BRISTOL, Va. (WJHL)- As News Channel 11 celebrates 70 years on the air, an event occurred in Bristol, Virginia even further back that sparked what many call the “Big Bang of Country Music.”
The Man in Black, Johnny Cash, called the 1927 Bristol Sessions “the single most important event in the history of country music.”
The Birthplace of Country Music Museum (BCM) tells the story of that musical heritage.
“This was a location recording session where the record label came to Bristol in an effort to find lots of different talent at once, and they recorded 19 different acts, 76 songs, 69 of which were released. So these [were] very prolific recording sessions,” said BCM head curator, Dr. René Rodgers. “It was also the first time that the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers recorded at all in country music, and both of them are hugely foundational. So one is the first family of country music, the other is the father of country music.”
It brought legendary music producer Ralph Peer and dozens of artists to the state line.
“[He was] a real visionary in the early recording industry, and his influence on the way that the music industry works today was huge. So all of those things sort of made the perfect storm of events that made Bristol so significant,” Rodgers said. “The recordings were actually better, more nuanced, more balanced sound. So they sold better.”
Ninety-six years later, the history of the Bristol Sessions brings thousands of people from all 50 states and over 45 countries to The Birthplace of Country Music Museum.
“That recognition also just underlines that the story that we’re telling here is an interesting and engaging one that the programming we’re doing is having an impact, but also that it has connections beyond the local and the regional, that there’s connections to the American music stage on the national level,” said Rodgers. “And we also look beyond that to look at the impact and legacy of those musical recordings on country music and American music as a whole.”
The museum tells the story of the Sessions that first made country music commercially successful.
“You’re not just looking at pictures and reading panels. There are four film experiences upstairs. There are interactives, there’s space to sing, there’s space to dance, so it’s really a great place to just really immerse yourself in the music and the history,” said Rodgers. “There’s usually an emotional impact that they are having memories of music making in their communities and music making in their families or music that meant something to them. And they take that emotion when they leave here.”
The museum goes beyond that with rotating special exhibits, a live radio station, and educational programs.
“When they come here, they have an emotional connection to music already. And so sometimes they don’t realize the connections between this older music and some of the music they love today,” Rodgers said. “Some of them might not even think they’re interested in country music, but the story itself is so interesting, and those beginnings of the early commercial country music industry, just learning about that and the people involved and hearing the music and its impact.”
‘I’ve Endured: Women in Old Time Music’ is the special exhibit on display in late September. It’s the first exhibition curated by the BCM and will eventually travel to other institutions. It’s on display in Bristol through the end of the year.
As visitors step back in time, they’re able to see how country music has an impact beyond the genre.
“We’re talking about a specific moment in time when country music sort of became first commercially successful, but what was influencing that music and how that music has grown and developed and evolved over the years encompasses multiple cultures, multiple artists, multiple traditions, multiple genres,” said Rodgers. “It’s not just white rural music. It’s also connected to African-American, Latino, to indigenous traditions. And I just think that that opens up people’s eyes to how history is just so much broader than what they might think. Music is a great way to do that because everybody loves a good tune.”
There is more to come as the museum celebrates being open for a decade next year.
“We also are going to be expanding into the building next door over the next several years. And that means that we’re going to have even more resources and hopefully some very specific Smithsonian resources here, but also expanding our permanent exhibits, ” said Rogers. “So that’s going to be something else that we’ll be doing starting with the ten-year anniversary, is to start sharing those plans with our community.”
The BCM is one of around 300 Smithsonian affiliates in the U.S., Panama, and Puerto Rico. Rodgers said the idea is to have the Smithsonian in communities outside of Washington, D.C.
“We regularly show films from the Smithsonian, have exhibits from the Smithsonian, and do public programming with the Smithsonian. For instance, in January, of this year, we showed films,” said Rodgers. “We screened four films from the Smithsonian Channel, all about Black history to go along with Bristol’s Martin Luther King celebration. And then we had a talk here with members of our community talking about how they had experienced the Green Book.”
In addition to films, programming and exhibits, the affiliation allows the museum to get free resources for the community and have professional development opportunities.
The Birthplace of Country Music Museum will have a Community Day on Oct. 28 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. with family-friendly events. Admission is free for that event.