina’s Storming Heaven, followed by an interview with the author.

René Rodgers is Head Curator at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. Erika Barker is the museum’s Curatorial Manager.

A Celebration of Black Contributions in Country Music

Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and organizations in the Tri-Cities area are marking this date with a variety of programs over the course of the month. For instance, later this week, our Museum Talk hosts will be chatting with Richard Josey, founder of Collective Journeys, about his DEAI (Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, Inclusion) work with the Virginia Association of Museums.

We also contributed a country music playlist for the Appalachian Peace Education Center’s MLK Day programs this past weekend. Country music has been influenced by a wide variety of different musical traditions over the years. Enslaved people from Africa brought the knowledge and memory of the banjo – a common instrument in country and bluegrass – with them when they were forcibly transported to these shores. And since its early days in the 1920s, Black artists have contributed to the history and sound of country and old-time music. Our playlist celebrates several of those artists.

Screenshot of the Spotify playlist listing the various Black country artists included on it.

The museum’s Spotify playlist to mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2022.

El Watson, Tarter & Gay, and the Tennessee Chocolate Drops played on early country music recording sessions in East Tennessee (though their songs were categorized at the time as “race records” rather than “hillbilly records”). El Watson was the only African American musician to record at the 1927 Bristol Sessions, putting down two songs: “Narrow Gauge Blues” and “Pot Licker Blues.” He also played bones on a few songs recorded by the Johnson Brothers, and Charles Johnson played guitar on Watson’s recordings – these are some of the earliest integrated recordings in country music. Ralph Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company came back to Bristol in 1928 to record more musicians from this area, and this time the sole African American act was a duo called Tarter & Gay. As with El Watson, they recorded two sides – “Brownie Blues” and “Unknown Blues” – that were marketed as race records. The Tennessee Chocolate Drops – made up of brothers Howard and Roland Armstrong and Carl Martin – recorded “Knox County Stomp” for Vocalion at the Knoxville Sessions in 1930.

Lesley Riddle worked with A. P. Carter as they traveled around Southern Appalachia to collect songs for The Carter Family to perform and record. He also taught them several songs, including “The Cannon Ball,” and his guitar playing influenced Maybelle Carter’s guitar style. Riddle later moved to Rochester, New York, where he sometimes played music in small venues around the city in the 1960s and 1970s. He met Mike Seeger in 1965 and recorded music for him and performed as part of the urban folk revival.

Elizabeth Cotten, guitarist and banjo player, was an important influence in American folk music; her connection to the Seeger family, especially Mike Seeger, played an important role in her amazing musical talent being recognized and celebrated. Her style and repertoire – based on earlier African American music and instrumental traditions and delivered in her unique left-handed playing – impacted a variety of musicians who followed her. Honored as a National Heritage Fellow in 1984 and winner of a Grammy at the age of 90, the Smithsonian recognized her as a “living treasure” before her passing in 1987.

Black-and-white photograph of Black musician Elizabeth Cotten. She is wearing a light-colored long-sleeve shirt and plays a guitar.

Elizabeth Cotten playing guitar. Credit: Library of Congress

Brownie McGhee, born in Knoxville but raised in Kingsport, made his mark in music locally, but also put down songs for a recording session in Chicago in the 1940s. Alan Lomax later recorded McGhee, providing an important record of his musical talent – and as with other Black musicians whose music intersected with early traditional and old-time music, he was also active in the folk revival. McGhee recorded “Sittin’ Pretty” with fellow artist Sonny Terry.

DeFord Bailey, a talented harmonica player, was the first African American artist to perform on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville in the 1920s. Bailey was nicknamed “the harmonica wizard” by George Hay, WSM’s station manager – one of his most famous pieces on the show was “Pan American Blues,” which recreated the evocative sounds of a locomotive. Bailey recorded for various labels and performed live throughout the South and Midwest, but sadly his music career was curtailed by a business dispute; he later opened a shoeshine parlour.

These early African American performers gave way to later musicians who have made their own mark on country and old-time music. Charley Pride, once a Negro league professional baseball player, rose to fame in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He became a very popular country music star and is one of only three Black members of the Grand Ole Opry. “All I Have to Offer You (Is Me)” was his first number one hit.

This album cover shows an image of Black musician Charley Pride looking off into the distance over green fenced fields and trees. He is wearing a black jacket with a light-colored collared shirt underneath.

Album cover for Charley Pride’s Country, released in 1979 by Reader’s Digest.

Dom Flemons and Rhiannon Giddens are founding members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, an important Black string band; they now have thriving solo careers. Both artists use their music to illuminate African American histories. In 2018, Flemons released an album focused on Black cowboys through Smithsonian Folkways. He chose to feature “Lonesome Old River Blues,” a song originally recorded by Roy Acuff and the Crazy Tennesseans in the 1930s, on this album in order to illuminate the influence of African American traditions on early country music. Giddens’ musical output has consistently helped to tell the story of the Black experience, and she recently led an all-female banjo “supergroup” called Our Native Daughters that shares African American histories and stories from the female perspective. Her version of “Freedom Highway,” a 1964 Civil Rights protest song, is taken from her second solo studio album and features fellow artist Bhi Bhiman.

Amythyst Kiah, a local musician and singer from Johnson City, Tennessee, did her degree at ETSU in the Bluegrass, Old-Time, and Country Music program and contributed to the exhibit content at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. She is part of the Our Native Daughters group and has recently released a new Rounder Records solo album, Wary + Strange. Her song “Black Myself” was first released on Songs of Our Native Daughters and then re-released on Wary + Strange – the song’s powerful lyrics, coupled with Kiah’s amazing voice, pack a real punch.

Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton is a young singer and multi-instrumentalist originally from the Watts district of Los Angeles, California. His playing styles are akin to pre-WWII blues and jazz in the vein of artists like Fats Waller, Bessie Smith, and Lonnie Johnson. The Southern roots of his grandparents who moved from Louisiana to California in the mid-1950s provided the influence that became his signature sound. The song we feature is “Railroad Bill,” the B-side of a single released on Evangelist Records of London, England, which also happens to be a product of his first-ever professional recording session. Paxton has appeared in the documentary film The American Epic Sessions, as well as voicing a character in the animated miniseries Over the Wall. We have been very lucky to have Paxton play here at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum and the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion Festival.

