October 2017 - The Birthplace of Country Music
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From Rhinestones to Tombstones: Memorial Monuments of Country Music’s Dearly Departed

Marking the resting place of the deceased is a long and storied practice – and the ways that these burial sites are marked range from the simple to the highly elaborate.

This is immediately evident when walking through a cemetery with graves marked by plain headstones bearing just the names and dates of the dead to monuments bearing long epitaphs, loving descriptions, and images or sculptures to grand mausoleums with columns and iron doors. And so, since it’s Halloween today, we thought it would be appropriate to take a quick tour of some of the unique and interesting grave markers that commemorate country musicians.

Photograph courtesy of Donna Sutphin Armentrout

The gravestone of J. P. Nester, 1927 Bristol Sessions artist who recorded “Train on the Island” and “Black-Eyed Susie” with Norman Edmonds, is found in Cruise Cemetery, Carroll County, Virginia. It is beautiful in its simplicity, bearing just the names of Nester and his wife, their birth and death dates, and the common memorial sentiment: In Loving Memory.

Photograph courtesy of Lane Owens White

The tombstone of “King of Bluegrass” Jimmy Martin, located in Spring Hill Cemetery in Nashville, Tennessee, is a contrast to Nester’s grave. The headstone is filled with what feels to be almost a full obituary to Martin, detailing his musical accomplishments and impact. A photograph portrait at the top of the stone is flanked by the song title “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and the slightly revised song title “Shake Hands with Mother and Daddy Again,” presumably using the bluegrass standard as a basis for the heavenly sentiment. The woman’s name at the bottom of the tombstone – Mary Ann Garrison – is not his wife or a relative, but according to the engraving, she was a dear friend who cared well for his children when they were little. She was later the president of Jimmy Martin’s fan club.

Photograph courtesy of Kyle “Trigger” Coronoes of www.savingcountrymusic.com

The final resting place of Waylon Jennings is in the City of Mesa Cemetery, Mesa, Arizona. For a year after his death in 2002, no stone marked his grave, and with the huge size of the cemetery, many country music fans who came to pay their respects that first year never found the site. A shiny black gravestone bearing his portrait and the “Flying W” emblem was put up in February 2003. The stone’s colorful description underlines Jennings’s character: “A vagabond dreamer / A rhymer and singer / A revolutionary in country music” while also highlighting him as son, husband, father, and grandfather. A quote from Song of Solomon 6:3 is also included: “I am my beloved’s, my beloved is mine.”


Photo by Anne Reddington/Courtesy Atlas Obscura

Patsy Cline’s grave can be found in the Shenandoah Memorial Park near Winchester, Virginia. While a bell tower has been erected there to mark her significance to her hometown, the grave site itself is simply marked by a humble plaque bearing her real (Virginia H. Dick) and stage (Patsy Cline) names. The plaque is often covered in pennies – put on her grave by visitors for luck.

Photo copyright © Gary J. Wayne of Seeing-Stars.com

Gene Autry is buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in the Hollywood Hills, reflecting his life on the big and small screens. The epitaph on his gravestone notes his many roles, from “America’s favorite cowboy” to philanthropist to baseball fan and owner to gentleman. However, it doesn’t record him by his well-known nickname as the “singing cowboy.” The five stars on the stone may refer to the five stars honoring him on the Hollywood Walk of Fame – for television, radio, film, recording, and live performance.

Photograph courtesy of Gwen Bodford

With Lesley Riddle – a musician who traveled with A. P. Carter searching out songs to preserve and adapt – we find another simple but rather beautiful headstone. The pink stone with corner floral embellishments bears his name and birth and death dates, but nothing more. Riddle’s grave can be found in the Horton Hill African American Cemetery in Burnsville, North Carolina.

Photographs courtesy of Tony Stogsdill

George Jones is buried in grand style at Woodlawn Memorial Park and Mausoleum in Nashville. His resting place is marked by a large gravestone on the ground, along with an arched structure behind it. Along with the usual details – birth and death dates – these markers are adorned with etched images of Jones, his signature, his nickname as “the possum” (based on the shape of his nose!), biographical information detailing his life in music, and a carved guitar. The title of his most famous single, “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” is engraved along the top of the arch – a fairly appropriate reflection to mark a burial site.

Photograph courtesy of Roddy Bird

Porter Wagoner is also buried in the Woodlawn Memorial Park and Mausoleum in Nashville. Bible verses and a cross decorate the top of the grave marker, while song lyrics are quoted below: “I’ve left this old world with a satisfied mind” and “It’s good to touch the green, green grass of home.” Marty Stuart referenced “Porter Wagoner’s Grave” (and Wagoner’s trademark flashy way of dressing!) on his album Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions.

Photograph courtesy of Jessica Turner

The headstone marking A. P. Carter’s grave is found in the small cemetery of the Mt. Vernon United Methodist Church in Hiltons, Virginia. Like the stones for Nester and Riddle, Carter’s marker is simple in the details included: name and birth and death dates. It highlights his important role in music history, however, with the musical notation edging and the central record – “Keep on the Sunny Side” – above his name.

Photograph courtesy of Jessica Turner

Despite the fact that A. P. and Sara Carter divorced and she later remarried his cousin Coy Bayes, Sara is buried near A. P. in the Mt. Vernon United Methodist Church cemetery in Hiltons, Virginia. Her tombstone is in the same style as A. P.’s, with the additional engraving “Anchored in Love,” another Carter Family tune.

