‘State Street’ in Bristol is famous for three things - the state line runs right up the middle of the road (as immortalised in the Steve Earle murder ballad ‘Carrie Brown’), and also that just nearby is the burger bar where Hank Williams was last seen alive on New Year’s Eve 1952. The people in Bristol genuinely look like Ulster folk. It was uncanny.
The third thing is that Bristol was where, in 1927, the first country music recordings were made. The now-infamous ‘Bristol Sessions’ brought the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers from obscurity to national, and later international, fame. And so it was only right that the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, would be founded here in August 2014.
We arrived late, delayed by heavy traffic on a 272 mile journey from Winston-Salem in North Carolina as we drove toward Knoxville in east Tennessee, with Bristol a planned stop (ironically, Hank Williams was doing the same journey, but the other way round). The staff were wonderful, interested in Northern Ireland, knowledgable about Scotch-Irish roots, and kind-hearted enough to stay after closing time to let me see around and to talk - and to tip me off as to other things to make sure to see.
I plan to go back one day, and to spend more time there. What struck me above all was how open and accepting the Museum is about the importance of old-time Gospel music, of hymns and faith, as a critical component in the origins of the genre, and also in the present day. Part of the gallery is a recreation of a church interior, with a large LCD screen playing a looped film of present-day Gospel singers from the area telling their stories and explaining the simple life-transforming message of faith alone in Christ alone.
I tried to imagine a museum here which would host this kind of content. But I couldn’t. I suspect the content would be strangled at birth. And yet there is a story, of how the music made the return journey, back to Ulster and Scotland again, with the singing of Ira D Sankey, with recordings by William MacEwan, with recordings by the Carter Family and 'brother duets' of the early 1900s. The music wasn't exported, it just flowed back to the further reaches of the same community rom which it originated, a British Isles distant cousin both connected to and separated from our American kinfolk by the ocean.
I remember once telling a visibly-shocked broadcast presenter that Gospel music isn't primarily a style, or a genre, but a message set to song, across multiple styles and genres. That bit got edited out. Old-time country music - the simplicity of a Blue Sky Boys or Bailes Brothers or McCravy Brothers record - just makes the message even more plaintive and powerful.