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Instrument Interview: The Kazoo

“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 mark National Kazoo Day by talking to the kazoo!

I thought kazoos were just silly party favors, but you’re an actual musical instrument?

Well, I do have a reputation as a birthday party favor, probably to the extreme annoyance of many parents! But I am so much more than that. Kazoos are membranophones, where the tonal qualities of the instrument are produced as the player hums. I am also related to mirlitons, which are vibrating membrane instruments.

A metal kazoo on a display stand within a glass case with an interpretive label in front of it with a brief text about the kazoo.

The Birthplace of Country Music Museum has a George D. Smith metal kazoo in our instrument gallery. It is on display courtesy of Kazoobie Kazoos, a plastic kazoo manufacturer in Beaufort, South Carolina. © Birthplace of Country Music

Where do you come from?

My ancestors go back to early mirlitons from Africa. They were made from cow horns or gourds, and their membranes were from spider egg silk. It must have been a tricky business to make them! These African horn-mirlitons were used for ceremonial purposes as a way to distort or mask the human voice.

Kazoo-like instruments are also known in ancient Mexico, though these looked more like recorders and the membrane was made from slivers of corn husk.

A lot of people think of the kazoo as an American instrument. How did you come about here in the States?

Different types of kazoo-like instruments, based on the African mirlitons and common in folk music, could be found in North America in the 1800s. But the kazoo as we know it is attributed to an African-American man named Alabama Vest who came up with the idea of this small instrument and then worked with Thaddeus von Glegg, a German clock manufacturer, to make his concept into reality in the 1840s.

How the kazoo went from Alabama Vest to mass production follows a couple of possible routes. The Historical Folk Toys site notes that a traveling salesman named Emil Sorg was charmed by Vest and von Glegg’s instrument, and so took the concept to create his own kazoos in New York, partnering with die-maker Michael McIntyre and starting production in 1912. McIntyre knew that to succeed, mass production was necessary and so he soon went into business with Harry Richardson, a large metal factory owner. By 1914 they were mass producing kazoos as the instrument’s popularity, and sales, skyrocketed. In 1916 their company became known as The Original American Kazoo Company, and McIntyre was awarded a patent on their kazoo in 1923. In 1994 The Original American Kazoo Company was producing 1.5 million kazoos per year! The company stayed in business until 2003, and the factory site now houses a kazoo museum.

However, the Vest-Sorg-McIntyre-Richardson kazoos were not the only ones being developed in America over this period. Another instrument – a “toy trumpet” that worked in a manner similar to the kazoo – was patented by Simon Seller in 1879. And the first instrument patented under the name “kazoo” was one created by Warren Herbert Frost – his patent was issued in 1883. However, the first metal kazoo was patented by George D. Smith in 1902.

What do you look like?

My basic shape is a tube where one end is larger and slightly flattened and the other is in the shape of a circle; both of my ends are open and uncovered. On top, I have another circular hole – known as the membrane hole – and a wax membrane can be found in the small chamber below this hole. I’ve been called “the Down South Submarine” because my shape resembles these underwater vessels.

Over the years, however, I have taken on many other shapes and forms, including being made directly in the shape of a submarine. Another example, a circa 1930 paper kazoo, was shaped like a 1920s-era microphone. Many kazoos have also been made in the shape of saxophones – Scott Paulson of the UC San Diego Library notes that “a good player could easily imitate a saxophone and create a debate: ‘kazoo or saxophone’”!

A variety of colorful plastic kazoos -- from common kazoo shapes to a pink saxophone shape to submarine/military ship shapes, to a trombone shape.

A collection of differently shaped kazoos. Courtesy UC San Diego Library

How are you played?

To play me, you should hum into the flattened opening. This makes the membrane vibrate, creating a sound that can be changed by the pitch, loudness, and nature of your humming. You can also alter the sound I make by covering the membrane hole, either in part or completely. Check out this video for a tutorial.

Many people make the mistake of blowing into me and then thinking I am broken as no sound comes out, but this will not work for creating kazoo music!

Are there any famous kazoo players or performances?

There are! Unsurpisingly you can hear the kazoo’s comic effect on Frank Zappa’s first album, Freak Out! Comb-and-paper kazoos appeared on the Beatles’ song “Lovely Rita” from the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, and Sir Paul McCartney played the kazoo on the 1975 Ringo Starr single “Sweet 16.” World Wrestling Federation duo Edge and Christian often brought their kazoos into the ring, driving their foes to distraction with their playing and often winning the bout as a result. Jimi Hendrix used a comb-and-paper kazoo on his 1968 recording of “Crosstown Traffic.” Kazoos – to imitate the sound of electric razors in an executive washroom – were also used in the song “I Believe in You” in the Broadway comedy How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

Some performers made a career of their kazoo playing, such as Barbara Stewart who even performed at Carnegie Hall! And some composers have written their own kazoo music – for example, Mark Bucci composed his “Kazoo Concerto,” which premiered at a Leonard Bernstein Young Peoples’ Concert with the New York Philharmonic in 1960.

I’ve named just a few, but if you look for them you can find all sorts of famous kazoo performers or performances!

Were you played at the Bristol Sessions?

