Winner: Bristol, Virginia/Tennessee
It’s 1927 in Bristol. An ad in the local paper reads, “The Victor Co. will have a recording machine in Bristol for 10 days beginning Monday to record records – Inquire at our Store.” Over the span of those 10 days, 19 different acts recorded 76 songs and spurred what would become known as The Bristol Sessions, or the “Big Bang” of country music.
“Really it had an influence that affected everyone all over the country,” says musician and master luthier Wayne Henderson. Henderson was just a kid at the time, but he remembers huddling around the family radio at their home in Rugby, Va., pining to hear what would become the future of country music.
“The records the Carter Family recorded there were how all of us kids learned to play music,” he recalls.
Those initial recordings from The Bristol Sessions and radio shows like WCYB’s Farm and Fun Time helped bring music to the mountains. Bristol soon became the place to be for up-and-coming musicians looking to get a jumpstart in their career, just like legends Ernest Stoneman, the Carter Family, and Jimmie Rodgers had in 1927.
Only 70 years later, another event fueled even greater notice of Bristol’s country music scene: Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion. In 2001, the first festival showcased a number of local and national artists but attracted only a few thousand people. This year, however, the festival hosted over 150 bands and over 50,000 attendees, the largest turnout to date. Leah Ross, Executive Director of the Birthplace of Country Music and Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion, has been with the festival since its meager start and says its popularity will only continue to rise.
“Our heritage is rich in bluegrass and old time, and we embrace those roots,” she says, “but you might hear blues or Celtic music or acoustic rock. The town is just alive with all different genres of music.”
Carly Booher is a Bristol native who plays in a local band called Annabelle’s Curse. The group, which labels itself as alternative-folk, utilizes traditional instruments like the mandolin but puts a new-age twist on their songs to provide a fresh take on the area’s musical roots. Booher has only been with the band for the past year, but she says nothing beats playing to the hometown crowd, whether it’s at a local bar or on the big stage at Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion.
“There’s a really eclectic group of people in Bristol,” Booher says. “We’ve found a really good support system at Rhythm and Roots, and there’s a certain atmosphere that comes with having an audience that genuinely cares about your music and genuinely cares about you.”
Throughout the year, Bristol’s notorious State Street bustles with a lively music scene, and the city holds performances practically every night in the wide array of bars and music venues like Machiavelli’s and the Paramount Center for the Arts. Henderson is just one of many big-name musicians who continue to return to Bristol to play in these widely popular settings.
“Music is coming out of every corner of that town,” Henderson says, a fact that hasn’t changed much since those Bristol Sessions in 1927. Although Nashville might very well claim to be the country music capital of the U.S., Bristol will always be recognized as country music’s birthplace.
Floyd’s residents have had a long relationship with the surrounding countryside, and for most of the 19th and 20th centuries, agriculture dominated the local industry. When the Great Depression hit, construction projects like that of the Blue Ridge Parkway brought much needed work to Floyd’s citizens.
Despite the harsh economic times, Floyd residents remained adamant in their dedication to the land. Music became the backbone of the community, and songs were often dedicated to the beautiful mountains in which they lived. Present-day Floyd now has a colorful amalgam of people, from locals who have familial roots dating back eight or nine generations to young artists inspired by the support of local businesses and back-to-the-land homesteading. The annual Floyd Fest brings thousands of music festivalgoers to see four days of live music, ranging from up-and-coming artists like The Whiskey Gentry to big name bands like Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros.
History is particularly crucial to this central Virginia town, and one need only to walk through the Downtown Mall to see remnants of its colonial-era past. Thomas Jefferson, one of three founding fathers and presidents who claimed Charlottesville as home, arguably had one of the earliest influences on the education and cultural scene here. In 1819, he founded the University of Virginia, one of the few universities at the time to be established without any religious affiliation. Instead of offering classes influenced by religious doctrine, Jefferson thought that instructing students in the worldly realms of political science, philosophy, botany, and even music were of more importance, a standard that the university continues to hold to this day.
Aside from this innovative approach to education, music would actually become one of the primary attractions of this budding city. Although Jefferson was a musician at heart, it would take the popularity of the Dave Matthews Band in the early 1990s to put Charlottesville on the musical map. With over three million likes on Facebook, this present-day band is a far cry from its humble beginning at the Trax Nightclub downtown. The city’s current music scene has also grown exponentially since then. Now, residents and visitors alike can walk through the Downtown Mall on any given night and find a variety of live performances from local bands such as The Judy Chops and the Astronomers. World-renowned artists like Lady Gaga and The Rolling Stones also make regular appearances in town and attract concertgoers to the city’s plush venues.
The Rest of the Pack
Abingdon, Va.: For a small southwest Virginia town, this place has a big community of artists. Check out Wolf Hills Brewing Company for craft beer and, depending on the day, a local band.
Athens, Ga.: This happening Georgia town makes it easy to turn a concert into a vacation. Check out The Melting Point for an intimate performance or, if you’re feeling wild, head to the 40 Watt Club to rock the night away.
Atlanta, Ga.: From performing art centers to theatres, bars, music halls, amphitheaters, town parks, street sidewalks, and back alley dumpsters, it seems every square inch of downtown Atlanta has something musical going on year-round.
Chapel Hill, N.C.: Head downtown and experience the diversity in people, food, and music. With six different venues within walking distance of each other, your night on the town might include jazz at Memorial Hall and karaoke at Chapel Hill Underground.
Galax, Va.: If you’re a fan of bluegrass and you haven’t been to the Old Fiddler’s Convention in Galax, you’re missing out on hearing some of the region’s best pickin’.
Greenville, S.C.: You don’t need to go far from town to get a little taste of epic. Reedy River Falls is located in downtown Greenville, a perfect spot for an afternoon walk or a weekend picnic.
Hiawassee, Ga.: The Country Music Capital of Georgia boasts Anderson Music Hall at the Georgia Mountain Fairgrounds, which has hosted big name country music artists since 1979.
Knoxville, Tenn.: About an hour’s drive from the Pigeon and Nolichucky Rivers, Knoxville makes a great home base for paddlers who live and work in the city, value good music and culture, but want proximity to the stuff that really matters.
Morgantown, W.Va.: This mountain town sees the value in outdoor recreation and has a number of parks, facilities, and a rail-trail system available within a short drive of each other. Pair it with a microbrew for the true Morgantown experience.
Nashville, Tenn.: Garth Brooks, Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson, and Dolly Parton are just a few big names who spent a good chunk of time in Nashville recording their greatest hits. You can visit those venues now, like the RCA Studio B and The Bluebird Café.
Owensboro, Ky.: The Big O Music Fest is the “party event of the summer,” but if you missed it, there are several other music venues in town.