Texas-born Charley Crockett is a blues, country, and Americana singer-songwriter with 15 albums under his belt starting with 2015’s A Stolen Jewel through to his 2021 release Music City USA. Crockett has been steadily gaining popularity and is an established part of authentic roots music’s current youth movement. Also having appeared at the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion, Crockett has garnered a faithful local fanbase. The track “Jamestown Ferry” is a mid-tempo honkytonk number from 2017.

This image shows an African American man playing guitar and singing into a mic on an outdoor stage. He wears a light-colored cowboy hat, sunglasses, and a patterned shirt in blues and greens.

Charley Crockett performing on stage at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion in 2021. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Billie Wheeler

These African American artists are just a few of those that have made their mark on roots, country, and old-time music. We hope you enjoy our playlist, and that it leads you deeper into this history and music!

About the Authors

René Rodgers is Head Curator at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. Scotty Almany is the museum’s Digital Media, Programming, & Exhibit Logistics Manager.

Radio Bristol’s Best of 2021

Well, 2021 was quite the year. Despite the hardships we all faced, one thing’s for sure – we learned artists are incredibly inspiring at both adapting and creating under difficult circumstances, helping us to navigate through trying times and challenging situations, and for that we are exceedingly grateful. And so, as we step into the new year, Radio Bristol wanted to be sure to share some of our top albums of 2021 with you.

Amidst the isolation of the pandemic, many artists took time off from touring, and quite a few returned with a multitude of creative work. This list highlights some standout records that were in heavy rotation at Radio Bristol in 2021, but is certainly by no means a comprehensive list of all the music that we loved this year. We hope there are some artists listed here that you may not be familiar with. If so, we encourage you to go check them out (just click on the links provided). We bet you’ll love them too! And don’t forget the importance of supporting the arts by purchasing music and merchandise directly from the artist.

Daddy’s Country Gold – Melissa Carper

Melissa Carper’s Daddy’s Country Gold is a rare, sparkling nugget of country music realness. After wandering all over the United States as a working musician, playing breweries, festivals, and street corners, Carper wheeled into Nashville to make 12 of the most thoughtfully executed tunes of 2021. Recorded to tape at Nashville’s vintage gear clad studio, The Bomb Shelter, and produced by Andrija Tokic (Alabama Shakes, Hurray for the Riff Raff), this album offers a warm reel to reel sound, and Carper’s exceptional vocals and timeless songwriting create a country-western meets earthy jazz lounge feeling.

Melissa Carper from a recent performance on Radio Bristol’s Farm and Fun Time singing “Would You Like to Get Some Goats.”

Music City USA – Charley Crockett

Charley Crockett, the “do-it-yourself” cowboy, has officially arrived on the national country music stage with six critically acclaimed self-released albums, millions of YouTube views, and a Grand Ole Opry debut under his belt. Amidst the pandemic, Crockett released Welcome to Hard Times to a growing audience, and with its timely lyrics and hard-core “classic country” production, Crockett’s fanbase expanded exponentially. In 2021 Crockett released two further albums: one a tribute to Texas songwriting legend James Hand, and the other Music City USA. Charlie Crockett amazes us with his ability to turn out high-quality albums at a record pace, and this one is no exception. From the R&B drenched “I Need Your Love” to the witty title track chock-full of commentary on the music industry to the reflective tear-in-my-beer ballad “The World Just Broke My Heart,” Music City USA makes it clear that Crockett is on one heck of a roll!

Over That Road I’m Bound – Joachim Cooder

Layered loops of twinkling Kalimbas over clawhammer banjo and swelling fiddle reels, all nestled among lush vocal harmonies, make this collection of Uncle David Macon tunes recorded by Joachim Cooder on Over That Road I’m Bound absolutely unique and spellbinding. Released on Nonesuch Records, Cooder reveals an atypical approach to old-time music while paying homage to the Opry star and song collector who also bent melodies to his own purposes. And don’t just listen to the record – check out live performances of the songs, which showcase the influence of world and folk music alongside Cooder’s innovative performance style.

Left: Charley Crockett's album cover has a photograph of a young mand with dark and short beard wearing a cowboy hat, suede jacket, and jeans. Right: Joachim Cooder's cover shows a head portrait of a young white man looking back over his shoulder at the camera in a central white circle. He has dark hair and a beard, and he wears a cowboy hat. An overlay of mauve coloration is seen on his portrait.

Album artwork for Charley Crockett’s Music City USA and Joachim Cooder’s Over That Road I’m Bound. 

Long Time Coming – Sierra Ferrell

Currently selling out venues across the country, West Virginia native Sierra Ferrell and her 2021 release Long Time Coming are well worth the hype! Released this past August on Rounder Records, Long Time Coming chronicles unrequited love, thoughts on the struggle of existence, and an un-ending search for genuineness. Co-produced by 10-time Grammy winner Gary Paczosa, and featuring cameo performances by popular bluegrass artists such as Billy Strings and Sarah Jarosz, Ferrell’s album mixes together musical ideas from bluegrass, jazz, and early country to create a sound that seems like it’s being played from the horn of an old Victrola. Now a rising star of the Americana music scene, Ferrell has been igniting music enthusiasts nationwide. We’ve been lucky to work with her numerous times at Radio Bristol!

Blue Blue Blue – Noel McKay

Raised in Lubbock, Texas, Noel McKay’s rust-dusted vocals and reflective and undeniably engaging songwriting makes him a natural successor to legendary Texas songwriters such as Guy Clark who discovered McKay singing at a small venue back in 1993. In Blue Blue Blue, his most recent release, McKay unveils a solid collection of some of the best country-folk around. Accompanied by old-timey fiddles, well-curated acoustic guitar solos, and tasty percussion shuffles, this album is sure to satisfy listeners looking for a real-deal country-and-western sound. McKay’s knack for writing catchy and humorous tunes make listening to Blue Blue Blue an absolute treat.

