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The Root of It: Joseph Decosimo on Dick Burnett

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

For this installment of “The Root of It,” we spoke with banjo and fiddle extraordinaire Joseph Decosimo. Joseph was raised in Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau and has had a lifelong passion for the music of the region centered upon banjo and fiddle. Through his illustrious performing and recording career with projects like The Bucking Mules and The Rocky Creek Ramblers, and through his solo work, Joseph celebrates and reimagines the music of the Cumberland Plateau, Central Appalachia, and the broader American South. Currently based in Durham, North Carolina, Decosimo continues to engage with traditional music not only through performance but also through scholarship as a recent PhD in American Studies at the University of North Carolina. By exploring the history of a tune and theme that has permeated old-time traditions for generations, Joseph shared some of the artists that inspire him and his music.

A man standing on a screened in porch with the side of the house and trees/yard showing behind him. He is bearded and wearing glasses,a tan sweater, a baseball cap, and dark pants. He holds in fiddle in one hand and a bow in the other.
Joseph Decosimo with fiddle.

Joseph Decosimo:

Last spring, I found myself visiting a little city park down the hill from my house in Durham. There’s a stand of persimmon trees there, surrounded by a tangle of blackberry bushes that are slowly reclaiming a field. I don’t know that I’ve ever paid much attention to blackberry blossoms, but something about that early pandemic moment led me to attend to the smaller details – smells, sights, sounds – of the natural world. In this corner of the park, these five-petaled blackberry blossoms burst into clouds of linen whites and soft pinks against a backdrop of late spring greens. I hadn’t noticed them before. The blossoms were graceful and delicate. And they were gone almost as quickly as they came.

There’s a musical idea that circulates through Southern fiddle repertoires, taking on the name “Blackberry Blossom” after these delicate and understated flowers that precede the summertime berries with their clash of tartness and sweetness. (My friend Kerry Blech offers a handy primer on the fiddle tune’s recorded life.) The most widely circulating versions, inspired perhaps by Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith’s mid-1930s recording of the tune, takes a turn towards the tart – overlaying a puckeringly sour chord change over the first few beats of the tune’s second part. Over time, most players, perhaps following the lead of the Nashville studio musicians who accompanied fiddler Tommy Jackson, have decided to turn this chord into a minor chord – a rather grand gesture given the subtlety of the namesake blossom. Whatever the case, most folks have decided to resolve the tension of the tune. This variety of “Blackberry Blossom” has come to be the dominant one, spread far and wide by radio and recordings and frequently heard at bluegrass and old-time jams alike.


Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith’s rousing version of “Blackberry Blossom,” featuring the Delmore Brothers and recorded for Victor Talking Machine Company in 1935.

However, deep within this bramble of musical creativity, another strain of blackberry blossoms can be found. This rare strain is known for its ethereal beauty and tantalizing subtlety. These sprout along the West Virginia and Kentucky line. On an old field recording from the 1930s, Kentuckian Fiddlin’ Ed Morrison offers an origin for the piece, explaining: “This tune was learned from General Garfield by my father during the Civil War. He whistled it all the time on his march up Big Sandy River to Middle Creek.” You can hear Morrison’s version here. Morrison’s fiddling neighbor, the legendary blind fiddler Ed Haley, explored all the territory the tune could muster as he busked around Ashland, Kentucky. In the placement of their fingers on the violin’s fingerboard, both Morrison and Haley located the tune in an unquestionably tart tonal space. At a fiddle contest in Paintsville, Kentucky, Dick Burnett, another blind musician, heard a fiddler named Bob Johnson play the piece. Johnson, in turn, had heard Haley playing it somewhere along the Ohio River. After the contest, Burnett cornered Johnson and had him play the tune over and over until it fell under Burnett’s fingers.

Black-and-white photograph of a dark-haired man seated on a chair outside. He has a large moustache and is holding his fiddle to his shoulder with the bow poised to play.

Pictured is Fiddlin’ Ed Morrison whose father Christian Morrison allegedly learned “Blackberry Blossom” from the whistling of Col. James Garfield (he did not become a general until later) in 1863 during the Civil War activity in Kentucky. Photo and sound clip (linked in paragraph above) courtesy of Kerry Blech via Florida State Fiddlers Association

Burnett stored the tune away in his mind and carried it back to Monticello, Kentucky. In the process, the tart angles and tones of Haley’s version softened into something more ambiguous and delicate – something more gently rolling like the hills around Monticello. By the time Burnett made it down to Atlanta to fiddle the piece for Columbia in April of 1930, his fingers had pushed the notes of the melody into a place of beautiful uncertainty. The twists and turns and more certain tartness of Haley’s setting gave way to something simultaneously sweet, tart, and delightfully ambiguous. Burnett’s rendition conveys a smoky quality that prevents things from being seen or heard with total clarity or certainty.

