Birthplace of Country Music
On a whim, I detoured to Bristol VA/TN, where two states face each other across a yellow line down the middle of State Street – which means in the downtown area you can be standing in two states at once. The Bristol’s look like one city. But drive around town and Google Maps will suddenly say, “Welcome to Tennessee,” and a turn later “Welcome to Virginia” and a few turns later – well, you get the idea. Small brass plaques embedded down the center line of State Street say “Tennessee” on one side and “Virginia” on the other. Though the twin-cities operate as two separate towns, they converge in one colorful downtown. Crowning the main “drag” is an electric sign pointing in one direction to VA and the other to Tenn – and declaring the single town a “good place to live”.
I came here because I heard Bristol is a sort of Appalachian Broadway as well as home to the Birthplace of Country Music. A record executive, Ralph Peer, came to the area to record the fiddle and banjo sounds in the surrounding mountains. “The Victor Co. will have a recording machine in Bristol for 10 days beginning Monday to record records — inquire at our store.” That was the text in a small box that appeared in the Bristol News-Bulletin on July 24, 1927. This is how ‘hillbilly’ music began its journey into the mainstream and the first country music recordings were made for national distribution. A.P. Carter, his wife Sara and Sara’s teenage sister Maybelle Addington were from the surrounding countryside, and Peer knew he’d struck gold — especially when Maybelle and Sara came back the next morning and cut two duets. The Carter Family, as they called themselves, became one of the biggest acts in America, continuing on in this original form until 1942.
At the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, a Smithsonian affiliate, I discover the musical heritage of Appalachia and literally learned everything I didn’t know I wanted to know about the origins of country music. The museum is not large, but from the introductory video to the final song, it is perfectly done. On display are relevant instruments, fiddle, banjo, harp guitar, kazoo and jaw harp played by some the best musicians ever. A great display on the famous Bristol native, Tennessee Ernie Ford – his most famous song is the coal miner ballad “16 Tons”. In 1984, President Reagan awarded Tennessee Ernie Ford the Presidential Metal of Freedom. Hearing old time country music by musicians who have gone on was priceless. I especially enjoyed an exhibit of Marty Stuart’s photography. Sixty black & white images of quiet moments with legends like Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson and Earl Scruggs and everyday folks Stuart encountered on the road. Besides being talented you can tell he had a great fondness for his subjects. On top of all that – there is a booth where I was able to record myself singing along with country favorites and – be really glad I don’t know how to add sound to this message because – I was able to tape my own yodeling session! If only I had discovered this talent earlier I feel certain my life would have taken a far different path.
Before leaving Bristol, I can’t resist a take out burger from the a cherished hole-in-the-wall Burger Bar, where burgers are named for Hank Williams – the last place he was last seen alive. I had ‘Can’t Get You Off My Mind’ cheese burger.
While it is still light, I decide to drive to the Carter Family Fold Music Center in Hiltons, VA at the foot of Clinch Mountain, memorialized in song by the Carters. The original Carter Family lived where the Fold is today and the “barn” is where Johnny Cash performed his final concert a few months before his death. The Carter Fold is on Virginia’s “The Crooked Road”, a more than 300 mile musical heritage trail connecting museums that tell the narrative of this quintessentially American musical form and musical venues that are its soundtrack.
A Place of Beauty – A Place of Song. The age old tapestry of this place is woven as much by music, faith and family as it is by county and state line. I felt fortunate to be in this place, at this time. “Music heals what medicine cannot touch”.
As you read this it is Inauguration Day – I had high hopes of attending the Inauguration in person this year. Something I have dreamed of doing – to witness history in the making.
On a bitter cold morning last January as I departed the American Bus Association Convention in Omaha, Nebraska I saw that dream coming together. The previous evening, I had attended a party promoting the attractions of next year’s convention city – Baltimore, MD – scheduled to begin just a few days after the January 20, 2021 Presidential Inauguration. I immediately saw this a custom-made opportunity to attend a Presidential Inauguration and set my plans in motion. But we are in a much different place this January…
When I set out on this journey and despite all the predictions of the winter bringing a resurgence of Covid cases, worse than ever, I remained hopeful that by Inauguration Day, I would be in DC. Hopeful, I continued on my path – even when I learned there would be no parade down Pennsylvania Ave, no standing in the crowds on the mall. I would just get as close as I could and see what I could see. Then January 6 and the horrific take-over of the Capitol, I finally had to face facts, I would not be in DC on Inauguration Day.
Still, here I am a few days before the Inauguration a few miles away in Alexandria – so why not just take a drive through. I entered DC crossing the Potomac River over a bridge considered the “ceremonial entrance to our Nation’s Capital” – the Arlington Memorial Bridge. The Memorial Bridge connects in a direct line the Lincoln Memorial and the Civil War General Robert E Lee’s home, Arlington House, on the hill overlooking Arlington National Cemetery. A deliberate connection designed to symbolize the re-joining of the north and south after the Civil War. Just down the hill from Arlington House on that same direct line, is JFK’s gravesite.
