BRISTOL, Va. – Bristol straddles the Tennessee-Virginia state line. It is quaint and leisurely, a small town, according to geography and population. Yet to those who know the story, Bristol is enormous.
"Nashville is like a child to Bristol," says Jim Lauderdale, a Grammy-winning singer-songwriter who performed Saturday night at an outdoor stage on Bristol's Virginia side.
Nashville is the state capital, it is a tourist mecca, and it scrapes the sky. But it would not be or do these things were it not for producer Ralph Peer's recording sessions in Bristol, which took place between July 25 and Aug. 5, 1927.
Peer's recordings — conducted in a hat company building at 408 State St. on the Tennessee side of the line — are now known as "The Bristol Sessions." Organized in part by Ernest V. "Pop" Stoneman, the sessions are called "The Big Bang Of Country Music" because they provided early recordings and marketplace entry for template-setters The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers.
Without Peer, Stoneman, the Carters and Rodgers, America's music story — including the chapter in which Nashville becomes "Music City, U.S.A." — plays out entirely differently. Without Bristol, who knows?
And so, over the years, music-loving pilgrims have come to downtown Bristol and found … not so much, other than Tim White's mural depicting the principal participants in those 1927 sessions.
Over the just-passed weekend, not so much became plenty, with the opening of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, a state-of-the-art, Smithsonian-affiliated showcase that offers an eloquent assertion of Bristol's place in American music and culture.
"I saw the people coming in and thought, 'Daddy, Mommy, you started all this,' " said Roni Stoneman, who toured for many years with Pop Stoneman and mother Hattie Stoneman and other relations in the group, The Stoneman Family. "And every one of those pickers that have done gone on, they are here today, in that museum."
The museum cost $11 million to build, and that money was raised via unusual collaborations. It's not normal for the state of Tennessee to pitch in $500,000 for a building located — barely, but still — in Virginia, but the building should provide a tourism boost for both states.
"Our community started believing in the music of our region and our heritage when we started the annual music festival in 2001," said Birthplace of Country Music Association Executive Director Leah Ross. The every-September Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion is a successful festival that proved the economic value of roots music to the region in the same way that the Carter Family's 1927 single "Single Girl, Married Girl" proved the commercial worth of country music.
The Stonemans, the Carters and Rodgers would have been slack-jawed to hear of the millions raised and spent on music. In 1927 they were thrilled to receive $50 per original song from Peer and the Victor Talking Machine Co.
"Back then, it was dog eat dog, and the world didn't care who won," said "Grand Ole Opry" star Jesse McReynolds, whose grandfather, Charles McReynolds, played fiddle at the Bristol Sessions with the Bull Mountain Moonshiners.
'Breaks my heart'
These days, the world cares, and the roots music that helped build the city of Nashville is drawing tourists and dollars in other locales.
Virginia's Crooked Road heritage music trail includes a Ralph Stanley Museum and the Carter Family Fold. Run by Rita Forrester, granddaughter of original Carter Family members A.P. and Sara Carter, the Carter Fold marked its 40th anniversary over the weekend.
When A.P. Carter was dying in 1960, daughter Janette promised she would keep Carter Family music alive. In Poor Valley — the home of the Carters when they made the treacherous, all-day, 30-mile trip to the Bristol Sessions in 1927 — she built a music park, founded a museum, established a nonprofit arts organization and relocated A.P.'s childhood home onto the property.
Janette Carter died in 2006, and daughter Forrester now operates the Fold. Every Saturday evening she features acoustic roots music on the stage where late Country Music Hall of Famer Johnny Cash — who married into the Carter family when he wed June Carter, daughter of guitar hero Mother Maybelle Carter — gave his final performance.
Forrester takes no money for her work, which involves everything from booking acts to coordinating volunteers to making 45 pounds of chili to be sold on anniversary weekend. The Fold operates on a shoestring budget that sometimes snaps, but the doors stay open thanks to volunteers, local sponsors and the formidable force of Forrester's will.
Saturday afternoon, dozens of A.P., Sara and Maybelle's direct descendants gathered at the Fold for the 40th annual Carter Family Memorial Festival & Craft Show. Cousins and aunts and great-great-great-grandchildren joined on-stage to sing Carter favorite "Will The Circle Be Unbroken," and Forrester cried.
"My grandfather died never realizing the impact he had on music," she said. "That breaks my heart."
In Bristol, that impact is more realized and more celebrated than ever. Those songs built buildings, even cities.
ABOUT THE MUSEUM
What: Birthplace of Country Music Museum
Where: 520 Birthplace of Country Music Way, Bristol, Va., 24201. About 300 miles from Nashville.
When: Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. - 6 p.m. Sundays, 1 p.m. - 5 p.m.
Admission: $14. Discounted rates available for children, seniors and groups.
Details: www.BirthplaceofCountryMusic.org or 423-573-1927