I realize that this post is supposed to be about a musician whom I’ve found influential, and I’ve burned through a lot of words describing a tune. But it’s hard for me to think about a lot of these older players and not think about a specific tune. And so let me turn my attention fully to Dick Burnett whose rendition of “Blackberry Blossoms” I find so compelling. I’m pretty sure that Dick Burnett isn’t my favorite old fiddler. There’s a good chance that his longtime playing partner Leonard Rutherford might be, but my preferences for these kinds of things change with the weather. I love trying to fiddle his version of “Blackberry Blossoms” – it’s slippery and subtle. I enjoy playing his slippery “Wild Good Chase” – a piece that I learned from mentor Clyde Davenport. As a young man, Davenport learned it from hearing Burnett play it at the courthouse in Monticello. These are fun tunes to play, however, I’m sharing some thoughts on Dick Burnett because he links a network of traditional musicians whose music has inspired and charmed me over the last two decades. I guess Burnett serves as the common thread running through a handful of my favorite artists from the Upper Cumberland region along the Tennessee/Kentucky line.

Black-and-white photograph of a dark-haired, clean-cut man seated in a chair in front of a white picket fence. He holds a banjo on his lap, ready to play.
Dick Burnett with banjo.

There’s Retta Spradlin – one of my favorite old singers and banjo players. She sang a powerfully beautiful version with her banjo of “Man of Constant Sorrow” that she learned from Burnett as he was traveling through her rural community. Burnett played an important role in popularizing the song, and his neighbors sang some fine versions that treated his version as a jumping off point. There’s the fiery fiddler John Sharp who spent time playing music with Burnett and his musical partner Rutherford. In Burnett and Rutherford’s repertoire and stylings, we hear traces of the local Black fiddle tradition as performed by their neighbor and aesthetic companion Cuje Bertram. Bertram’s slippery approach to the fiddle and subtle infusions of vibrato into tunes like “Billy in the Lowground” can also be heard in Burnett and Rutherford’s take on the tune. It’s this world of musicians that captivate me.

While I thoroughly enjoy Burnett’s playing, singing, and cutting up, I’m writing about him because I wanted to write about his “Blackberry Blossoms” and because he speaks to ways that music can flow through and create communities. I’m interested in the network of musicians of which he was a part. He links a world of repertoire, artistry, and sound that inspires my own music making. Over the last two years, the repertoire and aesthetics of Burnett’s world has inspired a forthcoming recording project.

Burnett’s music recalls a way of knowing these old pieces and making music that eludes recording technologies and industries. Part of the beauty of his “Blackberry Blossoms” is felt in the way that the tune shifted in his hands. This older stuff resists being fixed in the grooves of a record, on a bit of magnetic tape, or as a digitized abstraction. It eludes formal educational programs and fiddle camps. It’s a reminder of the fact that this is ultimately ear music. It’s music that we pull into ourselves and make something with, music that invites us to trace relationships and discover communities of taste. It’s about repertoire as shared experience and concepts open to exploration. It’s durable stuff.

*To learn more about Joseph Decosimo, visit www.josephdecosimo.com and be sure to check out his latest project “The Aluminum Wonder” featuring rare banjo tunes played in various banjo styles. And be on the lookout for a new solo project featuring collaborations with Alice Gerrard, Cleek Schrey, Joe and Matt O’Connell, and Stephanie Coleman.

Radio Bristol Book Club: Trampoline

Welcome to Radio Bristol Book Club where readers from BCM and the Bristol Public Library are coming together each month to celebrate and explore books inspired by our region’s rich Appalachian cultural and musical heritage! We invite you to read along and then listen to Radio Bristol on the fourth Thursday of each month at 12:00 noon when we will dig deep into the themes and questions raised by the books, learn more about the authors, and celebrate the joys of being a bookworm!