Left: Album artwork shows a young white woman surrounded by flowers. She has light brown hair and is looking into the distance; she wears a pink-looking top and a big hat. Right: A middle-age white man with dark hair holds a guitar and looks up into the distance.

Album artwork for Sierra Ferrell’s Long Time Coming and Noel McKay’s Blue Blue Blue.

Wary + Strange – Amythyst Kiah

Regional favorite Amythyst Kiah released debut album Wary + Strange on Rounder Records this year, and the album has since exploded onto the Americana music scene. After recording with the all-women-of-color supergroup, Our Native Daughters, and writing the single “Black Myself,” which gained Kiah a Grammy nomination, Wary + Strange was one of our most anticipated albums of 2021. Blaring with alt-rock-tinged summits, alongside virtuosic valleys of old-time inspired fingerpicking and harmonic pedal steel, Kiah’s remarkable powerhouse vocals shine through in expressive vistas of political discourse and raw vulnerability. This album is a must-listen and delivers on every level of musicality.

An intimate performance from Amythyst Kiah at the Radio Bristol studio where she did a debut performance of the song “Firewater” from her 2021 release Wary + Strange on Rounder Records.

Ten Thousand Roses – Dori Freeman

Galax, Virginia-based artist Dori Freeman’s newest release Ten Thousand Roses effortlessly explores a wealth of musical genres including indie, rock, and pop while holding true to her Appalachian roots and distinctive vocal vibrato. Observations about socioeconomics, classism, and the female experience dance across well-crafted melody lines as Freeman once again proclaims her extraordinary talent for songwriting. We’ve been on team Dori for a long time, and it’s been amazing watching her journey.

 Scatter & Gather – Shay Martin Lovette

Recorded at the acclaimed Rubber Room Recording Studio in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, with producer Joseph Terrell (Mipso), Shay Martin Lovette’s sophomore album, Scatter & Gather, has been a breakthrough favorite on Radio Bristol this year. The Western North Carolina-native takes you on a sonic journey where bluegrass and progressive indie-folk brush shoulders. The album is embellished with polished folk-rock arrangements and mindful poetics, offering self-actualized philosophies on ecology, relationships, present-ness, and compassion.

Left: Photograph of a young white woman with blond hair, casually pulled back a bit from her forehead. She is staring straight at the camera, and she wears a floral-looking top. She has a tattoo on her right shoulder. Right: Album cover for Shay Martin Lovette's Scatter and Gather shows an artistically created meadow with mountains in the background and a river flowing from the mountains. Rays of color beam out from the top of the mountains.

Portrait of Dori Freeman, and album artwork for Shay Martin Lovette’s Scatter & Gather.

Haywire Duff Thompson

Duff Thompson is co-founder of New Orleans-based label Mashed Potato Records – which records to old Ampex tape and specializes in capturing the glimmering and organic. He recently released his debut album Haywire, a record filled with mindful orchestral arrangements, slapback echo, and swishing stripped-down percussion. This album feels like a Phil Spector pop-infused daydream. Atmospheric standout tracks like “You’re Pretty Good’” and “Sleight of Hand” make it a perfect soundtrack for a lazy day, or one for envisioning positive vibes for the new year.

New Orleans musician Duff Thompson performing “Rock and Roll Will Break Your Heart” in a live session shot this past year in the Radio Bristol studio.

Long Lost – Lord Huron

Materializing seductive country nods way out on the West coast, LA-based band Lord Huron’s newest album Long Lost is a transformational soundtrack. Theatrical strings swirl around a silhouette of hazy Western meets surf rock-inspired guitar lines. Swimming with dreamy vocal harmonies that drift along to a jangling laid-back tambourine, fuzzy radio excerpts introduce the tracks, and accompanying music videos feature mysterious blurred-out faces in classic country attire. Long Lost has created an expansive buzz around the band, which was originally formed in 2010.

 Headwaters – Alexa Rose

Asheville-based artist Alexa Rose’s release Headwaters is a beautiful snapshot inside the mind of a blossoming songwriter. Recorded at Delta-Sonic Studios in Memphis, Tennessee, and produced by Bruce Watson of Big Legal Mess Records, the album displays lucid lyrical realizations amidst a mesmerizing auditory backdrop. Headwaters fuses the droning of heavy progressive rock guitars with Appalachian folk-influenced narrative ballads, creating a fresh approach to the form. This new album has been winning Rose a dedicated following and landing the emerging artist opening slots for major national acts such as Watch House, Hiss Golden Messenger, and Parker Milsap.

Left: Lord Huran album cover shows a painting of a white man wearing a red jacket and brown pants, holding a guitar. His face is blurred out into streaks of color on a blue background. Right: Alexa Rose's album cover is a photograph of a white woman lying down (just her face). She has dark hair and eyes and is staring straight into the camera. The whole image is bathed in blue.

Album artwork for Lord Huron’s Long Lost and Alexa Rose’s Headwaters.

Reckless – Morgan Wade

Growing up in Floyd, Virginia, a town known for its ties to early country music, Morgan Wade absorbed music from an early age while attending bluegrass jams with her grandfather. Now in her mid-20s, this past year Wade signed a major recording contract with Sony and released her debut album Reckless to a growing fanbase. Produced by Sadler Vaden, well known as the lead guitarist for Jason Isbell & the 400 unit, the album merges influences from pop, rock, folk, and country. The album’s pop-country adjacent sound claims new ground by employing hues of late 1980s grunge and authentic songwriting that exposes Wade’s struggle with addiction and mental health.

 Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan! – Aaron Lee Tasjan

Blasting synths and catchy 1980s inspired glam-rocks choruses make the 2021 release Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan! a gleaming cluster of outstanding tunes. Taking sonic cues from the likes of David Bowie and Tom Petty, and combining them with folk storytelling sensibilities, Tasjan has excelled with an innovative take on the craft of songwriting. Introspective lyrics about inner-truth, gender identity, and disillusionment with technology make this album an extremely compelling listen.

