Downtown Bristol: A Day in Two States

Every time I visit Bristol, I love to tell my friends that I was in two different states at the same time. Where else can you stand in the middle of downtown and know that one foot is in Tennessee and the other foot is in Virginia?

Black Bird Bakery
Blackbird Bakery is not just a small corner bakery, it’s a destination all in itself.

The state line between Tennessee and Virginia literally runs down the middle of State Street. Bristol’s downtown is lined with locally owned shops and restaurants, as the sidewalks fill with history and tradition. Approximately one block from that iconic state line sits Blackbird Bakery, on what is known as the Virginia side of town.  It’s not just a small corner bakery, it’s a destination all in itself. The minute I walked in, my eyes were drawn to the large display case filled with colorful confections. The homemade scents traveled through the air, and I found myself torn between trying to scope out the best seat in the house or choosing from the most tantalizing pastries and sweets of the day. I ended up with the popular breakfast quiche paired with coffee that tastes like it was brewed in my own kitchen. I also could not resist the Pink Almond Creme Donut, which tasted just as good as it looked.

After breakfast, I walked across the street to the Birthplace of Country Music  Museum. The beautiful two story building dedicated to the people, music and stories that shaped country music helped me learn the history of the 1927 Bristol Sessions. Those Sessions shaped the sounds of early country music and are the basis of Bristol being known as the Birthplace of Country Music. And while the performers who came to Bristol in 1927 were no different than musicians today, who gather to share their love of music with one another, some of those artists became iconic country music legends whose legacy and influence are still widely recognized.

The museum showcases many musicians and influencers of country music including record executive Ralph Peer. Peer traveled to Bristol to find the makers of “hillbilly” music. He set up a portable recording studio in a hat factory building on State Street for two weeks and captured 76 songs by 19 different acts. Artists included Ernest V. Stoneman with various friends and family, The Carter Family and even Jimmie Rodgers. It was with these recordings that the foundation of commercial country music was laid and its story began.

In 2002, the Library of Congress ranked the 1927 Bristol Sessions among the 50 most significant sound recording events of all time. Even Johnny Cash said, “These recordings in Bristol in 1927 are the single most important event in the history of country music.”

Birthplace of Country Music Museum
“These recordings in Bristol in 1927 are the single most important event in the history of country music,” said Johnny Cash.

The Birthplace of Country Music Museum is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, and the museum is filled with wonderful visitor experiences – including artifacts, images and panels, several theater film experiences and interactive kiosks such as a sound booth for a mock recording with old time country music. The museum also has a Special Exhibits Gallery that features rotating temporary exhibits about related music history and other topics – past exhibits have focused on The Carter Family, American roots music, Tennessee Ernie Ford, regional manufacturing history and contemporary southern blues musicians. A working radio station – WBCM Radio Bristol – is also part of the museum exhibits and visitors can experience their live programming on a daily basis. There are also a variety of educational and music programs throughout the year, such as film series, family activities, lectures, music performances and radio sessions.

As I made my way through the permanent exhibits exploring the history of the Bristol Sessions, the influence of technological developments on the creation and dissemination of this music, as well as the legacy and influence of “hillbilly” music beyond that two-week recording session in 1927, I felt like I was stepping back through time. One of my favorite displays in the exhibits was the collection of instruments representative of those used by the 1927 Bristol Sessions musicians. Most are familiar to anyone who loves country music – the guitar, the banjo, the fiddle, the autoharp, the mandolin – but some are less recognized such as the harp guitar or the bones. And while none of these are the instruments used in the actual Bristol Sessions, original Bristol Sessions instruments remain difficult to find as many of the musicians from 1927 played mail-order instruments and these were often not kept for posterity, I love the silent story these instruments sing.

“Move It On Over Burger” with Parmesan Fries and Thousand Island Dressing from the Burger Bar.

The museum explores the many elements that played a part in helping to bring us to where we are in country music today, making it a real joy for visitors from those don’t yet know the history to musicians and music history buffs. And the most exciting part is that this year marks the 90th Anniversary of the 1927 Bristol Sessions. So, plan your visit now!

As I walked through town, I quickly noticed that another draw for downtown Bristol has to be the women’s boutiques and all the stores filled with antiques. They seemed to have a common theme that included Bristol’s history intertwined with music in the window displays. Winding my way in and out of the shops that lined both sides of the street, I could have stayed and explored the city located in two states for hours.

Just a block from the Museum I find the Burger Bar, a vintage 1940s style diner adorned with old vinyl records under the countertops and retro red diner stools. According to legend, this is the last place Hank Williams, Sr. was seen alive in 1953. When I was growing up, I remember my mother listening to Hank Williams. As I pulled up a seat to the same bar that he ate from all those years ago, and it takes me back to my childhood. Seems to be a common theme for my day in Bristol, but especially at the Burger Bar. When I was a little girl, I loved dipping my fries in Thousand Island Dressing, and much to my delight the parmesan fries I ordered came with a side of dressing. You cannot go to the Burger Bar and not order a burger, so I chose the “Move It On Over Burger” from the long list of options that all had fun names, matching the diner’s vintage style.

Because of Bristol’s deep roots in car racing from the legendary Bristol Motor Speedway, we chose the Route 66 theme.

After lunch, I crossed the street and found myself in Tennessee, and discovered a new way to have fun as a family, team or with just a few friends. The Escape Game guaranteed to test my wits as a fully immersive, real life escape room experience with laughs and determination. Given a scenario ahead of time, my friend and I were locked in a room with other teammates. Because of Bristol’s deep roots in car racing from the legendary Bristol Motor Speedway, we chose the Route 66 theme. We were tasked with finding a missing carburetor on the last leg of the “All American Road Race” down Route 66. Added to the suspense, our rival’s team had ransacked our car at an overnight pit stop, and we were on a mission to recover the missing car parts to win the race. Ultimately, we were able to locate the carburetor and escape with only two minutes and ten seconds left on the clock.  It was an intense experience and I could only imagine trying to escape and solve the clues with the other themes that included the Twister Escape and Leviathan Lab. My mind immediately begins involuntarily making a list of the people I know who would absolutely want to know about this little challenge. The Tri-Cities Escape Game would make a great team building exercise, date night or party activity, and their themes tend to change periodically.

Bristol Sign
The Downtown Bristol sign overlooking State Street.

As the sun set around the towering Bristol Tennessee/Virginia sign that overlooks downtown, I could not help but smile about the memories I had made that day. Downtown Bristol is the perfect blend of vintage and modern mixed together to create a unique style you could only find in a city that calls two states home. From hunting for antiques, food that tells the city’s history and exploring the roots of country music, Bristol continues to be a destination for musicians, history buffs and locals with something new to discover every time they visit.

For information on what to do, where to eat and more fun in Bristol, go to www.discoverbristol.org.