Trampoline is the story of 15-year-old Dawn Jewell, her life with her family in eastern Kentucky, and the struggles that she faces. Dawn is sarcastic, takes issue with authority, and is laboring over the concept of who she is versus who she wants to become. So, a fairly typical teenager – but, as everyone knows, those times feel anything other than normal. Compounded by her choice to join her Mamaw’s social fight against the already economically strapped area’s main industry “Big Coal,” thus finding herself a persona-non-grata in her own town, comfort is hard to come by for our protagonist. Though Trampoline features Gipe’s perfectly complementary drawings, this is no comic book and certainly more novel than graphic. This work is written in a traditional sense that will appeal to those who relate to the setting as well as those who may be passing through. Will Dawn stay and find her way through, or choose flight over fight and abandon the mountains that need her possibly more than she needs them? Read Trampoline with us and find out!

The cover of the book is a black-and-white pen drawing showing a young girl with dissheveled hair, glasses, and a graphic t-shirt. She looks to the side.
The cover of Robert Gipe’s Trampoline with his distinctive drawing style.

Author Robert Gipe was born in Kingsport, Tennessee. He now resides in Harlan County, Kentucky, where he directed the Southeast Kentucky Community & Technical College Appalachian Program (1997 to 2018). He is also a producer of the Higher Ground community performance series, has directed the Southeast Kentucky Revitalization Project, coordinated the Great Mountain Mural Mega Fest, co-produces the Hurricane Gap Community Theater Institute, and advises on It’s Good To Be Young in the Mountains, a youth-driven conference. He formerly worked for the Appalshop Art Center in Whitesburg, Kentucky, as well. In 2015 Gipe won the Weatherford Award for outstanding Appalachian novel for Trampoline, his very first novel. This volume is now accompanied by second (Weedeater, 2018) and third (Pop, ​2021) books as a series, all three of which are published by Ohio University Press.

The author is a white man with strawberry blond hair and beard. He is wearing a grey t-shirt with two green snakes in the central design and a pair of black-rimmed glasses. He is seated on some steps surrounded by potted plants, including tomatoes.
This portrait of author Robert Gipe was taken by Amelia Kirby.

Please make plans to join us on Thursday, May 27 at 12:00pm for the book discussion, which will be followed with an interview with author Robert Gipe! You can find us on the dial at 100.1 FM, streaming live on Radio Bristol, or via the Radio Bristol app. The book is available at the Bristol Public Library so be sure to pick up a copy and read it ahead of time. The librarians will be happy to help you find the book. We look forward to sharing our thoughts on this book’s interesting story and engaging format. And if you have thoughts or questions about this book that you would like to share with our readers, you can email info@birthplaceofcountrymusic.org (Subject line: Radio Bristol Book Club) – and your book insights might appear on air with us!

Looking ahead: Our book pick for June is Satan is Real: The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers by Charlie Louvin; we’ll be discussing it on Thursday, June 24. Check out our full list of 2021 Radio Bristol Book Club picks here, where you can also listen to archived shows!

The Root of It: Vivian Leva on Texas Gladden

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

For this installment of “The Root of It,” we spoke with standout roots duo Vivian Leva and Riley Calcagno. Leva and Calcagno have been stalwarts within the old-time community since they were children, both coming from a lineage of celebrated old-time performers. Leva and Calcagno not only shine within the bounds of old-time string band traditions, but they also skillfully break outside the barriers often set by traditional music with well-crafted songwriting and unique singing and arranging, exemplified on their recent self-titled release on Freedirt Records. Their songs breathe with maturity beyond their years, eloquently speaking to the current state of our times while managing to retain a timeless sound built upon the foundation of old-time and classic country. Leva, a native of Lexington, Virginia, has long been inspired by renowned Saltville, Virginia, ballad singer Texas Gladden. Though Gladden was celebrated as a skilled singer and considered an important figure within Appalachian music culture, she never commercially recorded. Thankfully folk archivist and field recorder Alan Lomax recorded Gladden in depth for the Library of Congress and the Southern Journey series (worth seeking out for a listen). We asked Leva to share with us some of the reasons why the music of Texas Gladden keeps her inspired.

Left image: A young woman and man sitting on a concrete wall. The woman is white with her brunette hair pulled back in a ponytail; she wears a white t-shirt, jeans and sneakers. The man is white with dark hair and a beard; he wears a patterned button-down shirt, black pants, and holds a banjo. You can see a house, trees, and a telephone behind them. Right: The album cover shows a white man in an untucked grey button-down shirt and dark pants, looking towards a white woman with shoulder-length brunette-blondish hair and wearing a floral dress. They are inside what looks like an old, run down house and you can see fields outside the windows; the sun is shining through so that you see sun glare in the camera. Their names -- Vivian Leva and Riley Calgano -- are written in script acoss the photograph.

