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Birthplace of a Nation's Music

Tennessee Valley Stories
State-line bisected Bristol was the site of country music's 'Big Bang,' and regional tourism gets a big boost from the BCM museum's booming business

If ever there was a tourist attraction designed and suited to celebrate a local region’s rich history, unique culture and distinct sense of place, it is the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol, Virginia.

The two-tier, 24,000-square-foot exhibition hall has served six years now as an institutional landmark for, and a living memorial to, what's been described as the “Big Bang” of country music -- the legendary 1927 Bristol recording sessions.

The museum is a Smithsonian-affiliated endeavor that draws a steady stream of country music devotees, curiosity seekers and history buffs on pilgrimages to the tucked-away corner of Appalachia that endowed America with one of its most popular, authentic and enduring musical legacies.

Like the music it celebrates, the museum itself is a testament to innovation, multidimensional technology and diverse storytelling techniques and influences.

“In addition to core exhibits, the Museum also houses a large space for special exhibits, a performance theater, the radio station, a learning center and The Museum Store,” the BCM website conveys. “The Core Exhibits are highly interactive and feature a number of video experiences as well as various artifacts relating to the 1927 Bristol Sessions and other aspects of Bristol’s musical legacy.”

According to the Library of Congress, the Bristol Sessions represented one of the earliest examples of a record producer traveling off the beaten path and into the proverbial hinterlands in search of commercially novel sounds -- in this case, what would become known as “hillbilly music.” And it was undoubtedly the first time that a promoter had tramped out to Bristol seeking homegrown performing talent.

From July 25 through August 5 of that year, Ralph Peer, working for the Victor Talking Machine Company, set up a temporary record studio in downtown Bristol where he captured dozens of songs by various singers and musicians that represent the genesis of the country music industry.

“The Bristol Sessions were innovative in a number of ways, and they helped to change the popular music landscape forever,” a 2017 Smithsonian Magazine article about the event explained.

“Over the course of two months, the Victor Records producer recorded 19 different artists at a makeshift studio inside a Bristol hat warehouse, resulting in some of the most influential songs in country music,” Rolling Stone Magazine elaborated. “The sessions also made stars out of Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family — two of the most revered acts in all of music history. The historic significance of those Bristol recordings resulted in ‘the birthplace of country music’ actually being deemed 300 miles from Nashville.”

Decades later, Johnny Cash would famously describe the Bristol Sessions as “the single most important event in the history of country music,” and in 1998 the United States Congress officially designated Bristol as the "Birthplace of Country Music."

Straddling and Transcending

As most folks familiar with Bristol are well aware, the city straddles the Virginia-Tennessee state line, which legally speaking runs right down the center stripe of the main downtown traffic strip, State Street.

Together they are nicknamed the Twin City, but Bristol, VA and Bristol, TN are in fact two “separate” towns, not one.

The Birthplace of Country Music Museum is on the Virginia side, but its business office is located three blocks away on the Tennessee side -- just a few yards from where the Bristol Sessions actually occurred. So like the town itself, the museum operation essentially straddles the state line as well.

Promoters of the museum don’t tend to focus on the jurisdictional demarcations that split the two Bristols. Visitors aren’t paying much attention to that either -- at least not in regards to where they shop and eat and drink and stay.

“We always say we don’t see county lines and we don’t see state lines — except for when people are standing in the middle of State Street to take a picture of it,” said Kim Davis, marketing director for the museum.

When visitors come to downtown Bristol, there’s little doubt they’re going to make a point of walking up one side of State Street then down the other, she said.

“They don’t really look at it like they're going to Tennessee or going to Virginia,” said Davis. “They look at it like they are going to Bristol.”

Both state governments support the museum and "the benefits of being able to be in two states definitely outweigh any of the challenges,” said Davis.

“It is very beneficial to have two state tourism offices promoting your destination," she said. "In Virginia, the museum is a major attraction for the southwest part of the state. In Tennessee, the museum a major attraction for the northeast part of the state.”

Interest in partnering with the BCM extends beyond just Bristol and the state and federal levels. Davis said she also encounters a collaborative mindset beyond just among those for whom visitation to the museum provides an obvious and immediate benefit.

Regional towns, counties and attractions surrounding the museum understand that short, scenic drives and lines on maps don't pose formidable impediments to attracting exploration-minded Bristol-bound vacationers their way as well. Localities surrounding the Twin City are typically happy to help promote the museum because they, too, stand to profit from its magnetic effect.

“We work really closely and collaborate with our entire region - not just Bristol but Johnson City, Kingsport and Abingdon and their tourism offices as well as others -- because the museum tells the story about our region and our history and its impact on country music,” she said.

The Bristol siblings share a single chamber of commerce, and its “Discover Bristol” website and visitor-promotion initiative is the tourism-marketing arm for both.