Left: Morgan Wade album cover showing a young white woman with blondish-brown hair parted in the middle. She is holding both hands up to her face, covering most of it so you can just really see her eyes. Both hands are heavily tattooed. Right: Aaron Lee Tasjan's album cover shows a young white man with dark hair from mid-thigh up, with the image cut off midway across his head/face. He is wearing a sweater vest with the words "Tasjan Tasjan Tasjan" on it, and there is blue sky and a pink cloud behind him.

Cover artwork for Morgan Wade’s Reckless and Aaron Lee Tasjan’s Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan!.

The Ballad of Dood & Junita – Sturgill Simpson

Following Sturgill Simpson’s wildly successful releases of Grass Cutting Vol I & II, his most recent concept album, The Ballad of Dood & Juanita, is an immersive 27-minute long experience, dedicated to telling the tale of a historical Appalachian couple in a poetic western-inspired fashion. Employing the same group of all-star players from his last two albums – the “Hillbilly Avengers,” comprised of bluegrass heavy hitters such as Sierra Hull, Tim O’Brien, and Stewart Duncan – The Ballad of Dood & Juanita is an alluring stylistic departure from Simpson’s previous recordings.

The Ballad of Dood & Juanita album cover is cream-colored with brown text and line drawing. The drawing is of a man in western gear (cowboy hat, bandana around his neck, shirt and pants, boots) with a horse behind him and a dog by his side. He holds the horse's reins and a shotgun in one hand.

Cover artwork for Sturgill Simpson’s The Ballad of Dood & Juanita.

And so there you have it – just a few of the records that captivated us in 2021. We’d love to hear what caught your ear! We can’t thank you enough for your overwhelming support and for being a part of our community. We look forward to 2022 and talented musicians bringing us another great year of music. We’ll do our best to keep you up-to-date on the most exciting and upcoming talent.

Happy New Year from Radio Bristol!!

Kris Truelsen is the Program Director at Radio Bristol, and Ella Patrick is the Production Assistant at Radio Bristol. Both are also working musicians.

Pick 5: Songs About Writing and Performing Music

For our “Pick 5” blog series, we pick five songs within a given theme – from heartsongs to murder ballads and everything in between! Once the author picks their “5,” they get the chance to tell us more about why they chose those songs – a great way to get some interesting song choices, which might introduce you to some new music, all easily accessible by tuning into Radio Bristol! Today our guest blogger is C. P. McGuire.

As a music major at Western Carolina University, the theme I’ve chosen is near and dear to my heart. When I have time, I love playing my guitar and singing, as well as creating new music to share with everyone. So here are five songs that celebrate writing and performing music!

“Piano Man” (1973) – Billy Joel

Let’s start out with one that everybody should be familiar with: “Piano Man.” Billy Joel wrote this song while working as a piano player in a piano bar, and all the people that he mentions in the song were apparently real people. It truly sounds like nine o’clock on a Saturday, and what really underlines this song’s celebration of performing music is heard primarily in the chorus with the line, “Sing us the song, you’re the Piano Man.” He’s being called to not only sing, but to sings something that will make everyone want to sing along with him.

“Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song” (1975) – B. J. Thomas

Had a bad day? Work not treating you right? Your significant other left you? Well, this song, in my opinion, is the perfect remedy. With this song, B. J. Thomas is asking a performer to play another “somebody done somebody wrong song,” which I take as being a long way of saying “play me a sad song”! Even though it is a song about performing music on first listen, I feel like we might all need songs like this sometimes, just like Thomas needed to hear a sad, sad song.

“Wrote A Song for Everyone” (1969) – Creedence Clearwater Revival

Written in the midst of the Vietnam War in the late 1960s, this song is a call for truth, probably asking President Nixon why we were still fighting this war that was going nowhere. Lead singer John Fogerty is calling for everyone to get together in peace, and this song seems to be dedicated to everybody that agrees and wants to find their voice. I think that is an admirable thing to write a song about, and I am very happy this song exists.

“Making Memories” (1975) – Rush AND “From Rochdale to Ocho Rios” (1978) – 10cc

I couldn’t decide between these two songs about performing music – actually about touring – so they come together in one choice together! The first song, “Making Memories,” is about having fun on tour and enjoying the entire experience without dwelling on the negatives. With lyrics like “Our memories remind us, maybe road life’s not so bad,” it’s hard to believe that Rush would ever truly dislike touring. 10cc’s song “From Rochdale to Ocho Rios,” on the other hand, makes the band seem to like performing on tour, but makes traveling sound very tiresome and homesick-inducing with lines like, “you spend half your life in transit, but that’s just the way God planned it.” No matter how performers think of touring, whether they’re positive like Rush or more pessimistic or jaded like 10cc, they are still performing, and that’s a living for them.

 

“I Wanna Learn a Love Song” (1974) – Harry Chapin

And finally, a song about learning how to play music. This song is about Harry Chapin teaching his future wife how to play the guitar. Although married already, she hired him to teach her guitar to play for her kids. However, she insisted that he teach her a love song and was more interested in hearing him play. This song, again, just mentions performing, but I think that it is fascinating to hear how these two grew a relationship and got close because of the power of music.

C. P. McGuire is a music major at Western Carolina University. He worked with the Birthplace of Country Music Museum as an honors student, writing this blog post, creating social media posts, and researching museum programming ideas.

Radio Bristol Spotlight: Ed Snodderly

Radio Bristol is proud to offer a platform to local and regional artists, artists who are often underrepresented on a national level yet deserving of that audience. In expanding upon Radio Bristol’s core mission, we are pleased to bring you our Radio Bristol Spotlight series. Radio Bristol Spotlight highlights the top emerging artists in our region. Through interviews and performance, we will learn more about the musicians who help to make Central Appalachia one of the richest and most unique musical landscapes in the world.

Not too long ago we were able to host a well-known local fixture of the Tri-Cities music scene for an interview and live performance: Ed Snodderly, singer-songwriter, professor, venue owner, and live music devotee.

