Deep in the heart of Appalachia, a town that straddles the border of Tennessee and Virginia claims to be the true birthplace of country music. Bristol’s Birthplace of Country Music Museum preserves this unsung legacy alongside memorabilia and other artifacts from some of the most influential musicians in the industry.
The museum tells the story of the Bristol Sessions. In 1927, a record producer named Ralph Peer set up shop in Bristol. During the summer of that year, Peer worked with nineteen bands and individual singers to record their songs. Among these musicians were gospel bands, solo artists, and local families. There were also more popular singers like the Carter Family, Lesley Riddle, the Johnson Brothers, and Jimmie Rodgers.
Ralph Peer worked with Victor Talking Machine Company, which was a major record company. Soon after the Bristol Sessions, these country music songs found their way into American households and radio stations. Country was still a developing genre, and many Americans outside of the region were unfamiliar with the unique sound of bluegrass or mountain music. As more Americans listened to country songs recorded during the Bristol Sessions, singers like the Carter Family found a widespread audience.
This summertime recording period is considered to be a catalyst for sparking the country music industry. Peer’s recordings helped introduce listeners across the nation to this genre of song. This legacy held through the generations. In 1998, Congress officially designated the city of Bristol as the “birthplace of country music.”
The museum preserves this story and explains how country music has continued to shape this region. In rotating exhibits, curators also raise awareness about influential singers like Pat “Mother Blues” Cohen.
As visitors learn about the history of country music in the Appalachian Mountains, they can listen to samples from the recordings. They can also see original costumes, banjos, and other ephemera.
Know Before You Go
Bristol is its own special destination because it spreads across the Tennessee and Virginia lines. Half of State Street in downtown Bristol is in Tennessee; the other half is in Virginia. Many tourists enjoy taking a selfie as they straddle the middle of State Street.
The street is often not very crowded, but be aware of incoming traffic if you choose to take a selfie.