Vivian Leva and Riley Calcagno have been steadily garnering public praise and critical acclaim for their skillful songwriting and unique singing. Image and album cover art courtesy of Leva and Calcagno for Free Dirt Records.

Vivian Leva:

“I remember the first time I heard the plaintive, clear tone of Texas Gladden’s voice. I was 13 or 14, sitting in the car with my dad. The sound of Texas Gladden singing ‘One Morning in May’ drifted through the speakers. I was captivated by Texas’s voice, and by the story of a young woman and her tragic death. Over the course of the next few months, I listened to that track and to my dad singing it over and over again. It wasn’t before long that I learned it as well. At the time, my dad was working on a project with Stephen Wade, who wrote about Texas in his book, The Beautiful Music All Around Us. The two of them asked me to join them on their trip to visit and perform for Texas Gladden’s family. We went first to Salem, then to Saltville, Virginia, where I had the privilege of singing ‘One Morning in May’ for Texas’s kin.”

This black-and-white image shows a young man with dark hair and a short beard with an older woman with her grey hair pulled back in a bun at the nape of her neck. The man is smiling at the woman, and she looks at him with a small smile and holds a fan below her chin.

Texas Gladden was a celebrated ballad singer from Smyth County, Virginia, who recorded regularly with Alan Lomax from the early 1940s into the early 1960s. Alan Lomax Collection, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress

”Most of the information I have about Texas comes from a chapter in Stephen Wade’s book. According to him, Texas was born in Saltville, Virginia, about two and a half hours from where I grew up in Lexington, Virginia. My parents were one of her many appreciators, and thoroughly considered naming me Texas. It would have fit into a long tradition, as Texas had sisters named Kansas and Virginia, and a cousin named Tennessee.

She was born and raised in a musical family. Both of her grandparents played the fiddle, and her parents played the banjo. Often, her family held square dances at their house, where people would come to dance and play. Texas inherited many of the ballads that she sang from her mother, and formed a close musical bond with her brother, Hobart Smith. Although she never pursued a career in music, her songs nevertheless reached many through the recordings made by the Lomax family and other folk song collectors.

I didn’t realize how much Texas’s music was woven into my everyday life. One of my favorite tracks off of the Troublesome Creek Stringband’s CD was the song “Three Babes.” I listened to it all the time, and loved singing along to the sad tale. Later, I realized that they had gotten it from Texas, and, after listening, I was similarly intrigued by her version. Texas’s voice, to me, somehow is both soft and cutting. She is gentle, but also sharp and clear. The way she sings, it is almost impossible to not become absorbed in the story.”


Texas Gladden singing “Cold Mountains,” one of the songs recorded in Salem, Virginia by Shirley Collins and Alan Lomax in 1959. 

“In October of 2016, my bandmate Riley sent me a YouTube video of Texas singing “Cold Mountains.” We decided to arrange it into a string band version and to write a chorus for it. It was exciting to not just try to imitate Texas, but to expand upon the song and imagine what she might like. Texas Gladden was one of the first singers that inspired me to learn ballads. She continues to be an example to me of not just how to sing pretty, but how to tell a story.”

To learn more about Vivian Leva and Riley Calcagno, visit their website. Their debut, self-titled album released in March 2021 on Free Dirt Records. Check out the music video for “Will You” from the album:

Radio Bristol Book Club: Affrilachian Tales – Folktales from the African-American Appalachian Tradition

Welcome to Radio Bristol Book Club where readers from BCM and the Bristol Public Library come together each month to celebrate and explore a book inspired by our region’s rich Appalachian cultural and musical heritage! We invite you to read along and then listen to Radio Bristol on the fourth Thursday of each month at our NEW TIME of 12:00pm when we dig deep into the themes and questions raised by the books, learn more about the authors, and celebrate the joys of being a bookworm!

This month’s Radio Bristol Book Club pick is Lyn Ford’s Affrilachian Tales: Folktales from the African-American Appalachian Tradition. While the stereotypical Appalachian person is of Scots Irish or German descent, Ford’s wonderful collection of folktales reveals the region’s sometimes hidden diversity in this collection of delightful tales derived from African-American Appalachian oral tradition.  While the stories have universal appeal, it’s their rustic charm that lifts the collection – including tales such as “Why Possum’s Tail is Bare,” “Turtle Wants to Fly,” and “Jack and the Old Woman.” Even though the book is only about 150 pages long, it includes important autobiographical and historical information to put the tales in context.

