Robert Schroeder : click for home page
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Wild Twang
In Bristol, VA, they're still crazy for country the old-timey way.

The Washington Post
December 18, 2002

To hear the Thursday morning jam session at the Star Barber Shop in Bristol, Va., is to hear a newfangled, high-pitched rejoinder to a country music question as old as, well, the hills: Will the circle be unbroken?

Lord no, cry the banjos. Heck no, wail the fiddles. Uh-uh, moans the stand-up "doghouse" bass.

Barbershop patron Charles Cross nods his head at the gaggle of pickers. "This is bluegrass country!" he says proudly.

It's even more than that. Bristol, Va./Bristol, Tenn. -- the town straddles two states -- is the actual "birthplace of country music," so dubbed by no less an authority than the U.S. Congress. Here, musically and in some other ways, too, today is yesterday and vice versa. And that circle is going strong.

It was here in 1927 that Victor Talking Machine Co. talent scout Ralph Peer's storied "Bristol Sessions" captured Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, "the first superstars of country music," said Bill Hartley, executive director of the Birthplace of Country Music Alliance. Thanks to Victor's distribution power, 78 rpm recordings like the Carter Family's "The Poor Orphan Child" and "The Wandering Boy" were sold nationwide for the first time. An industry was born, and a whistle-stop town netted a spot on the map. A small spot.

Nestled amid the high Appalachians, low-slung Bristol is a sight for city-sore eyes. With an old-time railroad station, gently sloping hills and irresistible eye candy like the country music mural (and its cross-street kin, the NASCAR mural), downtown Bristol makes for a pleasing, slow walkabout. For anyone who appreciates small-town mountain charm, it's a pleasant place to visit. For an old-time country music fan, it's Canterbury Cathedral.

Original vinyl records by Rodgers, the Carter Family, plus much more, are on display at the BCMA's museum and gift shop on the lower level of the Bristol Mall. This Smithsonian affiliate is a don't-miss stop for the classic country crazy: The museum holds old Appalachian dulcimers, a Carter Family autoharp and music memorabilia like framed vintage album covers of records by Bristol native Tennessee Ernie Ford. On Tuesday nights, locals and guests alike can fiddle and pluck on the museum's makeshift porch-cum-stage.

Ford -- singer of "Sixteen Tons" and huckster for Martha White flour -- spent his first five years at 1223 Anderson St. on -- of course -- the Tennessee side of town. The white speck of a house is a testament to the star's hardscrabble origins and features equipment Ford used as a DJ at WOPI, plus a hymnal-bedecked Wing & Son family piano. A photo of Ford with George Bush the elder shows how far he went. But for all of Ford's success, said tour guide Brenda Otis, "he never was ashamed that he was a hillbilly and that he grew up poor."

Was that "hillbilly"?

"I don't think people around here are offended to be called hillbillies," said Otis with a dead-serious expression. "This is hillbilly country." Down here, others confirm, it's a term of endearment of sorts. "I don't mind if you call me a hillbilly," said Tim White, a local DJ and banjo player. "Just don't call me a dumb hillbilly."

Bristolians take such pride in regional culture that bluegrass and clogging -- Appalachian dance -- share the stage with traveling Broadway shows at the 750-seat Paramount Center for the Arts on State Street downtown. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the frescoed Paramount (the venue for Ford's final show in 1991) underwent a restoration in the late '80s. Country luminaries like Loretta Lynn have played the Paramount, as has the contemporary band Blue Highway.

Worthy of its own song is Mother's Restaurant, which proudly advertises Southern-style home cooking. But if it's raw, unreconstructed hootenanny you hunger for, step into the Star Barber Shop any Thursday around 9 a.m. -- and heed the sticker on the front door: "Caution: Bluegrass Musicians at Play." Proprietor Gene Boyd, "the fiddlin' barber," has been hosting these high-chair hoedowns for decades and plans to continue "as long as I feel like I can stand up." After that, the likes of Bobby Love will carry on the tradition. Love, a plainspoken 42-year-old, learned to play the mandolin from Boyd after being hired in the shop as a teenage shoeshine boy.

On a recent morning, Love and his mates were tearing up a version of "Whiskey Before Breakfast" as Boyd's cowboy boots kept time. The shop slowly filled with enthusiastic locals and turned into a sardine-tight jamboree. "You can't swing a dead cat without hitting a picker down here," said Bristol videographer and guitarist Greg Wallace.

Woe to the visitor who mentions to these guys crossover artists like Shania Twain or Garth Brooks. "Country radio stations that call themselves country ain't country," fumed Gaines Burke, an animated guitarist and singer.

Before the band started a rendition of "I Saw the Light," Love likened the difference between bluegrass and today's popular country to that between "a Volkswagen and a Cadillac."

And which is better? "You be the judge of that," Love said evenly. "But to us, [bluegrass] is as good as it gets."

"The feeling is pure," BCMA's Hartley said, plugging the town's May-through-October Tuesday night concerts. Old-time tunes are also starting to pay off, Hartley and others noted, turning downright reverential when the soundtrack of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" comes up.

Richard Porter is helping the cause along. Porter, who runs Bristol's Classic Recording Studio, puts local acts on CDs and recorded early cuts by superstar Kenny Chesney. But he admits that while his average customers used to be of the country-bluegrass-gospel ilk, these days he's getting rap bands, too. To be sure, not everyone's gone country.

Or have they? Just take in an evening at the BCMA-sponsored "Pickin' Porch Annex" in the Bristol Mall and see for yourself. Thursday nights, close to Sears and Subway, the pickin' porch packs in a few hundred people to hear the sounds of the VW Boys, 5th Generation and a host of others.

"People down here, we like this music," said audience member Tina Dotson, who was attending a recent show with her 9-year-old mandolin-playing daughter, Amy. "We're just regular people."

The cowboy-hatted, teenage-twin Boone Brothers, Jason and Jeremy, took the stage and harmonized about "blue Virginia blue"; before that they'd danced in the audience and shook hands, welcoming folks to the concert. A collection bucket went around and netted a few hundred dollars for the nonprofit BCMA.

The crowd sang along or mouthed the words to "Jesus Loves Me." And when Puckett, sitting in with the VW Boys, raised his guitar ceilingward and squinted while singing the high notes, one sensed that for him and the pickers of Bristol, there's a better home awaiting.


Just like the song says: In the sky, Lord. In the sky.

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