Ralph Peer was a talent scout and aspiring record producer. In the early 1920s, he left a job with Okeh Records to move to Victor Talking Machine Company for a salary of $1 per year. What Peer lacked in income he more than made up for in vision – and belief he could find magic.
That vision led him from New York City to Bristol, a sleepy town straddling the Tennessee and Virginia borders. He was armed with nothing more than a new technological wonder: a portable electronic recording machine.
For 11 days, he recorded a series of regional “hillbilly” and bluegrass artists on the third floor of the Taylor-Christian Hat and Glove Company on State Street, producing a cornucopia of sounds that would prove historic, and become known as the Big Bang of Country Music.
See, country music began in Bristol, and, for many, part of it died passing through town one snowy New Year’s Eve.
Our latest Good Towns tour takes us to the Tri-Cities of Tennessee, a wedge of the state’s northeasternmost reach leading into Virginia. The geography rolls with the mountains of Appalachia, filled with people known for their genuine character and fierce independence. Comprised of Bristol, Kingsport and Johnson City, the Tri-Cities produced frontier heroes and presidents, in addition to a music style that is uniquely American.
The State of Franklin
A half-hour from Bristol, just past Johnson City, is Jonesborough. This was a town before there was a state. Founded in 1779, it was, for a time, the capital of the State of Franklin – East Tennessee’s first foray into statehood. While the territory was short-lived, Tennessee soon claimed this region when it was granted statehood itself. Today, Jonesborough draws 21st Century visitors to explore 18th Century origins.
For almost half a century, Jonesborough has been known as the Storytelling Capital of the World.
The Mary B. Martin Storytelling Hall was built in 2002, 19 years after the annual National Storytelling Festival began. Held in October, the festival builds on the Appalachian cultural tradition of passing down tales. This was where famous writers, like Kathryn Tucker Windham, held audiences captive. It’s where students seeking a graduate degree in storytelling at nearby East Tennessee State University go to hone their oratorical skills.
Adorned with cobblestone sidewalks, Jonesborough’s downtown village is lined with historic buildings and quirky businesses. Built in 1797, the Chester Inn housed at least three presidents (Tennessee-born Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk and Andrew Johnson) during its heyday as a five-star hotel. Next door is the Christopher Taylor House. Built two years before the town’s inception by an officer in the American Revolution, it later served as the home of Jackson as he built his law practice.
The Lollipop Shop is on the must-visit list, thanks to its array of vintage confections. The nearby Hands Around the World offers handcrafted fashion from more than 30 countries, ranging from eclectic bracelets and earrings to blouses, hats and handbags.
Built on the first lot assigned for homes when the village was settled, and still standing, is the Rees-Hawley House. Restored in 1989, this treasure serves as a bed-and-breakfast, with a wraparound, second-floor porch that allows guests to take in the hamlet’s comings and goings from its perch atop a hill.
With the mountain providing a never-ending panorama, the outdoors beckon 12 months a year in Johnson City, the largest of the three cities. Winged Deer Park offers boating and disc golf while Buffalo Mountain Park entices hikers looking for mountaintop vistas.
But there’s also green space for urbanites here. Located on the western edge of the downtown business district, Founders Park was originally envisioned as a storm-water retention project. It features a meandering creek that winds through a five-acre greenway. It’s the site of the Blue Plum Festival, Party in the Park and pep rallies before big ETSU events.
And it’s the perfect place to just relax after a hearty lunch at Yee-Haw Brewing Company, which sits on one side, just off Buffalo Street.
Founders Park is a favorite of David Crockett, the East Tennessee Market Executive for Regions Bank. A graduate of the University of Virginia, he came back home to raise a family. With his last name, how could he settle anywhere else? After all, frontiersman Davey Crockett remains the most famous person East Tennessee ever produced.
“We’re not direct descendants,” cautioned the modern-day Crockett. “But it’s a common lineage with a big family tree.”
From a business standpoint, East Tennessee continues to grow. From a family standpoint, it’s a great place to do just about anything in a day. You can go from climbing a mountain to crisscrossing a sun-kissed lake by boat in mere minutes.
“I like the four distinct seasons here,” Crockett said. “You have everything you need.”