I sure was! Kazoos were commonly used in jug bands and comedy songs, and that is where you will find me on the 1927 Bristol Sessions recordings. Ernest Stoneman joined together with different configurations of friends and family to record several songs for Ralph Peer in 1927. One of those configurations was made up of Stoneman, Bolen Frost, George Stoneman, Iver Edwards, Kahle Brewer, and Uncle Eck Dunford to form the Blue Ridge Cornshuckers singing “Old Time Corn Shuckin,’ Parts 1 and 2.” As the song progresses, Stoneman invites each musician to introduce himself, play a little bit, and then take a sip from the passing jug!

Even though you are a light-hearted – and fun to play – instrument, do you get used for serious purposes too?

Yes, indeed, I am sometime used in speech therapy to help strengthen oral and speech skills – for instance, kazoos can help children in the production and awareness of speech. We can also be used to help speech recovery for people who have suffered a brain injury, and to help in speech production and awareness for the deaf or hard of hearing. Kazoo use can even play a role in increasing respiration and oxygenation.

Left: Three popsicle kazoos decorated with stickers and colored markers. Right: Four toilet paper roll kazoos, painted to look like different fruits.
Fun and colorful make-at-home kazoos.

How do I make my own kazoo?

There are a few ways to make your own kazoo. You can make one using popsicle sticks, a straw, and rubber bands as seen here; using a toilet paper tube and wax paper as seen here; or the classic comb-and-paper version as seen here. Get crafting!

Anything else you want to share with us?

Special thanks to Scott Paulson of the UC San Diego Library for his help with kazoo facts and photos! The Library has hosted special events around National Kazoo Day for the past few years. Starting off from a challenge to use “serious library tools to investigate a light, playful topic,” the Library’s “kazoo salute” has included exhibits, live kazoo performances, and the commissioning of original kazoo music.

Finally, the kazoo is known as “the most democratic of all instruments” because ANYONE who can hum can play it! So give me a try!

Left: A man wearing a dark suit and glasses stands behind a tabletop glass case filled with kazoos. Right: A piece of kazoo music with two kazoos superimposed on top.

Scott Paulson with a UC San Diego Library kazoo display; “Fanfare for as Many Kazoos as Possible,” an original composition by Linda Kernohan. Courtesy UC San Diego Library

Pick 5: Songs to Ring in the New Year

For our “Pick 5” blog series, we ask members of the Radio Bristol team or our BCM staff to pick five songs within a given theme – from heartsongs to murder ballads and everything in between! Once they pick their “5,” they get the chance to tell us more about why they chose those songs. With a diverse staff of knowledgeable DJs, we’re sure to get some interesting song choices, which might introduce you to some new music, all easily accessible by tuning into Radio Bristol!

For this final “Pick 5” of the year, four members of staff shared songs with us that made them think of a new year, new beginnings, new resolutions, basically anything that rings in the new and says goodbye to the old, along with the fifth pick, an old and traditional favorite. This past year has been difficult on so many fronts – from the heartbreak and devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic and social justice issues to economic hardship and natural disasters to the isolation we’ve all felt, along with “murder hornets” and other oddities. While 2020 has been incredibly challenging, we’ve also found strength and courage, empathy and compassion within it, and so we can hold onto those feelings as we head into the new year – with just a few songs to help create a “new start” soundtrack to help us take those first few tentative steps forward!

“New Year’s Eve,” Jerry Douglas – June Marshall, Museum Manager

“On New Year’s Eve, swear I can change, become a child again… Let myself believe that the days to come are mine.” 

I love remembering what it was like as a child when there were no adult worries yet and just taking things as they came and staying in the moment. Enjoying those moments for what they were.  Some of these lyrics take me to that place again and bring joy to my heart once again…

“This Will Be Our Year,” The Zombies – Toni Doman, Grants Coordinator

In regards to new beginnings, The Zombies said it best:

  • “You don’t have to worry
  • All your worried days are gone
    This will be our year
    Took a long time to come.”  

I picked this song because of the positive vibes and message within the lyrics, lighthearted and catchy melody, and references to the good things to come just over the horizon if we can just hang on a little while longer. We could all use a little more positivity; the forecast may call for rain but there are brighter and sunnier days ahead! 

“New Day Rising,” Hüsker Dü – Scotty Almany, Digital Media, Programming, & Exhibit Logistics Manager

A song that comes up for me within the theme of “newness” is the title track from seminal Saint Paul, Minnesota punk rock band Hüsker Dü’s third album, New Day Rising.  

The emotion from this song comes from its sound and delivery, especially because the lyrics are about 99% of the song’s title repeated throughout. There is an urgency that can be translated as triumph or motivation to persevere all depending on your current mood when you hear this one. It really gives me the same feeling that I felt from the “This too shall pass…” parable of King Solomon’s Ring, which is a lesson that has been a constant in my life since I first heard it as a teenager. For me, this makes it a perfect anthem for embarking on 2021. There is light on the horizon but plenty of work still to be done. There is a New Day Rising and how it goes has a lot to do with how we approach/navigate it.

“Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” Israel Kamakawiwo ‘ole – René Rodgers, Head Curator

I’ve always liked this song, ever since first hearing it sung by Judy Garland during my childhood viewing of The Wizard of Oz. But this tune became even more magical to me the first time I heard it sung by the much-missed and revered Hawaiian singer Israel Kamakawiwo ‘ole. The lyrics are simple and familiar, but Iz’s version with his lovely voice backed by ukulele (the happiest of instruments) just makes me feel hopeful and joyous. It makes me imagine that we can look beyond the rainbow to a better day, wish on stars for dreams, large and small, and move forward into the new year with purpose.

