On the Record

In Bristol, the Birthplace of Country Music Museum Honors the ‘Big Bang’ of 1927

By J. Michael Welton

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Photo by Fresh Air Photo

To the genuine country music aficionado, the twin cities of Bristol have long been regarded as home to the Holy Grail.

Today Bristol is home to a new museum that celebrates the reasons why.

In 1927 the “Big Bang” of country music erupted here and spread across the nation’s airwaves like an aural sunburst. Now the Birthplace of Country Music Museum is amping up the effects of that seminal event and broadcasting them to a modern universe of appreciative eyes and ears.

It is housed, appropriately enough, inside a renovated 1920s Chrysler showroom in downtown Bristol, Va. The $11 million restoration — its master plan and exhibits designed skillfully by Philadelphia’s StudioMUSarx, its architecture guided patiently by Abingdon’s Peyton Boyd Architect PC — heralds the apotheosis of ten days in the Roaring Twenties, when a gifted collection of musicians from the Virginia and Tennessee mountains recorded tunes for the first time ever.

“The impetus for the museum,” says Joe Nicholson, principal at StudioMUSarx, “was the compelling need to tell the story — to present the authentic musical heritage of the region as reflected by both the people and the place.”

The recordings became known as the Bristol Sessions. They took place on the Tennessee side of State Street, a few blocks southeast of the museum, inside a hat warehouse that is long gone. But the musical legacy of what was laid down there — part blues, part gospel, and part Scots-Irish fiddle tunes — permeates the new museum on the Virginia side of town.

“It had to be about the music, because the music is the story,” says architect Peyton Boyd, who began work on the project a decade ago.

The Bristol Sessions got started when Victor Records in New York green-lighted a trip by producer Ralph Peer down to this divided city in the heart of Appalachia. Taking the train, he brought with him a portable recording studio, then took out a newspaper ad offering musicians $50 per recording session and set up shop on State Street.

“The music from the Bristol Sessions is much more sophisticated and complex than you’d think, with technology from the railroad, the microphone, and the radio,” says Jessica Turner, museum director and head curator.

Musicians responded to Peer’s ad by flooding into Bristol — their guitars, fiddles, banjos, dobros, and dulcimers in hand. Among them were the West Virginia Coon Hunters, the Blue Ridge Corn Shuckers, the Bull Mountain Moonshiners, and the only African American included in the sessions, El Watson.

The Carter Family was also on hand — including Mother Maybelle Carter and her guitar — as was Jimmie Rodgers. Thanks to the new technology, they in particular were destined to achieve a rarified, mythical status in the pantheon of music history.

“It was a modern, industry-infused moment in time,” Turner says.

The same could be said for the design and construction of the new museum. For the restoration of the donated 24,360 square-foot structure — a dirty, windowless box a decade ago — museum founders looked to Boyd for a design that respected its bones.

“We asked him to design a museum within the historic structure, and with limitations — about which walls you can change, which columns you can’t move, and which things are to be exposed,” she says. “We wanted him to understand the visual tone and the way we wanted to present ourselves, which was not hillbilly and not hokey.”

“Anytime you’re doing adaptive re-use, you need to maintain the integrity of the original site,” says Boyd. “The original still needs to be readable.”

Photo by Fresh Air Photo

Photo by Fresh Air Photo

A fundamental concern was satisfying requirements of state and federal preservation agencies that would qualify the project for rehabilitation tax credits. Other issues included giving the structure a detailed exterior that respected its past and contrasting that with an interior that’s rough in some places and smooth as a rosined bow in others.

“We overlaid a contemporary aesthetic that wasn’t part of the original, but was comfortable with it,” the architect says. “We had to decide what to cover up and what to leave industrial, allowing people to read the structure in the ceilings, beams, and grids of concrete joists and slabs.”

Boyd and his associate, project architect Michael Haslam, adjusted to working with a board of directors that changed membership often during the course of a decade. “It wasn’t as though they gave us a design brief at the start of the process,” Haslam says. “Ideas were developed collaboratively over time.”

