Read our interview on Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion 2018
Interview with Charlene Tipton Baker
Marketing Specialist, Communications
Birthplace of Country Music
By Rob Dickens
RD: The Birthplace of Country Music, Inc. is the parent non-profit with three main arms – the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, Radio Bristol and the annual Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion. Firstly, for visitors to the Reunion in September, what can we expect to see at the Museum exhibit-wise?
CB: For visitors who’ve come to the festival but never toured the museum, I strongly urge them to do so. The museum is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution and tells the story of the 1927 Bristol Sessions through a variety of beautiful film experiences, interactive displays, and so much more. Our festival exists because of Bristol’s important place in American music history—the Sessions and the “orthophonic” technology used to record them. Having that back story really adds to the festival experience because Bristol Rhythm is a tribute to Bristol’s music culture—past, present, and future. Visitors will also have the opportunity to take in the special exhibit Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion: Through Your Eyes, a collection of juried photographs taken by fans at the festival. The entire tour should take around 2 ½ hours and Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion wristband holders receive a discounted rate of $10 during the festival.
Can you tell us about the activities of Radio Bristol and will there be some live broadcasts during the Reunion?
Radio Bristol’s live Farm and Fun Time radio show at the Paramount Theater stage is a must-see event. This is happening on Saturday night of the festival at 8:30 p.m. EST. I have it on good authority there will be some surprise guests! Radio Bristol will also host the stage at The Cameo. We’re really excited to bring The Cameo Stage back to the festival. It is under new ownership and they have been renovating the building for the past several months. I’m so excited to see it! Another historic structure in Downtown Bristol saved, another venue for live music year-round!
Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion started I believe in 2001. How did it start and has it always been much the same location (in downtown Bristol) and had a similar stage format?
The first Bristol Rhythm was held in October of 2001 as a way of driving traffic back to downtown while also celebrating Bristol’s unique history as the birthplace of country music. Back then it was organized by the city of Bristol, Tennessee and a committee of volunteers. A couple years later the festival branched out on its own and became a non-profit. There weren’t as many stages, but it has always been spread out around State Street to highlight the area. It was mostly traditional music those first couple of years and Gospel music was held on Sundays. In planning for the third year of the festival an Executive Director was hired full-time and more progressive music was added. The decision was made to intersperse Gospel throughout the festival, and from then on the festival continued to evolve into what you see today.
The festival merged with the former Birthplace of Country Music Alliance in 2012. That organization had been working to get the museum built and had already done the legislative work to have Congress designate Bristol as the birthplace of country music. The former Goodpasture Motors building had been donated to them, and they had worked with the Smithsonian to achieve affiliate status. When we merged, we became Birthplace of Country Music, Inc. and two years later we opened the doors to the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. One year later, Radio Bristol went live on the air and online. The success of the festival was a big factor in getting the museum built. So many people believed in what we were doing and really embraced what we were doing. We are so grateful to our community for its support, everything we do is a means of giving back. By giving back their history we are building community pride; it’s also in BCM’s mission statement to create economic benefit for our local and regional communities.
Given the historical significance of the town (the first recordings of Jimmie Rodgers, The Carter Family and many others), how does that inform the selection of the artists each year?
When booking music for Bristol Rhythm we always look to honor the past by showcasing the traditional music of our region, but it’s also important to show the trajectory of that impact on the artists and music culture of today. When you visit our museum there’s an exhibit that can take you from the 1927 Bristol Sessions to Nirvana and beyond. The music continues to evolve and so does our festival.
I was last at the Reunion in 2016. What sort of changes have taken place since then, if any, with the event?
The traffic flow around the festival’s footprint has changed just a bit, as we moved the State Street back into the intersection at Martin Luther King Blvd to make room for more spectators there. This year we are moving our free Children’s Day activities on Saturday morning to Anderson Park. It’s a beautiful little area with lots of shade and a playground, and we think it will be more accessible for parking. Museum staff has taken charge of that event so it’s now focused on activities that families can enjoy together. No bouncy houses with kids standing in line for long periods of time.
Last year we brought back the Dance Tent—it’s on 7th Street, much larger than before and a really cool experience. We are really excited to welcome two new businesses downtown, Bloom Café & Listening Room and The Cameo, which will be added as stages.
Given that Bristol is split by the State borders of Tennessee and Virginia, does that provide unique challenges to putting on a festival such as this?
One would think so, but Bristol is really unique in that we are used to working together toward common goals and always have been. We have a great Main Street organization, Believe in Bristol, and the cooperation of city emergency, law enforcement, and utility workers on both sides of the state line. We are also eligible to take advantage of grant opportunities in two states to help us achieve our goals.
For visitors to the festival, the most visible challenge may be the consumption of alcohol in gated beverage gardens. The laws in Tennessee differ from those in Virginia, so it’s the best solution for our event.
Each return visit I make to Bristol, I notice a greater sense of renewal and optimism about the town eg last September construction of a new boutique hotel was well underway. The siting of the Birthplace Museum and its activities must have a terrific cultural and economic impact on the development of Bristol?
The excitement is truly palpable, isn’t it? So many positive changes have come about because of the success of Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion and the opening of the museum. The festival helped ignite interest in the re-investment of downtown and gave us all a glimpse of what Bristol’s future could hold.
The Bristol Hotel will be open in the fall. Progress is also being made on The Sessions Hotel, a project that will connect several historic buildings on State Street and Commonwealth Avenue—they plan to open next year. Lost State Distilling, a small-batch gin and whiskey operation, has purchased the old Bristol Supply building beside the Bristol sign and renovations have begun there. The old Hayes Furniture building across from the Country Music Mural will soon become State Street Brewing Co., a new addition to our growing number of excellent breweries located downtown.
I honestly believe that Bristol Rhythm and our museum has renewed a sense of pride in downtown that didn’t exist throughout the 1980s and 90s. We have claimed our identity as the birthplace of country music, added the museum as a year-round attraction for tourism, and do everything in our power to promote our downtown businesses to our visitors. Our enthusiasm and love for this community is so great and so genuine. We want everyone to see as we do and love it as we do when they come visit.
As well as the music there’s an abundance of local crafts and fine food at the festival, what can we expect to see this year in that space?
We strive to bring local and regional artisans to our festival whose crafts reflect our region and our culture. In fact, we carry unique artisan items in The Museum Store year-round. We ask that all craft items be handmade and have very few commercial items in the mix. There’s a really cool shop called the Fouled Anchor from Johnson City that offers unique men’s products. They set up their wares around a vintage VW bus. Status Graphics & Design are a local shop that offers some really unique items at their booth. It’s totally worth your time to check them out!
We encourage folks to eat at least one meal a day at our local restaurants during the festival, but we understand those do sometimes reach capacity! That’s why we choose food vendors that will offer things that are different than what you’ll find elsewhere downtown. Island Noodles is a favorite and I’m interested to check out Seafood Unlimited and The French Quarter this year.
Listening Through The Lens will be covering Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion 2018 (21 to 23 September) and associated events.
Read our interview on Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion 2018