“Auld Lang Syne,” various

“Auld Lang Syne” is a New Year’s Eve tradition, and therefore there are hundreds of versions of this song out there in live performances, recordings, and movie and television soundtracks. You can find a version in every genre and by numerous artists — including a traditional “Celtic” version by Mari Campbell and Emily Smith, a Lou Rawls’ R&B cover, a punk rock interpretation by MxPx, a stringband performance in a stairwell by the US Army’s Six-String Soldiers, a sweet and soulful version by Daniel Dye and the Miller Road Band, and one wonderfully adorned with the Scottish pipes by the rock-fueled Red Hot Chili Pipers. But my personal favorite is the home-recorded bluegrass version by Reina del Cid below that I found on YouTube just by chance.

The song’s lyrics are from a 1788 poem by Scottish poet Robert Burns, and it was popularized in the United States by Guy Lombardo from his first New Year’s Eve performance of the song in 1939. “Auld Lang Syne” is literally translated as “old long since” and more familiarly thought of as “days gone by,” “long long ago,” and “old time.” The song is sung as a way of bidding goodbye to the past year, something I think so many of us are feeling we want to do to 2020 with an additional “good riddance.” However, leaving behind 2020 can’t be done without the remembrance of friends and family we’ve missed seeing and those we’ve lost, and without looking back on the hard lessons and truths we’ve learned with the intent of coming together to make the world a much better place. And so I take to heart certain lyrics in the song, from the additional meaning behind “for auld lang syne” as “for the sake of old times” to “And there’s a hand my trusty friend! / And give me a hand o’ thine!” to “a cup of kindness,” and look to the year ahead with those sentiments in mind.

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.

Hard Times, Silver Linings and Farm and Fun Time

Only six months ago, on March 12, 2020, I thanked our sold-out crowd at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum for joining us for another live broadcast of Farm and Fun Time. Though the show went off without a hitch, the crowd was enthusiastic, and our team delivered another top-notch show, we knew things were about to change. That would be the last show with an audience I would be involved in for many months to come.

Earlier that evening when speaking with that night’s performers – Miss Tess and Jim Lauderdale – we knew it was time to get ready for some big changes as COVID-19 was quickly spreading all over the country. Fear of an imminent nationwide shut down seemed to be closing in. In between sound checking, rehearsing my lines, and setting up, I witnessed Tess’s upcoming album release tour (kicking off with Farm and Fun Time) fall apart. In rapid succession she was getting cancellations throughout the evening. As a fellow musician it really hit home, knowing the countless hours of work and sacrifice that go into not only setting up a successful tour but also recording and releasing a new project – the work and achievements of a professional artist are really remarkable. I also knew that her experience was about to be commonplace for those within our industry. By the following week, musicians all over the country no longer had proper means of making a living. Tours were cancelled, festivals were dropping out of the schedule left and right, and venues nationally were closing their doors, including Radio Bristol and the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.

Female guitar player singing at the mic. She has medium-length brown curly hair, glasses, and is wearing a sea green sleeveless top and a white costume jewelry necklace.

Miss Tess performing at the March 2020 Farm and Fun TIme, the last taping of the show with a live audience before industry shutdown. © Birthplace of Country Music, photographer: Billie Wheeler

As we all know, the past six months have seen a complete shut down of many industries, and one of the hardest hit has been the music industry. We have all felt the reverberations of this loss and have had realizations as to what live music brings to our lives: the thrill of being up close and personal with artists, the energy exchange between performers and audience, the necessity of shared experiences in a community setting. So many aspects of live performance feed us and connect us as human beings.

With so much loss and grief over the past six months it’s difficult to find the silver linings, but it’s also been necessary. I’ve been grateful to have time at home (my first summer home in eight years), to grow a garden, and to spend a lot of time hiking, camping, and getting into better shape. I’m even learning some new instruments (piano and banjo)! Through this time, I’ve also realized the fundamental role music and performance plays in our lives in keeping us balanced and energized. Performance is a cathartic exchange. Transitioning from performing usually around 100 shows a year to 10 shows (maybe) for 2020 has been quite an adjustment to say the least.

For us at Radio Bristol there have been some silver linings as well. After six years of hard work and dedication, the fruits of our labor have really been paying off. Over the past six months we’ve watched our flagship show Farm and Fun Time evolve from a local radio show to a regional PBS syndicated television show! Thanks to our partners at Blue Ridge PBS, our host providers of the program, we have seen the Farm and Fun Time audience grow to over 18 million homes. With the help of Blue Ridge PBS we have grown our footprint not just in Southwest Virginia, but also in East Tennessee on East Tennessee PBS and throughout North Carolina on UNC-TV. We’ve also begun shooting for Farm and Fun Time Season 2. Last week we kicked off Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion Virtual Festival with a great show featuring 49 Winchester, The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys, and Bill and the Belles!

Three musicians -- female fiddler, male guitarist, female banjo player -- playing and singing at a mic with the male bass player behind them. There is a man with a large video camera filming them in the foreground.

