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
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
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
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
"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.