Black-and-white photograph of Ed Snodderly. He is an older white man who wears glasses, a white button-down shirt, and a jean jacket. He is looking up and off to his right. His hair is quite messy and fluffy.
Ed Snodderly is country music outside the box.  Photo credit by Selena Harmon

Folks around the area most likely have heard about The Down Home, the long-running music venue Ed helped found with Joe “Tank” Leach in 1976. The wooden-walled, listening room-focused locale has become legendary for the quality of its musical acts and for the intimacy of the performance space. Famed for hosting major artists such as Old Crow Medicine Show, Townes Van Zandt, and Allison Krauss way before their music became a part of the growing Americana music canon, The Down Home has provided a communal space for experiencing music with a profound dedication to artistry.

Maybe you also recognize Ed’s face from his cameo performance as the “Hillbilly Fiddler” in the movie O Brother Where Art Thou. You may also have seen him running sound during an Open Hoot, or even performing in local community theatre.

If you hang around Johnson City, you may have also caught Ed walking across the ETSU campus, where he teaches songwriting. He is adept at encouraging first-time writers to hotwire their minds and put up their “antennas” to find where an attention-grabbing first line might be hiding in the everyday. This is how I first met Ed via a workshop hosted by the Birthplace of Country Music. His approach to making songs has really influenced me – a lot of his focus hones in on connecting experience to place and allowing the writer to explore “what they know” instead of relying on popular musical tropes.

Ed may wear many hats, but he is first and foremost an amazing songwriter. Indeed, his name is etched beside lyrics from his song “The Diamond Stream” on the walls of the Country Music Hall of Fame. He has released several albums as a solo musician and with his singing partner Eugene Wolf in their duo The Brother Boys, and and currently has new albums in the works in both of these roles, due out later this year and early spring of next year.

Inspired by the extra time during the pandemic, Ed talked to us about the considerable amount of new material he’s written recently, shared a few of his well-crafted songs, and also spoke about his musical journey. Donning a hip pair of rimmed glasses and a country boy swagger, Ed welcomed us into his musical landscape with an endearing East Tennessee drawl. He started off with a nostalgic tune, called “Kiss the Dream Girl,” which recounts a downtown that was once bustling. A steady rhythmic guitar line walks through the verses like someone strolling down an empty street; the “dream girl” acts as a metaphor for those still remembering in the lost spirit of a small town. This song was featured on the Brother Boys record Plow released by Sugar Hill Records in 2006, and you can listen to a recording of it here:

Growing up in the Morristown area near Knoxville, Tennessee, Ed was taught basic chords on an unbranded guitar bought by his father and uncle with money scrounged from farming tobacco. He was encouraged at an early age by his musical family – his grandfather was a fiddler, and his uncle played pedal steel professionally for big-time artists such as Loretta Lynn and Jerry Lee Lewis. With that background, Ed became fascinated with music. He also liked to learn songs by ear, slowing down 33 1/3 records while figuring out how to play the songs himself, and he reveled in the folk music revival that was gaining ground during his childhood. Ed says he’s drawn influence from a wide variety of artists, including Riley Puckett, Guy Clark, and The Beatles – from these, he has pieced together a guitar style that feels extremely unique and captivatingly organic. Part old-timey fingerpicking and part contemporary folk songwriter groove, his guitar licks seem to always be pushing songs rhythmically towards their destination. Ed’s style is both reverent to tradition, while also being totally unafraid to shift itself into another genre, all masterfully cobbled together to best serve the song at hand.

After his first number, Ed shared another original called, “Slow My Girl Around.” which felt like it could be inspired by an old fiddle tune, possibly “Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss.” Its lilting melody hops around his distinctive guitar playing, which guides each note towards the chorus. The lyrics again were tinged with nostalgia, but this time explored modernity’s dependence on technology. Lines like “Your eyes are addicted to the little box screen” and “Where all is quiet and there’s no hum, trying to get back to what we got away from” make it clear that the songwriter is searching for a more genuine existence, unfettered by the mechanics of contemporary life. When asked about his songwriting, Ed replied simply “I write about what I know; I always try to remember what the country smells like.” His dedication to straightforwardly writing about experiences while poetically uncovering personal truths leads to songs that are as thought-provoking as they are familiar and that use easy going off-the-cuff language to describe ego-splitting revelations.  

The third song Ed played during his on-air performance – “Love Song in a Low Key” – felt like an expressive anthem to the present moment. The song features driving guitar accompaniment paired with recollections of everyday experiences that effortlessly create joy: pocket watches, a good cup of coffee, the feel of a steering wheel, the sense of “being home and being here.” This song displays stylistic influences from pop and rock music of the 1960s, while still imparting folk-inspired wisdom, and pulls in the listener with a sing-song talking blues-like cadence. Similar to the first two songs, Ed used the subject of romance to talk about larger truths; his approach to utilizing love as a metaphor allows these songs to seem both personal and expansive.     

Ed Snodderly is many things to many people, but his interview made it clear that most of all he is an absolute devotee to live music, valuing the magic of performance, the art of songwriting, and holding reverence for person-to-person interaction. This passion is what led Ed to open The Down Home, and it is the subject of the last song he played for us. Also titled after the music venue, the song comes from 2017’s Record Shop and chronicles the rarity of a creative space like The Down Home, which according to the song is “enough to make you feel every kind of feeling.” Check out Ed’s inspiring live performance in the video below, and keep your eyes peeled for new music from Ed Snodderly and The Brother Boys.

Ella Patrick is a Production Assistant at Radio Bristol. She also hosts Folk Yeah! on Radio Bristol and is a performing musician as Momma Molasses.

The Root of It: Brad Kolodner on Clyde Davenport

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

For this installment of “The Root of It,” we spoke with renowned old-time mover-and-shaker Brad Kolodner. Based in Baltimore, Maryland, Brad is an accomplished banjo player, broadcaster (Folk Alley, Bluegrass Country, and Radio Bristol), and event coordinator (Baltimore Old Time Music Festival) who has made a name for himself within the roots music community by taking home ribbons at prestigious fiddler’s conventions like Clifftop and touring with bands Charm City Junction and Ken and Brad Koldner. His recent project Chimney Swifts marks a new chapter for Brad – it’s his first solo album to date and has released to widespread critical acclaim. Brad spoke to us about his love for the nuances of crooked fiddle tunes, pointing to the great Kentucky fiddler Clyde Davenport as being a major inspiration.

