The state line runs through the middle of Bristol’s main street. Walking from Tennessee to Virginia is as easy as crossing State Street, the heart of small downtown Bristol. You can have your lunch in one state, run in the other for dessert, then return to where you parked your car in the first, while walking from sidewalk to sidewalk and back again. When you are in Bristol, you are not only in a state; you’re a little bit in Tennessee, a little bit in Virginia, but mostly just in Bristol.
Bristol is perhaps best known for Bristol Motor Speedway, and racing fans will find an incredible mural of Dale Earnhart and Richard Petty on State Street, but the city isn’t just about racing. Bristol is a charming, relaxed little town at the foot of the Appalachians that has played a major role in the development of one of America’s most popular types of music. It’s also a relatively short drive from several major cities in the Southeast and the Atlantic Coast, and even the Midwest. If you’re looking for an unforgettable weekend in a city you’ve never visited before, Bristol must be on your radar.
Bristol’s historic link to country music is the pride and joy of the city. It is known as the birthplace of country music, and the music has helped energize Bristol city center and made it the tourist destination you will find in the 21st century. In the case of Bristol, “country” doesn’t just mean what you’ll hear on the radio today. The city has a closer connection to the myriad of styles and traditions that influence and grow country music, from folk and bluegrass to country rock and Americana.
The heart of Bristol’s identity as a city of music dates back to 1927. That summer, a talent scout and record producer from Victor Talking Machine Corporation named Ralph Peer set up a portable studio in Bristol and recorded nearly 80 songs from over a dozen different groups and performers, covering a wide variety of folk and traditional music from the Appalachians and the Southeast. These sessions marked the first professional recordings of Jimmie Rodgers, who became country music’s first true superstar, as well as the discovery of The Carter Family, which helped shape the development of country music over the next century as much. than anyone else.
The history of the Bristol Sessions comes to life at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, which is just two blocks from where the music was recorded almost a century ago. Built in 2014, the museum is a modern multimedia exploration of the sessions, the artists, their instruments and the culture that created them. Here you’ll find movies and the kind of interactive exhibits you’d expect from a museum in the 21st century, including a booth where you can record yourself singing certain songs from the sessions, as well as information about each song and performer. . The museum offers an in-depth study of what has become the ‘Big Bang of country music’, and anyone interested in southern history and culture will likely appreciate it, whether they’re a fan of country music or no.
The museum points out that these artists were largely not professionals. They were farmers, miners, clergymen, ordinary people who came from small towns in the Southeast to record the folk songs they played at home or at church. Rodgers, one of the few who already had professional entertainment experience when he carved his first faces in Bristol, became the most successful of Peer’s recorded performers in 1927, but every musician who entered the makeshift studio de Peer’s that summer made a crucial contribution to the rise of country music as a commercial enterprise, as well as to the historical and musicological record of the South.
Important as they are, the 1927 sessions did not represent the full extent of Bristol’s musical heritage. Due to its cultural and geographic importance to the region, it has a long-standing connection with folk, bluegrass, and Appalachian music. You’ll hear strains of it all playing out all over Bristol. Beyond the museum, you can listen to live music at a number of venues on and around State Street, including the newly renovated Cameo Theater. The all-new Sessions Hotel, which opened during the pandemic inside three century-old buildings on State Street, recently named Lauderdale Stage, named after singer-songwriter Jim Lauderdale; the wooden stage sits on the lawn between two of the hotel buildings, with the patio of one of the nearby hotel restaurants and a rooftop bar overlooking it. You will hear live music from the stages of the outdoor terraces of downtown restaurants or bars. It’s not close to the size of an Austin or a Nashville, but it has a similar spirit, and that smaller scale makes it a lot more manageable and intimate. And every September, the whole city unites to celebrate its heritage with the Rhythm & Roots Reunion festival, with live music all weekend long on 20 stages and venues. This year’s festival, which runs from September 10-12, will feature headliners like Jason Isbell, Tanya Tucker and Dr. Dog, along with nearly 100 other acts.
