The relationship between the birthplace of country music in Bristol, on the Virginia-Tennessee border, and its commercial epicenter in Nashville is far closer than a 300-mile journey would imply.
As the genre’s birth moment – record producer Ralph Peer recording anthemic folk and gospel songs in Bristol city center – celebrates its 95th anniversary, key to the creative and performance pipeline of the genre’s foundational sounds flowing on Music Row is stronger and more vital than ever.
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Jim Lauderdale is a legendary North Carolina-born singer-songwriter qualified to talk about this inspiring city-to-city bond because he’s a Nashville favorite who’s spent a lot of time in Bristol for the past four decades.
His accomplishments include collaborating with bluegrass icon Dr. Ralph Stanley (while in Bristol), writing – among many songs – the classic 90s country single “King Of Broken Hearts” (recorded by himself, George Strait and Lee Ann Womack among many others) and over the past decade creating music with members of the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead.
Recently, Lauderdale spoke to the Tennessean about Bristol’s classic and modern influences on Music City on a wet Monday afternoon at the 8th and Roast cafe in Nashville’s Woodland neighborhood. He was joined by Leah Ross, executive director of advancement at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol.
“Bristol has always been a central space for country music,” Lauderdale said. He noted how the town center of the city remains similar to what it was during the Bristol Sessions in 1927.
The region maintaining this link with its heritage is miraculous.
The late 1990s saw Bristol fall into tough economic times, leaving the city center largely closed and evacuated. However, economic revitalization has come to the region over the past decade.
In 2014, the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution, opened. And by the end of 2022, a trio of hotels – the Bristol Hotel (rated one of the top 10 American stays by Travel and Leisure in 2020), the Sessions Hotel (where Lauderdale has an outdoor stage plus a check-in space ) and the forthcoming Hard Rock Resort and Casino Bristol – cemented the city’s unlikely resurgence that combines the splendor of classical architecture with the impact of current business interests.
However, the core business of the neighborhood is music. Music from this region influences the impact of country music roots on Music City’s bottom line.
“Even though we all love Nashville, it’s busy here, and going somewhere to write and record that’s relaxed, where regional acoustic musicians and recording studios are also great, has its perks,” Lauderdale says.
Ross added that musical creators, including Grammy-nominated cellist Dave Eggar and Sirius XM Radio Dallas host Wayne, have moved to the area. She also mentioned how artists like Americana performer Amythyst Kiah – who is from nearby Johnson and, while at college in East Tennessee State, contributed to the exhibit content at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum – are still rooted in the region while touring around the world.
The 20 year old Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion The music festival is also important from a tourism and marketing perspective, Ross said. The three-day event “opens up a different look at the possibilities [Bristol] deals,” Ross said. For three days, 100 bands on 13 stages attract more than 40,000 visitors who shut down the city’s central State Street. This year’s festival runs from September 9-11.
In recent years, artists who found success in Nashville, including 49 Winchester, Charley Crockett, Lucy Dacus, Sierra Ferrell and The War and Treaty, have all played Bristol’s annual event.
“Music has a funny way of making history remember its fans,” Lauderdale said of what Bristol offers Nashville.
He illustrated his belonging to a lineage between the birth of country music and its current era that cements the bond between the two epic places.
Two of his main musical inspirations, the bluegrass combo Foggy Mountain Boys of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, spent a lot of time in Bristol. And today, he remains in frequent contact with Old Crow Medicine Show frontman Ketch Secor. The band headlined the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion 2018.
“History inspires us, but we can’t recreate it. However, when combined with an authentic historical source, inspiration from the story helps you create magic,” Lauderdale said.
Currently, Nashville’s crane-filled sky indicates the city’s expansive future. However, 300 miles away, country music – Nashville’s main export to the world – finds its roots thriving, timeless and potentially as impactful as ever.