The Birthplace of Country Music: 5 Spots Country Fans Can’t Miss in Bristol
Country music uses a perfect synergy between people, places and things to create art that defines the folklore of an entire nation. And there is perhaps no better way to examine this notion than by visiting Bristol, Va., and Bristol, Tenn.
Because the wages of dynamic commercial booms and the digital age have drastically altered Nashville, Tenn., and Austin, Texas, they differ from the cozy, 46-square-mile Virginia/Tennessee border city of Bristol, country music’s ancestral hometown. Unlike the two modern metropolises, Bristol hasn’t fundamentally changed much, topographically and real estate-wise, since the advent of the genre at the end of the 1920s.
While Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge still stands on Music City’s Lower Broadway and the Broken Spoke still exists in Austin, the modernity of the popular culture that now surrounds them makes them less critical as hubs still vibrantly creating America’s aesthetic and more nostalgic — yet still important — reminders of days gone by. However, in Bristol, the Paramount Center for the Arts is still right in the middle of State Street, looking as splendidly art-deco in design as it did when it opened in 1931; moreover, songwriter Jim Lauderdale walks the streets wearing finely embroidered western shirts and looking like he’s a second away from stepping back into the studio to record a bluegrass album inspired by Buck Owens or Ralph Stanley.
Within this countrified, real-life oasis is an infinite amount of potential for those who realize that a place that operates by obsessing over the past and appreciating the present offers perhaps the most precise idea of exactly what the future holds. If you’re a fan of the genre or a musician gainfully employed by its sounds, not having some semblance of Bristol in your blood means that while your three chords may be impeccable, your ability to vocalize your truth may be incomplete.
Here, aside from the above explanation, are five specific landmarks that define Bristol’s greatness:
Bristol’s crown jewel is this 24,000-square-foot venue, opened in 2014 to preserve the legacy of the Bristol Sessions and all of the country music and country music-related work done in Bristol both before and after. It’s not so much looking at the genre’s artifacts at the museum that’s important, though; instead, pay close attention to the museum’s curated video presentation highlighting the musical and recording techniques of the various players recorded by Ralph Peer. Or, enjoy the awe-inspiring moment of hearing artists from a multitude of racial, ethnic and musical backgrounds singing the Carter Family’s 1927-released and Bristol-recorded “Can the Circle Be Unbroken.” If you want to understand country’s multi-generational, global and cross-cultural appeal, listening to and viewing the song being sung so well, by so many, makes it quickly apparent.
On New Year’s Day 1953, 11 years after it opened in 1942 on the corner of Piedmont and State Streets — where it still stands — this Bristol diner had Hank Williams sitting outside in an automobile as a potential guest. Seated alongside him was his driver over the New Year’s Day weekend, a teenage college student named Charles Carr.
It’s rumored that Williams and Carr stopped at the Burger Bar so that Carr could take a bus back to Charleston, W.Va., because he’d grown annoyed with the country crooner (who had already drunk heavily, taken a sedative and been given a small shot of morphine for the pain he was feeling) while driving him through an ice storm. (The Burger Bar is roughly a five-minute drive from the location of Bristol’s bus station, where a replacement driver would also be able to meet their car.) Carr asked Williams if he was hungry; he replied he wasn’t.
When Williams and Carr got back on the road — after stopping at the Burger Bar, but not going in — and arrived at the Bristol bus station, they realized they'd taken too long, had missed the bus’ arrival and needed to meet the driver at the next stop in Oak Hill, W.Va. As reports note, once Carr arrived in Oak Hill with Williams, the star was dead.
The impact of notoriety upon the craft and style of country music cannot be understated. If you're looking for what could be the godfather of all the “most wildly notorious outlaw landmarks in country music,” look no further than the place where Williams nearly ate his last meal.
The magic of the Bristol Sessions recordings is difficult to replicate mainly because technology continues to pave the way for progressed modernization, making 1927-era recording techniques seem beyond antiquated. However, at Bristol’s Earnest Tube Recording Studio, artists — via what are the last vestiges of early 20th century microphones and lacquer record-making available anywhere — can experience something similar to what the Carter Family or Jimmie Rodgers did while recording their iconic performances. The visual of a cutting lathe engraving sonic vibrations captured by a vintage microphone into a lacquer disc takes timelessness from a mildly stated feel-good idea written in boilerplate advertising copy to an emotion that has an unexpectedly tangible sensation.
(Visitors should also take a detour through the bathroom adjacent to the warm, classically designed main recording space. For visual evidence of the power of country music’s advertising and photography, check out that bathroom’s collaged walls — they provide quite the memorable visual!)
The Sessions Hotel and its adjoining entertainment complex stand as a tremendous showcase of how Bristol can both celebrate the classic era while maintaining still-relevant modernity. The boutique hotel occupies three buildings, all roughly one century old: the 1915 Bristol Grocery Building, the 1920 Jobbers Candy Factory and the Simply Grand Granary Mill, built in 1922. In addition, the hotel rooms themselves pay homage to the 1927 Bristol Sessions via curated art and early country music-themed room entrances.
Additionally, the Sessions’ Music Lawn has recently opened the Jim Lauderdale Stage, named after the aforementioned bluegrass legend and country singer-songwriter known for penning George Strait’s 1992 classic “The King of Broken Hearts,” among other songs. And so while you can sometimes hear Lauderdale himself perform Strait’s timeless classic, you could also hear up-and-coming artists such as Morgan Wade play the stage, too.
The Bristol, Va.-Tenn. Slogan Sign
As you enter or exit Bristol on either the Virginia or Tennessee side of the road, a sign informs you that Bristol is “A Good Place to Live.” However, what’s one minute away from that sign, located at 408 State St., is proof that Bristol is, in fact, much more than that.
It’s in a building that once stood at that address where producer Ralph Peer's recording sessions took place between July 25 and Aug. 5, 1927. Now, it’s an empty lot with a post office standing nearby, and a sign denoting what occurred there marks the spot.
There’s something poignant about country music’s ancestry being able to now be traced to a literal spot on the Earth rather than a building. There’s real power in standing in a space, after minutes, hours or days of feeling country music’s lineage, and being able to pinpoint the genre’s birth. The final, overwhelming coup de grace of a trip to Bristol is right here.