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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.

Radio Bristol Book Club: Mama, Me, & the Holiday Tree

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

Our book for December is Mama, Me, & the Holiday Tree. Fantasy fiction set in Washington and Unicoi Counties in Tennessee on Embreeville Mountain, this 2018 book is simultaneously down-home, imaginative, and groundbreaking for its placement of fey creatures in East Tennessee. By local author Jeanne G’Fellers, Mama, Me, & the Holiday Tree speaks to the ways our family members influence our lives at different ages and in various states of grace and imperfection – and ultimately how family can sometimes find common ground despite differences. Set during the Christmas season, G’Fellers story also highlights how holidays mark our lives.

The cover of the book is a close up on a wooden tabletop where a mug of tea/coffee, a candle, holiday dcor, and some capsule pills sit.
The cover for Mama, Me, & the Holiday Tree, published by Mountain Gap Books.

Jeanne G’Fellers is a Washington County, Tennessee-based author. She’s authored ten published books, including Surrogate (2017), Cleaning House (2018), and Striking Balance (2020), along with editing or contributing to three others. She is also a mixed media artist. Her efforts in literature and arts support her as she copes with the disabilities that partially govern her life. You can visit for more information about her work.

The artists collage consists of 7 different sections ranging from butterflies, a portrait, leaves, abstract designs, and different words and fonts.
Mixed-media collage by Jeanne G’Fellers.

Be sure to tune in on Thursday, December 17 at 11:00am – a week earlier than normal due to Christmas the following week – to hear the book club discussion about Mama, Me, and the Holiday Tree! 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 Appalachian fantasy journey!

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. Our first pick of the new year – I Saw the Light: The Story of Hank Williams by Colin Escott – will be discussed on Thursday, January 28 at 11:00am. Happy reading!

Radio Bristol Book Club: Woman Walk the Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick 5: The 1928 Bristol Sessions

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

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

“Angeline the Baker,” Uncle Eck Dunford

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

“Unknown Blues,” Tarter and Gay

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

“Goodnight Darling,” Clarence Greene

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

”I’ll Be Happy,” The Stamps Quartet

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

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

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

Radio Bristol Book Club: Hiding Ezra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hard Times, Silver Linings and Farm and Fun Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Radio Bristol Book Club: Meeting Jimmie Rodgers

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

September 8 is Jimmie Rodgers’ birthday, which influenced our book pick this month: Meeting Jimmie Rodgers: How America’s Original Roots Music Hero Changed the Pop Sounds of the Century by Barry Mazor. This fascinating book explores the deep legacy of Rodgers, tracing the path of his career and examining the succcess of his music and how it manifested in his various performance personas – for example as “The Singing Brakeman” and “The Blue Yodeler,” the working musical cowboy and the suave ladies’ man. From his first recordings at the 1927 Bristol Sessions to his rapid and assured rise to stardom, Rodgers brought emotional clarity and a unique sense of narrative drama to every song he performed. His wistful singing, falsetto yodels, bold flat-picking guitar style, and sometimes censorable themes – sex, crime, and other edgy topics – set him apart from most of his contemporaries and made him one of the most influential musicians in country music, and beyond.

The cover of Mazor's book has a photograph of Jimmie Rodgers holding his guitar and wearing a stetson-style hat, along with the book title.
The cover of Barry Mazor’s Meeting Jimmie Rodgers.

Barry Mazor is a longtime music, media, and business journalist. He has been writing about country and roots music for the Wall Street Journal  since 2003 and is the host of the “Roots Now” music and artist interview show on Acme Radio Live out of Nashville, which streams weekly. He is the author of Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music and Connie Smith: Just for What I Am, and the former senior editor and columnist for No Depression magazine. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including American Songwriter, the Nashville Scene, the Village Voice, and the Washington Post. Both Meeting Jimmie Rodgers and Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music won Belmont University’s annual “Best Book on Country Music” award.

Barry Mazor stands at a podium in a darkened theater with a screen behind him that shows several pictures of different country music musicians and stars.
Barry Mazor spoke at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in 2017 to mark the 90th anniversary of the 1927 Bristol Sessions.
© Birthplace of Country Music

Be sure to tune in on Thursday, September 24 at 11:00am to hear the book club discussion about Meeting Jimmie Rodgers! You can find us on the dial at 100.1 FM, streaming live on Radio Bristol, or via the Radio Bristol app. And be sure to pick up a copy and read it ahead of time. We look forward to sharing our thoughts on this wonderful musical journey!

Looking ahead: Our book pick for October is Hiding Ezra by Rita Sims Quillen, which we’ll be discussing on Thursday, October 22. Happy reading!

