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Fancy people first heard country music on a record player like this one.
Fancy people first heard country music on a record player like this one.

Birthplace of Country Music Museum

Field review by the editors.

Bristol, Virginia

It's a familiar story in the Roadside world: a small town celebrity leaves for the big city, becomes famous, and everyone forgets the small town. Decades later the town says, "Hey, we're important too!" and erects a sign or a monument stating its claim to fame.

Former car dealership is now an important museum.
Former car dealership is now an important museum.

In this case the town was Bristol, the city was Nashville, but the celebrity wasn't a person: it was country music. And when Bristol put up a country music monument and no one paid attention, the town built an $11 million museum.

The Birthplace of Country Music Museum bases its claim on the "Bristol Sessions" of 1927. These took place in a downtown warehouse when record producer Ralph Peer arrived from New York City, set up his equipment, and recorded dozens of songs from local performers such as Stoneman's Dixie Mountaineers and the West Virginia Coon Hunters. Peer called it "hillbilly music," pressed it onto 78 rpm records, and the public couldn't get enough of it. America's fledging recording industry took note of this untapped money-making resource, and the multi-billion-dollar country music record industry was born. It moved to Nashville -- which at the time was known for its Parthenon, not its music -- and everyone forgot about Bristol.

The Hammons Brothers pose with a fiddle, a rifle, and a 1903 Graphophone record player.
The hillbilly Hammons Brothers pose with a fiddle, a rifle, and a 1903 Graphophone record player.

The monument in Bristol went up in 1971, proclaiming the city to be the home of "the first Country and Western music to be distributed nationwide" -- not a very catchy claim. By the time the museum opened in 2014 the city had coined the more memorable, if less provable, "Birthplace of Country Music." Museum spokeswoman Charlene Baker said that the 43-year delay was actually a blessing, since a 1971 museum would've been just a lot of wax dummies. We thought What's wrong with that?, but admit that there's something appropriate in a museum about music whose exhibits are primarily musical.

Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded to Bristol native Tennessee Ernie Ford.
Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded to Bristol native Tennessee Ernie Ford.

The Birthplace of Country Music Museum allows visitors to listen to the Bristol Session songs, of course, but also eavesdrop on recordings of the session veterans discussing how confused and scared they were by the recording process (and how happy they were to get paid). Tourists can sit in a simulated church and hear hillbilly gospel music, compare old "sing into a horn" recordings with the crisp sounds captured by Ralph Peer's 1927 electric microphone, watch a live DJ spin records in the museum radio station, remix the Bristol recordings using touch-screen controls, and even sing their own versions of the songs in a soundproof booth -- although no amount of baffling can soundproof outsiders from those who try to yodel like Jimmie Rogers.

The Immersion Theatre: 12 different simultaneous versions of the same country song.
The Immersion Theatre: watch 12 different versions of the same country song simultaneously.

The Bristol Sessions were recorded only 300 miles from Nashville, but the songs are from another universe. "It isn't what a lot of people today think of as country music," said museum curator Rene Rogers. Exhibits and galleries are filled with a continuous soundtrack of scratchy fiddles and strident voices belting out Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb? as well as songs about train wrecks, people who are dead or dying, and an afterlife that's clearly more pleasant than the life being lived by the listeners. "It's based on a whole lot of hardship," said Charlene.

Visitors can listen to all of the Bristol Sessions recordings on this giant turntable.
Visitors can listen to Bristol Sessions recordings on this giant turntable.

Hardship is also the reason behind the lack of surviving instruments from the Bristol Sessions. Most were inexpensive mail-order catalog purchases from Sears & Roebuck -- you could buy a fiddle for $9.95 or a banjo for under two bucks -- that were then replaced by better instruments if the musicians could afford it, or lost to the strains of picking and plucking if the musicians couldn't. A few, said Rene, remain with the original musicians' families, who aren't yet ready to silence them forever in a display case.

The last of the museum's several multimedia experiences is a wraparound "Immersion Theater" whose singalong-suitable AV collage suggests that hillbilly music is still relevant to today's historically-minded country musicians. We hope that this is true, and that every new 25-year-old Nashville country star, after being fitted for a designer cowboy hat, is put on a bus to Bristol to absorb the lessons of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.

More train wreck songs, please!

Birthplace of Country Music Museum

101 Country Music Way, Bristol, VA
North side of downtown. On the south side of Cumberland St., just west of its intersection with Moore St.
Tu-Sa 10-6, Su 1-5 (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Adults $13.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Burger Bar: Hank Williams' Last-Chance MealBurger Bar: Hank Williams' Last-Chance Meal, Bristol, VA - < 1 mi.
Country Music Distribution MonumentCountry Music Distribution Monument, Bristol, TN - < 1 mi.
James Keeling, Defender of the BridgeJames Keeling, Defender of the Bridge, Bristol, VA - < 1 mi.
In the region:
World's Shortest Highway Tunnel, Shady Valley, TN - 20 mi.

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