The cover of Affrilachian Tales shows a grey wooden barn with a split rail fence around it and the pasture in the foreground. Trees in autumn colors are behind the barn.

The cover of Lyn Ford’s Affrilachian Tales.

This is a book to be shared with family, whether in front of a fire or wrapped in a blanket on the porch under the stars.  These tales are meant to be loved, learned, and passed down to the next generation.

Lyn Ford is nationally recognized as an award-winning fourth-generation storyteller, author and educator. She is an Affrilachian storyteller and a “keeper and adapter” of her family’s stories. She has shared her stories in 29 states and Ireland, and she says that her career as a storyteller has been fortuitous because storytelling has been a part of her family’s tradition for generations.  Her stories are “adaptations of folktales, spooky tales, and original stories rooted in her family’s multicultural African-American Appalachian (Affrilachian) heritage.” Lyn’s favorite storyteller is her father, Edward M. Cooper, whom she says was “the best storyteller she ever heard, and the worse cook in the family” – which sounds like the beginnings of a story itself! You can check out one of Lyn’s stories here.

An image of a Black woman with grey, curly, chin-length hair. She is smiling widely. She wears a black and white patterned top with a red, black, and white scarf around her neck.

Author Lyn Ford.

Please make plans to join us on Thursday, April 22 at 12:00pm! You can find us on the dial at 100.1 FM, streaming live on Radio Bristol, or via the Radio Bristol app. The book is available at the Bristol Public Library so be sure to pick up a copy and read it ahead of time. The librarians will be happy to help you find the book. We look forward to sharing our thoughts on the stories and tales told by Ford, and we’ll also be talking to the author after our discussion so you can also get her perspective!

If you have any thoughts or questions about this book that you would like to share with our readers (and listeners!), you can email info@birthplaceofcountrymusic.org (subject line: Radio Bristol Book Club) – your insights might appear on air with us!

Looking ahead, we will be reading Trampoline by Robert Gipe for our May book club, airing on Thursday, May 27, 12:00pm. And you can see the full 2021 Radio Bristol Book Club list and listen to archived book clubs here.

Radio Bristol Book Club: Where the Dead Sit Talking

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

A beautifully written Native American coming-of-age story, Where the Dead Sit Talking follows 15-year-old Sequoyah’s journey through the foster care system in rural Oklahoma in the late 1980s. Scarred by years of trauma living with a mother struggling with drug addiction, Sequoyah keeps mostly to himself in his new foster home until he meets fellow house-mate Rosemary, a 17-year-old artist. The two connect over their shared Indigenous heritage and journey through the foster care system, but the uncertainty of their living situation and the trauma that has come from that presents itself as a major hurdle the two will have to face – together or on their own.

The book cover is red with a black graphic of an eagle in the Native art style at the top of the cover and the title in white beneath it. It has a sticker on it saying "National Book Award Finalist."

The cover of Where the Dead Sit Talking by Brandon Hobson bears a striking Indigenous art-inspired graphic.

Author Brandon Hobson is an assistant professor of Creative Writing at New Mexico State University and a teacher at the Institute of American Indian Arts. He has three other published novels – the most recent one, The Removed, has been lauded as “a striking new benchmark for fiction about Native Americans” by the LA Times. Where the Dead Sit Talking, published in 2018, was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction, winner of the In the Margins Book Award for Fiction, and an NPR Code Switch Best Book of the Year. Hobson is also an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation Tribe.

A man with dark brown hair and a short beard sits on the floor in front of a window. He is wearing glasses, a plaid/flannel shirt, and jeans. Beside his is an old typewriter on a table.
Author Brandon Hobson.

Please make plans to join us on Thursday, March 25 at 11:00am! You can find us on the dial at 100.1 FM, streaming live on Radio Bristol, or via the Radio Bristol app. The book is available at the Bristol Public Library so be sure to pick up a copy and read it ahead of time. The librarians will be happy to help you find the book. We look forward to sharing our thoughts on Hobson’s difficult and important story!

If you have thoughts or questions about this book that you would like to share with our readers (and listeners!), you can email info@birthplaceofcountrymusic.org (subject line: Radio Bristol Book Club) – and your insights might appear on air with us!