Bill and the Belles taping for Season 2 of Radio Bristol’s Farm and Fun Time airing on PBS. © Birthplace of Country Music, photographer: Billie Wheeler

We are excited to see more stations pick up the show, and we will have some more announcements about syndication soon. Until then you can visit our website to learn more about when and where to tune into Farm and Fun Time on PBS. And if Farm and Fun Time is NOT playing in your area, call your local provider and let them know what they are missing!

All of this being said, if you, like me, have felt the void that has been left with the loss of live music, please make sure to help support artists during this time by purchasing their music and merch, spreading the word about their work, and letting your representatives know the importance live music holds in our hearts and communities. We want to thank all of you for your overwhelming support through these difficult times and hope you are finding some silver linings in your own lives. Stay strong, stay safe, and thanks for being a part of our Radio Bristol community!

Top left: Brown-haired woman in a cream colored outfit playing the banjo in front of a mic.
Top right: African American woman wearing a black hat and a black floral shirt singing at a mic.
Bottom left: Female guitarist, male fiddler, and male banjo player arranged in front of a mic playing music.
Bottom right: Three male guitar playerson a stage facing out towards the audience, two are playing and one is singing.

Several local performers from 2019’s Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion, clockwise from top left: Martha Spencer, Amythyst Kiah, Folk Soul Revival, and Empty Bottle String Band. © Birthplace of Country Music

Pick 5: The Old Lonesome Quarantine Blues

For our “Pick 5” blog series, we ask members of the Radio Bristol team to pick five songs within a given theme – from heartsongs to murder ballads and everything in between! Once they pick their “5,” they get the chance to tell us more about why they chose those songs. With a diverse staff of knowledgeable DJs, we’re sure to get some interesting song choices, which might introduce you to some new music, all easily accessible by tuning into Radio Bristol!

Hey y’all! Long time no see! Seriously. It’s been almost half a year since I’ve seen most of you in person, and that’s a LOOOONG time. As we’re drawing close to the six-month mark of social distancing, quarantine, and travel restrictions, you’re perhaps feeling the strain of isolation and missing the carefree interactions we once had.

While we understandably must continue to participate in social distancing and taking all necessary precautions to end the COVID-19 pandemic, we can acknowledge the importance of striving for the greater good while also acknowledging the emotions and feelings that come with this situation. Though it’s for a good cause, feeling lonesome is still feeling lonesome. On the bright side, there’s nothing like a bad situation to pave the way for beautiful art, and loneliness and isolation are some of the most prominent themes in country and many other forms of music as well. So, until we meet again, here are some empathetic songs to add to your quarantine playlist!

“Alone and Forsaken,” Hank Williams

Hopefully you’re not feeling THIS lonesome, but Hank Williams wrote a hauntingly beautiful piece of music – that really expresses this emotion – when he penned “Alone and Forsaken.”

“Lonely One in This Town,” Mississippi Sheiks

“Lonely One in This Town” is a real classic from the Mississippi Sheiks. Though it’s a lonesome song, you can’t help but smile and pat your foot to the Sheiks’ signature infectious beat. And while you’re at it, check out more music from the Sheiks catalogue – you’ll surely be a fan for life!

“When You’re Far from the Ones that Love You,” McMichen’s Melody Men

Here’s a sweet melody from the swingin’-est Georgia fiddle man, Pappy Clayton McMichen. Maybe you’re far from your family, missing your significant other in a long-distance relationship, or sad to not be spending time with friends who live far from your current home or through social distancing. Whatever the situation, “When You’re Far from the Ones that Love You, “ a beautifully crooned Tin Pan Alley piece, will hopefully bring you some comfort.

“On a Desert Isle,” C. W. Stoneking

Isolation isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and C. W. Stoneking’s “On a Desert Isle” tells a lovely tale of living an isolated life in a tropical clime set to a dreamy melody. If one must be isolated, what better place than an island paradise?

“Call Me,” The Louvin Brothers

Though you can’t visit your friends and loved ones right now as much as you could before, we have a world of technology to keep us connected. Call or Facetime your friends, and it’s almost as good as being there in person. This classic – “Call Me” – from Ira and Charlie Louvin is about just this very thing.

Bristol Rhythm Legacy Staff Playlist

This is the first time I have ever written a blog, so for me this is pretty exciting! We’re missing Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion this year, and to cheer up the staff, we thought it would fun to get them to make a playlist of their favorite songs from festivals past. I have many more than ten, but have narrowed it down to some sentimental favorites to share with you. These are mine in no particular order. You’ll find the entire staff playlist at the bottom of the page, so keep scrolling!

The band Old Crow Medicine Show performing on stage at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion.
Old Crow Medicine Show returned to Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion in 2018.

#1 “Wagon Wheel” by Old Crow Medicine Show
I chose this song because we had tried for so many years to bring Old Crow Medicine Show back to the festival, and to see how the crowd reacted when they performed that song put a gigantic smile on my face! I don’t get to listen to much music during festival weekends, but I made it my mission to see every minute of Old Crow’s set – and I did! Pure joy!

Cruz Contreras of The Black Lillies holding up a "flat Leah" - a little poster sized image of Leah on a stick.
Cruz Contreras of The Black Lillies with “Flat Leah.” Always good times with him and the band at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion!

#2 “Whiskey Angel” by The Black Lillies
If I didn’t choose a Black Lillies song, Cruz might never speak to me again! Actually, this is the one band that I know practically every word to their songs, though I sing them in my head because I can’t carry a tune in a bucket! “Whiskey Angel” is probably one of my favorites, and when my grandson Will was four years old he told me it was his favorite song, too. A great memory!

