Each episode of Tennessee Uncharted documents the experiences of Erick and his crew across the State of Tennessee. This is the full text of the short story that resulted from their adventure in Bristol.
Today we’ve ventured as far across TN as we can go without straying into VA, to the twin city of Bristol. With it’s downtown split right down the middle by the aptly named State Street, Bristol is one of those rare locations where you can truly be in two places at one time. And while this area is primarily known around the world as the home of Bristol Motor Speedway, this weekend, it’s not the speeds and sounds of NASCAR that’ve brought us here, but the cultural rhythms and contributions Bristol has made to the world of music. Today, we’ve set out to rediscover the real voice of this area at the Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion Americana music festival.
This is a festival that celebrates a town who introduced Americans in the 1920s to a style of music they had yet to encounter—An authentic, unashamed anthem, born in Appalachia that told the stories of those who sang it and owned the sounds that define the South. And while the term “hillbilly” today tends to come across as criticism, at that moment in time it described a set of folks who traveled from their homes, in some cases very literally coming down out of the hills, to share the sounds that had sustained them. Since that time, what we now know as “country music” has followed a track laid down in vinyl amongst these very streets. And in a day of auto-tune and auto-correct, this story of authenticity, and the echoes it has created for decades since, is all that much more special.
Among the many things this series has shown me, it’s that popular American music wouldn’t even sound close to what it sounds like today without the great state of TN. The more I learn, the more I’m amazed by the musical influence our state has had on the melodies of the world. In fact, I believe that if you look close enough at the genetic code of a Tennessean under a microscope, there’s bound to be at least a few music notes.
Many may be surprised to know that much of the music echoing from every corner of Bristol this weekend, is deeply rooted in the ground of its small downtown. So, to start off my journey, I’m stopping in at a local attraction that sings the praises of a series of recording sessions and tells the story of the sounds they set in motion. It was in the Summer of 1927 when a record executive named Ralph Peer traveled to Bristol, set up a portable recording studio and, over the course of two weeks, recorded 76 songs that would forever change the music industry.
The Birthplace of Country Music Museum, which is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, sets out to tell this very story, as well as highlight how this rich musical tradition lives on in today’s music. Through text and artifacts, multiple theater experiences, and interactive displays—along with a variety of educational programs, music performances, and community events—the exciting story of these recording sessions and their far-reaching influence comes alive.
Thanks to the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, visitors to Bristol have an opportunity to investigate the lineage of their lyrics, but just down the street is another step back into history where folks can also trace the genealogy of their jeans. (That’s denim, just so we’re clear.) I’ve always felt like the story of any article of clothing begins when you buy it, but as it turns out, that’s not the case at LC King manufacturing, where there’s 100 years of history that goes into each item they make.
Now, I’m a firm believer that clothes don’t make the man, but I think we can all agree, that comfortable, quality made clothes sure can make a difference. There are certain things that when you put them on, everything just seems to fit a little better. And while I’ve probably thought a little too much about how my clothes make me look, I’ve never really thought much about where my clothes come from. However, recently, “Made in America” is making a comeback, and it’s making more and more people like myself start to question where the products they buy are being made.
When it comes “Made in America”, it doesn’t get any truer than right here at LC King, where these products are more than made in America, they’re handmade right here in TN.
In a world consumed by the bottom line, LC King proves that made easier and cheaper, doesn’t necessarily mean better, proving that around here, quality truly is King. In fact, avoiding the idea of profitability over integrity is the very principle that has caused LC King to thrive for over a century. And with the surrounding streets filled with stages on this special weekend, I can quickly see the pride they take in each stitch is a performance of another sort.
At one time, many of the cold water streams in TN were filled with Southern brook trout, a brightly colored variety that, due to poor land management practices in the 1800s, were almost completely annihilated. In fact, biologists estimate that today brook trout occupy only 15 percent of their original range across the Eastern U.S., and that the loss has been most severe in the Southern Appalachians.
The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA), National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service are working together to expand the range of brook trout by stocking native strains of Southern brookies back into their home waters.
The southern brook trout is a native son of our cold water streams, and thanks to a lot of manpower, not to mention a little horsepower, this TN original should be around for many more generations to come.
TWRA’s genuine care and dedication to the natural authenticity of our TN wildlife is an honorable commitment. Can you tell the difference between a Northern and Southern brook trout? I can’t. Yet TWRA is literally going the extra mile to put things back the way they are supposed to be. Not a PR ploy hoping to get a story in the papers, but because it’s the right thing to do. It’s simply the story of a days work for the TWRA.
It’s hard to stay true to yourself. Especially in the world of music, where it seems like everyone just wants you to be someone else. They want you to sound a certain way, act a certain way, even look a certain way. And as record execs, managers, and booking agents come calling, promising to make you into the next big star, authenticity get’s harder and harder to find.
However, there are a brave few, who bristle at the idea of bending just to be the next big thing. And thankfully there is a music festival like the Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion where the sincerity of a song is still something to be celebrated. However, Rhythm and Roots is much more than just a music festival, it’s a three-day music experience, chock-full of creative passion, electricity, and soul.
Before hosting this show, I mainly made my living making music as a singer songwriter. A few years ago, when I was an up-and-coming artist, this festival believed in my music enough to invite me to come play, which, given the lineup here each year, was an honor. This year, it was an even greater honor to be invited back to host a writer in the round for other up-and-coming artists. It was an experience that proved to me that authenticity isn’t just practiced, it’s passed on.
True authenticity is proven by what you do when no one is looking. It isn’t who you are for an hour, it’s who you are on a daily basis that proves the purity of your purpose. One of the inevitable truths of life is that times change. Trends change. And often we get caught up in chasing whatever the next big thing is. Therefore, it’s only time that can truly tell if someone is a genuine article or not, or in some cases, a genuine article of clothing.
When looking at a tree, we often only admire the beauty that’s above the ground. We focus more on the reach of it’s branches, rather than the depth of it’s roots. However, the strength and beauty of a tree are reliant on the health of it’s root system, for a tree without strong roots will not stand many storms.
Over the last few days, I’ve learned that the strength of this community comes from being deeply rooted in authenticity. Bristol, TN is a place that truly feels like someplace. It’s a community with a genuine sense of self that has rebuilt around culture and the arts, with a focus on historic revitalization, rather than new development.
After retracing the roots of our TN heritage this week, I realize that there’s more than just the rhythm of music here in Bristol, there’s another rhythm… A rhythm from another time. A rhythm that reminds me to never forget where I’m from, and to always be proud of who I really am.