Looking ahead, we will be reading Affrilachian Tales: Folktales from the African-American Appalachian Tradition by Lyn Ford for our April book club, airing on Thursday, April 22, 11:00am. You can see the full 2021 Radio Bristol Book Club list here.

The Root of It: Brad Leftwich on John Dykes and the Magic City Trio

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

For our first installment of “The Root of It,” we spoke with legendary Oklahoma fiddler Brad Leftwich. Brad has long been considered the gold standard for old-time fiddling and banjo, learning directly from some of the masters who came before him like Tommy Jarrell, Melvin Wine and the Hammons Family, and more. Brad has been a performer and educator for over 40 years and continues to record projects with his group Brad Leftwich & the Humdingers; he has also crafted genre-defining teaching materials and continues to tour internationally. Brad shared with us his interest in the music of old-time pioneer John Dykes and the Magic City Trio, a celebrated local Tri-Cities band that recorded in the late 1920s.


Brad Leftwich performing at Wheatland. Courtesy of Brad Leftwich

Brad Leftwich:

I still remember when I met John Dykes. Well, I didn’t “meet” meet him, because he died a couple of decades before I was born, but from the moment I first heard his fiddling I felt like we had a connection that bridged space and time.

Linda and I were visiting our friends Gail Gillespie and Dwight Rogers. This was in the days before CDs and the internet, when it was actually difficult to get hold of recordings of old-time music; musicians who wanted more than the few Folkways and County LPs that were available resorted to swapping cassette tape copies of field recordings and old 78s. By the time they’d been recopied several times, the sound quality (usually not good to begin with) was pretty awful.


Dyke’s Magic City Trio, pictured left to right: John Dykes on fiddle, Myrtle Vermillion on autoharp, and Hubert Mahaffey on guitar. This legendary local group was named after Kingsport, Tennessee, which was coined the “Magic City” as it flourished as one of the key Appalachian “planned cities” built on industrialism in the early 1920s. Photo from rllane.com

While we were there, Gail put on a recently acquired cassette and asked with a sly smile, “Do you recognize this fiddler?” Linda and I had to admit it sounded like a distorted, muddy recording of me – or at least what I hoped to sound like. Except it couldn’t be me because I didn’t know the tune, and I certainly never recorded a 78. She made us a copy (maybe seventh or eighth generation at this point), and when we returned home I set about finding as many (and clearer) recordings of Dykes’s Magic City Trio as I could.


“Tennessee Girls,” recorded in 1927 by Dyke’s Magic City Trio, is often credited as one of the groups most influential recordings.

I originally learned to fiddle mostly from visiting Tommy Jarrell, but although his bowing structure formed the bones of my fiddling, I never really sounded like him (who does?). After several years on the road learning from many more fiddlers – from the Appalachians to Oklahoma to the Ozarks – I felt like I had taken the bits and pieces that appealed to me from those sources and built my own distinctive sound. But listening to John Dykes was different: I thought, “I know you!” Even now when I listen to him I feel not just that I understand every bow stroke, but that I would put together tunes in pretty much the same way. His fluid, driving sense of rhythm and the clarity of his sound are the ideals that I strive for, not only when I play his tunes, but in my fiddling in general.


“Dusty Miller” performed by Brad Leftwich & the Humdingers.

To me, John Dykes is among the greatest fiddlers I’ve heard, and certainly the Magic City Trio is one of my all-time favorite bands. I love to play with guitar players who can lay out a hypnotic, elegant bass line like Hub Mahaffee, and although Myrtle Vermillion’s autoharp merges with the guitar and thus is not clearly audible on the recordings, I like to think she is filling out and driving that band like Linda’s banjo uke does in ours. The Magic City Trio has been an inspiration and model for my band, the Humdingers, in both its old and new incarnations.

* To learn more about Brad Leftwich or to purchase his band’s latest record Rise and Bloom Again, visit www.bradandthehumdingers.net.


Images courtesy of Brad Leftwich

Radio Bristol Book Club: The Devil’s Dream

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

The Devil’s Dream explores Appalachian culture, traditions, and family ties through the multi-generational saga of the Bailey family. Preacher’s son Moses Bailey believes that the fiddle is the voice of the devil and tries to quash his wife Kate Malone’s deep love of music. But there are some things that may be too powerful to deny… Avoiding Appalachian stereotypes, Smith tells the story – loosely based on the Carter Family – through strong characters whose voices are as distinct and as spiritual as the high lonesome sound.