One of the best music videos EVER!

#3 “Dead Ringer” by The Whiskey Gentry
It’s hard not to choose a song by Whiskey Gentry. The band is no longer together, but fortunately lead singer Lauren is still performing with her husband Jason under the name Lauren Morrow. “Dead Ringer” is just a fun song, and Lauren’s voice is so awesome! The video for the song is also amazing. Our loyal Bristol Rhythm fans have come to love them as much as I do.

Leah poses with the band Folk Soul Revival at The Long Road Festival in the U.K.
Leah with Folk Soul Revival at The Long Road Festival in the U.K. in 2018.
The Birthplace of Country Music and Virginia Tourism Corporation were sponsors of the event and enlisted several regional artists to perform there.

#4 “Jawbone Blues” by Folk Soul Revival
Folk Soul: It would have been a shame not to pick a song from one of our own. I chose “Jawbone Blues” because I love Daniel’s voice on this particular song. Such a great band and a local treasure!

The Band Judah & The Lion posing for pictures with Leah's granddaughter Mary Nell and two friends backstage at the festival
My granddaughter Mary Nell (in overalls) with her friends and favorite band Judah & The Lion at Bristol Rhythm 2017.

#5 “Take it All Back” by Judah & The Lion
My granddaughter Mary Nell was so excited about Judah & The Lion coming to Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion because it was her and her best friend Cassidy’s favorite band. The girls where so excited to get to meet them and get their picture taken with them. I don’t do much of this, but I just had to make that happen for the girls! It was an epic moment when they did “Take it All Back.” The crowd was so loud as they danced and sang with them. I knew we had hit a home run with this band! 

Leah posing with Mike Farris at Bristol Rhythm 2019.
Leah with Mike Farris at Bristol Rhythm 2019.

#6 “Mercy Now” by Mike Farris
What’s not to love about Mike Farris and his awesome voice? For this I’ll just say we all need a little mercy now!

Legendary artist Doc Watson performs at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion 2008.
The late, great Doc Watson performing at The Paramount for Bristol Rhythm 2008.

#7 “Shady Grove” by Doc Watson
Doc Watson was such a special man, and I am so glad we had the opportunity to host him at our festival. I’ve heard him sing “Shady Grove” most every time I was fortunate enough to see him.  The reason I like it is because he always smiled and looked happy while singing it.

Eilen Jewell singing in front of a crowd at Borderline Billiards.
Eilen Jewell performing at Borderline Billiards at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion 2008.

#8 “Heartache Boulevard” by Eilen Jewell
She is an artist that I still listen to because I just love her voice.  If you’ve never listened to her music, do yourself a favor and look her up.

The Hackensaw Boys performing on the Piedmont Stage during Bristol Rhythm 2010.
The Hackensaw Boys performing on the Piedmont Stage, Bristol Rhythm 2010.

#9 “Radio” by Hackensaw Boys
When my grandchildren Will and Mary Nell were little, we would dance around the room on fake drums to “Radio.” They made me play it over and over! Will went up on stage with me one year at the festival to help introduce them. Wonderful memories!

Country music star John Anderson posing with a young fan wearing his t-shirt during Bristol Rhythm 2010.
John Anderson taking time to pose with fans backstage during Bristol Rhythm 2010.

#10 “Swingin'” by John Anderson
What can I say? I wish we were all swingin’ together today!

To listen to the full playlist of the BCM team’s favorite Bristol Rhythm songs, including Leah’s picks, see below.

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.

Real Folk: A Few of My Favorite Things

On March 6, the museum opened a special exhibit called Real Folk: Passing on Trades & Traditions Through the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program, in partnership with the Virginia Folklife Program. While the COVID-19 situation meant that for three months no one was able to visit the exhibit – except virtually – we have now reopened, and the exhibit is waiting to be enjoyed through its closing date in August!

This is one of my favorite special exhibits that we’ve had on display at the museum – the images by photographers Pat Jarrett and Morgan Miller are stunning, the stories of the master artists and apprentices told by Virginia State Folklorist Jon Lohman are fascinating, and the range of crafts, trades, and traditions astounding.

Here are just a few of the interesting things I’ve learned from Real Folk:

A Virginia Town’s Salty Past

Saltville – found in the Southern Appalachians – is named for its unusually high number of salt marshes, or as locals call them, salt licks. Not only is the salt source extensive here, but the salt from Saltville is also especially salty – around 10 times saltier than ocean water! Saltville’s natural salt deposits have influenced the history of the region from the late Pleistocene period, when they attracted Ice Age mammals and Paleoamericans to the area, to early European traders to the Civil War when nearly two-thirds of the South’s salt was produced in Saltville and two bloody battles were fought here.


Jim Bordwine’s family has lived in and around Saltville since the 1770s. He has dedicated his life to educating the public about Saltville’s history and continuing its traditional craft of making salt, including passing down this knowledge to son Baron through an apprenticeship. © Birthplace of Country Music Museum

Quilt Signals

We have quite a few quilt connections in our museum – from the huge Birthplace of Country Music quilt hanging in our atrium to the quilt “tapestries” on sell in The Museum Store to the museum’s color scheme based on old quilts and flour sacks. Master Artist Sharon Tindall has conducted substantial research in support of the theory that African American quilts contained coded messages integral to the success of the Underground Railroad, codes that told enslaved people about what to expect next on their journey and how to find safe haven.


