René Rodgers

Dr. René Rodgers is head curator at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol, where she leads the museum’s collections, permanent and special exhibits, and other educational programming. VEDP President and CEO Jason El Koubi spoke with Rodgers about Virginia’s role in the popularization of what’s now known as country music, the complexities of promoting tourist attractions across state lines, and how the museum has benefited from the presence of The Crooked Road: Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail.

Jason El Koubi: Can you tell us about Bristol’s place in country music history? How did the city of Bristol contribute to the growth of this incredible musical tradition?

René Rodgers: In the 1920s and 1930s, record labels were searching out what they called “hillbilly music,” and what we think of as early country music — old-time traditional tunes.

Before 1927, a lot of that recording was done in the major studios for those record labels — in places like New York City, Atlanta, Richmond, Indiana — but because there was a change in technology around 1925 or 1926, recording technology became more portable and record labels started to look at places where they could go out for location recording sessions. One of those sessions was here in Bristol in 1927. 

These weren’t the first hillbilly recordings. A lot of people assume that because we’re called the Birthplace of Country Music Museum it’s about the first recordings, but it’s more about the significance of the recordings here in 1927 and how they influenced early commercial country music. What made Bristol significant is, first off, that change in technology meant records were more sellable because they sounded better. The sound was more balanced, more nuanced, and that electric amplification and electric technology meant better-quality records were produced.

The other thing was that the record producer who came here from the Victor Talking Machine Company, Ralph Peer, was a real visionary. He knew the kind of music he was looking for. He knew what would sell well. 

Jimmie Rodgers, who’s now known as the Father of Country Music, and the Carter Family, who are now known as the First Family of Country Music — the first time they ever recorded was here in Bristol. That perfect storm of technology, visionary record producer, artists, and songs that came together in Bristol set the foundation for the early commercial country music industry.

Bristol itself is contributing to that legacy today. We’re sharing that history and music widely via the museum and our radio station, Radio Bristol. We have the annual Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion music festival every year, in our 21st year this year. We partner with the Heritage Music Trails, The Crooked Road in Virginia, and also the Music Trail in Tennessee. Most recently, we have had the Mississippi Music Trails put a marker in Bristol about Jimmie Rodgers. 

El Koubi: How did things evolve after that in Bristol? What’s the country music culture of Bristol today?

Rodgers: After the 1927 Bristol Sessions recordings, which were so important, Ralph Peer came back in 1928, trying to remake that magic. Ernest Stoneman recorded again here, and the Stoneman Family is hugely foundational to country music, up to and through the 1960s and ‘70s, and even today. Ralph Peer and Ernest Stoneman continuing to work together is significant. Stoneman also recorded some songs that have become Appalachian standards and harken back to old-time music. Despite the fact that those recordings were made here, Bristol didn’t become a center for country music recording at that time. 

But that history was very influential on Bristol staying a hub for live performances. You definitely see that today, not just in country music, but in a wide variety. On the country side, the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion has grown from 4,000–5,000 people attending to a festival of 40,000.

At that festival, you’re going to hear country music, old-time, bluegrass, ballads, but you’re also going to hear other roots music like blues and gospel and Americana. You’re going to hear where it started, how it’s evolving, and what it might become. 

We also have some amazing venues downtown, like The Paramount Center or Paramount Bristol, which is actually on the Tennessee side of State Street. And then The Cameo on the Virginia side of State Street, both of which are big live music performance venues. There are also multiple places downtown and within Bristol sharing this type of music.

The other thing that’s really cool to me is how some of the businesses downtown are embracing the music. For instance, we have a music school that teaches music performance, from singing to guitar to ukulele. We also have places like The Earnest Tube, which is a live direct-to-lacquer recording studio. On their website they talk about being inspired by the 1927 Bristol Sessions and doing the same type of recording that harkens back to those days. 

 

The Birthplace of Country Music Museum, Bristol

Birthplace of Country Music Museum, Bristol

El Koubi: Can you tell us more about what The Crooked Road is and how it has increased interest in the Birthplace of Country Music Museum? What are some other things the museum has explored to capitalize on the wider region and pull together the threads that exist along this music trail?

Rodgers: The Crooked Road is an amazing organization that works so hard to emphasize and celebrate the music, especially in Southwest Virginia. It’s a heritage music trail with both large venues and smaller sites along it that tell the story of music in this region. The Birthplace of Country Music Museum is one of the major venues, and the trail is instrumental as a tourism driver for music heritage. We have so many people coming to the museum who tell us they are following The Crooked Road for their vacation. We collaborate with The Crooked Road, and they definitely drive tourism to our region through their marketing and promotional efforts.

We’ve partnered with them on concerts and events. For instance, recently we had some Crooked Road musicians at one of our Farm and Fun Time® shows. We’ve also worked with them to bring musicians in for professional development or educational programming at the museum.

El Koubi: Any other organizations that come to mind? Just partnerships with the museum and ways that you’re collaborating to draw tourists to Southwest Virginia?