Three covers of The Devil's Dream showing a woman playing guitar with a man behind here (left), an atmospheric photograph of a cabin in the woods (center), and a foggy wood with red leaves on the ground and a guitar learning against a tree (right).

The various manifestations of the cover of Lee Smith’s novel The Devil’s Dream evoke the story the book tells in different ways over the years.

Lee Smith is a native of Grundy, Virginia. She has written many novels, including the New York Times bestseller The Last Girls, along with Fair and Tender Ladies, Guests on Earth, Saving Grace, and Blue Marlin. She is a recipient of the Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the North Carolina Award for Literature, and a Southern Book Critics Circle Award.

Photograph of a woman with short blonde hair, smilling and wearing a turquoise shirt and earrings.
Lee Smith’s author photograph, taken from her official website.

Please make plans to join us on Thursday, February 25 at 11:00am! You can find us on the dial at 100.1 FM, streaming live on Radio Bristol, or via the Radio Bristol app. The book is available at the Bristol Public Library so be sure to pick up a copy and read it ahead of time. The librarians will be happy to help you find the book. We look forward to sharing our thoughts on this book’s interesting story, told in the Appalachian voices of the people themselves. And if you have thoughts or questions about this book that you would like to share with our readers, you can email info@birthplaceofcountrymusic.org (Subject line: Radio Bristol Book Club) – and your book insights might appear on air with us!

Looking ahead: Our book pick for March is Where the Dead Sit Talking by Brandon Hobson; we’ll be discussing it on Thursday, March 25. Check out our full list of 2021 Radio Bristol Book Club picks here, where you can also listen to archived shows!

Radio Bristol Book Club – I Saw the Light: The Story of Hank Williams

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

Our book for January is I Saw the Light: The Story of Hank Williams by Colin Escott with George Merritt and William MacEwen. This book is the perfect accompaniment to our current special exhibit Honky Tonk: Portraits of Country Music, 1972—1981, featuring the photography of Henry Horenstein and a variety of related artifacts, including a Hank Williams guitar. In his tragically short time on Earth, Hank Williams created one of the defining bodies of American music – including “Your Cheating Heart,” “Hey, Good Lookin’,” and “Jambalaya.” He sold millions of records and was hugely influential on country music and beyond. However, while he made a success of his career in so many ways, his life was also characterized by personal demons and sadly an early death at the age of 29. Estcott’s definitive biography vividly details the singer’s life and career – from its highs to its lows – while unveiling much that was previously unknown or hidden about this iconic country star.

Left: Book cover of I Saw the Light showing Hank Williams, wearing a dark suit and white cowboy hat, coming down some house steps and holding a guitar case. Right: Movie poster for I Saw the Light showing Tom Hiddleston as Hank Williams, wearing a blue suit and white cowboy hat and standing in front of the Grand Ole Opry mic with his guitar.

The cover for Colin Escott’s I Saw the Light: The Story of Hank Williams. The book was later made into a film with Tom Hiddleston playing the title role.

Born in England, Colin Escott has written numerous music-related books, including Good Rockin’ Tonight: Sun Records and the Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Lost Highway: The True Story of Country Music, and The Grand Ole Opry: The Making of an American Icon (some of which we might be reading as future Radio Bristol Book Club picks!). His CD box set, The Complete Hank Williams, won two Grammy Awards in 1999 for “Best Historical Album” and “Best Recording Package—Boxed.” In 2010, Escott received a Tony nomination for Million Dollar Quartet, a Broadway musical about the one-night jam session between Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis in December 1956.

Black-and-white photograph of Colin Escott, an older white man wearing a dark shirt/jacket and in front of what appears to be a neon sign.
Portrait of author Colin Escott.

Be sure to tune in on Thursday, January 28 at 11:00am to hear the book club discussion about I Saw the Light: The Story of Hank Williams! You can find us on the dial at 100.1 FM, streaming live on Radio Bristol, or via the Radio Bristol app. And be sure to pick up a copy and read it ahead of time. We look forward to sharing our thoughts on this wonderful biography of a troubled and iconic musician.

Looking ahead: We have picked all of the books for 2021 – and are looking forward to a wide range of titles and topics from Dolly Parton’s songwriting and Affrilachian folktales to a Carter Family graphic novel and an illustrated fiction book about Appalachian economic and social challenges. You can find the full list of our 2021 reads here – so be sure to check it out, read along with us, and then tune in to our discussion on-air! And if you have any questions about the books you’d like us to address on-air, email us at info@birthplaceofcountrymusic.org with the subject line “Radio Bristol Book Club.” Happy reading!

