One might assume that you’d quickly run out of interpretive content in a museum dedicated to the 1927 Bristol Sessions—the first commercially successful recordings of early country music and their tremendous historic impact. That assumption would be far from the reality of ongoing work at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. Our interpretation of the legacy of this significant moment in popular music history extends well before the Bristol Sessions to look at regional music traditions influential to these recordings, and that interpretation continues well after the Bristol Sessions as we explore the many ways traditional Appalachian music, the commercial recording industry, and advances in early sound technologies have shaped American popular music history and our listening experiences. It’s a great place to explore, but it’s an incredible place to work as we continue to explore, dig, and listen.
Through text and artifacts, film and sound, and interactive displays, the museum’s permanent exhibits tell the story of the 1927 Bristol Sessions recordings, explore how evolving sound technology shaped their success, and highlight how this rich musical heritage lives on in today’s music. The Bristol Sessions were the first recordings of the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, who quickly became stars in the emerging “hillbilly” genre; these Sessions set the stage for the later commercial country music industry. Within the museum, we integrated diverse interpretive strategies so that visitors can access the content in different ways. The permanent exhibits comprise traditional panels that marry text, images, and captions, along with the display of relevant artifacts. Each area also has a variety of A/V elements, including soundscapes, theater experiences, short films, and interactives.
Visiting BCMM’s permanent exhibits is not a passive experience—we want patrons to explore the music in interactive and immersive ways. Sound surrounds visitors throughout their visit. They can delve into local history to set the scene for the Bristol Sessions, and explore the sounds of the Sessions though clips of the songs issued by Victor Records. In other parts of the gallery, they can listen to the ways later musicians from Lead Belly to Nirvana have arranged some of these classic songs, give those tunes new sounds at the mixing stations, and sing with family, friends, and fellow visitors in the Sing-Along Booth. Visitors can also view several films, from our orientation film “Bound to Bristol” to other films that thematically dive into our content, such as the films in our Greasy Strings Theater or Chapel. The “Unbroken Circle” is an immersive theater experience that draws from past and present performances to remind visitors that the music of Appalachia’s past remains part of a vibrant living tradition.
Our permanent exhibits also feature a working radio station, WBCM Radio Bristol, a low power FM station fitted out with local radio equipment from the 1940s. Live programming allows patrons to see radio staff and performing musicians in the sound booth and studio during their museum visit. It is a great asset to the exhibits and a wonderful way to illustrate the power of radio in American music history, rendering our exhibits and collections alive through ongoing performances and broadcasts. Our “Farm and Fun Time” Radio program brings the historic radio program from the 1940s and 50s to contemporary audiences through a live broadcast show that features music, recipes, and local farmers in ways that connect to the strengths of community identity and cultural traditions.
Radio Bristol and its pinnacle show “Farm and Fun Time” serve to advance the mission of the museum by providing educational and cultural content through innovative programming. Just like our work in the museum exhibits and throughout our organization’s initiatives, Radio Bristol programming aims to present historic content in way that resonate with today’s audiences and engage people in thinking about arts, history, and how these connect to the communities in which they live.
Our programming addresses several important issues in the fields of museums, music history, and folklore as it bridges the gaps between the physical artifacts that make up the museum’s collections, and exhibits with initiatives born from our digital archives and live performance broadcasts. The museum has large audio collections, especially of legacy sound recordings and oral histories, and our interpretive programs such as live radio shows enable our team to delve deeper into our content and share significant and engaging materials with our audiences. This multidisciplinary, multiplatform effort is an important public history effort and illustrates the critical importance of museums and collections to the performing arts and community histories.
As a new museum institution (we opened in 2014), our exciting work is just beginning. We invite you to learn more about us at birthplaceofcountrymusic.org, or listen to our broadcasts at listenradiobristol.org.