It is a clear day, the most beautiful I have ever seen in DC. As always I am surprised at just how huge every monument is, just how close together everything is and how stunningly beautiful. My eyes follow the line of the reflecting pool from the Lincoln Memorial to the towering Washington Monument and then in the distance across the Tidal Basin – the Jefferson Memorial. The last time I was here the Cherry trees circling the Basin were in full bloom, the crowds were massive, and the traffic was gridlock – I spent more time swearing than appreciating the majesty of my surroundings. I slow as I pass the Martin Luther King Memorial and see the likeness of MLK standing just ahead of two huge slabs of granite signifying the Stone of Hope emerging from the mountain of despair. And for a minute – I forget that this isn’t just another day in DC. Driving along Independence Avenue at first I think what I am seeing are preparations for the Inauguration but as I attempt to turn onto the National Mall I come upon police barricades at every intersection preventing access to the Mall. The Mall has been called “America’s Front Yard” – home to monuments, memorials and marches – our public space – where we tell the story of America and reaffirm our ideals of democracy and today it is off limits. Within two blocks of the Capitol, the Nation’s Capital is quickly looking much more like Fort Knox. Metal barricades are being erected, members of the National Guard are mingling with local law enforcement and it feels time for me to turn back. A last minute decision, I take Massachusetts Avenue towards Dupont Circle and the National Cathedral. This route takes me past the embassies of Luxembourg, Ireland, Japan, and the United Kingdom with it’s massive Sir Winston Churchill statue – Churchill, who’s mother was American, was given honorary American citizenship in 1963. To my right, across the street from the Vatican and Norwegian Embassies is the US Naval Observatory Gate – the gate has a screen broadcasting the “official US time” based on the master atomic clock at the Observatory – then just visible through the fence is the distinctive ‘Victorian looking’ rooftop of the stately 128-year old Vice-Presidential residence. A quick right turn and I am in the Cathedral Close, the 59 acre sanctuary surrounding the National Cathedral and designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. All is quiet here and I am almost alone. With the Cathedral temporarily closed, no tour docent to tell me what to admire I take time to appreciate the architectural masterpiece. I remember being told it was “designed to point eyes and hearts to things above” and it does. I try to remember bits and pieces from past tours; did you know the “Creation” Rose window celebrates when God declared, “Let there be light”, the Cathedral houses a tiny piece of the moon – delivered personally by the men who brought it back down to earth. The moon rock is encased in an air-tight, nitrogen-filled capsule in one of the stained glass windows. Among the whimsical and fearsome gargoyles which act as waterspouts are rattlesnakes, raccoons, Darth Vadar, an elephant balancing a book on it’s head, a birdwatcher and that the Cathedral is the spiritual home for the Nation – I come away inspired.
A short drive through historic Georgetown with it’s beautiful old buildings, cobblestone streets and my day is over – I am sad that I didn’t have a drink at the Willard Hotel, dinner at Old Ebbitt Grill and it would be another four years before I could attend an Inauguration but I feel my day in DC gave me a glimpse of the good that endures and in some small way a sense of history in the making…
Hump Day at the Humpback Bridge
When I started this weekly letter to you that old ‘Wednesday is Hump Day’ / “Happier than a camel on Wednesday” commercial came to mind. Remember, the camel – did you know his name is Caleb – he is one cool camel – anyway, I was pretty impressed by Caleb’s swaggering around asking “Guess What Day It Is” and thought it would be a good heading. With that in mind, you can imagine how elated I was when spotting a road sign for “Humpback Bridge”. Humpback Bridge for Hump Day – fortuitous! A narrow tree sheltered road winds a mile off the highway to a wayside park where I discovered a “love -ly” deposit to my memory bank and a story I hope you will enjoy. Here I found what is said to be the last remaining covered humpback bridge in the United States – and it is a site to behold! This much-loved landmark spans Dunlap Creek, a tributary of the Jackson River in Alleghany County Virginia a few miles outside Covington and has truly stood the test of time. Walking across the historic bridge I feel the vibrations of history beneath my feet. The first arched bridge was built on this site sometime in the 1820’s and the humpback bridge of today was built in 1857. The 100-foot-long, single-span structure is four feet higher at its center than it is at either end, thus the name, “Humpback”.
