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Will the Circle Be Unbroken? History of a Song

By Ed Hagen, Gallery Assistant and guest blogger

There is a dance floor inside of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum that features the song “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” playing over and over and sung by a mix of modern and old-time country artists. Toward the end of the looping video, John Carter Cash explains that the “circle” is music itself. In that sense “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” is a homage to the pioneers of country music and a salute to current artists who honor these diverse roots. The circle is unbroken because the music is handed down from generation to generation. 

Album artwork for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 1972 album “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”. The album has a white background with an unnamed military officer in the center, with both American and Confederate flags surrounding the officer. Names of musicians featured on the album are written in cursive handwriting on each side of the profile of the unnamed man. The words "Will The Circle Be Unbroken" are clearly visible in large lettering at the top of the image, and the words "music forms a new circle" is written at the bottom of the image.
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 1972 album “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” cover

The song has had that association for many years now, perhaps starting with the release in 1972 of the Will the Circle Be Unbroken album by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, a 1960s California jug band that had gone electric and was at that time best known for covering Jerry Jeff Walker’s Mr. Bojangles. Will the Circle Be Unbroken was their seventh album and came about when band member John McEuen asked bluegrass musician Earl Scruggs and legendary guitarist Doc Watson if they would record with the band. One thing led to another, and many of country music’s biggest stars – including Roy Acuff, Jimmy Martin, Maybelle Carter, Merle Travis, Vassar Clements, Randy Scruggs, Pete “Oswald” Kirby, and Norman Blake signed up for the project. It was a collaboration of two culturally different generations of musicians, traditional Grand Ole Opry stars and a group of hippies that Acuff described as “a bunch of long-haired West Coast boys” (Maybelle called them – affectionately – the “dirty boys”). By all accounts, the generation gap was bridged and new friendships were made, not to mention the incredible music. The album was a crossover success, introducing many folks to traditional country music, and in 1997 the original album was certified platinum. 

Since its release, the song has become an inspiration for intergenerational celebrity get-togethers. When the song is called at any local museum jam sessions, everyone sings the chorus, and the emotion in the room is palpable. 

A black and white image of lyrics to the song "Will the Circle Be Unbroken".
A hymnal page of the song “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” dated 1907 courtesy of hymnary.org

The original version of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” was a hymn written in 1907 by Ada R. Habershon, with music by Charles H. Gabriel. It is long out of copyright, and so we freely reproduce the sheet music here. According to hymnary.org, the song peaked in popularity just before World War II, when it appeared in about 20% of hymnals in use. It is down to about 7% today. Based on conversations I have had, the number is higher here in East Tennessee.

Note that the words and melody of the verses in the original hymn depart substantially from the way it is usually sung today (although the refrain is very close). That’s because A. P. Carter rewrote the song when The Carter Family recorded it in 1935. 

Victor producer Ralph Peer used to tell A. P. and his other folk and country artists to avoid recording songs heard on the radio, but to collect traditional music that could be modified and copyrighted. A. P. may have thought it was a traditional song. Perhaps to differentiate it a bit more, the Carter version was retitled as “Can the Circle Be Unbroken” (though nobody uses that title anymore).

The sentiment conveyed in both versions is that we have all lost loved ones, but that they have gone to a better place where we will see them again. It is interesting to compare the two versions of the song. Habershon’s version admonishes the listener to take the Christian view of family loss:

A black and white image of The Carter Family. Three people are facing the camera, A.P. Carter is wearing a blazer and vest, looking toward the camera. Sarah Carter is to his left and is standing facing the camera. She is holding an autoharp and wearing a dress. Maybelle Carter is sitting holding an archtop guitar and looking into the lens. All three individuals have a slight smile to their faces.
A promotional photo of The Carter Family taken by the Victor Talking Machine Company circa 1928. Left to right: A.P. Carter, Maybelle Carter, and Sarah Carter.

You remember song of heaven
Which you sang with childish voice,
Do you love the hymns they taught you,
Or are songs of earth your choice?

The Carter version, recorded and released in 1935, focuses on the painfulness of the loss:

Oh, I followed close behind her
Tried to hold up and be brave
But I could not hide my sorrow
When they laid her in the grave

Can the Circle Be Unbroken” also focuses on the death of a beloved mother rather than family members in general (as in the original hymn). In any event, it is not surprising that the more emotional Carter version won people’s hearts. Roy Acuff used the Carter lyrics when he recorded it in 1940, and that eventually became the standard version. You can listen to different versions of the song via the YouTube links below. 

Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – Will The Circle Be Unbroken

The Carter Family – Will The Circle Be Unbroken

Will The Circle Be Unbroken Vol.2/Nitty Gritty Dirt Band/Johnny Cash/Ricky Skaggs

Ed Hagen is a volunteer gallery assistant and guest blogger at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. His earlier post, Celebrating Jimmie Rodgers: A Short Lesson in His Guitar Style, appeared here last year.

Send In The Hounds: Tyler Childers Returns to the Tri-Cities

By Ashli Linkous, Marketing Specialist & Photographer

It wasn’t all that long ago when Tyler Childers recorded a Radio Bristol Session (2018) and played on the 6th Street and the indoors Shanghai Stages at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion (2017). Since then, that Radio Bristol Session video has racked in over 15 million views on YouTube and Childers has continued to rise higher and higher up in the ranks. 

Musician Tyler Childers singing into a microphone with a full band, a bass player to his right, a pedal steel guitar and electric guitar players to his right. Bright stage lights are shining down upon the band as they play and sign passionately.
Tyler Childers performing a powerful song in front of the crowd at Freedom Hall Civic Center in Johnson City, Tennessee on May 10th, 2023.

With a stage decked out in taxidermy, prairie grass, and a black-and-white checkered floor, plus a surprise appearance from the Bluff City man who taught him how to play guitar, Tyler Childers made a BIG return to the Tri Cities last month. It was amazing to walk into Freedom Hall Civic Center and see the merch line wrapped around in a seemingly never-ending queue of fans eager to get their hands on some Childers swag. By the time I made it down to the arena floor the crowd was bustling with energy, ready to see the musician who hadn’t played in the area for quite some time. Tickets were hard to come by, with resell tickets going for several hundred bucks a pop. 

97 year old Clyde Lloyd looks onward toward Tyler Childers as they play onstage. Both are playing guitars in front of a stage backlit by a blue backdrop with a large silhouette of a tree behind them.
97 year old veteran Clyde Lloyd taking the stage along side Tyler Childers

 

First coming out solo, Childers opened with “Nose on the Grindstone,” which was followed by heavily spun tracks “Lady May” and “Follow You to Virgie,” with a roar from the crowd following suit. It was then that he brought out 97 year-old Clyde Lloyd, a long-time military service friend of his grandfather whom he would visit in Bluff City, Tennessee during the summers of his youth. It was in the nearby Bluff City where Childers learned his first three chords on acoustic guitar and how to play “Old Country Church.” After a long period of time where the two had lost touch, he was able to reconnect with Lloyd while traveling through the area on tour. Together, they played a duet of the song that brought much of the crowd to tears. To say this was a highlight of the night is an understatement.

