The Birthplace of Country Music

Museum commemorates the Bristol Sessions of 1927

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The $11 million museum opened in August about
a block off of State Street in Bristol, Va. Photo by Tim Cox

Bristol’s hills are truly alive with the sound of music. “That’s kind of our heritage — our music and our art,” says Catherine Brillhart, the mayor of Bristol, Va.

Recognized by the U.S. Congress as the official Birthplace of Country Music, Bristol celebrates the arrival of a talent scout named Ralph Peer in Bristol in the summer of 1927 to record hillbilly music performers. That recording session included established singers such as Henry Whitter and Ernest V. “Pop” Stoneman. But it also led to the discovery of country music’s first long-lasting stars: Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family. Wanting to make their music immortal, they wandered into Peer’s makeshift recording studio on the Tennessee side of State Street.

For more than a decade, Bristol’s Mountain Music Museum has allowed visitors to get an up-close look at artifacts and instruments associated with the fabled Bristol Sessions, considered the “Big Bang” of country music. The museum resided in various locations at the Bristol Mall. Last year it relocated to a retail space on the Tennessee side of State Street.

Then in August, the splashier Birthplace of Country Music Museum opened its doors about a block off State Street near Cumberland Square Park in Bristol, Va. Its $11 million cost was paid with a mix of tax credits, donations and grants. “The states of Tennessee and Virginia have given money,” says Jessica Turner, the museum’s curator, “and the cities of Bristol, Va., and Bristol, Tenn., have given operations support.”

Inside the museum, you can hear 87-year-old recordings by a variety of acts — with subjects that range from drinking and dancing to love and longing, disaster, hardship, death, faith or betrayal. The museum includes rare photos, instruments, interactive displays and videos.

“Certainly in this part of the state, cultural assets are economic development,” Turner says. “And a lot of businesses are investing in cultural products, whether that be music or arts or entertainment or crafts and things like that. Those kinds of cultural arts projects bring in a lot of visitors, who bring in a lot of dollars. And I think you will see that boost Bristol’s economy. We’re already seeing that with at least one boutique hotel choosing to locate here because of this museum.”

Impact studies suggest the museum will attract about 75,000 visitors a year, Turner says. “In the month of September, our revenues were about $22,000 in admissions to the museum. And then, on top of that, just in the month of September, we have had about 55 new members to the museum. We’ve been thrilled. People all over the world are coming to see it.”

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