Also known as The Bristol Sessions.
Our drive out was through a frosty wonderland.
Setting the road trip mood in the wagon was a must.
In 1927 Victor Talking Machine Company producer Ralph Peer traveled across the South not necessarily on an artistic mission, but perhaps more for economic reasons: America’s growing appetite for recorded music needed new sounds and there was money to be made in popular music and, more specifically, in Southern forms.
Peer was also technologically savvy. Vinyl records had only been around for a few years and were largely purchased by wealthy urbanites, who could afford trendy acquisitions like phonographs. But his company developed a slim, hand-crank phonograph that did not require electricity, a luxury if it existed in rural American at all; thus more families could own a phonograph and pinch together the pennies to purchase records.
With flyers promising $50 “session fee” guarantees (and royalties of $0.025 per record sold) preceding his arrival, Peer “auditioned” dozens of local Appalachian musicians, notably among them Jimmie Rodgers and a family group consisting of Ash Carter and his wife Sara; and their sister-in-law Maybelle, at an old warehouse in Bristol, Tennessee to record their songs.
Bristol was selected for both its central location and because it had a large rail station into which the musicians could arrive.
Jimmie Rodgers would go on to record “Blue Yodel” for Peer, and it would sell more than 400,000 copies, earning him $8,000 in royalties (10 years’ income for the average American). The Carter Family also gained considerable fame as Country Music’s First Family; and a decade later, following Ash and Sara’s divorce and the breakup of the group, Maybelle and her daughters (Anita, June and Helen) began touring. June Carter would eventually marry Johnny Cash. The rest, of course, is the history told at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol, Tennessee.
In the museum entry is a gorgeous quilt. But as we learned, bringing those skilled in the crafts of quilting and embroidering is like getting the Hatfields and McCoys together, for embroiderers and quilters do not speak the same language.
Within the museum is a working recording studio, but alas, no up-and-coming recording artists were recording a tune during our visit.
The chronology moved into the mid- to late-20th century and the appearance of country music and “all things Hillbilly” into mainstream entertainment on the big and the small screens.
Though small, the museum tells the story of the birth of country music well. We have been watching the Ken Burns series, Country Music (an excellent series, especially for someone like me who is woefully unlearned on country music), and visiting here was a nice complement.
Leaving the museum we walked along State Street, so named because Bristol straddles Tennessee and the Commonwealth of Virginia. Up and down one can observe the state markers in the middle of the street. And yes, locals waited patiently for me to take this snap, like they probably do dozens of times daily for others in the warmer months.
State Street is experiencing a rejuvenation, a trend across America to bring small towns back as walkable and with locally-owned places at which to shop and dine. I am all for that, so long as the plan deviates culinarily and culturally from the microbrewery/vegan restaurant/vintage clothing store model currently in favor.
We found a local eater for lunch that offered Southern Fusion cuisine, Just like Momma Used to Make. See what I mean about the hipsterification? There is no southern Momma in the south cooking anything fusion. But we still sat for lunch, and I asked the wait staff to bring me his favorite dish from the menu.
Indeed, you are looking at Fried Catfish. Just like I was skeptical about eating Karpfen in Central Europe (until I had an amazing preparation in the small restaurant of a castle during a Christmas market, of all places), Catfish had never made it on my epicurean sonar, either.
I’m guessing my preconceptions of catfish may have been incorrect, though this may have been farm-raised rather than wild, for the taste was entirely on the “sweet” rather than “bottom dwelling muddy” side of the plate. Regardless, it was quite scrumptious. Tony ordered the homemade meatloaf (everything here was home cooked) and we pronounced it magnificent.
(A funny aside. The waitstaff asked, “Where y’all from?” right after we ordered UNsweetened tea.)
On our drive home we passed under the city limit sign. Bristol’s motto, A Good Place to Live was the contest winner in 1921 because it didn’t seem too pretentious. The sign is now on the National Register of Historic Places (for Tennessee but not Virginia. Ha.)
There are other markers dividing the two states that more clearly delineate the two populations.
On the way home, a couple of humorous signs. Admit it, you’re curious about Hillbilly Fried Chicken, too.
Out of curiosity I researched Transport America. They employ three times more women drivers than men across the industry and more veterans, too; and they believe the value of traveling with your canine pal is immeasurable. What’s not to like?