Bound For Bristol: It Must Be September Again

From a small glass enclosure on the second floor of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, WBCM Radio Bristol is like the little radio station that could.

It may not have the range of Memphis' WDIA that is the subject of Rosanne Cash’s “50,000 Watts” but in this day and age, it may not matter. WBCM Radio is everywhere, at the click of a button and in the palm of your hand. This is Radio Bristol coming to you on the internet and satellite. The only thing that’s missing is the static of a drifting radio signal from hundreds of miles away as someone turns a dial late into the night.

This week people make their annual pilgrimage to the Bristol rhythm & Roots Reunion as they have had for close to two decades. Last year the festival drew over 60,000 visitors to the famed city where, as Johnny Cash once said, the “big bang” of country music occurred. It was the year 1927 when the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, and others recorded over sixty songs known as the Bristol Sessions.

Per festival tradition, the streets of downtown Bristol will be closed and if the droves walking by the Birthplace of Country Music Museum are looking down at their phones while walking, it’s likely because they will be playing with their apps--whether the new WBCM Radio or the Bristol Rhythm & Roots mobile apps. If everyone once gathered around the family radio to listen to their favorite programs, we now live on our phones. And if you can’t be in Bristol, portions of the festival will be streamed live.

Festival headliner Steve Earle is bound for Bristol. So are Ray Wylie Hubbard, Lindi Ortega and dozens of others are scheduled to play, along with Dale Jett, the grandson of Maybelle Carter. Jim Lauderdale has a Sunday engagement on live radio with a WBCM concert featuring the Hello Strangers.  

Last August the streets of downtown Bristol were closed for a special event. Lauderdale helped commemorate the opening of the beautiful Birthplace of Country Music Museum at a concert with Carlene Carter, the daughter of June Carter Cash and granddaughter of Maybelle Carter. On State Street and just around Carter Family Way, there is a mural commemorating the historic events of 1927. The images of Maybelle and Alvin Pleasant Delaney Carter, along with his wife Sara Carter, are permanently entrenched on brick along with Jimmie Rodgers.

“A.P.”, who was from nearby Maces Spring, used to go into the mountains and seek out Appalachian hymns and folk songs. He convinced Maybelle to go with him and Sara into Bristol one July day in 1927 when the Victor Talking Machine Company brought a field unit to Bristol to record musicians from the area. Over the days, sacred songs, fiddles tunes, string bands and harmonica solos were recorded and the world hasn’t been the same since.

The site of the former building where the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers and others gathered over 13 days in July and August, is in Tennessee but as I cross State Street to the site of the museum, I am now in Virginia. Imagine if you will your town’s main street being a state line and you could literally have each foot in a different state. The first time I was here in March 2014, I saw the museum under construction, stepping on to the floors of the same wood that is used in the production of Gibson guitars. I am back a year later and the finished product is magnificent and breathtaking, open and spacious in all 24,000 square feet commemorating the historic events and enduring legacy of that year. And it’s a must see experience for those attending the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Festival.

The Sound of Bristol That Follows You 

There’s something about the museum in which sound follows you in the wide open space. The voices of the music of the time literally follow you as hidden speakers are embedded in every nook and cranny, whether the signature sculpture that climbs up to the glass ceiling in the lobby, the displays embedded in the walls or under the seats in the upstairs chapel. You can’t help but turn a corner to hear the traces of and subtle nuances of Appalachian songs.

On the stairs leading to the second floor, I pass a quilt designed by the Virginia/Tennessee Embroidered Guild of America that commemorates all of the musicians who participated in the 1927 sessions.

I soon come upon a theater designed as a train depot. The doors automatically close every 18 minutes for the continuous screening of “Bound To Bristol” narrated by John Carter Cash is the son of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash and grandson of Maybelle Carter. Suddenly I am transported back in time to a world when consumers were just starting to learn about recorded sound and the opportunity to purchase something called phonographs.  Technologically, sound became portable and it became possible to record remotely.

Victor’s Ralph Peer came here with his wife, an electronic microphone and two engineers. Earnest Stoneham gathered his gospel group sang through a horn. Jimmie Rodgers recorded by himself and with the Tennessee Ramblers, music that was part country and part blues. Cash talks about how the mournful tunes and ballads of the region spoke to all of us. To this day, Cash says, the Bristol Sessions inform, instruct and inspire generations. “This sound is our sound. It is still bound to Bristol.”