But Childers continued to stun when he brought out his backing band, the Food Stamps. Going immediately into his own version of “Old Country Church,” they followed up with the title track of his new record, “Can I Take My Hounds To Heaven.” He then went into “Country Squire” and personal favorite “I Swear (To God)” from his record Purgatory. The crowd screamed along to familiar favorites like “All Your’n,” “Whitehouse Road,” and “Way of the Triune God.” By the end of the night Childers had played 23 songs and left the crowd with a show they’ll never forget. Many even stayed after the show, hoping and waiting to be given a setlist or other small memento from the stage.

It was safe to say that Childers’ recent show was a much different setting from the side stage he played for at the 17th annual Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion as an up-and-comer in 2017, going from playing to several hundred to nearly 8,500 this go round. It’s crazy to think about how much he’s grown since that day and the crowd who unknowingly witnessed a legend in the making.

Tyler Childers is on stage and faces a crowd of fans watching him as he performs. He is wearing a black and blue plaid shirt playing a guitar looking down and singing. It is a bright and sunny day.
Childers performs at the 2017 Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion Festival on state street Bristol.

I feel like it’s a testament to the work we do here at the Birthplace of Country Music, bringing in names who may not yet be on your radar. The same story has played out for so many huge acts that were up-and-coming when they played these streets, including Sturgill Simpson, CAAMP, and Billy Strings, to name just a few. This organization and this festival is proud to uplift and support live music and up-and-coming artists, and we hope that we can continue bringing in names that will soon rule the charts for decades to come. To learn more about the festival, visit BristolRhythm.com

Ashli Linkous is a Marketing Specialist & Photographer at the Birthplace of Country Music, Inc. and an avid music lover! 

Instrumental History: Inspired by Jimmie Rodgers Martin 000-45 Guitar

Did you know that last year the Birthplace of Country Music Museum took in on loan one of the most important guitars in American music history – Jimmie Rodgers’ 1928 000-45 Martin? Yep, it’s true, and it’s currently on display here at the museum! 

Jimmie Rodgers: A white man in a dark suit with a bow tie. He wears a light-colored cowboy-style hat and holds a guitar in his hands. The background is dark though you can see a windowed-doorway to the left-hand side of the image.

Jimmie Rodgers. From the John Edwards Memorial Foundation Records, #20001, Southern Folklife Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Over the years this guitar has become one of the most iconic symbols for country music, boasting a mother of pearl neck inlay touting Jimmie Rodgers’ name, an iconic hand-painted “THANKS” on the back of the guitar, the words “Blue Yodel” in inlay on the headstock, and a label on the interior with a message signed by C. F. Martin himself. Of course, the guitar was made famous by not only Rodgers – recognized as “the Father of Country Music” and also known as “the Singing Brakeman” and “America’s Blue Yodeler” – but also by honky tonk great Ernest Tubb, who was loaned the famous guitar by Jimmie’s widow Carrie Rodgers. Ernest went on to play the guitar for nearly 40 years, helping to solidify its importance in the history of country music.

Left image: Guitar seen from the front in a museum exhibit case. You can see the inlay "Jimmie Rodgers" and "Blue Yodel" on the neck and headstock. Right image: Guitar seen from the back in museum exhibit case. "Thanks" is painted on the back of the guitar's body.

Jimmie Rodgers’ 1928 Martin 000-45 on display at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Ashli Linkous

To celebrate this iconic guitar in its temporary home here at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, Clint Holley – Radio Bristol DJ and host of “Pressing Matters” – has been working with museum and radio staff to create and share a three-episode program featuring perspectives from scholars and musicians from across the country. Titled “Instrumental History: Thoughts & Anecdotes on Jimmie Rodgers Martin 000-45 ‘Blue Yodel’ Guitar,” the program will air on Fridays at 6:00 pm ET on Radio Bristol for the next six weeks launching Friday, February 3 – each episode will be aired two week in a row. And so, in other words, tune in tonight for the first one! 

To get us warmed up and ready for the series, we asked some of our knowledgeable Radio Bristol DJs to tell us about their favorite Jimmie Rodger’s songs, whether sung by him or a cover by another artist. Our DJs came through with some great, if not surprising, choices. 

Crystal Gayle, “Miss the Mississippi and You”

“A thoroughly modern take on this classic song. Although NOT written by Jimmie, he made it his own and was the first to release it in 1932. The song has been recorded over 40 times, and Crystal’s version is the first I could find with a female singer as the main character. Produced with contemporary sounds in the late 1970s, this version shows how flexible and enduring the song truly is.”

~ Clint Holley, Pressing Matters

Jorma Kaukonen, “Prohibition Blues”

“I want to nominate Jorma Kaukonen’s version of Jimmie’s never-recovered master of “Prohibition Blues” from his album Blue Country Heart as my favorite…both for its rarity and its timely nature. The fact that he had the writer, Clayton McMichen, play on his recording of it is even more interesting and shows how much respect Rodgers had for his fellow musicians. As a collector’s aside, can you imagine finding that master sitting in a dusty storeroom somewhere today? Talk about your Holy Grail! It would probably be worth more than the 000-45 that we are so lucky to get to display!

Jorma’s version is, of course, outstanding as well with a superb lineup, and he does it justice with humor and flawless musicianship. I will admit to prejudice here, because Jorma is a good friend whose music is a large part of my repertoire…but his choice of that song is a rare treat for us all.”

~ Marshall Ballew, Off the Beaten Track

Jimmie Rodgers, “Waiting for a Train”

“Two of Jimmie Rodgers’ tunes that I have always connected with are “Waiting for a Train” and “Miss the Mississippi and You.” Jimmie wrote his version of  “Waiting for a Train” based on an English tune from the 19th century. He recorded it in 1929 for Ralph Peer’s Victor label on the back side of “Blue Yodel #4.” I have always liked the horns at the beginning; they resonate with my traditional jazz roots. “Miss the Mississippi and You was recorded later and has that feeling, to me, that Jimmie knew his time was increasingly short. I think Jimmie was able to translate a number of types of music into his own unique style, which is why he was so popular. I hear the music of Western styles in his yodel and jazz in his singing, coupled with the Delta blues and Appalachian sounds. It is a compelling combination. He also recorded long enough that his later songs were technologically better recorded than his early stuff. He was a true artist who died way too young.”

~ Bill Smith – Crooked Road Radio Hour

Jimmie Rodgers, “Last Blue Yodel”  

“A part of Jimmie Rodgers’ final group of recordings, performed during the sessions that took place in New York City just 48 hours before his untimely death, “Last Blue Yodel” is a poignant soliloquy relinquishing personal thoughts on heartbreak. Following a 12-bar-blues format paired with Jimmie’s trademark yodeling, which Rodgers employed on all of his series of 13 Blue Yodels, this last one has become my favorite for its directness and intensity. The tag of each verse admits “The women make a fool out of me.” Rodgers known for his intimate solo guitar style is also one of the first singers to display confessional songwriting, which has deeply shaped country music as a genre, and my own personal approach to creating songs.”

