Country music roadtrip to Bristol, the birthplace of country music

Mural along the streets of downtown Bristol, Virginia. Photo by Jessica Blankenship.

If you are serious about music history, you need to make the journey to Bristol. Go for the music experience and leave with a new appreciation on the history of America’s music and cultural.  The best part is that you will learn about the roots of the music that plays in your mind.  For most, a trip to Bristol is one to go before heading to Nashville.

Recently, I made a trip to Bristol to learn more about country music’s heritage and left with a new appreciation of many things in life.  On the way to Bristol, I could not help but think of legends such as Alfred G. Karnes who drove from Corbin to take part in the Bristol Sessions.  You think of the vehicles of the time, the roads, and the hopes of making a recorded album providing anxious feelings to the person on the journey.

Upon entering the town of Bristol, you will notice how well maintain and clean the community was.  The train passed on down the line going from Tennessee into Virginia with a line of railcars behind it.  The interesting thing is that Bristol is indeed in two towns, which converge to meet along State Street.  Down the middle of the road are metal plates that indicate which side of the road you are on.  Near the railroad, there is a large white sign greeting you with the words, “Bristol VA TN – A Good Place to Live.”

Birthplace of Country Music Museum

First stop in the journey was the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.  Parking is available beside and within a block of the museum.  Upon entry, you friendly staff members greet you with a brief overview.  In the main entryway is a large display statue featuring the photos and names of those that took part in the Bristol Sessions of 1926 and 1927.  Straight ahead with the ticket counter is a large gift shop with a wide variety of items, many of which are from local artisans.  You can also purchase music related items, books, cds, clothing, housewares, and more.

To the left down a hallway is a special exhibit room.  This time, I was able to view photos from Henry Horenstein alongside items from Hard Rock Café memorabilia collection.  You’ll see items such as Roy Acuff’s fiddle, Waylon Jennings’ telecaster guitar, Loretta Lynn’s leather vest, and more alongside photos that Horenstein took. “Honky Tonk: Portraits of Country Music, 1972-1981, a special exhibit of photographs by Henry Horenstein, runs through the end of March 2021.  You can also purchase the book by clicking here.

Exhibit space featuring photos by Henry Horenstein and artifacts from Hard Rock Cafe. Photo by Jessica Blankenship.
Exhibit space featuring artifacts from Little Jimmy Dickens, Roy Acuff, and more at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. Photo by Jessica Blankenship.
Exhibit space featuring artifacts like Waylon Jennings Fender Telecaster guitar at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. Photo by Jessica Blankenship.
Exhibit space featuring artifacts like Waylon Jennings Fender Telecaster guitar at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. Photo by Jessica Blankenship.

As you make your way back, you can go to the right side of the gift shop for more event space.  Alongside the wall is an exhibit detailing how women have the right to vote, and the history alongside it.  There are bathrooms on the lower level, along with an area that classes use during the summertime.  Beside the classroom is a small theatre where the “Farm & Fun Time” show is filmed, as well as other unique performances.

Classroom inside the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol, VA. Photo by Jessica Blankenship.
Classroom inside the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol, VA. Photo by Jessica Blankenship.
Classroom inside the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol, VA. Photo by Jessica Blankenship.

From the theater, you can go upstairs via the staircase or elevator as the entire museum and outside are handicap accessible.  Upon arriving upstairs,  a museum volunteer greets you to go inside a small theatre to watch a short 10 minute film.  The film gets you excited about the history of Bristol and the reason as to why it is truly the birthplace of country music.  You get to hear the voices of those that took part, as well as have your mind wondering about the history of songs.

Once the film is over, you are welcome to start your visit to the extensive collection at the museum.  The Birthplace of Country Music Museum includes interactive exhibits to listen to variations of songs, hear interviews, and watch videos.  It is amazing to see the attention to detail in each of the exhibits and historical content.  You will learn not only about the music, but the people, religion, economics, and workforce of the time-period.  There are panels, as well as artifacts to learn about the community over time.

There is also a special immersive experience video that provides an inside look at how “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” song has continued through generations of music fans ever since the Carter Family performed that song during the Bristol Sessions.  It truly was a full circle moment with the experience at the museum.  You can also watch as radio djs from Radio Bristol take over the airwaves with broadcasts.  Watch them in person, or perhaps online by going here.

Sculptures Outside Museum

When you are finish visiting the museum, don’t forget to cross the street and get your photo by the sculpture of pair of performers with a microphone for your chance to shine.  There is also a memorial sculpture and large helicopter honoring Veterans of all branches of the military.  There is also a guitar that you can pose by in front of the museum.

Take the Stage and grab a photo across from the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. Photo by Jessica Blankenship.

See where Hank Williams was last seen alive

Not too far from the museum is the Burger Bar.  It is legendary in being the last place that Hank Williams, Sr. was last seen alive.  Word has it that he was sitting in the backseat of the car when the driver decided to grab a bite to eat at the restaurant.  Inside, you are transformed back to that time period with some delicious hamburgers and milkshakes.  I ended up getting a grilled chicken salad that was very fresh and wonderful to eat.  The staff on hand were super friendly and made sure that we enjoyed our visit.

Murals along State Street

As we made our way outside, we took a walk down State Street to see several murals on the buildings.  One has a pictorial view of the history of Bristol, another was a large painting of those that were a part of the Bristol Sessions.  Across the street is a mural portraying the legacy of Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty.  About a 10 minute drive is the Bristol Motor Speedway that is much bigger in person than what you think on television!

Tennessee Ernie Ford’s Childhood Home and Church

If you get the chance, don’t forget to check out Tennessee Ernie Ford’s childhood home, as well as the church from his “Hymns at Home” album, both located on Anderson Street.  Many recognize Tennessee Ernie Ford for his hit song, “Sixteen Tons.”

Other places in Bristol and beyond to visit

Throughout the downtown area of Bristol, we enjoyed visiting antique stores, as well as passing by several merchants for clothing, fudge, alongside Paramount Theatre and more.  Near the railroad tracks with the infamous Bristol Sign that lights up are some road signs that tell the story of the place and people who made the town famous back almost 100 years ago.

I plan on visiting Bristol again in the spring,  This time I would like to enjoy a trip further up Virginia to the Carter Family Fold, Ralph Stanley Museum, and more.  As I said before, you need to take a step back in time and realize how lucky we are for those pioneers in music coming together to form the Bristol Sessions.

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