Tuesday, August 18, 2009


Bristol is a town that straddles the border between Virginia and Tennessee -- the state line runs down the middle of State Street. Technically, there are two Bristols (they most commonly come in pairs, amirite?) -- Bristol, Virginia and Bristol, Tennessee -- but they are both run by the same city administration.

Besides its NASCAR track, Bristol Motor Speedway -- "the world's fastest half-mile" -- Bristol's main claim to fame is as the birthplace of country music. In truth, this is not really so; a more accurate assertion would be that it is the birthplace of the country music record industry. What we might consider proto-country music is, of course, much, much older than that. It was to Bristol in the summer of 1927 that Ralph Peer, producer and A&R man formerly for OKeh Records and now acting under his new position with Victor, brought newfangled field recording gear and up-to-the-minute electric microphones (introduced in 1925), and set up shop in an unused storage space over the Taylor-Christian Hat company on the Tennessee side of State Street.

He allowed it to be bruited about that he would be offering $50 a side to any local musicians he deemed worthy of recording. A very astute and far-sighted businessman, Peer recognized, absolutely rightly, that with a nascent recording business and the coming ubiquity of radio, the real money was to be made in owning the copyright to the songs he recorded, which was why he felt he could be relatively generous to his recording stable -- and $50 was mighty generous indeed to the average resident of Appalachia in 1927.

Between July 22 and August 3, Peer recorded Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, B.F. Shelton, Uncle Eck Dunford, and a host of other hillbilly acts. An industry was indeed born. The bottom would fall out of it in 1932 with the Great Depression, but radio would sustain country music through World War II, with shows like the Grand Ole Opry. When the wartime rationing of vinyl ended with the war, an entirely new, infinitely more sophisticated generation of artists, recording on vastly improved equipment, filled the need for American proletarian music. The Victor, OKeh, Columbia artists of the '20s would remain to be rediscovered on scratchy old 78s on grandparents' Victrolas, and on such eminently sympathetic compilations as Harry Smith's "Anthology of American Folk." It is worth noting that the rediscoverers -- the Ralph Rinzlers, the Mike Seegers (RIP), were not themselves rural people, but sons and daughters of urban intellectuals.

It was into this Bristol that the Jingomobile roared yesterday. (Literally. That muffler's on its last legs.) I'd bombed down 81 from Winchester in what must have been record time, the 350-mile trip having taken five and a half hours. My purpose was twofold: I wanted to see the place where Peer had his recordings done, and I wanted to retrace the route the Carter Family took to their historic recording sessions with Peer.

The outskirts of Bristol are unprepossessing indeed. Huge Baptist churches stand cheek by jowl with grubby Taco Bells and Burger Kings, which are the places where the swains of Bristol go when they want to show their girlfriends a good time. There are few other options. The squalor persists until you hit State Street itself, which is leafy, verdant, and lined with quirky coffeeshops and bookstores for the tourist trade. The Art Deco theater marquee survives -- it can be made out in a gritty photo of State Street from the Ralph Peer era. I find the building where the sessions are said to have taken place -- there seems to be some local controversy over it, but The Bristol Sessions (ed. Wolfe & Olson) confidently places it at Number 408. There it is. A large mural on a blind wall facing the railroad tracks celebrates "Bristol Tenn-Va / Birthplace of Country Music" with portraits of Peer, the Carters, Victor Records, and Rodgers giving his signature thumbs-up in his brakeman's gear, guitar in his lap.

Besides State Street, I'd wanted to see another landmark from the era -- Maces Spring and Poor Valley and Rich Valley on the side of Clinch Mountain, where all three Carters grew up, married, and started families before that Monday and Tuesday, August 1-2, 1927, when they would record "Single Girl, Married Girl," "Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow," and four other sides. The legend put about by Peer after the Carters' success was that the Carters were raggedy-assed, barefoot, iggerant backwoodsmen who'd never seen the big city before they pulled into town looking like the Beverly Hillbillies. (Come to think of it, I would not be suprised to find a distinct historic correlation between that disgusting portrayal and Peer's description.)