Radio Bristol Book Club: The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap

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

The subtitle of Wendy Welch’s The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap almost says it all: A Memoir of Friendship, Community, and the Uncommon Pleasure of a Good Book. What it leaves out is the struggle that it takes to become part of an insular community, suspicious of outsiders, in the Appalachian Mountains during an economic downturn. It also leaves out the joy and terror of following a dream. While they didn’t expect to be welcomed with open arms, Wendy and husband Jack Beck were a bit taken aback by the number of times people summed up their venture with the statement “You’re nuts.” Making connections with an interesting assortment of characters, Wendy and Jack strive not only to succeed as booksellers but to become a resource, refuge, and perhaps most amazingly, an animal rescue. How they succeed makes for wonderful and inspiring reading.

Left: The cover of The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap has a black-and-white drawing of the bookstore with the title and author's name on it. Right: The large white house, which served as the book store, has shelves of books on the porch and a toilet sitting in the front yard!

The cover of Wendy Welch’s The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, along with a photograph of the actual bookstore from the Bristol Herald Courier.

Wendy Welch has a degree in Ethnography, a Scottish husband, and an assortment of animals, all of whom figure in this delightful and thoughtful memoir. In addition to The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, Wendy is the author of Fall or Fly: The Strangely Hopeful Story of Foster Care and Adoption in Appalachia and Bad Boy in the Book Store (ebook), and the editor of From the Front Lines of the Appalachian Addiction Crisis and Public Health in Appalachia.

Jack Beck (white-haired with a beard, wearing a black t-shirt and jeans) and Wendy Welch (brown-haired and wearing a black top with a colorful print skirt or dress) stand with their arms around each other in front of floor to ceiling shelves of books.

Wendy Welch with her husband Jack Beck in their Big Stone Gap bookstore. Image from Shelf Awareness

Be sure to tune in on Thursday, August 27 at 11:00am to hear the book club discussion about The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap! 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 delightful story!

Looking ahead: Our book pick for September is Meeting Jimmie Rodgers: How America’s Original Roots Music Hero Changed the Pop Sounds of the Century by Barry Mazor, which we’ll be discussing on Thursday, September 24. Happy reading!

Off the Record: The Hobo’s Convention

Our Radio Bristol DJs are a diverse bunch – and they like a huge variety of musical genres and artists. In our “Off the Record” posts, we ask one of them to tell us all about a song, record or artist they love. Today we hear from Brody Hunt, host of Land of the Sky, as he tells us some tales about hoboes and their songs.

One of the public’s most enduring fascinations with the American hobo tramp is their fabled system of mysterious and secretive signs or codes. The concept of carved or chalked hobo hieroglyphics left by a Knight of the Road for his fellow Brethren of Bumdom, warning of a lousy calaboose (that is, a local jail) or showing where to find a kind woman for a handout, just won’t fade. Newspapers of the classic hobo era printed countless articles about hobo signs, seemingly a surefire way to sell a sheet. Tramps themselves were at times interviewed and enticed to divulge these secret signs for publication, doubtless in trade for a solid feed or a pint of gin. In one instance, the local town clowns themselves even made use of hobo signs in an attempt to detour a convention of ‘boes around their city.

Newspaper article reporting the story of how Cincinnati cops painted hobo signs around town in order to give hobos the impression that it wasn't a good place to stop.

A 1912 article in the St. Louis Star and Times records how the Cincinnati police painted hobo signs as a way to deter hoboes from coming into the city.

But are there solid facts that confirm the widespread use of hobo signs? The Historic Graffiti Society has recently published their remarkably well researched Hobo Signs Zine, and an excerpt of their conclusion reads:            

In our opinion, hobo signs were not the secret language of hoboes. While they definitely found a place in popular culture, mainly thanks to newspapers throughout the decades, there is little to no concrete evidence to prove their existence. It is possible that a very simple set of signs (good, bad, safe, dangerous) were used by a small minority of the traveling population, but nothing that ever took hold or was widespread. The real language of the hoboes was, and is still to this day, word of mouth. Information including what towns were hostile and where a hobo could find work traveled up and down the railroad lines without the need for signs and symbols… In our travels we have documented over 1,000 individual pieces of hobo graffiti. These marks generally contain the hobo’s moniker (assumed name), the date the mark was made, and the direction of travel. For how many instances of hobo moniker marks we’ve found and documented, we have never come across a single hobo sign. Perhaps the Oregon Daily Journal said it best in 1907, stating that the only secret sign is “Help Wanted” and that “It is so baffling that the average tramp never tries to fathom its depth.”