‘As Good as it Gets’
Kingsport got its name due to its early standing as a commercial stop for boat traffic on the Holston River. The site of a critical Civil War battle in the final stages of conflict, Kingsport remains home of big industry – Eastman Chemical Company is headquartered here, and Domtar Corp. produces uncoated freesheet paper.
Like everywhere else in the region, there’s plenty of motivation to get out and about.
At Bay Mountain State Park, Ranger Rhonda Goins spends the morning wrangling multiple breeds of turtles as a crowd gathers around the enclosure. They see her arrival, and one by one, the turtles come out of the water and rest on the edge as if she’s holding court.
She begins feeding them, and they begin clamoring more. As a little girl looks on anxiously, she starts talking about the animal’s diet and longevity.
“I’ve been here 20 years,” Goins said. “And these turtles will still be here long after I’m gone.”
Covering 3,500 acres, Bays Mountain Park includes a nature center with outdoor enclosures of native wildlife, including bobcats and raptors, as well as the very popular daily wolf feeding. There’s a planetarium, the popular Barge Ride on the reservoir and the Steadman Heritage Farmstead Museum, which provides a hands-on perspective of early-American life.
For those who want to commune with nature on their own, there’s the 9-mile Kingsport Greenbelt, with walking and biking paths that are pet friendly.
Nearby Warriors’ Path State Park, named for the warpath used by the Iroquois on raids against local Cherokee and other Native American tribes, has miles of hiking, a golf course, tennis courts and soccer fields, kayak rentals and a swimming hole.
“I’ve lived in Kingsport since I was 3. As far as outdoor living, this is as good as it gets,” said Ronnie Livesay, a local marketing professional, as he winds down from a brisk walk through the park. “When I was a kid, we played soccer here on cow pastures. Now they have fields that are fantastic. I put 20 years on the tennis courts here.”
A former college athlete, he stays in shape – mentally and physically – with daily excursions. “This place just keeps bringing me back. I run here, and along the Greenbelt. And it’s as safe as it gets.”
A Museum Like No Other
The most historic town in the region is Bristol, a place the Cherokee Nation once called home due to the abundance of deer and buffalo. Today, it’s famous as the home of Bristol Motor Speedway, a race track that seemingly rises above the highest mountain ridge and fills to capacity for NASCAR events – and the once-a-sesquicentennial football game. The University of Tennessee and Virginia Tech drew an NCAA-record crowd of 156,990 in 2016.
Iconic State Street goes through the middle of downtown, separating Tennessee and Virginia. And it’s at the corner of State and Piedmont, on the Virginia side, where country music’s greatest legend made a final stop.
Hank Williams was headed from Knoxville to Canton, Ohio, on New Year’s Eve, 1952 for a Jan. 1 concert when driver Charlie Carr stopped at Bristol’s Burger Bar for some fast food. According to the teenaged Carr, Williams declined the meal, choosing to sleep in the backseat. A few hours later, Carr checked on Williams again, only to discover his body had gone cold. By the time Carr found a hospital, Williams, 29, was gone.
Williams owed at least part of his legend to Ralph Peer’s Bristol Sessions. The 1927 recordings introduced the likes of Ernest Stoneman, Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, featuring 18-year-old guitar pioneer Maybelle Carter, to an international audience.
At the awe-inspiring Birthplace of Country Music Museum, visitors can learn about “The Big Bang.” They can also learn about Bristol native Tennessee Ernie Ford, who became a mainstream singer and television star.
And they can explore contemporary country star Marty Stuart’s candid photographs, first taken as a 12-year-old fan and later as a touring veteran, of friends, family, fans and peers from Roy Acuff to Lester Flatt to Little Jimmy Dickens.
But it’s the chance to not only learn the history but become immersed in it that sets this museum apart. John Carter Cash, son of Johnny and June, narrates “Bound to Bristol” in the main theater. A lone disc jockey working inside Radio Bristol sends out tunes 24 hours a day from within the building. In a recording studio, visitors can hear Peer’s original recordings and create their own vocal tracks.
And in a 360-degree theater, they can hear, see and experience dozens of artists singing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” – and understand what moved Ralph Peer to come here 92 years ago.