~ Ella Patrick, Folk Yeah!

Leon Redbone, “T.B. Blues”

“My personal favorite cover version of a Jimmie Rodgers song is Leon Redbone’s rendition of “T.B. Blues.” The song itself always stood out to me because of the unique perspective of writing so specifically about one’s own mortality. It was covered by several bluesmen that I took to when I first started researching the blues, but Redbone’s version has the perfect amount of his own style while still paying homage to the original.”

~ Scotty Almany, Scotty’s Tune Up

 

Kris Truelsen is the Radio Bristol Program Director.

Radio Bristol’s Top Albums of 2022

As 2022 comes to a close, it becomes a time for reflection – and so Radio Bristol would like to take the opportunity to look back at some of the releases that made this past year memorable on the music front. This year saw releases from many great artists, including some heavy hitters like Billy Strings and Tyler Childers, and many breakout artists like Adeem the Artist, Miko Marks, and more. With so many great releases this year, it’s tough to narrow it down, but here are just a few of our recommendations for some of this year’s standout releases.  As always, if you tune into Radio Bristol you’re sure to hear all these artists regularly spinning on our airwaves!

49 Winchester // Fortune Favors the Bold

The boot-scuffing barstool ballads of 49 Winchester’s fourth studio album, Fortune Favors the Bold, has landed the band national acclaim and the mega fandom of country music superstars such as Luke Combs. A festival favorite at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion, the Russell County, Virginia natives have gone from playing small venues on Bristol’s State Street to selling out theaters across the country.

Composed of high school buddies who grew up together in nearby Castlewood, Virginia, 49 Winchester’s newest release relates genuine downhome grit with dang-good storytelling, showcasing the group’s infectious Southern rock-infused brand of Appalachian folk meets country soul.

Leyla McCalla // Breaking the Thermometer (To Hide the Fever)

New Orleans-based multi-instrumentalist Leyla McCalla’s newest album, Breaking the Thermometer, explores her Haitian-American heritage through the troublesome history of Creole-language based Radio Haiti, an independent station that for decades confronted corruption with traditional Creole music. This interdisciplinary project, commissioned by Duke University, also combines storytelling, dance, video projection, and audio recordings from the Radio Haiti Archive which can be viewed during live performances.

Breaking the Thermometer feels like an exuberant analysis of culture, physiological space, and political discourse, with vibrant cello arrangements and emotive organic soundscapes that feel epic in scale and intensity.

Image: Album cover has a stark black background with a Black woman sitting in the center of it. She has her hair pulled back and faces to the left; she is wearing a white cross-over short-sleeved top and dark pants/skirt.

The A’s // Fruit

Sylvan Esso’s Amelia Meath and longtime musical collaborator Alexandra Sauser-Monnig teamed up for a new project as The A’s, recently releasing Fruit, an idiosyncratic collection of folk songs that glean inspiration from early country music’s yodeling farm girls, The DeZurik Sisters. Recorded over a two-week stint during balmy summer nights at Sylvan Esso’s Chapel Hill studio “The Betty,” the pair playfully procured songs such as Harry Nilsson “He Needs Me” and traditional ballads like “Swing and Turn Jubilee” and “Copper Kettle” with endearing whimsy and hair-raising vocal harmonies.

The clarity of their voices peppered amidst a capella and thoughtfully accompanied atmospheric tracks create a glowing sense of intimacy, harkening back to early American field recordings, while sounding ultra contemporary. A perfect choice for a rainy day or a sun dappled picnic!

Image: Two white women lie in the center of the image looking at the camera. The woman in the foreground is wearing all black and sunglasses; she has medium-length brown hair. The woman behind her is wearing all white and has platinum blond hair. Vibrantly colored fruits and flowers are painted on the background behind them.

Brennen Leigh// Obsessed with the West

Brennen Leigh’s collaborative Western swing-inspired record Obsessed with the West hit the vintage vibes music lover’s scene with a punch. Produced by Ray Benson, whose legendary band Asleep at the Wheel also backed Leigh on the recording, this album is a grand excursion into a well-loved subgenre of country music. Punctuated by 1940s jump blues, folk cowboy balladry, and jazz-infused country, the tracks read like a love note addressed to the austere beauty of the Western plains. Nashville by-way-of Austin, Texas-based singer Leigh’s voice sways across the rollicking big band like a silk cloud of sawdust with a mellow swagger that feels effortlessly cool.

Image: Album cover has a reddish brown border around the central photograph. In the photo, a young white woman with long brown hair is walking towards the camera; she wears a reddish-brown and white prairie-style top and skirt with western belt. A landscape of scrubby brush and mountains can be seen behind her.

Charlie Crockett // Man from Waco

Charlie Crockett, the record-slinging Texan with an ever-expanding discography of retro-tinged Americana gold, has now become one of the most popular artists in independent country. Crockett is currently landing in a new stratosphere for roots musicians dominating the independent Americana radio with the #1 album and #1 song on the release of Man from Waco.

Man From Waco is a loosely conceptualized project with a theme song that both introduces and closes the album, drawing its inspiration from legendary country music singer James Hand. Mostly recorded live by Crockett and his band The Blue Drifters,’ this new album solidifies Crockett’s monstrous talent and incredible ability to turn out top grade recordings.

Swimming through multiple genres – including funk, R&B, soul, Tex-Mex, Western swing, folk, and traditional country – Crockett treads water through uncharted territories with an easy grin, maintaining his authentic aww-shucks attitude and relaxed cowboy charm though vulnerable lyrics.

Image: This album cover shows a scrubby mountainous landscape with a Black man in western clothes walking down a slope in the foreground. He wears a cowboy hat, blue shirt, and jeans, and he carries a black guitar case.

Willie Carlisle // Peculiar, Missouri

Peculiar, Missouri, Willi Carlisle’s newest release on Free Dirt Records, further authenticates the rising songwriter’s rare talent for storytelling. Packed full of poetic grit and intimate ruminations on the human condition, Carlisle’s musical performance feels like Allen Ginsburg and Utah Phillps bore a folkster lovechild with a voracious proclivity for personal truth.

This album acts as a stylistic barometer of American folk music, with flashes of honky tonk on the socially-aware single “Vanlife,” Tejano-on-Cowboy border ballad “Este Mundo,” and talking blues on the title track – an anxious Guthrie-esque account of an existential “come apart” in the Walmart cosmetic aisle. Every so often Carlisle releases a tremulous yawp amidst impossibly witty lyrics like a reflexive revolt against the absurdity of existence; his voice feels like something familiar and something wholly new that we’ve never heard before.

Image: Album cover and CD, both pink. In the center of the album cover is a sepia photograph of a white man from the shoulder up. He has dark hair and a short beard, and is wearing a cowboy hat and collared button-down shirt. In each corner of the album are graphic symbols like a hand with a pen and a crying eye.