Image shows a white man standing on stage. He has brown hair, blue eyes, and a short brown beard. He is wearing a pink short-sleeved shirt and holds a big round gourd banjo. The stage lights behind him are a purple color.
Old-time musician Brad Kolodner performing on his Pete Ross Gourd tackhead banjo.

Brad Kolodner:

Old-time musicians from the past have a tendency to take on somewhat of a mythical quality in our shared reverence of their contributions to the genre. Kentucky fiddler Clyde Davenport is one of those mythical figures in my mind whose influence spreads far and wide across the old-time music landscape. The tune “Five Miles from Town” is one of the most well-known tunes sourced to his fiddling. In fact, it was the very first “crooked” tune I tried to learn (more on what “crooked” means in a sec). I recall hearing the tune on a 2010 recording by The Pearly Snaps, an Ithaca, New York-based old-time duo featuring Rosie Newton and Stephanie Jenkins. I was just getting into playing clawhammer banjo and old-time fiddle when I heard that tune, and I remember thinking “What is that?! I have to learn it.” It was like no other tune I’d heard before.

I distinctly remember sitting in my dorm room at Ithaca College in the winter of 2011 trying to work my way through the seemingly endless looping phrases. I couldn’t quite tell where the tune started and where it stopped. It sounded different every time I listened. Fiddle tunes that have eight measures in the A part and eight measures in the B part are considered “square” because they are good for dancing a square dance to as everything within the tune fits nice and evenly. However, many fiddle tunes have an irregular number of beats in one or multiple parts. These are called “crooked” tunes and are frequently “jam-busters” in that they can be hard to follow when trying to pick them up on the fly. I was deep in the weeds of learning “Five Miles from Town,” but, much to my roommates’ delight, I finally learned the tune after weeks upon weeks of trial and error on my banjo.

“Five Miles from Town” as performed by Clyde Davenport on the classic compilation Legends of Old Time: 50 Years of County Records.

As I dug deeper, I learned the tune came from Clyde Davenport. His old-time music origin story is about as classic as it gets. According to the National Endowment for the Arts:

“When he was nine, Davenport made his own fiddle from barn boards, using hair from his family’s mule for bowstrings. Within a few hours he was playing fiddle tunes that he had heard his father play. Soon he became interested in the banjo, an instrument that his father also played. At 11, he took the iron band off a small wagon wheel, trimmed out a green hickory hoop, bolted the ends together with a slat, and set it up to season. He paid a dime for a groundhog hide, attached it to the frame with carpet tacks, carved out a long hickory neck, and had his first banjo, which he taught himself to play.”

How about that for dedication? He’s a prime example of how playing old-time music isn’t just a desire but a purpose. While I never met Clyde, I’ve heard many tales from pals of mine who were lucky enough to spend time with him. He was always willing to share his knowledge and stories with anyone. He spent time in the army, worked in auto factories, farmed, ran a truck stop, and made and repaired fiddles. He was notably not a contest-style fiddler. I think this fact adds to the rawness of his style as subtlety abounds. There’s a hypnotizing quality to his fiddling. The groove runs deep. It’s the kind of trance-like state that can be hard to tap into but once you’re there, time seems to stand still. He passed in February 2020 at the age of 98.

This image is of the Chimney Swifts album cover -- it is a graphic depiction of what looks like a brick factory with several windows and a tall chimney. Numerous swifts fly out of the chimney and across the reddish-blue sky.
Brad Kolodner’s debut album Chimney Swifts.

I recorded “Five Miles from Town” on my debut solo album Chimney Swifts, playing the gourd banjo along with my father Ken Kolodner on hammered dulcimer. My gourd banjo is fretless and takes on some of those slide-y, blues-y qualities the fiddle can have. My father is using the damper pedal on his dulcimer to mute the strings for an added percussive effect. My father and I lean into the percussive and rhythmic qualities of this unusual pairing as we strive for that somewhat elusive deep groove old-timers like Clyde Davenport can tap into.

Here’s a challenge for you: Have another listen to Clyde’s version of the song above, and try to see if you can count how many beats are in each part. Maybe it’ll take you down a similar path I took discovering the joys (and addictive frustrations) of this hypnotizing style of music.

Brad’s latest record Chimney Swifts released on September 10 and is available for purchase at https://bradkolodner.bandcamp.com/album/chimney-swifts. You can tune into Brad’s show Old Time Jam right here on Radio Bristol on Tuesdays at 6pm EST. In the meantime, check out this recent video performance of “Catalpa Hop” from Brad’s debut solo record Chimney Swifts:

Brad Kolodner is a banjo player, event coordinator, and radio broadcaster. Kris Truelsen is the Program Director at Radio Bristol.

Radio Bristol Spotlight: Anya Hinkle

Radio Bristol is proud to offer a platform to local and regional artists who are often underrepresented on a national level yet deserving of that audience. In expanding upon Radio Bristol’s core mission, we are pleased to bring you our latest series – Radio Bristol Spotlight – highlighting top emerging artists in our region. Through interview and performance we will learn more about the musicians who help to make Southern Appalachia one of the richest and most unique musical landscapes in the world.

Recently in the studio we hosted singer-songwriter Anya Hinkle, just a few days before her new album Eden and Her Border Lands was released on Organic Records. This newest collection of songs marks the Asheville, North Carolina-based artist’s first solo recording project, after a history of playing within different band formations. Tellico, the most recent band iteration, garnished quite a bit of success on the Folk DJ charts with a #1 single and #2 album rating from their 2018 release Woven Waters. It comes as no surprise that Hinkle’s newest solo project is currently making sizable waves within the Appalachian region and beyond. The title track recently landed a spot on Spotify’s Indigo and Emerging Americana playlists alongside alt-country giants such as Tyler Childers and Sturgill Simpson. During her on-air interview and performance at Radio Bristol, Hinkle shared thoughts about her musical background and played a few tunes from the album, joined by dobro virtuoso Billy Cardine.

This image is focused in on the back window of a shiny silver Airstream trailer. Anya Hinkle sits in the back window, looking out at the photographer -- she is a blonde white woman, with long hair and waring a red and pink patterned top. She is leaning her arms on a guitar.
Anya Hinkle’s debut Eden and Her Borderlands released on Organic records this August. 

