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Bristol, Va., museum lauds 'hillbilly' music

| Friday, Aug. 1, 2014, 9:33 p.m.
Jesse McReynolds plays his grandfather's fiddle during the taping of the WBCM Farm & Fun Time Radio Show in the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol, Va. on Friday. His grandfather played the fiddle on the 1927 Bristol Sessions. A grand opening ceremony for the museum is scheduled for Saturday. (AP Photo/Bristol Herald Courier, David Crigger)

BRISTOL, Va. — A museum celebrating 10 days in 1927 that helped introduce the mountain music of Appalachia to mainstream America opened in Virginia on Friday.

The Birthplace of Country Music Museum tells the story of record producer Ralph Peer, who offered $50 to “hillbilly” musicians willing to travel to a makeshift studio in Bristol, Tenn., and play into his modern microphone.

The result, which started the careers of luminaries such as Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, was dubbed by music historian Nolan Porterfield as “the Big Bang of country music” and hailed by Johnny Cash as the genre's most important moment.

The session featured 19 acts recording 76 songs for the first time, including Rodgers' “Sleep Baby Sleep” and the Carters' “Single Girl, Married Girl.”

The museum's exhibits trace the origins of hillbilly music through the fields, the train tracks and the churches of the Appalachian Mountains.

Most of the story is told through song lyrics, although interviews with some of the original old-time music artists help describe the poverty and the natural environs that helped shaped the sound.

“Our goal was to get the story right and get it deep by capturing the personal experience,” said Jessica Turner, the museum's director and head curator.

The museum, heavy on listening stations and music videos, offers spots where visitors can craft songs. All the original Bristol Session songs can be heard, many also in modern versions.

Among those on hand to commemorate its opening was famed Bluegrass performer Ralph Stanley, whose 68-year career is charted by the museum.

“We sang natural,” Stanley said. “We meant it, what we sang. I am honored that people accepted it.”

Bristol, which straddles Tennessee and Virginia, is recognized by both states and by Congress as the “Birthplace of Country Music.”

While other location recordings preceded the Bristol Session, the depth of talent found in the area helped it eclipse earlier efforts.

In the exhibit, the signature song of the Carter Family, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” is played and sung by a variety of historic and modern artists in a panoramic video collage. All are invited to join the circle and sing.

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