Tyler Childers // Can I Take My Hounds to Heaven?

Liberator of free thought in country songwriting the Kentucky poet Tyler Childers’ triple-LP Can I Take My Hounds to Heaven? is a complex celebration of traditional Appalachian religious music, offering social commentary with an ecumenical scope. The album’s eight tracks are imagined in three different arrangements – the “Hallelujah” version, which has an unadorned “live” feel; the “Jubilee” version, which has more of the production you’d expect from a country music recording, and a “Joyful Noise” version, which seems to delve into the energetic essence of each song though electronic remixes and auditory environments with sound bites from artists such as Jean Ritchie and country comedian Jerry Clower.

Deeply divisional for fans of Childers’ more acoustic releases, Can I Take My Hounds to Heaven? is striking for its imaginative qualities and Childers’ uninhibited sonic journey through nostalgia, spirituality, and contemporary awareness.

Image: Album cover is red with a linen-like book cover feel. In the center in gold writing is the name of the album, Can I Take My Hounds to Heaven? and a small dog.

 S. G. Goodman // Teeth Marks

Western Kentucky-based songsmith, S. G. Goodman made an indelible mark on southern music with their debut album Old-Time Feeling in 2020; its pensive production and self-aware lyricism caught the attention of major music industry players, such as Tyler Childers who recently covered the single “Space and Time.”

Now the queer-identified farmer’s daughter who grew up near the banks of the Mississippi River is carving a place as a rising voice in new-south roots rock on Teeth Marks. Enveloped by surging post-punk meets 1960s southern rock reverb clad guitar, Goodman’s achy voice quavers like an exposed nerve with acute realizations that stem from a progressive rural consciousness, making this album easily one of most intriguing releases of the year.

Image: Album cover is white with a line drawing in the style of connect-the-dots. Numbered dots outline the main part of the drawing -- that of a woman who sits backwards in a wooden chair; she looks to the right and holds a red ball in one hand.

Melissa Carper // Ramblin’ Soul

For the second year in a row, we have to include Austin-based stand-up bassist Melissa Carper’s and her latest recording Ramblin’ Soul. With a similar recipe that created her beloved Daddy’s Country Gold in 2021, Carper’s newest collection of songs was also recorded at the Bomb Shelter in Nashville, Tennessee. Produced by Andrija Tokic and Dennis Crouch of The Time Jumpers, Ramblin’ Soul definitely has a healthy helping of that extra special sauce that has made Carper become a stand out artist on the Americana charts.

With an alluring varnish of vintage tone, Carper masterfully encapsulates a multitude of classic American sounds with glimmers of Western swing, rhythm and blues, country, soul, jazz, and folk, that both sound impressively authentic to the era, and gratifyingly pleasant to hear. This is definitely an album you can put on without skipping a track, perfect for cooking up a mess of biscuits with Caper’s blissful Billie Holiday by way of Loretta Lynn-sque vocals simmering on the backburner.

Vaden Landers // Lock the Door

We would be remiss to not include a local release on this list. East Tennessee native and Bristol resident Vaden Landers envisions traditional country music through a lens made razor sharp by countless performances at dive bars and regional venues, with an undeniable finesse that can only be gained through road-worn experience.

You may have caught Landers performing at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion this year or at State Street’s Cascade Draft House where he and his band – The Hot n’ Ready String Band – played a weekly residency this summer. As a rising purveyor of irrefutable country music, Landers’ newest release on Hill House Records has masterful production, calling to mind the golden era of country music production in the mid-1950s known as The Nashville Sound. Produced at The Bomb Shelter by Andrija Tokic and John James Tourville, the 12 tracks on Lock the Door relay songs of love, heartbreak, and hard living, while Landers’ satisfyingly raspy twang summersaults and yodels across old-school sounding lyrics. No doubt borrowing vocal techniques from country greats such as George Jones and Johnny Paycheck, the album feels like a country fan’s daydream. At Radio Bristol we’ve been spinning this album in heavy rotation and think it’s well worth the listen!

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rx for the Soul: A Bristol Rhythm Thanksgiving Playlist

Though BCM is in perpetual motion, we are grateful for a bit of calm in the months after a busy Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion. The 2022 event was a very good festival year by all accounts – we celebrated the 95th anniversary of the 1927 Bristol Sessions, attendance was up, and the lineup was just stellar. We’re so appreciative to everyone who made the trip to State Street to be with us; we hope you had as great a time as we did and that your experience was both meaningful and memorable!

A collage of three photos depicting evening aerial scenes of the State Street Stage at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion 2022, packed with people.
Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion 2022 and crowds on State Street. (L to R) Photo credit Johnson City Aerial Photography, Earl Neikirk, and Johnson City Aerial Photography.

As we have moved through fall – my favorite season of all – with its glorious red, gold, and amber colors of the changing trees, the crisp morning air, and vibrant, floating leaves that blanket everything below, it’s time to prepare for another busy holiday season and all its traditions. It’s also great time to reflect on all the things that went right in our collective lives this year and give thanks.

A collage of photos including a woman making a heart symbol with her hands, a photo of five women from different ethic backgrounds smiling at the camera, and a third photo of three children, two boys and a girl, enjoying the festival.
Images of music fans at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion 2022. (Clockwise L to R) Photos by Earl Neikirk, Cora Wagoner, and Earl Neikirk.

There are a few things I love most about music, including

1) How it brings people from all walks of life together in a way nothing else can

2) How favorite songs can lift our spirits and validate our emotions

3) How – faster than a heartbeat – a familiar song can nostalgically take you back to a time and place in your life of great significance.

The holidays can often be a source of anxiety for many of us for any number of reasons, and though I’m not a doctor, I’d like to prescribe something for you that may help soothe your soul and take the temperature down when things get a little overwhelming: Good music. You can take as much as you want and though symptoms may vary, the right combination of lyrics and melodies can change hearts and heal old wounds.

As a small gesture of gratitude to our festival goers and the amazing musicians we’ve hosted on our stages over the years, and in an effort to transmit cosmic gratitude and positive energy through the transformative power of music this Thanksgiving season, we’ve curated the Spotify playlist below of Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion artists – packed with sentimentality and feel-good tunes that are guaranteed to set the mood for an amazing holiday season.  Thank you, friends, and may your blessings be bountiful.

 

*NOTE: Early bird weekend passes to Bristol Rhythm 2023 go on sale Black Friday for $100. Discount is good through Cyber Monday. Purchase online at BristolRhythm.com

Radio Bristol Spotlight: Florencia & the Feeling

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 Radio Bristol Spotlight series, which highlights the top emerging artists in our region. Through interviews and performance, we will learn more about the musicians who help make Central Appalachia one of the richest, and most unique musical landscapes in the world.

