Walk the Line of Country Music History: Bristol and the Birthplace of Country Music Museum

 Many downtowns have a community anchor, such as a cultural heritage museum, that helps bring a number of new visitors to town.  These visitors have the potential to not only create significant economic impact, but also help spread the word about your downtown. We asked our guest blogger, Rene Rodgers, associate curator at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum and former associate director for Believe in Bristol, to share some thoughts on how this state-of-the-art museum can bring economic impact to downtown Bristol.

Bristol signAs a Main Street community, Bristol, Tennessee-Virginia* has a lot going for it. A downtown filled with restaurants, art galleries, shops and residential lofts; a variety of year-round events; a lively culture of music; extensive entrepreneurial spirit; community partnerships; and historic character. These are just a few of the things that combine to make Bristol’s downtown vibrant and continually growing.

One of the most recent additions to Historic Downtown Bristol is the Birthplace of Country Music Museum (BCMM), which opened on Aug. 1, 2014. This 24,000-square-foot facility shares the story of the 1927 Bristol Sessions, known as the “big bang of country music.” It also explores the developments in technology that played a part in the success of those recordings and the impact those historic recordings have had on American and world music. All of this is done through high-tech and acoustically-driven exhibits that invite visitors to interact with and actually experience the music, which is a wonderful way to learn and one that has proved popular and energizing.

BCMM was years in the making. From the beginning when a group of like-minded people came together well over a decade ago wanting to find a way to honor and celebrate Bristol’s music heritage, until the time when construction began and the day its doors opened, it has been a labor of love. More than $10 million was raised during that time frame, through a multitude of sources. Smithsonian affiliation was applied for and granted, and the community became involved in a variety of ways such as fundraising, local experts coming together to form the exhibition content team, as architects and contractors, and by contributing artifacts and artwork to the museum’s collection.

Birthplace of County Music Museum – Photo credit: Fresh Air Photo

The question now is: How will this museum impact Bristol as a Main Street community?

  •  BCMM will be an important anchor for Bristol’s Main Street, bringing together elements of community, education, heritage and tourism and economic development.
  • Bristol’s Main Street program is built on strong community partnerships, and the museum’s parent organization Birthplace of Country Music, along with the sister music festival, Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion, have been important players in the development of those bonds. The museum will help to foster those bonds further and bring new partnerships into the mix, all of which will help to grow the Main Street community and its assets.
  • As an educational institution, the museum brings a host of resources to a local and regional community that might not normally have access to such things. These include hosting in-house special exhibits and traveling exhibitions from the Smithsonian, other museums and institutions and guest curators, tours for schools and large groups, educational programming for children and adults, research and archival collections that further the understanding of Bristol’s music history and heritage and a variety of events that support BCMM’s educational mission.

    Birthplace of County Music Museum lobby
    Birthplace of County Music Museum lobby – Photo credit: Fresh Air Photo
  • BCMM celebrates a very specific story, one that could not be told anywhere else, the story of the 1927 Bristol Sessions. Embracing this heritage has also been an important element in the development of Bristol’s lively music culture over recent years and the success and growth of Rhythm and Roots. This “hook” is an important facet in Bristol’s tourism profile, one that brings locals out every night of the week to hear great music, makes Bristol a part of Virginia’s Crooked Road and Tennessee’s Sunny Side Trail, and now, with the opening of BCMM, further encourages a host of national and international visitors to see Bristol as a wonderful travel destination. The media attention from the opening of the museum has been overwhelming, from National Geographic, national newspapers and foreign travel writers to our local media’s continued support and coverage by Rolling Stone and other music media outlets, an increase in visitors to Bristol has been the result.
  • As more visitors come to Bristol’s downtown to visit the museum, there will be obvious economic spin-offs including increased restaurant and retail activity, the possibility of longer opening hours becoming the “norm,” always tricky with small mom-and-pop businesses, more “after hours” (i.e. night/weekend) traffic downtown and the development of new events to cater to visitors and locals alike. These changes will, in turn, attract and encourage further economic development, and hopefully, impact in a positive way on the success of those ventures. Indeed, Bristol is already gearing up for the opening of two craft breweries, both just around the corner from the museum, a boutique hotel, named in honor of the Bristol Sessions and a recording studio and offices for a record label, all great additions to Bristol’s music heritage.

The stories the Birthplace of Country Music Museum tells, along with the back story of the creation of the museum itself, are important and interesting.

Most important, however, are the many ways that this museum is and will continue to be a wonderful asset and resource to Bristol, its Main Street community and beyond.

*Believe in Bristol is designated a Main Street community in both Virginia and Tennessee because the city of Bristol is located on the border of Virginia and Tennessee.