Rodgers: I’ve been working with the Southwest Virginia Experience Museum Steering Committee. It’s a newish organization working to create a museum trail of this area for all sorts of museums, collaborating and promoting each other. 

We also work with organizations like Arts Alliance Mountain Empire to promote events and their speaker series. We’ve partnered with King University in Bristol to help host some of their speaker series. We’ve worked with Virginia Folklife on numerous events.

We’re also a Smithsonian Institution Affiliate. That’s a great draw for tourism because we’ve been able to tap into Smithsonian resources and bring their special exhibits to the museum. 

Another cool thing is our Main Street organization, Believe in Bristol. They represent both Virginia and Tennessee, and we work with them a lot. We’re so fortunate to have them on our side. They do tremendous work to promote Historic Downtown Bristol on both sides of State Street and to promote the museum. We also work with our local tourism agencies and our Chamber of Commerce. 

That perfect storm of technology, visionary record producer, artists, and songs that came together in Bristol set the foundation for the early commercial country music industry.

Dr. René Rodgers Head Curator, Birthplace of Country Music Museum

We have a great relationship with Bristol Motor Speedway and with the hotels downtown. For instance, at the Bristol Hotel, we offer museum admission to their guests. We’re getting those people who might not have known about the museum to come visit. We’re also looking for ways to work with the Hard Rock Casino once it’s established in Bristol. 

El Koubi: On the cultural economy and leveraging cultural assets, how does a musical trail like the one you’ve described come together? How can cultural organizations contribute to the development of trails like this one?

Rodgers: Obviously, there’s job creation, not only for the people working for the organization, but for the musicians we or any other sites along the trail might hire for concerts or programs. They’re independent musicians, nine times out of 10, and that’s how they make their living. 

We’ve been talking about the tourism dollars that can bring into a region. Who’s coming and spending money that wouldn’t be here normally? A Chamber of Commerce or tourism agency calls them heads on beds. The more cultural sites you have, and the more things you have for tourists to do, the more likely you are to get those people staying multiple nights and spending their money at those sites, in hotels, in restaurants, at the service stations, and all those places that are part of your local economy.

Having cultural sites and things like The Crooked Road and other heritage trails is about quality of life. If a business wants to start a manufacturing site or start a bigger business in your area, quality of life is one way that you attract them. Those businesses then attract employees, and these sites and these cultural experiences mean that those people are more likely to want to move here because it’s a nice place to live. 

A lot of the way that cultural organizations contribute to that is advocacy. That means talking to legislators about the impact that cultural heritage sites, music trails, and other types of things have on the region. Talk to the tourism sites, businesses, main street organizations, and build close relationships and partner with them to be advocates for you, and you advocate for them, because they’re also a big part of that discussion. They help to bring money into the region. 

El Koubi: You’re a Bristol native and you lived overseas for many years and then came back. What drew you back to Virginia?
 

Rodgers: We are so lucky to live in a state that’s filled with natural beauty, cultural assets, and so much history. All of those are things I’m interested in. But when I left Bristol to go to college, and then after college moved to England, I didn’t think I wanted to be back here. But my little patch of Virginia has developed so much since I left. 

My main reason for coming back was first and foremost about family. I’m an only child. My parents were getting older and it was getting harder and harder to be so far away. I thought, “I’m going to come back to Bristol — just for a few months — then I’ll find somewhere else on the East Coast to live, but I’ll be nearer to my family.” But once I moved back, I hit it at just the right time. And I got recruited very quickly. I worked for Believe in Bristol, the Main Street organization, for two years, which gave me a really great connection to my community. 

I think that’s key to why I’ve stayed and what kept me here. I made that connection — a conscious effort to connect with my community. 

I love being near the outdoors and the natural beauty. It is so easy to get out into that from where I live. So much has changed — it’s a vibrant, wonderful place, but there’s so much potential for Bristol to change and evolve even more. And not just Bristol, but this region. I just see the potential there, and it’s exciting. 

El Koubi: What are the best places to listen to music in Virginia?

Rodgers: The Crooked Road is a great starting point. If you go onto The Crooked Road website, you see all the sites. Then you go onto their individual websites and see what music they have. But the places that come to mind immediately — the Carter Family Fold is huge. Every Saturday night they have performances. You’re going to always hear great music there. The Floyd Country Store is another great place. The Blue Ridge Music Center. The Old Fiddlers’ Convention in Galax. Blue Ridge Institute & Museum, Ralph Stanley Museum, the Southwest Virginia Cultural Center. And then there are lots of smaller festivals.

You have ample opportunity to find music in Virginia. I’ve mostly concentrated here on Southwest Virginia, because that’s what I’m most familiar with. But another great way to find out about music and musical traditions in your area is to go onto the Virginia Folklife website because they’re talking about all of the music, crafts, art, and traditions across the state. If country music or old-time music isn’t your thing, you’ll find everything from calypso to Iranian music to Mexican folk music. There are so many opportunities to find music and culture in Virginia.

I encourage people to dig deep into those websites and support them, because that’s how we survive and grow. It really matters a lot to have that support and visitors coming through our doors every day. 

 

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