Our Last Loop: Virginia’s Crooked Road
It is said that country music was “conceived in Galax, born in Bristol and went to Nashville to die.”
By Josephine Matyas & Craig Jones
We’d travelled The Crooked Road heritage music trail through southwest Virginia before but there were a few stops we missed last time around. So we returned to the wellsprings of country and bluegrass to take a deeper drink at the source.
The city of Bristol straddles the Virginia-Tennessee state line. The state line runs right down the middle of the main street – shops on one side are in Tennessee and those across the road are in Virginia.
To really understand Bristol’s role as the “birthplace” of country music, a little history is needed. In 1927 the Victor Talking Machine Company, under the direction of producer Ralph Peer, transported a collection of Edison recording equipment to Bristol to catch the sounds of the hills, alive with “hillbilly” music. The technology was cutting edge for the time – the ability to capture music and listen to it anytime the listener wanted was like nothing ever seen before.
Through a combination of word of mouth and newspaper notices, the producers flushed out a selection of singers, collectors, songwriters and musicians. The result has been called “the Big Bang of modern country music.” Although this kind of collecting had been done before, none achieved the prominence of the 1927 Bristol Sessions.
Why Bristol? Good luck. Good timing. Good railroads. And good connections to the mountain people in the surrounding hill country – the source from which the roots music flowed.
One of the families flushed out of those hills and recorded in Bristol was The Carter Family, of Maces Spring, Virginia, not far from Bristol. Alvin Pleasant (A.P.) Carter, his wife Sara and Sara’s sister Maybelle, entered the history books as the First Family of Country Music. Johnny Cash, who later married into the family, described their music “like water rippling in a sweet, clear spring off Clinch Mountain.”
Maces Spring is now the site of The Carter Family Fold, a major stop on The Crooked Road. A.P.’s modest grocery store has been transformed into a museum that tells the story of the music pioneered by the family. Next door, a large concert and dance venue, The Carter Family Memorial Music Center, is a hopping weekend stop for regulars and tourists. The faithful gather on a Saturday evening to step dance, flatfoot and clog away a couple of joyous hours with family members of all ages. The sounds of bluegrass and old-time country pour from the stage. It was here, at the spot where it all began for The Carter Family, that Johnny Cash performed his last concert.
REMEMBER THAT SAYING that country music was born in Bristol? The city is the home of The Birthplace Of Country Music Museum – a Smithsonian affiliate that opened its doors in August 2014. We visited this site last autumn while it was still under construction and vowed to return to see the final product. That second visit was more than worth the wait.
The museum is a world-class explanation of the Bristol Sessions – that Big Bang of country music – including a special section on The Carter Family itself and the origins of the music that issued from the surrounding hills. It is organized around four theatre experiences that set the background and context, cover the mechanics of how the original musicians played their instruments, explain the connections between sacred or gospel music and the music of their lives, and how the original recordings were captured for posterity.
“This music isn’t stagnant,” explains Associate Curator Dr. Rene Rodgers, “it wasn’t just the Bristol Sessions.”
The music is being constantly re-interpreted as every new generation brings new insights to these tunes. Headphones and interactive touch screens draw visitors in by sampling different songs and then deconstructing them by fading up or down particular instruments – the effect is to teach how the different instruments, tones and tambres blend into the final product.
Like all good museums, we left wishing we’d had more time to linger. Yes, we’ve been there. But it’s on our radar to return back to several times more.
A CHECKLIST: WHAT MAKES THIS PART OF THE STATE SO SPECIAL:
- Southwest Virginia really is one of the wellsprings of American roots music and the birthplace of country music.
- The local dance halls. Watch traditional flatfooting – also called clogging – an Appalachian form of dance that’s shared by all generations, from young kids to senior citizens.
- Local community music jams – a way that the region’s culture and history is shared across generations.
- Not far from Bristol is Heartwood, in the community of Abingdon. Heartwood is a one-stop introduction to this part of Virginia’s music, culture, arts and crafts and a great place to begin your explorations.
Our travel horizons keep expanding. For fall 2014, we’ve packed the camper van, taken along our easy going Border Collie (Eleanor Rigby) and are exploring the Carolinas and Georgia. On the way down we’re looking for everything unique about life along the ocean coastline. And on our travels back north we’re taking the inland route, looking for food, culture and roots music. We’ve added a new website devoted to our travels: www.travelswithrigby.com with info on RV travel, pooch-friendly travel, food and music destinations.