Straddling the Virginia-Tennessee line lies the town of Bristol. It was there, nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, that country music was born.
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In late July of 1927, Ralph Peer, a producer for Victor Records, put an ad in the local newspaper, calling artists to record at his pop-up studio inside the Taylor-Christian Hat Company on State Street. According to a statement from Johnny Cash many years down the road, those ten days Peer spent in Bristol became the “single most important event in the history of country music.”
Peer pulled into town with cutting-edge recording equipment, which he disguised behind a blanket. The recording device would later be revealed as the original version of the microphone, replacing the horn. Peer recruited a local musician, Ernest Stoneman, who had earned $3,600 in sales payout from Victor to recruit local talent for those two weeks.
At the time, $3,600 was over three times the average annual wage, and the numbers spoke for themselves. Family singers, solo instrumentalists, and other folk artists traveled from surrounding areas to record. During these sessions, the Carter Family and Jimmie Rogers songs were captured for the first time on tape for widespread distribution.
The promise was that artists would not have to pay upfront for the recording session; rather, they would share a portion of their sales, just as Stoneman had. This deal laid the groundwork for the royalties system under which the music industry continues to operate. From there, Peer’s career took off around the world. To this day, Peermusic International is the largest independently-owned publishing company in the world.
For many years, there was nothing in town that was telling the story of those legendary days. In the late 70s, Johnny Cash, June Carter, and some other Carter family members came to town to erect a small statue outside of the site where the sessions took place. On this day, talks began of further ways to memorialize Bristol’s contribution to Country Music.
In 1998, Congress passed a resolution recognizing Bristol as “the birthplace of Country Music, a style of music which has enjoyed broad commercial success in the United States and throughout much of the world.” Following this momentum, the Bristol Rythm & Roots Reunion Festival began in October of 2001 with a few thousand people.
In 2004, the festival and its non-profit organizers really hit their stride. Progress came in the shape of new restaurants and storefronts. Efforts began to revitalize the Paramount Theater, an iconic marquee and previous beacon of downtown Bristol.
Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion joined forces with the Birthplace of Country Music Association (BCMA) in 2012 to move the museum talks to action. At that point, attendance had grown to over 40,000, with over 130 bands on 20 stages around downtown Bristol. Both the states and local government offices were hurdling in tandem towards the cause.
The Birthplace of Country Music Museum, an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, opened on August 1, 2014. The museum is 24,000 square feet, spanning two levels. In addition to core exhibits, the museum also houses the radio station that went live on August 27, 2015.
Radio Bristol features a low power FM channel, three channels streaming different but related music genres, and one channel streaming video. Streaming stations can be accessed online or using the Radio Bristol App on mobile devices. Radio Bristol is garnering attention from radio, cultural, and business organizations for its unique and innovative approach to history, music, and media. The station has listeners throughout the United States and in more than 140 countries.
A 2015 Economic Impact Study showed that visitors to the Festival from outside the region had a $16.1 million impact on the region. The proceeding development ensured that the increased tourism would spread throughout the year, versus just the festival weekend every fall.
“It shows you the power of what just one community event can do for your city,” says Charlene Baker, the Marketing and Communications Director for Birthplace of Country Music. “The backdrop of downtown Bristol is a complete 180 of what it was when I was a teenager. Music is a way of communication here. Growing up here, it was understood that you sat on the porch on Sundays and played music with your family. That tradition has been here for so long as a primary source of communication, storytelling, and entertainment when there wasn’t much else.”
The festival has benefitted from the societal refocus following the late 80s mall culture that left much of Main Street America boarded up and abandoned. Attention has shifted from the outskirts of the city back downtown.
“Downtown is your city’s identity,” says Baker. If you don’t have a thriving arts culture, then you don’t have a lot for the people who actually live there. That’s what our festival was a catalyst for in our town, and it’s creating jobs.
The Sessions Hotel themed with the history of Bristol Music. There is a casino project coming to town that Hard Rock Casino’s has agreed to come in to operate.
“20 years seems like a long time, but it’s not when you look at the amount of progress we’ve made during that time,” says Baker. “This is the product of owning your heritage, then using that as an engine for economic development.”
A year off, especially their 20th anniversary, came as a devastation to the entire community, given their current trajectory. However, with understanding and grace, they opted for virtual fan experience in place of the beloved tradition. Admission is free for all viewers, thanks to the local sponsors who made the event possible. The sponsors’ commitment allows festival-goers the opportunity to be a “Festival Hero” by contributing to the Festival Recovery Fund to help mitigate the financial stress that the 2020 cancellation will put on the Birthplace of Country Music organization that produces the Festival.
Thursday night kicked off the virtual weekend event with a Farm and Fun Time show from the Birthplace of Country Music, featuring host band Bill & The Belles – artists to include The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys and 49 Winchester.
Tonight they’ve partnered with the Virginia Tourism Corporation to celebrate Virginia Heritage Music Month. This show will feature some of Virginia’s most notable females – Amythyst Kiah, Morgan Wade, and Martha Spencer. The night will be filled with live music, celebrations of past Bristol Rhythms, and announcements about the 2021 Festival line-up.
“Bristol Rhythm & Roots was one of the first festivals I ever played as a solo artist back in 2010, and I was also part of the exhibit curation team for the Birthplace of Country Music Museum around 2012-2013,” says returning act, Amythyst Kiah. “Bristol has played a pivotal role in my development as a performer, and they have been so supportive of my career over the years, I look forward to the festival every year. The stream is the next best thing, but I hope we can get back to it in 2021.”
Beginning Saturday at 1:00 pm, viewers can look back on flashbacks from past Festival performance. Starting at 7:00 pm will be two live performances from Acoustic Syndicate and Jim Lauderdale and reveal additional artists who will be playing at the 2021 Festival. So far, they’ve announced that Jason Isbell, Tanya Tucker, and Blackberry Smoke will join them next fall.