For this series, we’ll be following Paste’s own Curmudgeon, Geoffrey Himes, as he sets out on a massive road trip across the South, exploring musical landmarks, traditions and history along the way. First stop: Bristol, Va.
After a harsh winter along the East Coast, it seemed only fitting that it would be snowing as I backed my car out of my Baltimore driveway and headed south. Warm, fat flakes were swirling around the black Camry all the way east to Frederick, Md., south through Harper’s Ferry, W. Va., and to Staunton, Va., where we stopped for lunch. When we reemerged, the sky was blue, the sun was shining and the temperature was 36 degrees. We had left the North behind.
But the weather was the least of the reasons for making my annual trip south. For all my resentment of the damage the South has done to the nation’s history and current politics, I can’t stay away for long. All winter long, I hurl profanities at the TV screen and morning paper when Southern politicians and preachers find new ways to fence in women and minorities and to deny scientific facts. But spring returns, and I can’t wait to cross the Potomac River and follow the mountains southward.
If you care about American music and American food as much as I do, you know all the best stuff has Southern roots. You go looking for those sources, and you find the kind of thrilling, democratic rituals that are harder to find in the busier, more goal-oriented North. You go looking for elusive answers to the puzzle that is the South: how can such brilliant music and storytelling, such delicious food and friendly people, coexist with such reactionary politics and religion, such awful poverty and schools? Solve that puzzle and you’ve gone a long way to answering the greater riddle of America as a whole.
As we travel down the Shenandoah Valley, my traveling companion Jim and I listen to Louis Armstrong’s wonderfully salacious version of “Let’s Do It” on the iPod. Our first stop is Gift and Thrift in Harrisonburg, Va., where I buy a Tammy Wynette LP for 50 cents, a Barack Obama T-shirt for $1.50 and a Georgia Vidalia Onion cookbook for $1.95. Our second stop is Mrs. Rowe’s Restaurant in Staunton, where I get to eat some moist, firm spoon bread (a kind of cornbread pudding) and some apple pie with big chunks of local apples and just enough cinnamon.
The third stop is Bristol, the city that amply deserves its nickname, “The Birthplace of Country Music.” Between July 25 and Aug. 5, 1927, Victor’s Ralph Peer set up an ad hoc recording studio in a hat warehouse on Bristol’s State Street, so named because it divides the town between Virginia and Tennessee. Over those two weeks, Peer made the first-ever recordings of the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers as well as memorable sides from Ernest “Pop” Stoneman, Blind Alfred Reed, Henry Whitter and J.P. Nester. Rodgers, Stoneman and the Carters became stars and gave country music an identity. “The Bristol Sessions,” Johnny Cash once said, “is the single most important event in the history of country music.”
For a long time, Bristol ignored this legacy; the city allowed the hat warehouse to be torn down. More recently, however, the town has embraced its musical past; big murals of Rodgers and the Carters are painting on the broad sides of brick buildings downtown, and the festival, the Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion, takes place every September in theaters, restaurants and parking lots all along State Street near the site of the missing warehouse. A block north of State Street, at the corner of Moore and Cumberland, the Birthplace of Country Music Museum is under construction, getting ready for its opening in August. With assistance from the Smithsonian Institution, it promises to be a sophisticated, multimedia showcase for the entire tree of country music as it sprung from its roots in the Bristol Sessions.
In the meantime, the Mountain Music Museum is still in operation on State Street, where it moved last summer from the Bristol Mall. There’s something symbolic in this small, homespun collection moving from the kind of suburban mall that has drained the life from so many Southern downtowns into the revived historic district. It’s a small victory for what’s best about the South over what’s worst.
The Mountain Music Museum is the kind of amateur historical collection you find all over the South. Often random in their holdings and awkward in their labeling, these museums have an endearing personality that you never find in more professionally curated museums. You can feel the passion for the cause seeping through the low-budget operation.
Stuffed into one long, narrow room, the museum has some interesting artifacts: June Carter Cash’s green-lace dress, Donna Stoneman’s blue stage dress and white boots, Larry Sparks’ gray suit, a mandolin signed by Bill Monroe, the only known copy of a 78 recording by “Mr. and Mrs. J.W. Baker” from the original Bristol Sessions. A relief map of the region shows just how many country performers were born within 150 miles of Bristol: the Carter Family, the Stanley Brothers, Dolly Parton, Patty Loveless, Doc Watson, Dock Boggs, Clarence Ashley, Earl Scruggs, Dwight Yoakam, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn and many more.
My favorite artifacts, though, were associated with the Carter Family. There was a quilt made from dresses worn by Sara Carter and her daughter, Janette. Best of all was a rusting, red Coca-Cola cooler that was in A.P. Carter’s grocery store. You can lean on the cooler, as if you were talking to A.P. himself about the day when he first drove down from Maces Springs, Va., to record in Bristol. And then you can walk out the door of the museum and down the street, as if you were following A.P. to that session in 1927.
That kind of thrilling connection can overwhelm any reservations one might have about Southern politics or modern country music. Jim and I walked up to the old hat warehouse site, past the under-construction Birthplace of Country Music Museum and over to the Blackbird Bakery, where we had key lime bars to die for.