4 Stops on the Tennessee Music Pathways That Have Made Tennessee the Soundtrack of America
From the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville to Beale Street in Memphis, people around the world instantly connect Tennessee with music. Yet, the full story of the state’s musical heritage runs much deeper. Discovering Tennessee’s rich artistic roots requires a road trip that covers the entire state and crosses multiple musical styles.
The new Tennessee Music Pathways allows travelers to explore the history and creative culture that gave rise to the many genres that call Tennessee home, including rock, blues, soul, R&B, country, bluegrass and gospel. The interactive website makes it easy to create customizable driving tours specific to a geographic region, musical category or type of attraction – such as museums, festivals or photo ops – to make every journey unique.
Many of these are lesser-known artists who made a big impact in the music world. In fact, the first Tennessee Music Pathways marker is in Morgan County, home of Clarence Beeks, who performed as King Pleasure and influenced many musicians, most famously Van Morrison.
The following are just a few of the sights and sounds that have made Tennessee the soundtrack of America.
Bristol is the Birthplace of Country Music
Nashville might be known as the home of country music, but it was born in Bristol, where a museum affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution, Radio Bristol and an annual fall music festival featuring more than 140 artists pays homage to the homegrown genre.
Leah Ross, executive director of Birthplace of Country Music, explains how the famous 1927 Bristol Sessions launched a generation of musicians. “Ralph Peer came to Bristol to record the music of the mountains,” Ross says of the historic session that made use of new electric microphone technology that captured sound with greater clarity. “He offered to pay the artists to come record, and then they would receive royalties off of those recordings … it’s still how artists are paid today,” she notes.
Ross continues, “In three days’ time, they recorded 78 performances. That was the first commercial recordings of the Carter Family, known as the ‘First Family of Country Music,’ and also Jimmie Rodgers, who is known as the ‘Father of Country Music.’ ”
Those landmark recordings are sometimes referred to as the “Big Bang” of country music with the technology, artists and commercial promotion all coming together. “Johnny Cash once said it was the single most important event that ever happened in country music,” Ross says. “In 1998, the U.S. Congress declared Bristol the birthplace of country music.”
The highly interactive museum tells the story of the nearly century-old sessions, while continuing to inspire a new generation of musicians. “We have artists who come through all the time. They know the history of those sessions and want to be part of it,” Ross says.
Bristol Radio and the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion also pay tribute to the rich legacy of the recordings while highlighting contemporary artists. The event, held annually on the third weekend in September, features 20-plus stages and more than 200 sets of music. Jason Isbell, Emmylou Harris, Ralph Stanley and the Avett Brothers are just a few of the performers who have played the nationally acclaimed festival.
“Being part of Tennessee Music Pathways solidifies the importance of those recordings,” Ross says. “If you like music, come to our museum and really learn about where it started.”