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.

“Enjoy the Pluck:” The Farm and Fun Time Heirloom Recipe with Michael Henningsen

Radio Bristol’s Farm and Fun Time is the flagship show of Radio Bristol’s programming, and it continues to grow in popularity as we begin reaching a broader audience through the magic of television! Music is just one part of the cultural celebration that is Farm and Fun Time. Each show also includes various segments focused on our region’s culture and traditions. The “Heirloom Recipe” segment has become a fan favorite.

The segment highlights the significant role food plays in our region’s culture. Just as one ingredient can be used to make many dishes, a recipe can mean many different things to different folks. Each recipe presenter, ranging from park rangers to professional chefs to authors, brings a distinct recipe with a meaningful history behind it. To round out the segment, Bill and the Belles performs an original jingle written to commemorate each recipe and the story presented.

Cooking and passing down recipes is a big part of Appalachian culture, and the stories that go along with them often become part of our family – and wider – lore. Our recent contributor Michael Henningsen presented on the wonders of the polarizing Scottish staple known as “the common man’s meatloaf” – haggis! We spoke with Michael about the history of this famed (and sometimes shamed) dish.

A bearded Michael Henningsen standing behind a bar, holding a bottle of wine. He is wearing period clothing including a straw hat with a black ribbon, a jacket and plaid vest and a neckerchief.
Michael Henningsen in character as Scottish poet Robert Burns.

“During the early settlement of the Appalachians, the local tavern, or ‘ordinary,’ was the center of music and dance. The Scots who settled here brought with them their music, instruments, dance, ideas, and ethics. Two characters who were prominent in influencing the culture of the area were Robert Burns – the national poet of Scotland – and Niel Gow, the famous Scottish fiddler. Their fame grew in Scotland during the American Revolution, and they at times performed together, often complementing each other’s work. Burns’ loyalty to the English crown was frequently called into question as much of his work seemed to promote the American cause, even scribing an ‘Ode to George Washington’ and his ‘Ballad of the American War.’ Although Burns and Gow never played the colonies, it was in the taverns where Burns’ verse would be recited by local poetry societies and Gow’s jigs and reels would keep feet dancing until the wee hours of the morning. It is believed that the American square dance can even be traced back to taverns in Southwest Virginia, who engaged full-time dance instructors to teach the young ladies and gentlemen all the popular dances of the day – Appalachian style!

Henningsen piercing a haggis with a long knife/short sword while it sits on a wooden sideboard.
Henningsen taking a stab at cooking haggis.

In the ‘ordinary,’ a weary traveler could find good company, lively music, a warm bed – although you may be sharing that bed with a stranger – and you could find ‘ordinary’ food like ‘peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old.’ For the Scots, extra-ordinary food would have to wait for special occasions, and one such dish was what Burns dubbed the ‘chieftain of the puddin’ race’ – the haggis! Haggis is a stout sausage made of lamb and roasted grains, particularly known for including the ‘pluck’ of the lamb – the liver, kidneys, heart, and lungs boiled in the stomach as a casing. Haggis was considered farm food, only fit for peasants, until Robert Burns immortalized the haggis in his poem, ‘Address to the Haggis.’ Often referred to as the ‘Heaven-taught Ploughman,’ Burns fancied himself a farmer, and much of his work brought honor to the common man and common struggles, helping usher in the ‘romantic’ era of the arts. Today, Robert Burns is honored annually at Burns suppers around the world, featuring the music, song, dance, and culture of the Scots. Central to the evening’s festivities is the grand entrance, address to, toasting to, carving of, and dining on the chieftain of the puddin’ race … the Haggis!”

Address to a Haggis poem and its translation.

Michael Henningsen is Executive Director of Corps Values Music Heritage (CVMH), a local non-profit organization dedicated to “bringing history to life through music.” They offer History Alive! Tours as an educational service that tells the stories of Southwest Virginia through the eyes of folks who lived here and influenced our culture – particularly the Scots, whose music and dance are at the heart of so much of Appalachian culture.

Do you enjoy a hearty helping of haggis from time to time? Watch the full “Heirloom Recipe” segment below including an original haggis jingle “Enjoy the Pluck” performed by Bill and the Belles! For more heirloom recipes watch Farm and Fun Time weekly on Blueridge PBS, East TN PBS and WUNC TV.