Last month in the Radio Bristol studio we hosted a band that is very much on the rise in the Tri-Cities – Florencia & the Feeling, a Johnson City-based jazz-infused pop-funk band with Latin roots. This band has several top-tier gigs under their belt, including shows at The Down Home, The Jones House in Boone, North Carolina, and recently opening for country Tex-Mex great, The Mavericks. The group also had their debut performance at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion this September. With tight rhythmic jams and groovy guitar riffs, Florencia & the Feeling have been majorly wowing regional audiences. We were thrilled to catch them on a day off the road for a quick chat and live performance in our studio. Front woman Florencia Rusiñol talked about her musical background, influences, and new music on the horizon.

¡Qué buena onda!  (What a good vibe!)

The bandon stage with a multitude of colored lights shining down on them, coalescing into a purpse aura.

Florencia & the Feeling performing at local venue Capone’s in Johnson City, Tennessee. Photo courtesy of Jason Vaper

 An abbreviated version of “The Feeling” joined us on air in the Radio Bristol studio with guitarist Noa Wise and keys player Isaac Ratliff. Typically, the band consists of six pieces with a full drum kit (Austin Herron), electric bass (Nick Castro), and violin (Diego Núñez). The trio started things off with a song called “Meant to Be,” a soulful heartbreak song with cohesive syncopated stops and old-school R & B-inspired three-part harmonies. Florencia’s soaring voice was accented by dazzling progressive jazz chord voicings; making it crystal clear that this is a band with serious musical chops. It comes as no surprise that Wise studied musical performance as a jazz guitarist at East Tennessee State University (ETSU), and Florencia studied music therapy and guitar while at Queens College in Charlotte, North Carolina. The depth of their musical understanding comes across instantly to the listener and packs a sonic punch that isn’t easily forgotten. You would think that this band had played together for years to pull off so many rhythmic acrobatics with silky smooth finesse, but in fact, they are relatively new and fully formed after Rusiñol left her full-time music therapy job in Washington, D.C. during the pandemic.

Although the current lineup of the band is new, Florencia told us she has had a few different mash-ups of musicians for her songwriting, and has always thought of her music in terms of being with a full band. She considers this the third iteration, now comprised of close-knit high school friends and exceptional local talent. The band began in early 2021 when Castro and Herron got together to play a virtual show with Florencia for a socially distant stream. Little did they know that this performance would be the kick-off to a whirlwind tour throughout the South East. As booking requests started pouring in, the band formulated around Florencia’s writing, drawing inspiration from progressive jazz, bossa nova, disco rhythms, thoughtfully executed choral arrangements, and Latin American bolero-style music, distinctive for its rumba-esque walking beat and bien parado (“sudden stops”). The group hit the ground running, playing over 50 shows in 2021, and this year “The Feeling” has accelerated into high gear playing dozens of regional music festivals and touring through multiple states.

Currently, the band is working on recording a new album, which should be out in the next year. Slated to be produced by Grammy winner Martin Walters, who is also the director of jazz studies and contemporary music at ETSU. While speaking about the new recordings on air, the band hinted that there may be some singles released by the end of this year, possibly joined by guest artists, and assured us they would most definitely include a horn section.

A close-up of Florencia from the shoulders up -- she has long brown hair and is wearing a red patterned hair band/scarf to hold her hair back from her face. The background is blurred but seems to be trees and buildings.

Florencia Rusiñol. Courtesy of Florencia Rusiñol

Before the pandemic, Florencia was no stranger to traveling and spent time teaching music and art therapy in Atlanta, D.C., and Ecuador. With family roots in Argentina, Rusiñol’s time in South America gave birth to her songwriting career, and in 2018 she recorded a debut EP in Ecuador. Backed by a dazzling full band, complete with a horn section and twinkling jazz piano, the self-titled EP is an eye-opening testimony to the young songwriter’s talent for envisioning musical arrangements and manifesting them into lush full-scale productions. To hear Florencia’s EP, check out this link, and don’t forget to share it with your friends!

Florencia shared that this past year she has dived headfirst into being a full-time musician, saying that in the past she had always told herself it was too hard or not a possibility. However, recently her heart has led her to give it a sincere effort – one that is playing off in regional accolades and top tier gigs. The last song they performed for us – “What Can I Do?” – expounds upon that subject and follows her journey to accepting the need to be a working musician. Sweeping extended chords and catchy pop-funk walk ups accentuate the song’s subject matter, connecting with Florencia’s voice, unregulated with breath-taking accuracy and improvisational melody lines.

Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for new music from Florencia & the Feeling by keeping tabs on their website and following them on social media via Facebook, Instagram and Spotify. And catch “The Feeling” playing at a local venue or festival near you!

Radio Bristol Spotlight: Tyler Hughes

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 Radio Bristol Spotlight series, which highlights the top emerging artists in our region. Through interviews and performance, we learn more about the musicians who help to make Central Appalachia one of the richest and most unique musical landscapes in the world.

Recently the Radio Bristol studio hosted ETSU Bluegrass, Old-Time, and Country Music Studies graduate Tyler Hughes who hails from beautiful Big Stone Gap, Virginia. Tyler wears many metaphorical hats – some might even call him a modern-day mountain renaissance man – including songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, square dance caller, music teacher, regional music historian, avid gardener, and social justice advocate. During the pandemic, Tyler also worked as a ranger for Southwest Virginia Museum Historical State Park where he booked musical lineups for events such as Gathering in the Gap.

This past summer Tyler played dozens of events at regional venues and recently even performed at The Grand Ole Opry! While in our studio Tyler spoke with “The Old Ranger” – aka DJ Bill Smith – whose radio program, The Crooked Road Radio Hour, focuses on regional music from the 19 counties that comprise Southwest Virginia along the Crooked Road, Virginia’s heritage music trail. The two chatted about Tyler’s upcoming projects, his musical past, and his latest release, When the Light Shines Again, a collection of tunes centered around coal mining.

A white man holding a banjo in a sunny field with the hills and trees rising behind him. He holds a flower up to his face to smell it.He wears dark trousers, a white shirt, and suspenders. His hair is brown and cut short.

Tyler Hughes enjoying the natural beauty of a Southwest Virginia field. Photo courtesy of Trevor White

On-air, Tyler’s demeanor felt much like the gracious rolling hills of Southwest Virginia –  welcoming, sunny, and wise. Accompanied by a dimpled grin and an open-backed banjo, Tyler began his set with some traditional songs. One of particular note was his rendition of “Davenport,” a tune that is possibly a variant of another old melody called “Last Chance,” originally adapted by Scott Boatright, who was a historically important old-time musician from Fort Blackmore, Virginia. Boatright played throughout the 1920s and 1930s, accompanying well-known musicians such as Dock Boggs, Tom Ashley, “Fiddlin” John Carson, Clarence Greene, and Dudley Vance, as well as with his band, The Boatright String Band. Boatright played anywhere he could – at barber shops, barn dances, coal fields, and theaters.

While listening to Tyler, you can hear musical influence from both Boatright and Dock Boggs, as he employs a unique mixture of clawhammer frailing and three-finger “up-picking” banjo technique. It creates a style that feels extremely distinctive, polished, and organic, like a well-worn river rock – smooth, weighty, and comforting.