Sharon Tindall specializes in early African American quilt patterns and in working with fabrics that aren’t typically used in quilting, such as Malian mud cloth. She shared her experience with apprentice Nancy Chilton. © Birthplace of Country Music Museum

A Connection Between Music and Language

The đàn bâu – translated to mean “gourd lute” – is a monochord or one-stringed instrument, which plays a central role in Vietnamese music. Playing the đàn bâu can create microtones capable of imitating the six essential tones and variations of the Vietnamese language, nearly impossible to achieve with any other instrument. Traditionally, it is also used as an accompaniment to Vietnamese poetry readings.


Nam Phuon Nguyen began playing an instrument called the đàn bâu at 17, later touring and performing throughout the United States with her family. She is seen here with her apprentice Anh Dien Ky Nguyen. © Pat Jarrett/Virginia Folklife Program

From Everyday Object to Musical Instrument

Music has often been made from everyday objects – for instance, think of a washtub bass or the spoons. The steel drum, or “pan” as it is called in the Caribbean, was invented in Trinidad around World War II, when island locals resourcefully crafted these instruments from oil drums left behind by the U.S. Navy. Contemporary pans are created when a 55-gallon steel oil drum is hammered concave, a process known as sinking. The drum is then tempered and notes are carefully grooved into the steel, resulting in a melodic percussive instrument that can play three full octaves.


Master Artist Elton Williams, who worked with apprentice Earl Sawyer, grew up in Trinidad and immersed himself in every aspect of steel bands. He is a musician, composer, tuner, and now one of the few steel pan makers in the U.S. © Morgan Miller/Virginia Folklife Program

For the Love of Fonts

Prior to the advent of photocopiers, short-run quick print, email, and social media, the local letterpress was the primary producer of the vast majority of materials for mass communication – from church bulletins to wedding announcements to commercial advertisements, and so much more. My favorite elements of letterpress are the individual letters used in the printing process (and so many possible fonts!) and the wonderful act of rolling out the ink ready to print. We have our own letterpress studio here in Southwest Virginia at the Burke Print Shop in the Wayne C. Henderson School of Appalachian Arts.


Left: Images from the letterpress apprenticeship between Garrett Queen and Lana Lambert in the Real Folk exhibit. Right: Letter blocks at the Burke Print Shop. © Pat Jarrett/Virginia Folklife Program; © Rene Rodgers

Different Dulcimers

When I used to think of a dulcimer, I thought of one particular type – an hourglass-shaped instrument – because we had one like that hanging in our home when I was a child. Since then, I’ve learned there are many types of dulcimers (all from the zither family) that are played in many places throughout the world – from the Appalachian or mountain dulcimer and the hammered dulcimer to the banjo dulcimer and the bowed dulcimer – with different shapes and different ways of being played. The dulcimer from my house – and the one most familiar around our area – is the mountain dulcimer, a fretted string instrument that first appeared in the 19th century among Scots-Irish communities. It is also known as the lap dulcimer.


Left: Phyllis Gaskins, seen here with apprentice Anna Stockdale, plays the Galax dulcimer, which is lozenge-shaped, has four strings all tuned to the same note, and is played with a turkey or goose quill. The Galax dulcimer is intended to be an equal instrument in old-time string bands, mirroring the fiddle. Right: Master Dulcimer Maker Walter Messick apprenticed Chris Testerman, an award-winning fiddler who is already considered one of the great up-and-coming luthiers in the region. © Pat Jarrett/Virginia Folklife Program

An Unorthodox Route to Creativity

The late Pastor Mary Onley, known as “Mama-Girl,” was a self-taught artist who came from generations of farm laborers, working in the fields herself at the age of 12. Severe allergies resulted in several hospitalizations, and during one of these, she reported being visited by a spirit who instructed her to create art out of paper and found objects – something she had never done before. She went on to become one of the most celebrated folk artists on the East Coast, creating lyrical newspaper and glue sculptures that reflected her inner visions and unique creativity.


In 2016, Mama-Girl taught son David Rogers her unorthodox artistic techniques and how to open his mind to receive his own divine artistic inspirations. © Pat Jarrett/Virginia Folklife Program

The Day Live Music Died

Singin’ the COVID-19 Blues

The emotional and financial devastation of the global COVID-19 crisis is TBD – like so many gigs that musicians and venues have cancelled until further notice. The lives and safety of humans is priority one, and social distancing has become the catchphrase for 2020. But with the sheer volume of full-time touring musicians out of work, the pandemic is forcing artists to get creative with new revenue streams now that touring – their numero uno source of income – has ceased.

Earleine and Momma Molasses performing “Coronavirus Blues,” a song they wrote to the tune of Bill Monroe’s “Rocky Road Blues.”

The moguls who make up the big labels and agencies will likely be okay. It’s the little guys that are suffering most, the singer-songwriters and bands that pack up their used Econolines and hit the road singing for their supper in bars, breweries, and small venues. Many of them also lack health insurance because they can’t afford to pay the premiums, let alone the high cost of hospitalization if they become ill, in general or with the severe symptoms of COVID-19.