Although the sound may be the same, certainly technology has changed. The museum is built on interactivity and is less about storing artifacts. Part of this is because of storage and space limitations. But the premise of the museum is around the experience and a public that uses iPads as part of our daily lives.  The touch technology allows you to listen to the songs and immerse yourself in a day to day chronology of the thirteen days that year. There’s a listening stage where you can mix the music made in 1927 and see if you can make it sound better. In a sing along station that children might call a karaoke booth, you can sing along to the Carter Family. 

 “I think museums have for some time been moving in the direction of using technology and interaction within their exhibits,” Jessica Turner, Museum Director and Head Curator. told me. “Our museum relies on that because we’re telling the story of a piece of history through music and first-hand accounts more than through the use of artifacts from the Bristol Sessions that no longer exist.  Making the narrative more important than the artifacts was a conscious decision by our curatorial team.”

Scholars and Strollers

The museum staff calls visitors scholars and strollers. Due to time constraints I was more of a stroller although I did take in the New Harmonies: Celebrating American Roots Music exhibit and I’m already planning my next visit. Jim Lauderdale spent a lot of time exploring the museum all week around the opening concert. When I ran into him a few days later at Ashland Coffee and Tea outside of Richmond, he was wearing his brand new black museum t-shirt.

Researchers on the Ken Burns project from Florentine Films visited the museum during a research trip to the area where they also visited the Carter Fold and the Archives of Appalachia at East Tennessee State University.  The BCMM provided a number of its resources, and Turner believes they will help shape the portion of the film devoted to early history and radio.  The ten-part PBS series is expected to be released in 2019.

“Radio plays a big role in the story of country music development,” she adds, “so I think the history of stations like WSM and Bristol’s WOPI and WCYB (home of the variety show Farm and Fun Time) will factor into the documentary in a major way.”  

The museum connects past and present and Turner hopes festival goers will step back into history by making a stop at the museum. Equally important is that the Smithsoian-affiliated museum is a destination for learning. “My hope is that we continue to grow as a resource for education, research, and feature exhibitions,” she said.  "It’s very important to me that we are a destination for visitors and scholars, and that our work continues at the highest level of research and scholarly integrity.  That has to balance with the goal of bringing in visitors, but I think operating at that level will help us leverage the kind of media coverage we need to bring in large numbers of visitors."

In all of its splendor and modern technology, there’s something ghostly about the museum. Just a few months ago past met present in the release of a two-CD set called Orthophonic Joy which recreates the songs of the original Bristol Sessions. The all-star cast includes performances by Dolly Parton, Ashley Monroe, Vince Gill, Marty Stuart and others. In a time when much of what passes for country music seems fraudulent and co-opted, “Orthophonic Joy” makes a collective statement about the genre’s enduring legacy, one that needs to be celebrated and perpetuated if it is to live on in future generations.  

The project was funded by the Virginia and Tennessee tourism boards and is produced by Carl Jackson, who previously produced the Grammy winning album of the spoken words of Mark Twain. What makes Orthophonic Joy not just another tribute record is the narration of Grand Ole Opry host Eddie Stubbs who walks you through the history of the time and place as you hear the original songs realized again a full century later.

"Will The Circle Remain?

Orthophonic Joy and the opening of the museum come at a time when roots music is undergoing a renaissance. The current exhibit at the museum “New Harmonies: Celebrating American Roots Music” is testament to the interest.

But the highlight of my visit is standing in the Immersion Circle watching film that is a montage of screens connecting generations of musicians singing the signature song of the great Carter Family spiritual, “Will The Circle Be Unbroken.” The narrative moves from musician to musician and screen to screen in a seamless way that underscores the common thread. There’s no seats in here and standing around with others is itself an emotional community experience.  To hear the refrain repeated time and time again, while artists young and old like Ernest Tubb, Ray Benson of Asleep at The Wheel, Bonnie Raitt, Mavis Staples and Lynyrd Skynyrd talk about its significance, is unsuspectingly moving. The common denominator is that every musician featured was brought up learning the song--and it too is the one that everyone in the audience seems to know.

As I was leaving the Immersion Circle, I came upon the sign that says “Join The Story Wall.” I also saw ahead of me a question that was raised during the film. In it John Carter Cash says that while the question Will the Circle Be Unbroken? is asked, the more important question is “Will The Circle Remain?”

Coming out of the theater and looking ahead, the question is emblazoned in big black letters. It’s hard not to see as I open the door on the second floor and prepare to leave from my much too short visit.

As I ponder this in the weeks ahead, I keep seeing those black letters and the big question mark. I hear Cash’s words repeated in my head. But every time I think about its significance, I am sure that I already know the answer.

And when you look outside to the streets of Bristol on a weekend in September, there will be no doubt in your mind either.