Talking about his musical inspiration, Tyler enthusiastically spoke about his experience attending The Mountain Music School camp as a young teenager. The camp is hosted annually at Mountain Empire Community College (MECC) and focuses on keeping traditional Appalachian folk music alive through engaging educational programs. Tyler now works on their faculty as a lead instructor and co-director of the Mountain Music School Stringband. While attending camp, Hughes met Boatwright’s daughter Sue Ella Boatright-Wells, who tirelessly worked to promote the preservation of Appalachian music traditions in Southwest Virginia during her 39-year-long service as the Dean of Workforce Development at MECC. Sue Ella was one of several community members who encouraged Hughes to pursue traditional music, and Tyler expressed extreme admiration for her work and character. Her legacy is something Hughes hopes to champion as a musician and educator. Indeed, in his online bio Tyler states: “I believe that through regional arts, Southwest Virginia can move beyond its current challenges, build a new economy and stronger communities where everyone can reach their full potential” – an inspiring mission statement that encapsulates his current work.

Tyler Hughes’ performance of “Sittin’ on Top of the World” in the Radio Bristol studio.

Tyler has recently returned to playing music full-time after wading through the hardships faced by many working musicians during the pandemic. His downtime was extremely productive, yielding a new album, and he has more original music in the works. His latest release was recorded at the legendary Maggard Sound Studio in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, the same studio that produced Dr. Ralph Stanley’s GRAMMY-winning albums. Tyler’s album When the Light Shines Again is a luminous collection of songs that share a central theme of coal mining. Hughes grew up in the heart of Southwest Virginia’s “Coal Mining Country,” and his Papaw was a miner. The concept for the album was born from conversations the two had about his grandfather’s experiences. Tyler’s interpretations feel purposeful and innate, seamlessly churned with care and bearing an unassuming accuracy that exists only through dedicated practice and deep empathy for ancestral wisdom. The recording features excellent musical performances by several members of the old-time music community throughout the region, including Todd Meade, Haselden Ciaccio, Rich Kirby, Stephanie Jeter, and Sam Gleaves.

Amidst the album’s 11 songs, Tyler maps out the complexities of Southwest Virginia’s relationship with coal through songs that explore the cultural, economic, and environmental impact of mining. A stand-out track, “Coal Miner’s Blues,” was first recorded by The Carter Family in 1938 and was collected by A.P. Carter around Lee County, Virginia in the mining community of St. Charles. The song explores tribulation and veneration of the human spirit with rollicking banjo rhythms and mournful lyrics. As a whole, the album depicts different aspects of the coal miner’s experience with songs that follow a 100-year span telling stories of tragic accidents, hardships of physical labor, and the trials faced by unionized workers. To listen to or purchase the album, visit the link here.

Tyler’s work as a budding forbearer of Appalachian folkways follows many different paths. You can find Tyler pickin’ and grinnin’ while playing an archtop guitar, autoharp, banjo, or dulcimer, solo or with accompaniment. He regularly plays with the Empty Bottle String Band formed by musicians he met when he attended ETSU’s Bluegrass, Old-Time, and Country Music program.  Tyler also teaches young musicians in Wise County at the after-school music program Junior Appalachian Musicians (JAM) and is a caller for regional square dances. He learned to call square dances after a group of friends couldn’t find anyone to call a dance for them while in college. Tyler began scouring eBay to find old square dance instructional material and picked local callers’ brains, learning customary dances that were common in the Appalachian Mountains. You can catch all of Tyler’s musical performances and dance callings, or maybe even sign up for banjo lessons, through his website here.

Twp books stacked on top of each other, the bottom one is red with gold lettering and the top one is grey or beige with red lettering.

Tyler Hughes’ collection of vintage square dance instructional books. Photo courtesy of Tyler Hughes

Closing out the hour on air, Tyler shared renditions of two Ralph Stanley tunes – “Battle Ax” and “Shout Little Lulie” – with precise clawhammer banjo licks and jaunty singing. Tyler is a regional musician to watch, whose performances offer outstanding musicality and reach into the core of Appalachian life, telling the stories of its people and sharing its rich musical heritage.

* Top image: Tyler Hughes performing with the Empty Bottle String Band at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion in 2019. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Tiffany Bower

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.

Radio Bristol Spotlight: The Willy Nillys

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 Radio Bristol Spotlight post. This blog series highlights top emerging artists in our region – through interviews and performance, we learn more about the musicians who help to make Central Appalachia one the richest, and most unique musical landscapes in the world.

Recently at the Radio Bristol studio, we hosted the newly re-formed duo The Willy Nillys, comprised of the easygoing road warrior couple, Christy Lynn Barrett and Ryan Schilling. Currently based in Asheville, North Carolina, the two have been hitting the highway on multiple DIY cross-country road trips for the better part of a decade, playing dive bars and open mics sprawled across sleepy countryside towns. Their long musical journey has incorporated multiple converted vans or other “assorted vintage vehicles,” nights spent everywhere from sketchy Walmart parking lots to majestic National Forests, self-recorded albums with hand-cut vinyl, and a menagerie of analog audio gear including the 1987 Ford Econoline known as the American Sound Truck, which houses a direct to vinyl recording studio.

A young couple stand in front of a big window with a building seen through it. They are both white and wearing light-colored denim short-sleeved shirts and dark blue denim jeans. The woman stands to the left; she has chin-length slighly wavy red hair and leans her head on the man's shoulder. The man stands to the right and has dark brown shoulder-length hair and a beard/moustache.

The Willy Nillys’ Christy Barrett and Ryan Schilling pose in unquestionably classy denim on denim attire. Photo Credit: Izzy Nelson

The dream-manifesting pair grew up in small dusty desert towns in Southern California, home to mystic cowboys such as Gram Parsons and creative origin for the legendary Laurel Canyon folk music scene of the 1960s and 1970s. Meeting by happenstance at a late night party, Barrett and Schilling quickly began writing music together, delving ever deeper into musical influences that lead them to the rich soils of Appalachia. Nowadays the couple own and run  American Vinyl Co., a one-stop shop for everything from custom lathe-cut vinyl records, record mastering/pressing, direct-to-lacquer recording, live musical performances, a record shop, and a well-curated collection of historical audio equipment – all located in a beautifully renovated 1940s warehouse on the South Slope near downtown Asheville. To fully grasp the breadth of everything that happens at American Vinyl Co., we highly suggest going there for a visit – you can order from their “menu,” which includes recording a single inside the sound truck, or you can check out a show where they host an impressive variety of emerging roots music and Americana acts. You can check out their event schedule here.

A converted warehouse-style studio space is seen in this photograph. Large multi-paned windows line the back wall; it is night-time outside and you can see the glow of greenish lights in the windows to the left. In the studio can be seen various vintage microphones, instruments on stands, and other music paraphernalia. A record-shaped sign for American Vinyl Co. is hanging in the windows to the right.

American Viny Co. Stage located just outside of downtown Asheville in the “Brewery District” of South Slope. 