At any rate, it's rank bullshit, meant to sell records and legend. A. P. Carter made a decent living for himself selling fruit trees and farming, the Carters wore clothes to Bristol that, while perhaps not New York tailored, were perfectly unremarkable -- and that certainly included footwear fit for city use. A. P. was born in a log cabin -- it's now on display at the Carter Family Fold in Hiltons, moved down from its original, nearly inaccessible site. But the idea that the Carters were from the back of beyond and had never seen the Big City is pure nonsense -- Maces Spring is a mere twenty miles from town. A. P. Carter first heard of Peer's visit while he was in Bristol itself, visiting a cousin who ran a furniture store. They had cars (borrowed from a brother, admittedly, but they knew how to drive).

I followed the road to Hiltons, Clinch Mountain looming. It is indeed a winding road, and it is easy to imagine that its unpaved 1927 version would have been hard indeed on the balloon-like tires of the day -- the Carters took two days to traverse it, partly because of numerous blowouts, and partly because Sara was pregnant and the jostling made her miserable. But nowadays it can be driven at a comfortable 40 MPH, slowing down for the frequent 90-degree hairpins.

It is a very poor part of the world. One- and two- room houses of crumbling brick, old enough to have been passed by the Carters on their trip to Bristol, line the passage, yards weedy, reeking of desperation and boredom. Footwashing Baptist churches, though, look prosperous, well maintained, their white paint gleaming in the sun. There is ample traffic for a Sunday afternoon, and I sense impatience in drivers as they come up behind a gawking tourist who's slowing down to look at things they find completely commonplace. I pull over and let them pass.

Hiltons (Maces Spring lacks a post office and thus is not officially a town) looks prosperous enough. The town's mining concern seems to be going strong. Up past the school (also looking well off), the A. P. Carter Highway winds its way through Poor Valley to the Carter Family Fold, located at the site of the grocery store that A. P. opened after the Carters broke up -- his wife Sara having fallen in love with another. The grocery store (closed, alas, for Sunday, as is all of the Fold) looks about the size of my living room. A. P.'s birth-cabin is beautiful, rustic -- and shares architectural characteristics with the German/Scots-Irish cabins in and around my home, 350 miles north.

I can only admire from outside the little amphitheater where Saturday nights in season ("Adults $1.50, Children 50 cents") old-timey and bluegrass concerts are given.

This is the place where a dying Johnny Cash gave his last performance.

Not much more to see here. A phone call from home requires my presence, and presently I am bombing back up 81, dodging eighteen-wheelers and blue flashing lights on prowlers, headed back to 2009. I still keep the Mood Music going, though:
Far away upon a hill on a sunny mountain side
Many years ago we parted, my little Ruth and I
From the sunny mountain side

Oh she clung to me and trembled, when I told her we must part
And she said don't go my darling, it almost breaks my heart
To think of you, so far apart

Carry me back to old Virginia,
Back to my Clinch Mountain home...


noblesavage said...

The Steve Earle song, "Carrie Brown" takes place in Bristol. Bit of an homage - "I shot him in Virginia and he died in Tennessee."

Will Divide said...

Nice trip, Ned. Thanks for taking us with.

Candlefiregirl@aol.com said...

Fantastic post, and so well told, as usual, Neddie. Thanks for letting us travel with you on this adventure. I would love to see the town with my own eyes. Since I have kin down in NC...I may get a chance later in the year to make a side trip over.

John B. said...

The trip down I-81, while dangerous, is beautiful, coming through the Shenandoah Valley into the Roanoke Valley and then through the New River area down the Wilderness Road that so many pioneers used to take them to and through Kentucky. A lot of history and a beautiful part of southwestern Virginia. I also encourage folks to take a stop in Floyd at the Old general store on Friday evenings for some great Blue Ridge tradition and music. It's a great event and part of our musical heritage. Nice story Neddie.

Jason Chervokas said...

Oh yeah, I skirted Bristol last year on my way around a triangle betwee Nashville, Winston-Salem, DC, and Charleston...In Nashville I got a much closer connection to the Bristol sessions--the guitar Jimmie Rogers played on that date is on display at the Country Music Hall of Fame, the best HOF I've ever been to, run by the great Country Music Foundation, well worth the trip if you're ever close.

nolierob said...

Dang, Ned - you can write!

JD said...

Worked in a hospital a while back, and one of my favorite internal medicine docs was raised in Bristol. He used to tell me that you could still see the Civil War bullet holes in buildings downtown.

Thanks for the road trip, Neddie. Makes me want to crack open my copy of Blue Highways once more time.

Kevin Wolf said...

Even though I live in an old place (Salem, Mass.), when I read your stuff, Neddie, I wonder if I live in the "real" America. I should at least get out and visit that America sometime soon.