‘Tennessee Border’ is the title of a 1947 Red Foley song that contains the memorable line, “I picked her up in my pick-up truck/And she stole this heart of mine.” It also claims to be the birth place of country music. More specifically, the city of Bristol, whose main street is divided by the Virginia-Tennessee state line, claims this title. Not that they’re really making the most out of it, bar the mural depicted above and a few streets named after early C&W luminaries.
In 1927, Ralph Peer of NY-based Victor Records came here with an early version of the portastudio and recorded a number of local acts who’d made their way in from the surrounding Appalachian mountains to lay down some tracks and get some cash in return. Most famously, Jimmie Rodgers and the astonishing Carter Family laid the musical foundations for all that followed. But it’s a few hundred years out to claim that country music was born the day it was first put on record.
On Monday afternoon of last week, Bristol’s main street reminded me of my home town on half day closing in the 1970s, except that Market Rasen in Lincolnshire has a population of under 3,000, and the population of Bristol is over 42,000. Many businesses are derelict, while the C&W Museum is stuck on the edge of town on the lower level of a shopping mall. Go through JC Penneys and down the escalator and you’re there.
The tiny museum had a handful of interesting artefacts, some pictures and exhibits missing from the walls, and several overpriced CDs. Not that I was looking for anything like Nashville’s Opryland Theme Park, but it was a bit like showing up at Gettysburg to find they’d built a NASCAR track, but left a Civil War souvenir shop down a tunnel and underneath the pit stop.
Back on State Street downtown, there were two businesses of interest. One was the Mountain Aire record shop on the Virginia side of the street, where I spent a happy half hour as the sole customer. On the Tennessee side was the far busier Uncle Sam’s Loan Shop, a massive pawn emporium catering to those in need of instant cash. You have to hand it to the concern’s marketing strategists. By making poverty seem patriotic, they were drawing in more customers than the rest of the shops on State Street put together.