This industrious duo also still finds time to crank out inspiring original music, amidst refurbishing retro musical equipment and pressing loads of vinyl records for independent artists. Their latest iteration as The Willy Nillys is the third progression of their musical brainchild. Past projects have included the Christy Lynn Band, which is heavily inspired by Barrett’s lifelong love of classic country, and Triumph of the Wild, which won the couple first place for best recording at the San Diego Music Awards and began their relentless pilgrimage to musical sites of inspiration throughout the rural south. In the Radio Bristol studio, we got to witness a few of their brand new songs and talk about new recording projects on the horizon.

Starting out they played a tune called “American Daydream,” a hopeful yet rugged romp accented by cinematic swells of harmonica and hair-raising vocal harmonies. The lyrics seem to recount their idyllic but at times dangerous and unglamorous experience as OG van lifers – living off of sink showers and hints of Ola Belle Reed melodie,; learning how to befriend locals, and staying out of trouble with local police. The chorus proclaims “Livin our life like we wanted to…In an American Daydream with you,” ending with the road-weary affirmation: “A couple beggars, a couple of crooks, A couple of nobodies you overlooked…There ain’t a risk we ain’t never took.” This band is definitely for lovers of Shovels and Rope, The Everly Brothers, and 1950s pop employing powerhouse vocals and swishing echo-like back beats.

They also shared a somber number, “It Ain’t Fair,” a tune with a lilting melody that felt reminiscent of classic country balladry. The song slowly gallops along with regretful lyrics that recount sacrifices made as traveling songwriters – missing their nephews grow up and their parents aging. The stoic beauty and honesty of this song will leave a lump in your throat and tears in your eyes, with the last verse admitting:

“To my two sisters, I’ve been meaning to call
It breaks my heart knowing, I don’t know you at all
So I’ll pack my suitcase and I’ll go back in time
Back before a song was always on my mind.”

This is a band that is definitely worth checking out – so be sure to keep your eyes peeled for a new EP coming from them this summer, one that is sure to be self-produced and released with hand-pressed vinyl from American Vinyl Co.

Check out The Willy Nillys playing “It Ain’t Fair” live in the Radio Bristol studio.

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.

Celebrating Jimmie Rodgers: A Short Lesson in His Guitar Style

Today is the anniversary of Jimmie Rodgers’ passing on May 26, 1933, and therefore we wanted to celebrate him with this blog post by volunteer Ed Hagen – including a short lesson in Rodgers’ iconic guitar style! Ed moved to Bristol last summer, and he soon joined us at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum as a Gallery Assistant. He has played guitar for many years, mostly jazz, but he has been working hard on the rudiments of country and bluegrass since moving to Tennessee. As Ed says, “There is no better place to start than with the guitar style of Jimmie Rodgers!”

Jimmie Rodgers

Jimmie Rodgers was born in 1897 in Meridian, Mississippi, and he learned to play guitar while working on the railroad as a water boy and brakeman. He was influenced by the music played and the songs sung by the African American railway workers he met at the railway yard and around town – their call-and-response singing style during work and the blues songs they sang made a distinctive mark on Rodgers’ sound. He also spent time in Meridian’s opera house, vaudeville theaters, and hotels where he heard jazz, parlor music, and popular tunes, all of which also provided inspiration.

In 1927 he moved to Ashville, North Carolina, where he started playing on the local radio station with a small band made up of three musicians from Bristol, Tennessee-Virginia. Later that year they heard about recording sessions that were going to be held in Bristol conducted by the Victor Talking Machine Company, and so they traveled up to audition. These were the famous “1927 Bristol Sessions” that we celebrate at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum today. After arriving in Bristol for their audition, Rodgers and the band ended up recording separately, with speculation attributing this to an internal squabble or a change made by producer Ralph Peer. For Rodgers, this led to a recording contract and huge success as a recording and performing artist – though for only six short years before his death from tuberculosis in 1933 – and he is now celebrated as the “Father of Country Music.”

Black-and-white photograph of Jimmie Rodgers. He is a white man, and he stands in front of a faux photographic background that looks like a garden trellis. He is wearing a dark suit, a bow tie, and a white stetson-style hat, and he is holding his guitar.

Promotional portrait of Jimmie Rodgers. From the John Edwards Memorial Foundation Records, #20001, Southern Folklife Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Jimmie’s Guitar Style

Jimmie Rodgers’ guitar style is iconic and made a huge impact on country music musicians and beyond – numerous artists have copied and embellished it for their own music playing throughout the years. It is based within a traditional style of guitar playing, but he is one of the most successful and well-known performing and recording artists to play in this style, and he certainly knew how to make it his own!

For guitar players, it’s a great style to learn because it is so versatile. As the bartender in the Blues Brothers would put it, the style works for both kinds of music, country and western. You can slow it down for a Hank Williams’ ballad, or swing it hard for a Bob Wills’ two-step. You can use it to play Gene Autry cowboy tunes or just about any Merle Haggard or Buck Owens tune. And once you master it, the style gives you the foundation to play the related but more challenging guitar styles of Maybelle Carter, Merle Travis, and Chet Atkins.

Playing Guitar Jimmie Rodgers-Style

Before we can play this guitar style, we need to begin with short introduction on how to play traditional country bass, because that is the foundation of the style. For the most part, traditional country bass players play the root note of the chord on the first beat of the measure, and the fifth note of the chord’s major scale on the third beat. The fifth can either be played above or below the root. Playing behind a C chord, these notes would be C and G. This is called playing “one five.”

A triplet (that is, three notes played where a quarter note would ordinarily be played) can be played on the fourth beat of a measure, especially before a chord change. This triplet anticipates the chord that is played in the next measure, either ascending or descending to the root of the target chord. The three notes in the triplet are the three tones just above or below the root of the target chord. For example, if ascending from a measure of C to a measure of F, the triplet at the end of the C measure would be the fifth, sixth, and seventh tones of the F major scale.

If descending from a C measure to a G measure, the notes of the triplet would be the fourth, third and second tones of the G major scale.

Alternatively, a bass player will sometimes play a third on the third beat, especially if that note is a seventh of the target chord (the chord to be played in the next measure).  If moving from a C to an F, for example, the third in C (E) is the seventh in F. Or sometimes, just to keep it simple, the bass player will play the root on the third beat.

Rodgers does all of this on the guitar rather than on a bass. He plays a bass line on his guitar by fingering a first-position chord with his left hand, which will typically have the first and fifth notes of the major scale on the bottom three (EAD) strings. Just like any country bass player, he’ll “one five” it, playing the first and fifth tones on the first and third beats of the measure, mix in triplets, and occasionally drop in a root or third on the third beat. While doing this, he’ll strum the treble strings on the other beats. This allows him to effectively play bass and guitar at the same time.

This is sometimes called a “boom chuck” rhythm, similar to a military band’s “oom pah” or a stride piano player’s left hand. The “boom” is the bass note, and the “chuck” is the strum. Sometimes, to spice it up, a down-up strum is added to the chuck, creating a “boom chucka” (sometimes called a “church lick”). So the last beat of a measure might be a “chuck,” a church lick, or a triplet.