Hinkle started things off with her single “That’s Why Women Need Wine” a lighthearted but strategic storytelling song that offers a bounty of reflective musings exploring the headaches women encounter in a male-centric world. Inspired by a bout of depression after losing another band, the song’s message acts as a declaration of self-reliance. With humor and skillfully crafted verse, Hinkle uncovers a glimpse of what it’s like to exist as a woman within the music industry and offers herself relaxing reassurance through, of course, a glass of wine: “After half a glass I feel divine.” During their performance, Cardine’s dobro offered a swelling reel across the steel strings that felt like a rush of Pinot Noir expertly poured by a seasoned sommelier. There was no doubt when listening to the two that they are both outstandingly polished musicians.

Hinkle grew up in Blacksburg, Virginia, the daughter of classically trained symphony musicians. Her mother was a cellist for the Roanoke Symphony and enrolled Hinkle at an early age in violin lessons. As a teenager she picked up acoustic guitar and began to branch out of the classical music umbrella. Inspired by the virtuosity of bluegrass instrumentalists such as Norman Blake and Tony Rice, she began her musical aspirations as solely a “heritage player” looking to emulate bluegrass greats. It was only after starting to perform out at local bars that she felt the itch to “have something to play” and began songwriting. That itch has since gained her awards and accolades; in 2019 Hinkle won the prestigious Merlefest Chris Austin Songwriting Competition and was a finalist for the Hazel Dickens Songwriting Competition. Her dedication to musicality and craft are on full display in her new album, which alongside her unique songwriting, offers a breadth of talented players and co-writers, such as Graham Sharpe of Steep Canyon Rangers, fiddler Julian Pinelli, sacred steel player DaShawn Hickman, Mary and Billy Cardine of Lover’s Leap, and Japanese songwriter Akira Satake.

Hinkle played another tune during her studio visit, an instrumental piece named “Meditation Beyond the Shores of Darkness.” The tune harkens back to Hinkle’s commitment to traditional Appalachian music, while unveiling the musician’s distinctive musicality. It flutters through a beautiful finger-picked theme reminiscent of folk melodies from the past, while exploring some unknown inner psychological and surreal musical space. Hinkle’s music is definitely built for lovers of bands like the Grateful Dead, who value roots in traditional music and effectively work within a bluegrass framework yet push against those boundaries with skill and ease. Aside from this tune, Hinkle’s writing and vocal styling drifts between familiarity, sometimes sounding like contemporaries Gillian Welch and Alison Krauss, while maintaining all the grit and honesty of legendary Appalachian singers like Hazel Dickens and Ola Belle Reed.

Lastly, Hinkle and Cardine performed a standout tune from the new record called “The Hills of Swannanoa,” co-written with songwriter Akira Satake. I personally was excited they chose this song because it instantly grabbed my attention for its lyrical strength and gave me goosebumps with its mysterious sounding, modal musical phrasing. To me this song sounds like an echo from established folk tunes such as “Swannanoa Tunnel/Asheville Junction” while delving into uncharted liquified Newgrass-Jam territory.

https://youtu.be/0hEx_I9-dUg

To check out Hinkle and Cardine’s performance live in our studio, click here. Also, to learn more about Anya Hinkle and find tour dates, or to purchase her music visit: www.anyahinkle.com.

Ella Patrick is a Production Assistant at Radio Bristol. She also hosts Folk Yeah! on Radio Bristol and is a performing musician as Momma Molasses.

The Root of It: Nora Brown on Lee Sexton

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

For this installment of “The Root of It,” we spoke with Brooklyn, New York native Nora Brown. At the early age of six, Nora took an interest in old-time banjo music from the regions of Eastern Kentucky and Tennessee. She began traveling down south to learn from masters steeped in this musical tradition, including Eastern Kentucky banjo player Lee Sexton. Flash forward ten years later, and Nora is an inspiring and influential performer who has released successful projects on Jalopy Records, performed all over the country, and been asked to be a part of renowned series such as NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts and more. Below, Nora shares her musical journey that inevitably led to meeting and learning from Letcher County’s Lee Sexton, who much like Nora, learned two-finger and drop thumb banjo styles at an early age.


Nora Brown performing “Miner’s Dream” based on a version she learned from a Virgil Anderson recording.

Nora Brown:

Like most people, I love being told stories. Whether it’s a firsthand experience being retold or a book being read aloud, listening to a story is something I’ll always enjoy. I remember when I was younger, staying over at my grandparents’ house, before bed I’d beg my grandmother – Nan – to tell me what she called “Rockaway stories.” As a child growing up in the Bronx, Nan would take the IRT (Interborough Rapid Transit) line to the BMT (Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit) line out to the far Rockaways where she would stay with her grandmother for the summer. Upon my requests, she would sit at the end of my bed and tell me about when Aunt Peggy got caught clipping roses from a neighbor’s flower-filled garden or about her grandfather who refused to leave the bungalow during hurricane season, stationed with his pipe and by the radio through the storm. It didn’t matter how many times I heard these stories, the best part about this was hearing her recall those memories from years ago.

Storytelling and oral traditions have served as a vital part of various cultures throughout the world. In West Africa, griots – also known as jalis – held the responsibility of learning and passing on oral history in the form of storytelling or song. Cool fact: an instrument often used in the griot tradition to accompany storytelling is the khalam or xalam, which happens to be an ancestor of the banjo! This position was extremely valued in the time when recording history was not easy; griots would serve as advisers for royal persons as they not only existed as living archives but were also extremely familiar with the geography of their region. The griot tradition continues to be practiced today in many parts of West Africa, demonstrating the power and timelessness of storytelling – that it continues to be empowering to honor the history of your community and tell the stories of those who came before you.

