State Line Bristol, TN, Country Music’s Birthplace

 

We got lucky.   The approach to Great Smoky Mountains National Park via Sevierville, where images of Dolly Parton are everywhere, was a congested mess because the autumn weather was beautiful.  One lady told us that there were no hotel rooms available in the area.  We did a U-turn and headed for Bristol.  The name of a museum there, The Birthplace of Country Music, intrigued us.  It turned out to be an eye-opening, 5 Compass kind of place.

Bristol’s claim to be where country music began is justified.  Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877.  By the 1920s record players had improved and were widely available, radio was a new phenomenon, and recording technology was better.  In 1925 RCA Victor introduced orthophonic sound.  Microphones and amplifiers were better.  Ralph Peer, a record producer for the Victor Talking Machine Company, came to Bristol in 1927 to record some hillbilly music.  He immortalized 76 songs by 19 different acts.  Known as the Bristol Sessions, these recordings sold well and advanced the careers of the musicians and singers who came to record.  Most of them, like the Blue Ridge Corn Shuckers, didn’t endure; but the Carter Family did and the Hill Billies, seen above, prospered for a while. The Depression put an end to much of this, but in 1998 the U.S. Congress officially named Bristol “The Birthplace of Country Music” and in 2002 the Library of Congress rated the Bristol Sessions  as “among the 50 most significant sound recording events of all time” according to this museum’s visitor guide.

The Carter family, which participated in the Bristol Sessions, became country royalty.  Their recording of “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow” was among their early hits.  One of its original members was Maybelle.  June was one of Maybelle’s daughters.  June eventually married Johnnie Cash.  June Carter Cash’s son John, Maybelle’s grandson, narrates “Bound to Bristol” the 2014 award-winning, must-watch film that should begin any visit to the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.  It’s shown every 20 minutes.   Also in the museum are tributes to the many entertainers, like Tennessee Ernie Ford, who came from this area or had a place in country music’s evolution.

Original Bristol Sessions instruments, many of them mail-order, are hard to find; but this museum has done a great job of locating and displaying period instruments like this gorgeous harp guitar.  I really enjoyed seeing the 1949 RCA Bakelite 45-record-player, the Embroiders’ Guild of America’s quilt, etc.  Check this museum’s calendar before going for special programs, jam sessions, concerts, guest lecturers, etc.  When Ruth & I were there, the Push Film Festival was in progress.

The Birthplace of Country Music, a Smithsonian affiliate, is highly interactive.  My only regret is that I didn’t get to hear “Pot Liquor Blues” in a place where a spectrum of country music streams constantly to both entertain and educate visitors.

Hank

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Fantstic Fenway Park

A tour of Boston’s Fenway Park, now America’s oldest active Major League baseball stadium, begins in the huge souvenir store across the street from it.  I’m glad it did because I otherwise wouldn’t have seen that for-sale baseball signed by Carl Yastrzemski.  Ted Williams was not available.  That price would have been astronomical.  Yaz’s was $350.  Ruth was not around when I saw it.  She had disappeared into the vastness of this retail behemoth because we still had 20 minutes before the tour began.  She was looking at jewelry, caps, and, not too surprisingly, red socks.

We were both surprised that when we called that morning we got on the next tour available at 11 am.  We had been told that this was a very popular activity and, at that time, the Red Socks still had a chance to be in the playoffs.  Maybe the fact that they had lost the previous night helped.  When it was time to leave on the tour, however, more than 50 people gathered for the walk across the street.

Our tour guide, Nick, was enthusiastic but seemed tired.  Perhaps he had given his talk a few times too often because he lost his place a couple of times and often had trouble explaining things.  I didn’t fully understand the fabled importance of the Green Monster, for example, until I got home.   Perhaps Nick sensed that most of the tourers were Red Sox fans and detailed explanations weren’t necessary.  The 8-times champion Boston Red Socks formed in 1901, and they won their first world championship 2 years later.  Construction of Fenway Park began in 1912.

The Green Monster was an area of Fenway that was subject to availability for tours.  Luckily, we were soon seated in it.  Nick told us that this was the best place to watch a game.  When its 274 seats were added in 2003, they could be had for $5 but now they go for $250 or more and $10,000 is not unusual if a World Series game is being played.  Nick also told us that baseballs fly up here at 100 mph and The Green Monster (TGM) is a great location to catch a home run ball.   It started as a simple fence but is now the highest wall in a major league field and preventing home runs on many line drives.  The 1934 manual scoreboard embedded in TGM is still used.  The seats atop The Monster were added only 14 years ago, and sitting in them was the highlight of the tour according to the faces of locals.

