Why You Need to Visit this Appalachian Gem
Words by Marianne Leek
To most, Bristol is synonymous with NASCAR, but the small city that straddles Tennessee and Virginia is also home to a charming, eclectic, revitalized historic downtown that includes breweries, boutiques, antique stores, restaurants, and art galleries. Officially recognized by Congress in 1998 as the “Birthplace of Country Music,” the area richly celebrates its country music heritage. Located in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, downtown Bristol oozes Southern hospitality, and feels less like a city and more like a small town or neighborhood where everyone seems to know each other. Visitors can stand in two states at once, with a foot on either side of brass markers labeled “Tennessee” and “Virginia” following the yellow lines down the center of State Street, the heart of downtown Bristol. In the distance, the famous Bristol sign, reminding you that while Bristol is “A Great Place to Live,” it’s also an awesome place to visit.
Visitors to Bristol need to anchor their stay at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, which opened in 2014 and pays homage to the 1927 Bristol Sessions, the “Big Bang” of modern country music. The Bristol Sessions took place during 12 days in the summer of 1927 when Ralph Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company set up a temporary recording studio intent on capturing and capitalizing on the unique sound found in and around rural Appalachia. The sessions produced over 75 recorded performances and introduced the world to the likes of country royalty Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family.
The Birthplace of Country Music Museum, an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, provides visitors with an informative, interactive, and immersive experience connecting the influence of the legendary Bristol Sessions to modern country and Americana music genres, as well as to the broader music landscape. The museum is unique in that a few of its exhibits were researched and curated by professors and scholars from nearby East Tennessee State University, one of whom was Grammy-nominated musician Amythyst Kiah, reflecting the community’s personal investment in preserving its music legacy.
Clint Holley, the owner of The Earnest Tube recording studio in Bristol, which provides artists with a one-take, one-microphone, straight-to-lacquer recording process mimicking the famous Bristol Sessions, praises the museum’s far-reaching community influence: “The museum not only gives people insight into how this area had a major impact on the history of popular music, they also offer programs to engage young people with the hope that they carry the music forward. Amazing programs, such as the ‘Pick Along Summer Camps’ allow youngsters to learn new skills and learn how to play with other pickers.” The museum is simply a gem showcasing the regional and global impact of Bristol’s vast musical heritage.
The Birthplace of Country Music (BCM) nonprofit is the parent organization of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum and of Radio Bristol. It is also the organizer of the Rhythm & Roots Reunion, a three-day music festival held in downtown Bristol featuring the best in roots music on more than a dozen stages and 100 music acts. Not only the hottest ticket in town, it is one of the most comprehensive and affordable music festivals in the South. Rhythm & Roots Reunion celebrated its twentieth anniversary in 2021 with musicians Blackberry Smoke, Dr. Dog, A Thousand Horses, and many others. Since its inception in 2001, the Reunion has hosted an impressive and ever-growing list of local, regional, and legacy artists across a variety of roots genres, such as country, Americana, bluegrass, rock, and more. While the festival has included such artists as Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Old Crow Medicine Show, Drive-By Truckers, St. Paul and the Broken Bones, and more, the Rhythm & Roots Reunion is just that—a reunion—with many regional favorites such as Jim Lauderdale, The Black Lillies, Dr. Dog, Amythyst Kiah, Bill and the Belles, 49 Winchester, Beth Snapp, American Aquarium, Scythian, and Ed Snodderly, returning year after year.
If you can’t make it to the festival in September, don't worry. On any given night, you’re likely to find live music in downtown Bristol. However, consider visiting The Downhome, an eclectic music room located just 20 minutes down the road in Johnson City, owned and operated by singer/songwriter Ed Snodderly. Founded in 1976, with an emphasis on listening and appreciating quality regional music balancing emerging regional performers with established national acts, The Downhome music venue has been praised in The New York Times and is one of the oldest venues in the country. The Downhome prides itself on “Authenticity + Character: we are 100 percent about bringing good music to good folks.”