Newspaper cartoon showing various hobos encountering good times and positive experiences in Pittsburgh, even with the police. The headline reads "Hobo Accepts Pittsburgh as 'Good Stopping Place.'"

Newspaper cartoon from the Pittsburg Press, 1927.

While the myth of hobo signs will undoubtedly persist as long at the hobo retains even the smallest nook in the American psyche, the use of nom-de-rails by those who work and inhabit the rails also endures. Freight cars today are often covered in spray paint graffiti, but a closer look will quickly reveal the grease-paint monikers of railroad workers and train riders alike. Even if they don’t mark a substantial number of rail cars or other trackside canvases, nearly everyone who spends more than a year or two bumming on the rails eventually ends up with a moniker, often with a distinctive character or symbol. In the summer of 1921, Portland, Oregon was the scene of a hobo convention resulting in a moniker song that has left a small impression on hobo balladry. Titled “The Hobo Convention at Portland,” the song is included in George Milburn’s 1930 volume of tramp prose, The Hobo’s Hornbook. His introduction to the piece is seen below, followed by the printed lyrics.

Text reads: The Hobo Convention at Portland
This, very likely, is the most recent hobo convention song. The gathering described took place in the summer of 1921, and came off successfully without any assistance from the Portland, Oregon, Chamber of Commerce. A delegate named George Liebst has been credited with the present song, but it follows closely earlier convention anthems, and its purpose, that of introducing monikas, is the same.
You have heard of big conventions, 
And there’s some that can’t be beat,
But get this straight, there’s none so great 
As when the hoboes meet.
To Portland, Oregon, that year 
They came from near and far; 
On tops and blinds where cinders whined 
And hanging to the drawbar.
Three hundred came from New York State, 
Some came from Eagle Pass; 
That afternoon, the third of June, 
They gathered there en masse.
From Lone Star State came Texas Slim 
And Jack the Katydid. 
With Lonesome Lou from Kal-mazoo 
Came San Diego Kid.
And Denver Dan and Boston Red 
Blew in with Hellfire Jack, 
Andy Lang from longshore gang, 
Big Mack from Mackinac.
I saw some ‘boes I never met; 
A ‘bo called New York Spike, 
Con the Sneak from Battle Creek 
And Mississippi Ike
Old Joisey Bill, dressed like a dude, 
Shook hands with Frisco Fred, 
And Half-breed Joe from Mexico 
Shot craps with Eastport Ed.
St. Looie Jim and Pittsburg Paul 
Fixed up a jungle stew 
While Slip’ry Slim and Bashful Tim 
Creaked gumps for our menu.
Then Jockey Kid spilled out a song 
Along with Desp’rate Sam; 
And Paul the Shark from Terror’s Park 
Clog-danced with Alabam.
We gathered ‘round the jungle fire, 
The night was passing fast; 
We’d all done time for every crime, 
And talk was of the past.
All night we flopped around the fire 
Until the morning sun; 
Then from the town the cops came down,
We beat it on the run.
We scattered to the railroad yards 
And left the bulls behind; 
Some hit the freights for other states 
And many rode the blind.
Well, here I am in Denver town, 
A hungry, tired-out ‘bo; 
The flier’s due, when she pulls through, 
I’ll grab her and I’ll blow.
That’s her—she’s whistling for the block— 
I’ll make her on the fly’; 
It’s number nine—Santa Fe line. 
I’m off again—Goodbye! 

The Oregon Daily Journal announced in a headline “Railway Police Declare War on Brakebeam Rider” the following September. It seems doubtful this was a result of the Portland convention. The cinder dicks, or railway police, were and will always be unsuccessful with their goal of the “Elimination of Every Weary Willie.”

Two songs titled “The Hobo’s Convention” were recorded onto 78rpm discs in the 1930s. One with lyrics nearly identical to those in Milburn’s book was recorded by Goebel Reeves for C. P. MacGregor in Hollywood, California, in either 1938 or 1939. This disc, with hand-stamped catalog number and handwritten artist and song credits, was not meant for commercial consumer release, but intended for radio broadcasts. Reeves, or “The Texas Drifter” as he was sometimes known, was indeed a Texan from the burg of Sherman. By the time he cut the MacGregor disc, Reeves had already been traveling the country since 1929 as a hillbilly radio entertainer and recording artist. Wounded in action in World War I, Reeves took up tramp life upon his return to the States and may well have learned the song on the road, or even been at the Portland Convention himself. At any rate, it is a pleasure to have a hard-boiled ex-hobo on record singing the piece. You may listen to his record here:

Left: Close up of record label for C. P. MacGregor with The Hobo's Convention, The Texas Drifter handwritten on it. Right: Portrait of Goebel Reeves -- he has his back turned and is looking over his shoulder at the camera. He wears a dark jacket, black hat, and holds a guitar.