We filed through the press box, saw an unexpected sight in the form of a large rooftop garden, and climbed many stairs.  We did not go onto the playing field.  Toward the end of the tour Nick told us that baseball wasn’t the only game played in Fenway and mentioned an upcoming hurling competition to illustrate.  The tour ended in what appeared to be a makeshift museum with lots of stuff about Ted Williams.  Seeing the red seat among a sea of green ones that his 1946 home run traveled 502 feet to was a definite highlight of the tour for me.  At the time, it was the longest in-park home run in history and remains the longest “in park” in Fenway history.  However, Yankee Mickey Mantle’s 656 feet blast in 1960 remains this professional sport’s longest home run.

Hank

ps.  Bostonians still don’t have too much good to say about the Yankees who were The Highlanders the first time they faced them in Fenway Park in 1912.

 


One Compass Attractions

 

Organizing files the other day, I realized that I’ve not written about perhaps 20% of the places Ruth and I have been to.  Not every destination when we travel is as interesting as it sounds. Many would not yield good stories so the stuff I gathered collects dust.  Below are some examples.

Earlier this year we went to the Annenberg Space for Photography on the Avenue of the Stars in Los Angeles.  Parking was difficult, it took us a long time to find it among a bunch of new office towers, and the current temporary show, a collection of photos, was of no interest to either Ruth or me.  “Generation Wealth”, the photo show, has since closed.   It was free but the parking was expensive and the subject seemed to be mostly LA lifestyles with photos of cosmetic surgery, celebrities-in-their-own-minds, etc.  The museum’s calendar said it might be called “Keeping up with Kardashians”.  We bolted.

 

There are now 4 Tate Museums in England.  One of them is in the too popular Cornwall town of St. Ives.   It’s large, popular with families, and everything on display when we were there seemed similar.  Then we learned that a new extended gallery would open in October, 2017, doubling this Tate’s exhibition space. We didn’t linger.

We live in Vancouver, Washington.  I feel guilty that I haven’t written about it as a travel destination. Working for the local newspaper, I gathered lots of stuff about its rather meager attractions that wouldn’t exactly enchant outsiders.  When friends or family visited, Ruth and I would dutifully show them our tiny aviation museum, historic Fort Vancouver, and this city’s best attraction, Officers Row; but there wasn’t much else.  Our downtown is, at best, ordinary.  Local media touts Vancouver as “The Northwest’s next ‘IT’ attraction, but this never seems to happen despite grand riverfront proposals.   My files grow.

In The Midwest at the beginning of the conflict between Russian and Ukraine, we went to Chicago’s Ukrainian National Museum.  It was a charged, emotional, fascinating visit because this city has become home to 100,000 Ukrainians.  We spoke to a woman who has a local radio show featuring news about her country of origin.  She couldn’t stop crying as she told us about what was happening there.  We went back recently.  The very young woman we spoke to was either new at the job or an indifferent volunteer.   We learned nothing of interest.

The only display of interest at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria was about Emily Carr, who is considered Canada’s best artist.  Eccentric Emily painted mostly trees and totem poles.  We like Emily Carr, who is not well-known south of the Canadian border.  Another exhibit was temporary and about Anna Banana called “45 years of Fooling Around with A. Banana”.  We didn’t linger.

On our last major trip, we went to the Columbia Museum of Art.  Their permanent galleries were closed for renovation and the only exhibit was called “Henri Matisse:  Jazz & Poetry on Paper” which didn’t appeal to us.

Not all travel is 5 Compass fun.

Hank

This covered bridge is another typical Vancouver area attraction.


A Fine Capitol and a Rotten Movie

The South Carolina State House in Columbia is, in many ways, like no other.  It’s worth touring when you’re in this state’s surprisingly lively capital city.  Free tours that begin with a mandatory film are given Monday through Saturday, and it’s recommended that you call ahead to reserve.  We called 803 734 2430 on our way into town in the afternoon and got on the next tour, but we were lucky and in off-season.

