Bristol and Abingdon – a nice escapade

My wife and I ventured to the southwestern Virginia highlands for a few days. We took in the fall foiliage, but also wanted to visit the museum in Bristol (Virginia and Tennessee) honoring the birthplace of country music. More on that later.

We stayed in a Bed and Breakfast in a nearby quaint town of Abingdon, VA. We love B&Bs as they afford opportunity to meet people, both guests and hosts. Abingdon has a charmlng and walkable downtown, with more than a few excellent restaurants, the Barter Theatre and access to a biking and hiking trail along pulled up railway lines called the Creeper Trail.

Bristol straddles the two states with its main street aptly called State Street (with one side in Tennessee and the other side in Virginia). It is filled with many shoppes and businesses. The museum is part of the Smithsonian. And, it exceeded our expectations.

Having seen Ken Burns’ excellent documentary series on “Country Music,” the birth place of recorded country music is in Bristol. The “Bristol Sessions” were the creation of a recording producer in a relative new industry in the second half of the 1920s. Ralph Peer of Victor Talking Machines traveled to Bristol with a state of the art portable recording system and two engineers. He had published in the newspapers an invitation to any musical individuals and groups who wish to be recorded.

They recorded 67 songs with 19 groups, including the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers and Ernest Stoneman, who Peer had recorded earlier. He paid the artists $50 a song and set up a royalty system. The sessions produced recordings that were gobbled up by a welcoming public. In an introductory video narrated by John Carter Cash, whose grandmother was Maybelle Carter, it was noted listening to recorded music was egalitarian and broadened its interest and influence.

The museum is interactive with many listening stations throughout to supplement various videos and sidebar exhibits. A favorite sidebar was a video with four misicians discussing the musicality of the initial recordings. You can even record a short song after rehearsing how it goes, which we did.

As I have written before, we love going to small towns. This was a wonderful experience, even though we are not huge country music fans. We ate at a locally owned mom and pop restaurant actually run by the parents and family. We stumbled on the best laid out antique store run by a 67 year-old eccentric southern gentleman. Each area was a splurge of colors which rivaled the fall leaves.

So, do yourself a favor and take a day trip or long weekend. It is an easy way to invigorate yourself. Ours ended on a high note, as we met our daughter for lunch in another quaint, but much more vibrant, college town across the border in Boone, NC.

Country music documentary series

Ken Burns has done it again. While not a huge country music fan, I am four episides into the eight part series on “Country Music.” It has been a wonderful history lesson that goes beyond the storytelling of country music.

To avoid spoiling the series for those who have not seen it, let me offer a few key themes:

– the show utilizes historical insights from numerous perspectives – country performers, songwriters, radio DJs, historians and even performers from other genres;

– country music was influenced by and influenced other genres of music – mountain hymns, blues, rhythm and blues, gospel, rock-a-billy, pop music, etc.;

– country music was born in Bristol, VA (and TN – the city splits the state line) due to an ad seeking talent to record, but broadened in a number of places based economic migration resulting from the dust bowl and depression, which created these intersections of styles and influences;

– finally, it is the stories within and behind the music – to offer one tidbit, the jazz great Charlie Parker was asked why he paid attention to country music? He said it was the great stories.

There are too many names to mention, many of whom I have never heard. But, exposure to folks like Maybelle Carter who popularized a guitar playing style or Earl Scruggs who popularized a three-finger banjo technique or Jimmy Rodgers who perfected the use of yodeling to accent a song are three examples of its influence.

Rather than give too much away, please watch. It is worth the effort. I look forward to the remainder of the series.