In 1929 the bridge was closed to traffic and left to decay – it was even used by a local farmer to store hay. Fortunately for us, in 1950 the Covington Women’s Business Association convinced the Chamber of Commerce to raise funds to preserve and restore the old bridge. Most covered bridges were made of the strongest readily available wood. In the case of the Humpback Covered Bridge, this meant white oak and hickory so the bridge, as it stands today, has most of the original hand-hewn support timbers and decking that was laid down in 1857. The supports utilized hand made honey locust wood pins to fasten it together and incorporate a unique curved multiple kingpost-trust system not found in any other surviving in wooden bridge in the U.S. This venerable bridge is an original and completely unique design not duplicated anywhere else. And it is beautiful – photographers and artists come from all around the world to try to capture it’s beauty. It re-opened to the public in 1954 as the centerpiece of a wayside park. On October 1, 1969, the bridge was listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and in 2012 it was designated a National Historic Landmark.
Most of us have heard the well-known slogan “Virginia Is For Lovers.” That message is reinforced at the bridge where the word LOVE is spelled out – the L is created using historic bricks from the local area, a metal gear from a retired paper machine for the O, a natural feature created by a tree in the creek bank shaped in the letter V, and an E made from railroad ties representing the history of the railroad in the community. The “LOVE” sign seems fitting in this location as during their heyday covered bridges were called “kissing bridges” as the privacy when passing through a covered bridge would give passengers in horse and buggy a place to kiss without being seen.
Turns out this sign is one of many LOVEwork structures popping up in every corner of the state as the focal point of a campaign to share the message that love is at the heart of every Virginia vacation. There are approximately 200 “LOVEworks scattered across the Commonwealth, each meant to celebrate the unique character of the individual area. As I am always looking for hidden gems and places to inspire and delight – small towns with history and charm – nature and jaw dropping views and because I am an incurable romantic this project captured my heart. Now, I am on a quest to “add a little LOVE to our lives” by visiting as many as I get to in my time here and sharing them with you. Even if I don’t capture them all, I am looking forward to my search for “LOVE” and hope you will be as well.
Directly between Washington D.C. and Richmond, lies Fredericksburg VA – on a very well-worn track I have traveled many times – I can’t think why I have not taken the exit before.
Fredericksburg’s motto is “America’s Most Historic City.” While I’m sure there are a few other cities who might debate that claim it is definitely a mecca for history buffs. “Fred” as the locals call it, was called “home” by George Washington.
Born at Pope’s Creek Farm in Westmorland, VA in 1732, George Washington and his family moved to this plantation – Ferry Farm – when he was 6 years old. This is where George spent most of his childhood and is the setting for most of the stories we know and love. These stories are derived from Parson Mason Locke Weems book “Life of Washington”, first published in 1800. Ferry Farm is where the popular fable claims he cut down the cherry tree and uttered the immortal words “I cannot tell a lie”.
Today, the site is closed but the gate was open and I was able to walk freely about the grounds. Turns out, it is an active archaeological site. Although historians have known for a long time that this was the Washington home, it wasn’t until as recently as 2008 that they found the original site of the actual building itself.
Good man that he was, in 1772, George purchased a tiny but adorable home in downtown Fredericksburg for his mother, Mary Ball Washington, and this is where she lived the last 17 years of her life. Here, his younger brother, Charles built a home in 1760, which was turned into the Rising Sun Tavern in 1792 and is now a museum. His sister, Betty, moved to Fredericksburg’s Kenmore Plantation when she married Fielding Lewis, in the 1770s. The beautiful brick mansion and immaculate gardens are a reminder of how the wealthy lived in Virginia before the Revolutionary War. A short walk down Washington Avenue from Betty’s home is the tomb and gravesite of Mary – Mother of Washington. The Mary Washington Monument is the only monument in the United States erected to a woman by women. In 1789, shortly after Mary’s death, the US Congress passed a resolution to erect a monument in her honor. President Andrew Jackson laid the cornerstone in May 1833. In 1889 an ad in the Washington Post announced, “The Grave of Mary, mother of General George Washington to be sold at public auction.” Outraged, a group of local women formed an association to save the site and encouraged “every patriot to send in a contribution large or small” for this purpose. With the help of the newly formed Daughters of the American Revolution the fundraising became a national effort. The Monument, which echoes the design of the Washington Monument in DC, was dedicated May 10, 1894. “Thus the resolution adopted at the first meeting of the Daughters of the American Revolution, was faithfully fulfilled by the women of America … “all joined in placing the monument to Mary the mother of Washington, erected by her countrywomen.”
The streets are quiet now. No meetings, no crowds around the monuments – in fact a poster of a horizontal President Washington reminds us to stay “at least one George apart”. But in the streets of “Fred” on this chilly day I get a real sense of how we started to come together as a new country. On September 19, 1796 in Washington’s Farewell to the People of the United States – he urged citizens to feel as though they were part of something larger than themselves and that the country was united as one nation. “The name of American, which belongs to you, in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of Patriotism”. George Washington
Wish you were here – just “one George apart”.