Music News
4:46 pm
Sat August 2, 2014

At The Cradle Of Country Music, A Monument You Can Hear As Well As See

Originally published on Sat August 2, 2014 9:40 am

When you exit Interstate 81 in southwestern Virginia and arrive in the small city of Bristol, you see what it looks like to age. The Art Deco Paramount Theater on State Street has not only the good bones, but also the healthy glow it did when it was built more than 80 years ago. Back then, this small southern city was an unavoidable stop for travelers.

"If you were traveling anywhere north or south of Bristol by train, you had to stop in Bristol for a considerable amount of time because the train gauge actually changed," says Reagan Streetman. He's a spokesperson for the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, which opens in Bristol today.

"We are on a state line. They had to take it off the Virginia tracks and switch them to Tennessee, and that took some time — so a lot of people came downtown," Streetman explains. "This was a really bustling city, and if you were an artist, you would perform here."

So it made sense for a producer from Victor Records named Ralph Peer to set up a makeshift studio in a hat factory, a few blocks from where the Birthplace of Country Music Museum now stands, and start auditioning talent.

"This is where the Carter Family first recorded. This is where Jimmie Rodgers first recorded in 1927," says Jessica Turner, the museum's director and head curator.

Turner says that although there were earlier country recordings produced in Atlanta and New York, Bristol represents a ripe moment, "where you have people really getting into the industry, artists who are just about ready to become famous and recording technology all coming together to make recordings that are very successful."

The museum is just off State Street in a former truck dealership building, and you can still see the ramps in its new incarnation. What you won't see are a lot of glass cases filled with old instruments and costumes.

"We're not heavy into artifacts," Streetman says. "We want people to touch, feel and hear the instruments and be inspired."

Streetman says touch screens allow museum-goers to take apart the old songs: that is, to pull up the vocals or the guitars and study them separately, even remix them. And there are listening stations where you can hear the original 1927 Bristol recordings and their later remakes. In this museum, even selfies are welcome.

"People want to use their phones to capture their experience and upload to YouTube," Streetman says. "Why not let them?"

That ethos captures what the music is all about, says Jeff Place, a staff archivist at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.

"Appalachian music is community-based music," he says. "The roots of country music and where country music came from is really the Appalachian Mountains and that area around Bristol. And there's a whole scene down there, the festivals; it's as vibrant as it's ever been.

Place worked to help the Birthplace of Country Music Museum become a Smithsonian affiliate, which means it can borrow assets and get curatorial advice, among other things, from the larger institution.

A hundred miles northeast of Bristol, in Floyd, Va., sits the Floyd Country Store. Hanna Trayham spent her childhood coming here. She's a banjo player in the Northwest-based, old-time string band The Barn Owls and the daughter of fiddler and luthier Mac Traynham, who is making a banjo for the museum. Hanna thinks the place will be a great addition to the scene.

"My music comes from this very specific southwest Virginia region, so I care about the musicians that were here," she says. "And so to figure out who played where and when and what did they play, and to find out their sources even, is really great for people in our generation."

Translating that spirit will be a challenge for the new museum, Jeff Place says — but he's hopeful.

"People make the music for themselves and with each other," he says. "And it is interesting to see a museum that's taken all these old technologies and is presenting it in a more high-tech museum way."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is NPR News. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR news. I'm Scott Simon. The Birthplace of Country Music Museum opens in Bristol, Virginia today. It claims its name because of a recording session that happened in that city back in 1927 and it produced such future stars as Jimmy Rogers and The Carter Family. Robbie Harris, of member station WVTF, visited Bristol and brings back this story about the new museum and history behind it.

ROBBIE HARRIS, BYLINE: When you exit Interstate 81 in Southwestern Virginia and arrive in the small city of Bristol, you see what it looks like to age gracefully.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 1: So beautiful.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 2: So beautiful.

HARRIS: The art deco Paramount Theater on State Street has not only the good bones, but also the healthy glow it did when it was built more than 80 years ago. Back then, this small Southern city was an unavoidable stop for travelers.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN WHISTLE)

REAGAN STREETMAN: If you were traveling anywhere north of Bristol or south of Bristol by train, you had to stop in Bristol because the train gage actually changed.

HARRIS: Reagan Streetman is spokesperson for the birthplace of Country Music Museum.

STREETMAN: We are on a state line, so they had to take it off the tracks - the Virginia tracks and switch them to Tennessee and that took the time. So a lot people came downtown. And if you were an artist, you would perform here.