An old white man wearing a dark long-sleeved shirt with jean overalls and a white baseball / trucker-style cap. He is clean-shaven. He sits in front of some old oil barrels, tires, and other items in a yard area.
Master banjo player Lee Sexton at his Letcher County home in Eastern Kentucky. Photograph by Benton Brown

I have had the pleasure of spending time with an incredible person and musician: Lee Sexton. Living in Linefork, Kentucky, on the land he grew up on, Lee was a former coal miner and master banjo player. I had listened to Lee a lot and played a couple of his tunes prior to meeting him, but learning directly from him and hearing his stories changed my relationship with the music I play completely. The first time I went down to visit Lee, I felt really nervous, the kind of nervousness that you feel in your fingers – kind of an ache. I think this feeling probably stemmed from my belief that our differences in place of origin would create a divide between us, preventing any mutual connection. This feeling would persist as we pulled into his driveway and as he yelled “Come in” from the couch inside his home in response to our knocking. As we sat down and shared tunes, stories, and food, slowly my nervousness dissipated and was replaced with a feeling of comfort and security. I think that the act of sharing music or sharing a story with someone is not only incredibly generous, but ties the sharer and receiver together through their new shared experience.

A young white girl with blondish hair and wearing a plaid long-sleeve shirt, light-colored pants, a bucket hat, and converse sneakers has her arm around an old white man in a dark long-sleeved shirt and overalls. He is seated and wearing a white baseball cap and holding a wooden cane. She is standing beside him. Trees and an old wall can be seen in the picture too.
Nora Brown at 12 years old with Lee Sexton. Photograph by Benton Brown

Prior to my first visit with Lee, I hadn’t had the experience of learning from someone who had grown up with the tradition and learned the same way – person to person. Lee reminded me of the power of storytelling. Spending time with him taught me that there is much more to traditional music than just learning the old songs, that stories told alongside them provide context that gives them meaning. Lee has helped me build a personal connection to the music I play and has made me understand why so many of us love it so much.


Home performance of Lee Sexton at 90 years old playing a two-finger version of “Cumberland Gap” with Nora at 12 years old.

Lee Sexton playing an inspired version of “St. Louis Blues.”

Nora Brown’s latest project Sidetrack My Engine on Jalopy Records releases September 23, 2021, and her debut release Cinnamon Tree can be purchased at Norabrown.bandcamp.com. For more information about Nora and her music, visit norabrownmusic.com.

Nora Brown is a talented banjo player from New York. Kris Truelsen is the Program Director at Radio Bristol.

Album cover design showing a pinky-brown background with different groupings of white birds drawn so that they are all heading upwards to form a pyramid-like design. The album's title of Sidetrack My Engine is shown in green at the bottom of the album cover.
Nora Brown’s upcoming project on Jalopy Records  “Sidetrack my Engine” releases September 23.

Will the Circle Be Unbroken? A Personal Commentary on the Cycle of Various Changes in Country Music

For some, country music appears to be a genre that hasn’t changed much over time – too often, there is a perception of it being pretty much the same, no matter what song or artist is on the playlist. But over the years, it really has changed – from the subjects of the songs to the styles to the variety and diversity of its influences. We’ve seen the “big bang” of early commercial country music at the 1927 Bristol Sessions with artists like Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, honky-tonk blues, the Nashville sound, outlaw country, traditionalists, and so much more.

Over the past decade or so, it feels like we’ve seen a conforming era in the sound of country music. As a country music fan, I can’t count how many times I’ve said or heard the words: “I don’t like new country music, only old country music.” When Taylor Swift emerged as a country artist, I was right there for it. I burned “Our Song,” “Tim McGraw,” and the Fearless album onto a CD as quick as I could. But after a while, Taylor Swift wasn’t so country anymore – and she wasn’t the only one. And so soon, I fell away from new artists because I felt like they were clinging too much to pop music, or really over-doing the country sound.

Within the last five years, however, I’ve once again started listening more and more to new country. Artists like Luke Combs, Kacey Musgraves, and most notably, Tyler Childers have become especially popular in country music. These artists seem to be moving towards a revival of that country sound I’ve been craving. They haven’t necessarily strayed away from a pop sound, but they don’t sing solely about the stereotypical boots, tractors, beer, and women either. For me, it feels like they’ve brought back the country sound with real emotion – from “Dime Store Cowgirl” and “Whitehouse Road” to “When It Rains It Pours.”

When I listen to these artists, I definitely feel the connection to 1990s country, which was a very successful decade for the genre. We saw unforgettable artists like Garth Brooks, Shania Twain, the Chicks, and many more come to the stage, and their legacy and music is still insanely popular almost 30 years later. Not only did the 1990s see these successful and “modernizing” artists, but there was also a roots revival in country music where some musicians hearkened back to earlier bluegrass and hillbilly stars and took a step away from a commercialized sound.

While we have seen numerous waves between the popularity of country-pop and traditional country, we can connect our dear fondness of that old-time sound to the 1927 Bristol Sessions and other early recording sessions of “hillbilly music.” The Bristol Sessions led to the mainstream commercialization of the traditional sound we’ve now been listening to for almost 100 years. When we’re relaxing outside on a hot summer day to the embrace of fiddles, tangy harmonies, and the sounds of music floating through the air, we must give credit to that foundational moment at the Bristol Sessions.

The box set cover has the title "The Bristol Sessions: The Big Bang of Country Music, 1927-1928 at the top with an image of the Bristol sign and State Street, probably in the 1930s or 1940s.
Cover of The Bristol Sessions box set from Bear Family Records.

So, how does this compare to what we are experiencing today in country music? While I think we do find ourselves within the roots revival and traditional influences of the genre, we also have to look at how society is today – we naturally have major divisions in the genre over the sound that is created and viewed as “country,” but now we also have divisions within politics and social activism that are also being expressed through music. We also have greater technological advances that allow the industry to produce many different styles of country music, even some we might not have heard before.

And so, for me, I think as the cycle continues to go on, we will never see exact repeats and can never exactly compare one cycle to a previous one, but we will always have the influence of country music’s history as part of this wonderful musical story.

* Title images: The Carter Family (courtesy of Dale Jett); Garth Brooks (Fatherspoon); Kacey Musgraves (BruceC007)

Caitlyn Carter is an honors student and psychology major at Western Carolina University. She is a fan of country music and enjoys exploring different trends of the genre between decades.

Celebrate Record Store Day with History!

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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