They say in Bristol you can’t swing a banjo without hitting a musician, and that about sums it up. A majority of them keep day jobs and gig on the weekends, while some depend on live performances to pay the rent. Growing up in Bristol’s music scene, I’ve been blessed to develop some very dear friendships among artists and agents, and I’m really feeling for them right now. I’ve reached out to a few locally to see how this massive industry lock down is affecting their livelihoods. Among those I spoke with, there was some fear, but an overwhelming amount of optimism. But they all agreed with one thing: social distancing is the right thing to do to keep their fans safe.

Amythyst Kiah wearing a Hawaiian-style shirt and black hat with a fan wearing a similar hat.
Amythyst Kiah posing with a fan at a Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion 2019 meet-and-greet.

In mid-March, pre-lock down, I caught up with Amythyst Kiah, who spends part of the year touring internationally. Fresh from a Grammy nomination, her tour schedule was packed with gigs that included dates opening for Yola and an event on a cruise ship embarking from Canada. It all screeched to a halt when the pandemic hit. She’s now hunkering down at home with her dad Carl Phillips in Johnson City.

“We both got COVID tests just to see if we were asymptomatic carriers, and we are in the clear,” said Amythyst. “Doing what we can to stay informed and safe during this crazy time!”

Amythyst has hooked up with some killer live stream events like Shut In & Sing, Martin Guitar Presents Jam In Place, Sixthman Sessions – Mi Casa, Su Casa!, and Parlor Room Home Sessions, most of which are available for online viewing.

Ella Patrick, a.k.a. Momma Molasses, wearing a colorful plaid bandana as a face mask.
Ella Patrick, a.k.a. Momma Molasses, in her homemade COVID-wear, the hottest style of the season!

Ella Patrick, a.k.a. Momma Molasses, moved to Bristol from North Carolina to pursue a full-time career in music. She hosts a show on WBCM Radio Bristol called Folk Yeah! and pays the bills gigging in breweries and venues across Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina full-time. She recently performed to a stay-at-home audience for Believe in Bristol‘s Border Bash Social Distancing Series – a show that, during any other time, would have been held outdoors on State Street.

“I think in some ways, you know, it’s a blessing and curse because it’s forcing musicians like myself to really delve into the internet-land and reach people online,” said Ella in a recent interview with WCYB News 5. “I’ve done several live streams and made enough to pay my rent, so that’s good!”

I get the feeling that a lot of great music (and COVID babies!) will be born during the pandemic, like the song Ella and East Tennessee singer-songwriter Earleine collaborated on during the first couple weeks of the quarantine when their entire spring gig schedules got axed. Like so many great folk songs, the underlying tragedy described in “Coronavirus Blues” is only slightly elevated by a light and playful melody.

B&W image of Bill & the Belles sitting on a front porch. Kalia and Helen wear face masks with Kris sitting on the stoop below them and the words Farm n' Fun Time hang on a banner above them.
Kalia Yeagle, Kris Truelsen, and Helena Hunt of Bill and the Belles in a promo pic for Radio Bristol’s Farm and Fun Time Home Edition, produced during the quarantine.

Kris Truelsen, producer at WBCM Radio Bristol and bandleader of the indie group Bill and the Belles, discussed some of the more creative ways artists are working to connect without the benefit of touring.

“Many artists are using their Patreon accounts to develop closer interaction with fans,” said Kris. “As artists are unable to travel, they want their fan base to know how crucial they are to them. Many are developing specialized content for their top fans which, in turn, is helping to generate some income and help them feel connected during this trying time. Some are teasing new songs, or even playing rough drafts of songs for fans, some are giving a behind-the-scenes look into the creative process. Others are hosting VIP concerts for only a few close fans.”

Kris continued, “Last week I sat in on the Barefoot Movement’s weekly online concert where viewers are encouraged to donate and to participate in the show through commenting. The band has been doing these since mid-March and has also been spotlighting a few artists a week to sit in, play a few songs, and chat. They also play fan favorites while each member is self-isolated in a different location, sing a weekly cover song as voted on by fans, and more. It was a really cool way to see how effective this format can be for artists that have a dedicated fan base.”

Kris hosts Radio Bristol’s monthly variety show Farm and Fun Time with Bill and the Belles (the show’s house band) live from the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, which has closed temporarily due to COVID-19. The trio went live from Kris’s front porch for a special Home Edition in April and are planning another from his home on May 14.

Beth Snapp in overalls wearing a dark blue denim face mask.
Beth Snapp sporting the latest pandemic fashion accessory: a denim face masked made by L.C. King Mfg. in Bristol, Tennessee.

Kingsport-based singer-songwriter Beth Snapp works in healthcare but says she hasn’t concentrated much on selling her music during the quarantine.

“Nope,” Beth commented. “Honestly I’ve not been pushing hard for it because I’ve had a lot of illness and have been working at the hospital – at least for now, probably will lose hours there too. Stressful times. I do think, however, people have to focus on essential purchases right now and money for a new piece of merch is likely not in the budget. I know it’s not for me, so I’m certainly not judging anyone for the same. I [was] excited to do a live streaming show…(my first one!) not necessarily for the income, but to see who tunes in. I’ve missed playing for folks.” Beth performed for the online Border Bash Social Distancing Series on Thursday, April 30 on Facebook Live.