South Carolina’s original capital was Charleston, but it was decided that the capitol building should be in the center of this state, which was one of the original 13 colonies.  Columbia was America’s 1st planned capital city.   The construction of this building began 6 years before the Civil War began.  When incendiary-loving William Sherman marched through in 1865, he didn’t destroy the new capitol but he tried.  He fired several cannon balls at it but it survived.  Today, bronze stars mark the spots where the shells struck.  The city wasn’t as lucky.  One-third of it completely burned including the old wooden state capitol.  The new one wasn’t completed until 1907 because South Carolina was broke after the war.

This building has a double dome, another unique feature.  Built for purely aesthetic reasons, the inner false dome fits inside the steel. wood, and copper outer dome.  It’s legislative chambers are traditional except for a sword and a mace.  The building’s interior is often lovely but the most beautiful area is the joint legislative conference room with 2 winding staircases.

There have been 38 female governors.  South Carolina’s 1st and only one is Nikki Haley, the 1st Asian-American woman Governor.  She had to resign early in 2017 when she was named the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, a position that suits her outspoken ways and take-charge personality.

The painting of the Revolutionary War’s Battle of Cowpens in the Senate antechamber was one of the 1st paintings to show an African-American in a battle.

Our tour guide Jill mentioned that one film has been made in this building.  I wish she hadn’t.  Accidental Love earned 9% on Rotten Tomato’s Tomatometer.    That’s far too high.

Hank

 


Songbirds

If you love guitars, head for Chattanooga.  There’s a new museum there devoted to them called Songbirds.   It opened in March, 2017, and seemed a bit expensive to visit.  But it was worth it.  Touring its private collection of rare and valuable guitars in a back room called “The Vault” was like getting access to a vintage wine collector’s stash.  I recommend the All Access Tour that includes “The Vault” and a guide like Dustin, who really knows his guitars.  All Access also includes time in the main exhibit hall, a more traditional museum venue.  This all amounts to a unique travel experience!

Songbirds is in a historic train station called Chattanooga Choo Choo.   Once called Terminal Station, it avoided demolition and attracted a group of investors who are spending millions turning it into an entertainment complex with restaurants and music venues like Songbirds, which offers a series of concerts featuring veteran guitarists.  Vince Gill, country music legend and guitar collector, has agreed to act as Songbird’s ambassador.  This means he promotes it whenever he can.  In an article and interview in The New York Times on November 19, for example, he says about guitars, “They shaped my life.  They’re my DNA.”  as he promotes Songbirds.  Fodor calls it one of the world’s 10 best new museums.

Although the museum is opened from 10 am until 6 or 8 pm, depending on the day of the week, tours are only given at 11 am, 1 pm, and 3 pm.  Thursday through Saturday there’s a tour at 5 pm.  This is the one I took.   Dustin led our small group past the museum and into a back area that he called The Greenroom.  It contained an impressive collection of Les Paul beauties.  In 1952 brilliant guitarist Paul put his name on a developing collection of Gibsons.  He had little to do with the design of the early ones, but he wanted each to be the gold-standard.  Today they are.  He eventually got involved in design and endorsed some that looked like tuxedos.  This museum has more than 30 colorful Les Paul Sunburst guitars.  Some of them sold for around $250 when new and are now worth millions.   Dustin told us that this room would be changed out by the end of this year.

This guitar collection is the work of David Davidson and Richard Friedman, who claim to have put it together during the last 2 decades.   Their most valuable guitars are in The Vault, which Dustin used a key to enter.  In here, where we spent more than an hour, he showed us guitars once owned by Ricky Nelson and Duane Allman.  He told stories about famous guitarists like Keith Richards, Glen Campbell, and Jimi Hendrix; but his best story was about a one-of-a-kind custom Fender made for a woman named Bertha.  Though often technical and with lots of talk about colors like Aztec Gold and Surf Green, the information and stories kept us engrossed the entire time.  Dustin gingerly handled 2 Gibson Explorers that he told us were the collection’s most valuable guitars because only about 20 of them were made.

I suspect that future visitors to Songbirds will have a different experience than I did.  Because Songbirds is so new, I think that the staff is still feeling its way and may be changing its presentation, its themed offerings, etc.  Some already call it the greatest collection of American guitars.  I don’t know if this is accurate, but I do know that Songbirds is definitely fun and educational for both experienced guitarists and simple fans, like me.

Hank