A brief note about the strum: These first position chords typically include open strings, and no particular effort is made to dampen them. It is not essential to play every string on every chord; the treble top notes (the B and E string) are often omitted.

There are no strict rules about any of this, except that it all has to done with confidence and a swing feel. You should be able to sing, play the bass and chords, and drop in a triplet or church lick as the mood strikes you. This all comes with practice.

The exercise below will get you used to playing ascending and descending triplets. Start slow and play it until it becomes second nature.

Providentially, Rodgers made The Singing Brakeman, a short sound film released in 1930 where he plays guitar and sings three songs, so you can see exactly how he plays. The film is available on YouTube. You’ll need to take one precaution if you are playing along with the video. The guitar in the film is tuned a half step high, so to play along you’ll have to tune your guitar up a half step or put a capo on the first fret. When we talk about these tunes below, we’ll do so as if the recording was in standard tuning, that is, when he fingers something that looks like a C chord in the film, we’ll call it that, even though we are hearing a C# chord on the soundtrack.

With all this in mind, let’s take a look at the first song in The Singing Brakeman, “Waiting on a Train.” Rodgers begins by imitating a train whistle, and then sings some nonsense syllables over this short guitar opening:

The partial F chords in the first bar are played as four simple down strokes on the four beats. The second bar is a boom chuck, playing the root instead of the fifth on the third beat. The third bar is two church licks. He ends the fourth bar as a triplet leading into the first bar of the chorus, which is played “one five.”

I’m not going to tab out the rest of the song. It goes against the spirit of how these songs are played. Players are free to sprinkle triplets and church licks wherever they like. Jimmie Rodgers likely never played the same song the same way twice. But to get you started, the chords for the first verse go like this:

Four lines from the song "Waiting on a Train," showing the different keys for playing on guitar.

This is just a start for aspiring Jimmie Rodgers-inspired players, but it should give you a good place to begin as you explore the wonderful musical world of “America’s Blue Yodeler,” “The Singing Brakeman,” and the “Father of Country Music”!

Radio Bristol Spotlight: Chance Lawson

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. As part of Radio Bristol’s core mission, we are pleased to share our latest Radio Bristol Spotlight post. Radio Bristol Spotlight is a series highlighting 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.

Singer-Songwriter Chancellor (Chance) Lawson has been turning heads with his acoustic solo originals, recently winning the Tennessee Songwriters Week Competition for the Northeast Tennessee region. Local finalists performed at The Down Home in Johnson City, Tennessee, competing for a chance to play a showcase at Nashville’s acclaimed listening room, the Bluebird Cafe .The competition was hosted at six different historical venues throughout the state, and celebrates the “foundation of the craft for which Tennessee is known – music.”

A photograph of a white man standing in front of a vinyl banner for the Tennessee Songwriters Week Competition; you can see a stage area with instruments behind the banner and the man. The man is young, with wavy brown chin-length hair; he is wearing glasses, a white t-shirt, and jeans. He holds a guitar in one hand.

Chance Lawson at The Down Home in Johnson City, Tennessee, following his performance for Tennessee Songwriters Week Competition finals. Courtesy of Chance Lawson

Growing up in Kingsport, Tennessee, Lawson has been a staple at open mic nights and stages surrounding the Tri-Cities, performing with the collectively run indie-rock band Donnie and the Dry Heavers. This summer the musician also plans to open up a brand new venue in his hometown – the Market Street Social Club will be an inclusive space for pickers of all levels and performers of everything from music to stand-up comedy. The club will host multiple open mics weekly, as well as live performances by regional and touring artists. Recently we got to visit with Lawson in the Radio Bristol studio where he shared plans for the new space, plus some of his original tunes and off-the-cuff asides about his laid back approach to creating music.

Complete with Stetson and cowboy hat, Lawson confidently strolled into the studio and started things off with a bluegrassy original tune called “The Flood.” Fashioned together with idyllic imagery and fluid flatpicking, the song depicts a listless experience of existing – using water as a metaphor for the ebb and flow of emotion, proclaiming Lawson’s ability to remain stable and to keep “holding on” even while expressing an inner need for traveling that keeps his feet from “rooting.” Inspired by heralded Americana songwriters such as Jason Isbell and John Prine, Lawson is an astonishingly polished performer whose dues earned at countless local venues are paying off. His songs, embellished by effortless guitar playing and velvety smooth twang-tinged vocals, offer a bona fide look into the raw talent that comes from our region.

Playing on a brand new Taylor guitar that was part of the prize for winning the Tennessee Songwriters Week Competition, Lawson admitted that he was shocked when his name got called as the overall winner for the Northeast Tennessee region at The Down Home. Lawson’s flare for creating original music has been opening up major doors for the songwriter. He spoke highly about his experience playing at The Bluebird Cafe in Nashville, saying that he felt like folks there were super supportive, and he was impressed by the other songwriters such as Tyson Leamon and Jacob Rice, who made it clear why they had won for their prospective regions.

A black-and-white photograph of a white male musician wearing a white Stetson-style hat and holding a guitar. He is standing in front of a radio booth.

Chance Lawson at the Radio Bristol studio. © Birthplace of Country Music

Raised playing gospel music at Cross Roads United Methodist Church and taught guitar by his mother, Lawson comes from a family with deep musical roots. His grandfather was celebrated country music star Red Kirk, who made appearances on historic radio programs such as WNOX’s MidDay Merry-Go-Round, WLS’s National Barn Dance, the Louisiana Hayride, and the Grand Ole Opry. With country music and traditions running through his veins one might find it surprising that one of Lawson’s earliest and most impactful influences was The Grateful Dead. He described first hearing “Friend of the Devil” during a hazy car ride and becoming completely hooked on the sound, which to him blended the traditional bluegrass scales he grew up on with a more meandering sideways-hippie-infused sound. Becoming a “Dead Head” seems to have sparked a creative ember for Lawson who then shared a song called “Jerry and Jesus.” The song reads as a thoughtful plea for reconciliation across musical and philosophical boundaries. Lyrics such as “Let’s get along, let’s throw a party tonight…now that’s worth praying for. Let’s make mistakes, that’s how we learn anyways…Who said you can’t love Jerry and Jesus?” offer a heartfelt perspective on merging Lawson’s Tennessee roots with a broader worldview. The seemingly paradoxical inclination to meld stylistic influences from traditional music along with subjective songwriting makes Lawson’s songs a provocative and compelling listen.

While playing in the Radio Bristol studio, Lawson also performed “Happy Man,” the tune that won him the Tennessee Songwriters Week Competition. Inspired by his girlfriend, the catchy song mixes pop sensibilities by blending country twang with rhythm-and-blues vibes…think Bill Withers meets Gary Stewart. The song is refined yet maintains its authenticity. To watch a live performance of the song watch the video below, and be sure to follow Lawson’s music online via his Facebook page.

Chance Lawson performing “Happy Man,” winner of the 2022 Tennessee Songwriters Week Competition.

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.