In the Technicolor rearview mirror of my childhood, Bristol circa 1970s, I fondly recall shopping downtown on State Street almost exclusively. There was Christy’s Shoes where I’d pine for the shiny black patent leather Mary Janes with ribbons, begging my mother to buy them. “Not today,” she’d say, “you need shoes for school.” She’d select a sensible pair and then I’d be fitted by an actual salesperson who would measure my feet with a Brannock Device before disappearing into the back of the store to find my size. Upon return, a shoehorn was used to gently glide the deeply scorned option over my heels – and I’d inwardly swear that when I grew up, I’d own every pair of shiny shoes in that store.
Sometimes we’d go to Ball Brothers Furniture where a friendly salesman would hand you a small glass bottle of Coca-Cola when you walked in the door. In retrospect it seems risky to hand a kid a pop in a showroom filled with gorgeous furniture, but on a hot day I’d gulp down the whole thing before taking more than two steps. The belching that ensued would embarrass my mother and leave my little brother and I in a heaping pile of giggles that generally followed us throughout the store.
After shopping, we’d usually end up getting hot dogs and root beer floats at Bunting’s Drug Store or stop by the lunch counter at…was it H. P. King’s? The place had banquettes, turquoise counter tops, and black silhouettes of people hung high up on the walls. It’s all a little hazy now, but I do know that – at some point – it all ended. Seemingly overnight, we just stopped going downtown.
By the 1980s, mall culture had swept the nation – as did crispy hairstyles. Some say it was the lowest point in fashion history, yet the rise of the “mall claw” wasn’t our nation’s greatest tragedy. The real casualty was Downtown, USA. As the trend toward shopping malls, big box stores, and retail chains became more valued than mom-and-pop businesses, downtowns everywhere literally crumbled before our eyes. The emergence of Reaganomics, BMWs, and giant shoulder pads ushered in yuppies with new money that seemingly held little regard for anything of historic value. Behemoth shopping malls became the air-conditioned havens of leisure for shoppers and loiterers alike – and the place for teenagers to ward off boredom. I would spend many a weekend sipping Orange Julius, noshing Italian Village pizza, and playing Pac Man at The Gold Mine in The Bristol Mall – and not one salesperson ever fitted my shoes again.
I wasn’t properly reintroduced to downtown until my 20s. Back then State Street mainly consisted of abandoned buildings, antique stores, the newly renovated Paramount Center for the Arts, the library, and a cute little eatery called K. P. Duty. Then there was a teeny little dive bar on 7th Street that offered live music.
Let me preface to say I’m the daughter of a musician, so it was only natural that I would gravitate toward our local music scene. Many thanks to Fred Bartlett for opening The Offshore Café and for being among the first to invest in live music downtown. With a wide range of local and regional talent playing across genres, The Offshore opened up a whole new world to me and many others. I saw a ton of great bands in that tiny little place: Brian & The Nightmares, Punchin’ Judy, Trailer Park Picassos, the Wandering Zulu Brothers, Thin Line, Janie Gray, Würm, Redstone, H. B. Beverly, Blue Mother Tupelo, Lightnin’ Charlie, The Goody’s – the list is long and distinguished. By the time I was performing there in my own band, The Offshore had changed hands several times but still offered a variety of live music.
Fast-forward several years and I was working at WCYB TV, the NBC/Fox/CW affiliate in Bristol. One of my jobs was producing promotional spots for nonprofits as part of the station’s public service. During that time, I worked a variety of regional events and with several nonprofits including the former Birthplace of Country Music Alliance and the Paramount. This is what led me to Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion in 2002. The cities of Bristol turned over organization of the event after the first two festivals; I soon became a board member and continued to volunteer until the opportunity to become an employee presented itself in 2010.
To this day I credit the explosive growth of Bristol’s musical awakening to the people I met on the board of Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion and to the folks from the former Birthplace of Country Music Alliance. Though separate at the time, they started that train steamrolling down the track, and I am so grateful to them for their vision and for preserving Bristol’s music history.
Coincidentally, both cities of Bristol were working to increase investment interest and foot traffic downtown. We were fortunate to have members from both city councils on the festival board, and the vision they had for downtown has truly come to fruition.
Then there is Believe in Bristol, our small Main Street organization that works to improve downtown in other ways. They bring groups and businesses together, help with beautification projects, and continue to help make Bristol an even better place to live. Together, we have become a force. It truly takes a village, people!
Today, the Birthplace of Country Music (the “Alliance” was dropped during the 2012 merger with Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion) is the parent organization for the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion, and Radio Bristol. Visitors from all over the world have been to visit our festival and our museum, and those who have yet to visit can listen to the music of our region via our radio station online and on its app. This has been made possible because of the love and support of this community. I am blessed to have been a tiny cog in the wheel of this fine, music-making machine.
Today I am really proud to take my daughter Callie downtown for nearly every event imaginable. We do the Caterpillar Crawl, Pumpkin Palooza, Border Bash, the Downtown Open House, and Full Moon Jams. She loves Mountain Empire Comics and Top Hat Magic the most, takes the occasional art class at A Work of Art Gallery, and has been enrolled at Bristol Ballet since she was three years old.
We could have breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert at any number of fancy or casual places on and around State Street and still have the occasional hot dog and root beer float if we want. And yes, there’s shoe shopping downtown, and yes, Callie gets the shiny ones!
Bristol is proof that great things happen when we work together. Bristol, though crossing the boundary of two states, truly shares one state of mind.
Charlene Tipton Baker is a Marketing Specialist at the Birthplace of Country Music.