While staying in Bristol, ditch the chain hotel in favor of The Bristol Hotel or The Sessions Hotel, boutique options located downtown and offering premier accommodations. Located beside the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, The Bristol Hotel provides modern, luxury accommodations just a block from State Street and is home to the Lumac Rooftop Bar, where guests can comfortably enjoy a cocktail with one of the best views of the Bristol sign, especially at night, and 360-degree views of the surrounding Appalachian Mountains. Vivian’s Table, an Appalachian-style chophouse, also located in The Bristol Hotel, is a delicious option for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. The Sessions Hotel, conveniently situated on State Street, is a unique lodging and entertainment complex in three “thoughtfully repurposed” 100-year-old historic buildings and includes both the Southern Craft BBQ restaurant and the Rooftop Bar, both of which offer areas to view live performances on the Lauderdale stage. The Lauderdale stage, located adjacent to the hotel, is named after Grammy award-winning singer/songwriter Jim Lauderdale and home to the “Road to Bristol” summer concert series.
If you’re hungry for a burger, plan to grab lunch at the irresistible Burger Bar, a downtown establishment that has been in operation since 1942 and is famously where Hank Williams, Sr. was last seen alive. This classic burger joint with an old-school 50s vibe serves up the juiciest, tastiest burgers around. With choices such as “Move it on Over,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” and “Howlin’ at the Moon,” you probably won’t have room for dessert. However, no visit to Bristol is complete without a trip to its hometown Blackbird Bakery. Whether you’re in the mood for pastries, cakes, cheesecake, tarts, or pie, this old-fashioned bakery is heavenly goodness. Open 24 hours a day, you can pick up donuts for breakfast or get coffee and dessert after seeing a show, but if you’re tasked with bringing something sweet to the church potluck, you’ll need to plan ahead. Bristol’s beloved bakery remains closed on Sundays. The Blackbird Bakery also features a gallery space called “The Nest” for local and up-and-coming artists. Temporarily unable to include art since March of 2020, “The Nest” will begin showcasing the work of local artists again in March of 2022, with 25 percent of sales supporting local nonprofits.With only two locations in the country, Bristol and Asheville, the Benjamin Walls Art Gallery in Bristol is a visual feast and a must-see exhibit. The signature gallery was voted “Best of Virginia” in 2018 by Virginia Living Magazine, and Walls’ work has been featured in five Smithsonian exhibits. Benjamin Walls, artist, conservationist, preservationist, philanthropist, and proud Bristol native, spent 12 years and traveled over a million miles to capture the stunning images featured in the gallery and in his 2016 book, “Beyond,” for which Dolly Parton wrote the foreword. Walls is frequently asked why he chose Bristol as the location for his premier gallery. His response is simple: Bristol is home. He explains, “The number one question people ask in the Bristol Gallery is, ‘Why is this here?’ I take it as a total compliment! I'm so proud to have opened my first gallery in my hometown of Bristol 11 years ago! When I was growing up, downtown Bristol was largely vacant. My sister was just starting a boutique on State Street. I saw a spark. Folks were opening loft apartments, restaurants, and retail spaces. I thought, This might work! The first few years we got excited when someone pulled in front of the building! All these years later, I'm proud to have had a small part in transforming our downtown.” While you can view Walls’ grand scale photographic images from all over the world, perhaps some of the most beautiful are those that capture the nearby Smoky Mountains and the Appalachian landscape.
If you’re looking for a unique regional experience, catch a show at the historic Paramount Center for the Arts, try some local fare, enjoy a tasting at Lost State Distilling, or take a selfie in two states at once with the iconic sign in the background. And if you're eager for some outdoor adventure, well, Bristol’s got that too. Nature enthusiasts can check out nearby Bristol Caverns, visit Steele Creek Park, kayak at South Holston Lake, or travel less than an hour to see the only wild ponies on the Appalachian Trail at Grayson Highlands State Park. The area in and around Bristol does indeed have something for everyone.