HARRIS: So it made sense for a producer from Victor Records named Ralph Peer to set up a makeshift studio in a hat factory, a few blocks from the where the museum now stands, and start auditioning talent.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BURY ME UNDER THE WEEPING WILLOW TREE")

THE CARTER FAMILY: (Singing) My heart is sad and I'm in sorrow for the only I love...

HARRIS: Jessica Turner is the museum's director and head curator.

JESSICA TURNER: This is where The Carter Family first recorded. This is where Jimmy Rogers first recorded in 1927. However, there were recordings prior to Bristol. 1923, 1924 in Atlanta - there were recordings in New York. And so this is an industry that's really taking shape in Bristol - is just that really ripe moment where you have that people really getting into the industry and the technology - microphone technology and recording technology - all coming together to make recordings that are very successful.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BURY ME UNDER THE WEEPING WILLOW TREE")

THE CARTER FAMILY: (Singing) Oh, bury me under the weeping willow- yes, under the weeping willow tree. So he may know where I am sleeping and perhaps he will weep for me.

HARRIS: The museum is a former truck dealership building. You can still see its ramps in the new incarnation. What you won't see are a lot of glass cases filled with old instruments and costumes.

STREETMAN: We're not heavy on artifacts. We want people to touch, feel, listen and hear their experience and be inspired.

HARRIS: So Reagan Streetman says touch screens allow you to take apart the old songs, pull up the vocals or the guitars and study them separately - even remix them. And there are listening stations, where you can hear the original 1927 Bristol recordings.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LONGEST TRAIN I EVER SAW")

TENNEVA RAMBLERS: (Singing) The longest train I ever saw was on that Georgian line.

HARRIS: And their remakes, like Nirvana's take on Tenneva Ramblers.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LONGEST TRAIN I EVER SAW")

NIRVANA: (Singing) My girl, my girl where will you go. I'm going where the cold wind blows.

HARRIS: In this museum, even selfies are welcome.

STREETMAN: People want to capture their experience through Instagram, through Facebook, to tweet it, to upload to YouTube. Why not let them?

HARRIS: That ethos captures what the music is all about says Jeff Place.

JEFF PLACE: Appalachian music - it's community-based music.

HARRIS: Place is a staff archivist at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. He worked to help the Birthplace of Country Music Museum become a Smithsonian affiliate, which means it can borrow assets and get curatorial advice, among other things, from the larger institutions.

PLACE: The root of country music in the United States was really, you know, the Appalachian Mountains and that area around Bristol. And there's a whole scene down there. You know, it's vibrant as it's ever been.

HARRIS: Place points to the Crooked Road website, which provides a guided tour of Southwest Virginia's current traditional music scene - its players and venues.

HARRIS: The Floyd Country Store in Floyd, Virginia is about a 100 miles northeast of Bristol.

HANNA TRAYNHAM: Yeah, I grew up coming to the Floyd Country Store. My dad is quite involved with the scene here.

HARRIS: Hanna Traynham lives in Seattle now. She just played the Floyd Country Store with her band, the Barn Owls. Her dad is fiddler and luthier Mac Traynham. He's making a banjo for the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. And she thinks the place will be a great addition to the scene.

TRAYNHAM: My music generally comes from this very specific Southwestern Virginia region. So I care a lot about the musicians that were here. And so to figure out who played where and when and what did they play is a huge deal. And to find out their sources, even, is really great for people in our generation.

DAVE CANNADAY: She grew up, as a little kid, out here on Friday nights.

HARRIS: Third-generation musician Dave Cannaday produces concerts at the Country Store and teaches that younger generation.

TATE HARMON: What was that one that you taught me, "9 lb. Hammer"?

HARRIS: Cannaday's 2:30 p.m. lesson, 14-year-old Tate Harmon, has never heard 1927 Bristol sessions or the musicians who made them. But he loves to play the music.

CANNADAY: All right, start it off.

(BANJO PLAYING)

HARRIS: Translating that spirit will be a challenge for the new museum. But the Smithsonian's Jeff Place is hopeful.

PLACE: People make the music for themselves or with each other and it is interesting to see a museum that's taken all these old technologies and, you know, presenting it in more of its high-tech, museum way.

HARRIS: In the next months, the Birthplace of Country Music Museum will begin broadcasting and webcasting from what looks like a vintage radio studio, only its 1946 Raytheon Console has been gutted and filled with modern circuitry. For NPR News, I'm Robbie Harris in Southwestern Virginia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.