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The Birthplace of Country Music Museum



Musicologists call it The Big Bang of Country Music. 

 

In 1927, Ralph Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company visited Bristol, a town on the Virginia and Tennessee state line, and set up a bulky recording device to capture performances of 76 songs by 19 different acts. 

 

The Bristol Sessions produced the first recordings by Jimmie Rodgers, who became known as The Father of Country Music, and The Carter Family--the First Family of Country Music--whose influence on the genre is widely acknowledged. Many songs recorded then are still performed by country, roots, and bluegrass musicians. And the success of those recordings established country music as a commercial enterprise.

 

The history and impact of that event are thoughtfully documented and explored at The Birthplace of Country Music Museum, a Smithsonian affiliate institution celebrating its tenth anniversary in 2024.

 

 "You're really going to be able to dig deep into the content of our museum in lots of interactive and engaging ways," says Rene Rodgers, the head curator at the 24,000-square-foot facility. 

 

The museum includes a performance theater, a working radio station, hands-on experiences, the sessions' artifacts, instruments, recording equipment, personal mementos from the artists, and four compelling films. 

 

"The orientation film, Bound to Bristol, gives you all of the information to sort of set the foundation for you to understand what you're going to see in the galleries that come after that," says Rodgers. "And there's a chapel film where we talk about the connections--especially in Appalachia--between religion and spiritual belief and the songs that were being sung at that time and were being recorded in Bristol. So, for instance, at the Bristol Sessions, almost 40% of the songs are gospel or sacred-based songs."

 

Interactive experiences are a signature of the museum. Visitors can enter a sound booth and record one of the Bristol Sessions songs or act as an engineer and master a performance with their own mix of instruments. Another exhibit allows visitors to sample each recording made at the first sessions and learn about the performers. 

 

The museum also demonstrates technology's role in the Bristol recordings, which were among the first to use an electric microphone. "It allowed producers like Ralph Peer to travel outside their big studios to do some of these recordings because they weren't having to use that acoustic horn technology, which was way more difficult to travel with," Rodgers explains. "The other big thing about it is that the quality of those recordings was higher. The sound was more balanced and more nuanced. You were able to get some of the different instruments recorded in a better way. In those early days of country music, banjo and fiddle were the primary instruments. The guitar was more of a background rhythm instrument, and it often got drowned out by those louder instruments. But the electric microphone helped balance that sound a little bit."

 

The museum also displays many treasures associated with the artists who made the famous recordings. 

 

"We've been very fortunate to connect with many of the descendants of our 1927 Bristol Sessions artists, and several of them have donated or loaned items to us that were from their family members. "We have the dog tags from Ernest Phipps, and we have the radio and a hat from George Massengill of the Tennessee Mountaineers. And most recently, the Jimmie Rodgers family has loaned us Jimmie Rodgers's Blue Yodel guitar. Obviously, the Blue Yodel guitar is in a category in and of itself, just because of how important that guitar is in music history."

 

In 1998, the United States Congress designated Bristol, Tennessee-Virginia as "The Birthplace of Country Music." A non-profit called "Birthplace of Country Music" oversees three outreach endeavors: the museum; Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion, a three-day multi-genre music festival held every September; and WBCM Radio Bristol, which broadcasts and streams three channels focusing on the diversity of American roots music from early recordings to today. 

 

Rodgers also says people can have a museum experience without actually visiting. "There's so many different ways to connect with us. You don't have to be on our doorstep to enjoy the stuff that we're doing. We do a lot of programming. Take a look at our website (birthplaceofcountrymusic.org) and just see some of the things because some of it is virtual."

 

But those who can visit the museum often come away with something more than a history lesson. 

 

"They're learning about the music, but they're also having memories that are being stirred by the music that they're listening to," Rodgers says. "And our volunteers often tell us that they have conversations with our visitors about, 'Oh, my grandmother played the banjo, and she always played this song, and I really remember it, and I hadn't thought of that in a long time.' And, you know, those wonderful emotional and personal connections are really special."

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