The Birthplace of Country Music Museum, located at 36 Moore St. in Bristol, Va., shines a spotlight on the region's contributions to country music. (Photos by Tony Casey/Johnson City Press)
BRISTOL, Va. — The people at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum are personally seeing to it that the circle will remain unbroken.
That is, if you use John Carter Cash’s definition of the phrasing, it relates to the music that started with the historic 1927 Bristol Sessions that gave birth to the modern country music industry through advances in local Appalachian talent, musical and recording equipment.
But don’t take it from Johnny and June Carter Cash’s son. Take it from the Man in Black himself, who once said that “these recordings in Bristol in 1927 are the single most important event in the history of country music.”
Johnny Cash had a strong connection to the historical sessions, especially through his wife being part of the historic Carter family of musicians based in this area.
Friday’s Media Day events were the first of its Grand Opening Weekend, which kicks off the opening of the museum at 36 Moore St., and hopes to serve as the place to visit to understand just how country music reached the level it’s at today. The building that houses the museum was a place where cars were sold, with vehicles being displayed on the second floor. This was all before it fell into disrepair.
Around $12 million later, according to Leah Ross, executive director of the Birthplace of Country Music, and the museum was able to officially open its doors and show off just how much work had been done.
“And hasn’t that money been well spent?” Ross said, showing off the facility.
Exhibits throughout the museum bring you through just how the current state of country music came about. From music industry legend Ralph Peer’s relocation to the Bristol area to look into what he’d heard of as “Hillbilly Music” to the emergence of gospel and religious music, it’s all here.
One video that plays on repeat on the second story of the museum references a Carter Family song.
Bob Dylan, Faith Hill, Willie Nelson, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton, the Grateful Dead, Fats Domino, Old Crow Medicine Show, Joan Baez and many more cycle through the video either giving their rendition of the Bristol-produced song or sharing just how important that area and its 1927 session recordings have been to music as a whole.
“America is a unique melting pot, just like its music,” Carter Cash said in the video.
Full of interactive aspects relating to the local recording industry, the museum has displays galore putting people into the world of music making.
There’s a sound booth, where people can record their own version of one of the famous 68 released songs from the sessions. There’s a real radio booth that will go live as WCMB in a few months, and many places to listen to the era’s famous songs.
There’s a mixing station, where users can take three songs, performed by East Tennessee State University’s Bluegrass, Old Time, and Country Music Studies students, and alter the songs to their own liking. Some of the changes they can make include increasing or decreasing the level of different components of the songs.
Vocals, banjo, fiddle, guitar and harmonica are some of the changes you can make to alter your version of “Single Girl, Married Girl,” “The Spanish Merchant’s Daughter,” or “I Am Bound for the Promised Land.”
Tere Land, of Bristol, said the completion of the museum was well worth the time it took.
Its effect on the area is so apparent to her that she expects it to be a big part of a downtown Bristol turnaround.
“It’s a Smithsonian museum that’s downtown,” Land said. “Our City Council has done a great job of redoing it.”
Land said it used to be depressing in the area, but having been through the museum, she and her husband are reconsidering their decision to move away from the area, saying the museum and downtown area have given them enough to do that they might stick around.
“This museum has some of the best curators in the country,” she said. “Everything has been extremely well researched.”
Today will have more grand-opening ceremonies, with free concerts by local performers Dr. Ralph Stanley, Corbin Hayslett, Jim Lauderdale and Carlene Carter and the Whistles and the Bells. Sunday also celebrates local music with a “Mountain Stage with Larry Groce” recording at the Paramount Theater that features Martina McBride, Carter, Doyle Lawson and Dale Jett.
For more information about all the happenings throughout the weekend, check out the organization’s site at birthplaceofcountrymusic.org.
Follow Tony Casey on Twitter @TonyCaseyJCP. Like him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tonycaseyjournalist.