“We are promoting Bristol as one city, and both cities promote that as well,” said the chamber’s executive director, Beth Rhinehart.

She said the Birthplace of Country Museum has become "one of our top lures.”

“Knowing that it is a Smithsonian-affiliated museum certainly adds an extra layer of draw beyond its organic connection to us being the specially designated Birthplace of Country Music," Rhinehart said. “It is one of the main reasons that people come here -- and we’ve absolutely seen it grow.”

Since the 2014 opening of the museum, it has drawn nearly 140,000 people through its doors -- including visitors from all 50 states, and over 46 foreign countries.

Enflaming Music Passions

After last year’s airing of the immensely popular eight-part Ken Burns PBS documentary, “Country Music,” interest in the museum was set ablaze. The first two episodes delved deeply into the genre’s Appalachian roots and thoroughly explored and illuminated Bristol’s significance to the modern music industry.

The BCM staff assisted Burns in his research for the series while it was in production. And they had a pretty good idea prior to release that it would significantly heighten their visibility. But the fired-up audience response that the documentary instantly ignited caught them by surprise.

“When the film came out in September, we knew it was going to be big,” said Davis, the museum’s marketing director. “But I thought we wouldn’t see the impact for a few months.”

Instead, reaction was immediate.

"We had over six million impressions on our landing page in the first three days," she said. "It began airing on a Sunday night, and by Tuesday people where showing up here. It was crazy."

Visitation then soared throughout the fall.

“Last September and October our attendance was up almost 150 percent above those same months for the last four years,” Davis said. “By the end of the year, we were up 30 percent for the entire year with attendance.”

Entertainment Epicenter

The BCM museum is a worthy compliment to the town's other crowd-pleasing monument to rural Southern culture, the 162,000-seat Bristol Motor Speedway.

On July 15, BMS hosted the NASCAR All-Star race that earned celebration as the single biggest American spectator-sport gathering since the coronavirus put a halt.

Davis calls the speedway a "bucket-list race track." When you add the together the speedway, the museum and the wealth of outdoor recreation opportunities that surround, you've got all the makings of a genuine vacation destination.

Northeast Tennessee, Southwest Virginia and North Carolina just over the horizon boast a diversity of lakes, forests, rivers, mountains, cultural attractions and historical points of interest that can compete with anywhere else in the country.

A venerated local historian named V.N. “Bud” Phillips postulated that a lifetime’s worth of vacations await within a 100-mile radius of the Twin City.

Here's how Discover Bristol describes the lay of the land:

Bristol is situated in the foothills of the magnificent Southern Appalachian Mountains, which includes the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway, Cherokee National Forest and other wilderness areas The region is unsurpassed for beauty, as well as biological diversity with more than 20,000 species of plants and animals.

Steep mountains, rock outcrops, and waterfalls create a stunning landscape that harbors gorgeous arrays of springtime wildflowers, caves that provide habitat for endangered bats and rare salamanders, and dense forests filled with vast numbers of migrating songbirds.

The website notes that the 640,000-acre Cherokee National Forest, which forms the largest tract of public land in Tennessee, offers an “endless supply of opportunities for camping, fishing, wildlife viewing, rafting, and hiking” -- including the Appalachian Trail, which winds its way along the Holston Mountain ridgetop less than a half-hour’s drive from downtown Bristol.

Banding Together

Northeast Tennessee Tourism Association director Alicia Phelps’s job is not only promoting the sprawling eight-county realm she oversees, but also encouraging individual chambers and local government jurisdictions to see themselves not as isolated economic outposts, but rather essential aspects of the big picture.

One might think that’d be a difficult task because “obviously everybody wants to promote the city or county that they are in,” she said.

Fortunately, in a normal year there are usually plenty of visitors to go around. “Collectively, tourism’s impact to the regions annually is almost a billion dollars,” Phelps said. “We bring in $900 million a year.”

Phelps credits the the Birthplace of Country Music Museum for being a first-rate operation that reliably serves as a dependable destination hub. Its staff and volunteers are “wonderful partners,” and they’ve done a great job of ensuring that the museum maintains its status as a world-class attraction.

Phelps, who serves as a member of the TRV Stewardship Council, said towns and counties surrounding Bristol have grown to embrace the museum as if it’s their own. It provides a tremendously effective regional linchpin “which makes my job easier,” she said.

“The museum’s footprint goes all across Northeast Tennessee -- really, far beyond Bristol and Northeast Tennessee,” said Phelps. “We feel like that when someone comes to visit the museum, they are most likely going to be here for a few days, and they are going to visit other parts of Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee. So we really try to work together to see the benefit of that.”

Phelps said tourism-promotion agencies, entities and businesses across the region embrace a cooperation-over-competition approach.

They understand that cross-promotion of destinations and activities “really makes our voice a lot stronger together." And they realize visitors aren't going to stay in one place -- "they're going to roam around,” she said.