Elsewhere in Bristol, two Cleveland sound engineers keep the spirit of 1927 alive by bringing old traditions to life at the Earnest Tube Recording Studio. The small, individual room is right across from where the long-demolished building that housed Peer’s sessions once stood. Owners Clint Holley and Dave Polster record artists in much the same way Peer would have done in 1927, in one take with a single microphone in an open room, cutting the music straight into lacquer. The warmth and vulnerability of these one-take performances, captured on archaic equipment, evokes the honesty and unvarnished power of these songs recorded by farmers and miners in ’27.
There is more to Bristol than music, of course. Bristol city center is home to art galleries, restaurants and bars, shops and boutiques, an old-fashioned lunch counter and, strangely enough, at least two different entertainment vendors, places where you can’t play pinball machines but where you can rent, buy, or have them repaired. (Don’t worry pinball fans: you can play the game itself on Flip Side, which has over three dozen perfectly functioning machines, as well as plenty of classic arcade games.) Heading to State Street you’ll find Bristol’s iconic sign, which commemorates its unique connection to Tennessee and Virginia and presents it as “a good place to live.” Originally erected in 1910 and replaced by the current slogan in 1921, this sign is the best photo opportunity in Bristol, and the best place to photograph it is anywhere along State Street.
One place you must eat on a trip to Bristol is the Burger Bar. This restaurant is a restaurant that dates back to 1942, although with different names over the years. In 1953, when his name was the Snack King, Hank Williams stopped here the night he died; his last known words were spoken right outside, when he told his driver he didn’t want to eat anything. Stepping into the Burger Bar today is like traveling back to the 1950s, when a legend like Williams could briefly miss his final journey to immortality. The burgers are great too. (And if you’re a comic or fantasy fan, note the arch in front of the public library on the block next to the Burger Bar; it features artwork by Charles Vess, a Virginia native known for his collaborations. with Neil Gaiman on Stardust, Sand seller, and more.)
You’ll also want to take the time to visit the Blackbird Bakery. Don’t let the always-long line deter you; Here you’ll find some of the best baked donuts, cakes, pies, brownies and other sweets you’ve ever tasted here. It’s conveniently open 24 hours a day, 150 hours a week; yes, it is closed for 6 pm every week, from midnight on saturday to 6 am on monday morning. You will need to find your post-church pie elsewhere in Bristol.
Bristol city center is also home to not one, but two boutique hotels which both celebrate the history and culture of the region in their own way. The Sessions Hotel, as I mentioned before, is located on State Street and is home to the Lauderdale outdoor stage. The hotel reuses three century-old buildings, including a former candy factory, discreetly inserting modern style into the timelessness of Bristol city center. I can personally recommend the Bristol Hotel, which is two blocks from State Street, in the same block as the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. This stylish and tasteful boutique has beautifully designed guest rooms and public spaces, including ample meeting space for events or small conventions. You can enjoy a personalized cocktail at Lumac, the rooftop bar, with stunning views of the Bristol brand, and sample some of the best cookies and sauces I have ever had at Vivian’s Table, the hotel restaurant. The Bristol Hotel passes one of the most important tests of a hotel: if I hadn’t been able to leave it during my stay in Bristol, I’m pretty sure I would have had a great weekend anyway.
When we think of tourist destinations, we will forgive ourselves for not thinking of this small town in the Appalachians on the border of Virginia and Tennessee. You should think of Bristol, however. It’s a cute town, easily accessible on foot, with a unique and fascinating history that has had a disproportionate impact on our culture and has the right combination of modern amenities and vintage charm. A weekend there will immerse you in a new experience while recharging your batteries. And if none of that tempts you, you can always go and watch a race on the speedway.
Editor-in-chief Garrett Martin writes about video games, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and whatever gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.