Record label for “The Hobo’s Convention” by Goebel Reeves, known as the Texas Drifter, and a photographic portrait of the musician. Record label image from the author’s collection; portrait from the collection of Tony Russell

An earlier recording of “The Hobo’s Convention” is more elusive, but there is a version that was waxed in 1932 by Boyden Carpenter, known as “The Hillbilly Kid,” who was raised around Cherry Lane, North Carolina. It was possibly similar to the above, or at least some form of moniker song. Although it’s unclear if he ever flipped a freight, Carpenter certainly had an adventurous spirit and a strong taste of beating his way across the country as he attempted to start a career in radio during the onset of the Great Depression.

In Carpenter’s own words he describes leaving the mountains bound for the broadcast powerhouses of Chicago:

Well, Folks, it was back in 1930 that I decided to leave Alleghany County and get on the radio. Most of the programs coming in on the old battery set down at John Miles’ store was comin’ from Chicago, so that’s where I headed for. Now I didn’t have but a few dollars, but I’d been savin’ my nickles and dimes, in case I’d need a little money on my trip, but I didn’t have enough money for a ticket to Chicago. I got my ma to fix me up a few pones of bread, a rasher of meat, and some Irish potatoes, and I struck out for the big city on foot. I never will forget the way the fellers laughed at me as I passed down there at Miles’ store. They all said “There he goes, he ain’t got no sense, why they’ll have him in the asylum before he gits out of Alleghany County. That boy will never amount to a hill of beans out runnin’ around over the country, why he’d better stay around here and work on a farm.” Why I just paid no ‘tention to them fellers and kept on my way. Now, it wasn’t long before my rations that I left home with played out, so I had to find little odd chores, such as cutting wood and things like that for a meal here and there. You know I didn’t want to beg for a handout, and be a regular bum, I wanted to make my way… Yeah on that trip to Chicago I slept in straw stacks, hay lofts, depots and a little of everywhere. Well, rides was mighty scarce on that trip, and I don’t blame them folks for passin’ me by so much ‘cause I wasn’t such a good lookin’ prospect fer company. So, as much as I had to walk, it tuk me right at thirty days to get to Chicago.

Photograph showing man in check shirt with dark pants, one foot up on a chair and holding a guitar. He has a harmonica around his neck. Written on the photograph is "Hillbilly Kid / 705.AM 1340, / WAIR

Promotional photograph of Boyden Carpenter, also known as “The Hillbilly Kid.”  From the collection of Marshall Wyatt

After three days of finding no interest in “what I had brought with me from Allegheny County,” Carpenter started walking back home. On this return trip, he eventually landed his first radio job on WCKY in Covington, Kentucky. In his “drifting days,” he would go on to work the airwaves of WHAS, Louisville; WKRC, Cincinnati; WFBM, Indianapolis; WJJD, Chicago; WIOD, Miami; WDBO, Orlando; WJAX, Jacksonville; WMBR, Jacksonville; and WFBC Greenville. He then broadcast for Crazy Water Crystals on WGST and WSB, Atlanta; WMAZ, Macon; WBT, Charlotte; and WPTF, Raleigh, before moving on to WAIR, Winston-Salem.

Boyden Carpenter twice recorded for Gennett Records at their Richmond, Indiana studios. On the first trip, he accompanied the blind North Carolina street singer Ernest Thompson on the hitchhiking journey up north, and both men recorded on January 22, 1930. (This date is seemingly at odds with Carpenter’s account of first leaving home on the bum alone in 1930. More realistically, his first trip out of the mountains was actually in 1929.) The two sides that Carpenter waxed were rejected, but he returned to Richmond and recorded two more sides, including “The Hobo’s Convention,” on September 13, 1932. By this time Gennett was in a state of economic collapse, with individual record sales at times below 100 copies. The coupling of “The Hobo’s Convention” with “The Old Grey Goose Is Dead” was given a catalog number on Champion, a Gennett stencil label. Shipping figures are not available for Champion 16519, and no copies of the 78 are known to exist.

* Special thanks to the Historic Graffiti Society, Jonathan Ward, and the research of John Edwards, Charles Wolfe, Tony Russell, Bob Carlin, and Marshall Wyatt, all integral to the content of this “Off the Record” post. The Historic Graffiti Society’s Hobo Signs Zine may be found here.