Still, their architecture, particularly on the museum’s expansive first floor, is commendable both for its welcoming feel and its sensitive attention to detail and materials. A street-level entry opens to a daylit lobby and a reception desk flanked to the left by a hallway leading to a 2,000 square-foot special exhibitions room. To the right are a gift shop and a passage to a rear lobby in front of a performance/ exhibition hall, which accommodates the museum’s educational component with 100 stadium-style seats and superb acoustics.

Materials used on the ground level are the same from which many of the region’s musical instruments are made: native walnut, ash, and curly maple. The wood — 1,200 board feet of walnut, 2,500 of ash, and 750 of curly maple — is on the floors, the doors, the risers, and even in stacked horizontal bands six inches wide between aluminum beads, sometimes sheathing columns rising to the ceiling. Polished concrete floors are stained a distinctive golden tone in the main lobby.

In the middle of that lobby a thematic vertical sculpture pierces the ceiling above and continues up to the second floor, culminating in a series of symbolic shape notes at the rooftop skylight. At the first-floor horizontal base of the sculpture lies a tabletop map of Bristol. On the vertical component are six illuminated LED graphic panels with sound drivers that turn them into speakers on each floor. The first floor panels depict a number of the original musicians; the second floor features the history of Bristol.

The sculpture is only the beginning of exhibitions designed by Nicholson and StudioMUSarx. A walk up a broad stairway reveals a quilt mounted on a wall midway, stitched by the Tennessee/Virginia Chapter of the Embroiderers’ Guild of America, which tells the story of the sessions.

A timeline on the second floor lobby wall parallels three tracks from 1860 to 1930: natural history, local history and music. Context is revealed over hidden speakers: period recordings by Caruso ring out, and  Lindbergh’s landing in Paris is announced with vigor.

“When you’re talking about developing a museum’s narrative, first there’s the architectural programming of the functional needs and how to allocate space for them,” says Nicholson. “But when you’re programming for exhibits, you allocate space to the big ideas found in the narrative, which in turn form a series of sequential galleries wherein the story unfolds.”

Indeed. To the right of the timeline is the museum’s automated orientation theater, its next showing announced on a digital clock as a departure time over a faux train station door. Inside, a 75-seat auditorium offers a 12-minute film called Bound to Bristol, narrated by John Carter Cash.

Film-goers exit through double doors to face a wall of 78 rpm discs labeled with the names of Bristol Sessions musicians. Beyond lies a broad expanse of exhibits, with kiosks and a series of ten mini-theaters, including a chapel that reveals the influence of faith on country music, a 1940s recording studio complete with period console and microphone, and a “Greasy Strings Theater,” dedicated to exploring musical techniques.

Stringed instruments abound. “We have some amazing artifacts on display, but there are fewer than other museums because it’s the story and music we’re focusing on, not the artifacts,” Turner says.

There’s an Oscar Schmidt guitar once played and signed by Jimmie Rodgers, a mandolin played and signed by Bill Monroe, and a Fender banjo played and signed by Ralph Stanley. A series of Martin guitars are autographed by Chet Atkins, Johnny Cash, June Carter, George Jones, and Waylon Jennings. Clearly it is the pedigree that counts here.

“There are five roles of a true museum: acquisition, conservation, studying the story and collections, interpretation, and finally the exhibition,” Nicholson says. “I’ve been doing this for 43 years now, and this is the culmination of everything I’ve experienced and learned from museums.”

Photo by Fresh Air Photo

Photo by Fresh Air Photo

The penultimate experience comes upon entering The Unbroken Circle, an immersion theater with a large, continuous curved screen set in an open space surrounded by crowd imagery. The effect is to immediately transport visitors into the realm of concert goers with performances, interviews, and documentary footage of artists like Jimmie Rodgers, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, and Ricky Skaggs.

“It’s a kind of bombardment,” says Boyd. “The idea is to get people to dance, clap and stamp their feet.”

And it works.

Sure, it is true that the country music industry grew up and matured some 300 miles west in Nashville. But it was born here 87 years ago, when 19 Appalachian acts tuned up their instruments for Ralph Peer, and recorded 76 trail-blazing works of art.

Now those musicians have a place of their own — in a museum that resonates with their narrative.

Michael Welton writes about architecture, art and design for national and international publications. He also edits and publishes a digital design magazine at www.architectsandartisans.com.

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