Kris Truelsen says he’s not pushing merch sales either, but Bill and the Belles have seen a spike in sales. “For my band, personally, we have seen merch sales go up from the onset of COVID-19, though we haven’t been pushing sales too hard for income. We all are lucky enough to have remained employed by our other jobs. I really feel for full-time artists right now as they are struggling.”

Jon McGlocklin's face mask is high-tech black!
Jon McGlocklin, CEO of Middle Fork Records, in all black, mask included.

Small regional booking and artist management agencies are also among the casualties of COVID-19, including Middle Fork Records. Bristol resident and Southwest Virginia native Jon McGlocklin founded the agency in 2017 and it’s his full-time job. He manages and books gigs for the group Virginia Ground (of which he is a founding member) and handles booking for a number of regional concert series, festivals, and venues including The Pinnacle, Beech Mountain Resort, and 7 Dogs Brewpub, to name a few.

“When this pandemic set in, I spent my days canceling everything I had spent months on booking,” Jon revealed. “Middle Fork Records has helped raise money for artists and bands, but hasn’t made money since February. The online support started with a bang but seems to have slowed with the effects of prolonged quarantine and patrons facing layoffs and being furloughed from their jobs. What was thought to be a 2–3 week quarantine has turned into something entirely different. Different but necessary. Staying healthy and safe and flattening the curve is still priority #1 amongst the arts community from what I am seeing.”

Middle Fork Records has partnered with Beech Mountain Resort to produce a Virtual Watch Party Series featuring Jamen Denton, Morgan Wade, Josh Daniel, and others. The company is also working with ElextraLand Radio in Gainesville, Florida to produce an international series. And 100% of the virtual tips collected through these ventures will go to the artists.

At the end of the day, gigging musicians are running a small business, and without paying gigs the entire chain of artist management and booking agencies break down. Streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music pay mere pennies to indies unless they generate millions of plays. Online tip jars aren’t a replacement for contracted guarantees at venues. Additionally, artists must front the cash to order more merch before they can sell it to fans online, and online stores also take a cut of the profits. The trickle-down of business loss will affect CD suppliers, graphic designers who make tour posters, promotional product companies, etc. The long-term effects of the pandemic are yet to be seen, but many are hopeful these winds of change will wake up the existing music industry and that things will change for the better.

“This issue isn’t going to resolve once the stay at home order ceases,” Truelsen concluded. “This will be an ongoing issue for career development for a long time to come. I hope it can bring some positive change as the career of a full-time artist has gotten more and more difficult to navigate over the past few decades and the industry in many respects has taken advantage of artists. If anything, this crisis has shown that artists are incredibly resourceful and in many ways can generate sufficient income without the industry.”

“The struggle is real, but we’re going to come out of this and throw some of the most epic events in the region when everyone can start gathering again!” added McGlocklin.

Amen, brother. AMEN.

Speaking of epic events, all of the folks I spoke with for this blog post are scheduled to perform at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion this September. There are no plans to cancel or postpone the festival at this time, and it will be a great party if everyone to continues to practice social distancing and looks out for each other! Stay safe out there, franz!

Radio Bristol Book Club: Clapton’s Guitar: Watching Wayne Henderson Build the Perfect Instrument

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 the 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 Clapton's Guitar shows a Wayne Henderson guitar upright beside the title text.

The cover of Allen St. John’s Clapton’s Guitar.

This month’s Radio Bristol Book Club pick is Allen St. John’s Clapton’s Guitar: Watching Wayne Henderson Build the Perfect Instrument, published in 2005. This book is the telling of the author’s journey to find the “world’s greatest guitar” and how he instead stumbled upon local luthier Wayne Henderson, the “world’s greatest guitar builder.” The author spent lots of time with the humble and quiet Henderson as he plied his trade, in the process learning about the traditions and craft of guitar building but also about community, history, and friendship. This book is sure to be a local favorite as Wayne Henderson is a luthier from our neck of the woods.

Wayne and Jayne Henderson measure the fretboard on a guitar-in-progress in Wayne's cluttered woodshop.

Wayne Henderson working on a guitar with his daughter Jayne. © Virginia Folklife Program; photographer: Pat Jarrett

Allen St. John has written for a variety of publications, including The New York Times Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Rolling Stone, Salon, The Village Voice, The Washington Post Book World, and Men’s Journal. Much of his writing is focused on sports, and in 2003 he worked with radio personality Christopher “Mad Dog” Russo to co-author The Mad Dog 100: The Greatest Sports Arguments of All Time. St. John has won several writing awards during his career. A self-professed “guitar geek,” St. John now owns his very own Henderson guitar.

Make plans to read Clapton’s Guitar and then join us on Thursday, May 28 at 11:00am as we discuss this wonderful book! You can find us on the dial at 100.1 FM, streaming live on Radio Bristol, or via the Radio Bristol app. We look forward to sharing our thoughts on this deeply researched story about a craftsman beyond measure.

Our Radio Bristol Book Club pick for June is Halfway to the Sky by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley.

* If you are interested in other instrument-building craftspeople, along with those who are working to keep a whole host of other traditions and folkways alive, check out this blog post about our current special exhibit, Real Folk: Passing on Trades & Traditions Through the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program. You can experience the exhibit virtually starting next Thursday, May 7 via our website. Wayne Henderson participated in the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program, mentoring his daughter Jayne in 2013.