While Nashville may be considered the home of country music today, many experts consider Bristol TN/VA to be the birthplace of the genre.
After all, it was in Bristol where the earliest recordings of country music took place.
To my pleasant surprise, rather than being a museum focused on modern music, The Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol is very much about the genre’s seminal sounds of the early 1900s.
The museum tells the story of the 1927 Bristol Sessions, where Ralph Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company came to Bristol, Tennessee to document the “hillbilly music” of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Despite the museum’s name, it wasn’t just country music. They also had blues musicians, gospel groups, and other old-time music of the Appalachian region that descended from African-American and Scots-Irish traditions.
As luck would have it, future bluegrass legends like the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers showed up to start the country music craze. So Bristol gets to claim country music as its own, and the two-state town and its museum are better for it.
Not being huge country music fans, Emma and I weren’t initially thrilled with this part of the Bristol assignment. But the museum turned out to be much more interesting than I’d imagined– fascinating for any music-loving visitor.
Read on for our in-depth guide to The Birthplace of Country Music Museum experience, including driving directions, ticket prices, history of the Bristol attraction, some of our favorite must-see exhibits, and other pertinent info.
READ MORE: The 10 Best Things to Do in Bristol TN/VA
The Birthplace of Country Music Museum Info
ADDRESS: 101 Country Music Way, Bristol VA
PHONE NUMBER: (423) 573-1927
HOURS: Tuesday to Saturday 10 AM-6 PM; Sunday 1 PM-5 PM; Closed Mondays
ADMISSION: General Admission $13, Discounted Admission $11, Kids ages 5 & under Free
From Abingdon VA, take I-81 S/US-58 W into Bristol and get off at Exit 3 for I-381, which becomes Commonwealth Avenue after a mile or two. That’ll take a left onto Cumberland Street within a couple of miles. A quick right onto Merchants Alley and a quick left onto Winston Alley leads to a final quick left onto Moore Street. The museum is on the right.
From Johnson City TN, take I-26 West to US-11E North, which will bring you all the way into Downtown Bristol. Turn right onto Melrose St, take a quick left onto Southside Ave, and stay left onto 6th Street after about half a mile. This will bring you to Moore Street, with the museum on the right.
The Birthplace of Country Music Museum History
He recorded a total of 76 songs by 19 different artists of varying genres. Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family (A.P., Sarah, and Maybelle Carter) were standouts who created a huge stir with a sound that became known as country music.
In fact, Rodgers would be called “the Father of Country Music,” while the Carter Family was “The First Family of Country Music.” Together, they led the way in making the Bristol Sessions a legendary event– the “Big Bang” of country music.
In 1998, the US Congress officially recognized Bristol as “the Birthplace of Country Music.” Commemorating this little slice of music history, The Birthplace of Country Music Museum opened in 2014.
This museum is a registered non-profit devoted to celebrating Bristol’s deep musical heritage and promoting the continued enrichment of that heritage for generations to come.
The Birthplace of Country Music Museum primarily tells the story of the Bristol Sessions, and includes exhibits to showcase the recordings, the recording equipment, and the influence that music has had over the last century.
Radio Bristol began broadcasting live from the museum in August, 2015. Radio Bristol has a low-power FM channel, as well as 3 different streaming stations with different styles of American roots music.
Exploring The Birthplace of Country Music Museum
An affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, The Birthplace of Country Music Museum explores the sound technology of 1927, which was integral to making the Bristol Sessions possible.
It also has in-depth coverage of the music from those sessions, deep dives into the many musicians involved, and plenty of recordings to sample.
The museum suggests allotting two hours to appreciate their permanent exhibits, and we clocked in at just under that.
Our tours opened with a short video offering background on the Bristol Sessions, then led straight into the main gallery.
The gallery has several spots with listening booths, including samples from the original session recordings as well as newer incarnations of these old songs.
There are several video experiences, artifact display cases (including antique musical instruments), and text/picture boards that explain different aspects of the Bristol Sessions.
One of the coolest permanent exhibits is their throwback Radio Bristol studio, which regularly broadcasts live.
The museum also has a Special Exhibit Gallery that showcases curated (by in-house staff and special guests) exhibits throughout the year.
All temporary exhibits are related to the museum’s theme, but can vary from the music and art of Appalachian culture to science and history.
Some of these exhibits feature guests in the museum’s Speaker Series as well.
We got to see their latest exhibit, “I’ve Endured: Women in Old-Time Music,” which paid a relatively rare tribute to the ladies who contributed to the South’s enduring musical culture.
Radio Bristol has daily scheduled broadcasts, and it’s a proudly non-profit, listener-supported station.
They have 3 different streaming broadcasts: Radio Bristol WBCM 100.1 FM, Radio Bristol Americana, and Radio Bristol Classic.
There are also special live broadcasts from The Birthplace of Country Music Museum’s performance theater, including a revitalization of “Farm and Fun Time.”
The station and its streaming broadcasts are all part of the BCM Museum’s mission.
Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion
The Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion festival was established in 2001, before the Birthplace of Country museum was created.
But the annual event is now linked in a mutual effort to keep Bristol’s musical heritage, present, and future intact.
This music festival is a huge annual event in September, with some 40,000 attendees each year.
The festival completely takes over Downtown Bristol TN/VA, with over a dozen stages on State Street, Moore Street, and other central roadways.
Attractions near Birthplace of Country Music Museum
There are tons of great attractions in and around Bristol TN/VA, including lots to do within walking distance of The Birthplace of Country Music Museum.
State Street in Bristol TN/VA
State Street is a worthy attraction in its own right.
The center line of the street has cool brass plaques to showcase the border and makes for awesome photos.
The Bristol Sign
The Bristol Sign on State Street is another must-do photo opp. It spans the street, again with one side in Tennessee and the other in Virginia.
This huge electric sign was one of the biggest in the U.S. when it was first erected.
It also has the rather funny/humble motto of “Bristol: A Good Place to Live.”
Bristol’s breweries are all located in the downtown area, within walking distance from each other.
They each have a unique feel and a lot to offer in terms of good local beer and glimpses into local culture.
Lost State Distilling
Lost State Distilling is another place for tasting locally made libations in Bristol.
It’s a cool place to drop to sample the wares while learning a thing or two about appreciating the top-notch alcohol at this Bristol distillery.
Bristol’s best restaurants are all downtown, mostly within walking distance of the museum.
We absolutely loved Bloom for a wonderful night out, but highly recommend making a reservation, as they often get busy.
Blackbird Bakery is beloved for its specialty doughnuts, while 620 State is solid all around and Burger Bar offers a good old-fashioned diner experience. –by Jonathon Engels; all photos by Emma Gallagher