Photograph courtesy of Jessica Turner

A. P. and Sara Carter’s children, Joe and Janette, are also buried in the Mt. Vernon United Methodist Church cemetery in Hiltons, Virginia. Janette Carter’s tombstone doesn’t reference her significant musical legacy – as a musician and as the founder of the Carter Family Fold – but rather simply includes her name, birth and death dates, and an etched angel and epitaph “Deliverance has come.” Interestingly, her name is spelled Jeanette on the grave marker, rather than the more commonly seen Janette. Her brother Joe’s grave marker, however, is a wonderfully inventive monument to music – shaped as a guitar and with a floral urn decorated with music notes, it also bears images of Joe and rural life.

Finally, there are three important musicians we wished to include but usable images were elusive. However, their monuments are still worth mentioning, and you can find images of their grave markers here. Maybelle Carter is buried in the Hendersonville Memory Gardens in Hendersonville, Tennessee. Carter’s grave marker, adorned with an angel and a rising sun, memorializes her as the “first lady of country music,” a reference stemming from the Carter Family’s recognition as the “first family of country music.” With the words “God has picked his wildwood flower,” it also highlights one of her most well-known and beloved songs. Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash (Maybelle’s daughter) are also buried in the Hendersonville Memory Gardens. Their plots lie beside each other, and both of their grave markers bear a Bible verse – hers is Psalm 103:1 and his is Psalm 19:14 – and their signatures (a practice that seems to be a common theme on country music gravestones). A bench near the grave site is etched with their last names, along with two of their well-known song titles: “I Walk the Line” and “Wildwood Flower.”

René Rodgers is the Curator of Exhibits & Publications at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. Special thanks to interns Hannah Arnett and Summer Apostol for their hard work and research for this post.

Bristol Rhythm, Behind the Curtain: Can You Handle the Truth?

The Wizard of Oz has always been my favorite movie. It’s a love I now share with my 8-year-old daughter Callie who, by the way, has gone through dozens of pairs of red ruby slippers since before she could walk. One of the most compelling moments of the film—and the most frightening—is when terror-stricken Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion face the explosive Wizard. As a kid, it was such a relief when the plot twisted and the true identity of the sinister apparition was revealed to be a mere mortal, operating the specter from behind a silky green curtain.

via GIPHY “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” The Wizard of Oz (1939, Warner Bros.)

However, I often ponder a darker, alternative ending to The Wizard of Oz where the Wizard as a giant head stays in the picture. Either way, Dorothy’s gonna find her way home. I mean, she had the ruby slippers. Eventually Glinda would have swooped down in her bubble and tipped her off, no matter what, right?

Before you ask what any of this has to do with Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion, I’ll tell you. The deal is, I was asked to write a blog explaining the inner-workings of planning the festival—in essence, taking you behind the curtain. But the question is: Can you handle the truth?

First off, I couldn’t possibly estimate the countless hours of committee meetings that take place over the course of the year—and contrary to what some may think, it does take an entire year (or more) to plan Bristol Rhythm. There are meetings about port-o-potties and fencing placement, vendor space locations and available electrical outlets, and we have a giant map of downtown where we mark up the locations of every single fence, ticket booth, stage, golf cart route, and beverage garden.

via GIPHY “Follow the yellow brick road!” The Wizard of Oz (1939, Warner Bros.)

There are discussions over the exact number and placement of recycle bins and shift planning for volunteers to pick up those recyclables and deposit them…where? I don’t know! I’m not on the recycle committee, but I know it goes somewhere good and that it all gets recycled. Oh, and please don’t throw your turkey leg bones in the recycle bin. Our volunteers physically have to remove them, and it’s pretty gross.

We have meetings with sponsors, city officials, and downtown businesses, and then we have to call the guy about the tents. We have an esoteric group of crafty folks that make up the “Atmosphere” Committee. If it sounds fun, it’s because it is. This committee gets to dream up creative ways to dress up the festival with twinkle lights and pretty signs and dream catchers and, in essence, make everything more magical.

Meetings are held with police and EMS workers because safety is of the utmost importance. Security and emergency response is something we have very detailed plans for already. I will add that after the tragedy in Las Vegas, we—and every other event company in the world—will re-evaluate, scrutinize, and refine security measures to the very best of our ability.

Marketing is a veritable cyclone of activity year-round with deadline upon deadline: ads to create, graphics to design, tons of band bios to write, website and app updates, print projects, designing festival floor graphics for local hotel lobbies, emcee notes to draft, photographers and videographers to corral, rack cards to distribute, press releases to write, journalists to contact, e-blasts to send, giveaways and promotions to execute and media to coordinate – and that’s just what I can come up with on the fly!

via GIPHY “It’s a twister!” The Wizard of Oz (1939, Warner Bros.)

The sheer volume of musicians and the logistics of hosting over 120 bands requires careful scrutiny of each act and their contracted needs. Our host hotels are our greatest ally in the coordination of how many band members are in each group and how many rooms they will need and on which nights of the festival they will need them. And like the rest of us, bands need food. There are meetings where people figure out who will make the food and how much food we will order and how much food will cost and who has food allergies and who specifically asked for a pair of socks in his rider request (David Mayfield did, and we happily obliged because it’s hilarious and we love him!) and who needs a ride from the airport and who will pick them up and where the band will park their giant bus and how will we get the band and their equipment to the stage.

via GIPHY “Lions and tigers and bears! Oh, my!” The Wizard of Oz (1939, Warner Bros.)

We also have meetings about towels. Who will deliver clean, dry towels to the stages because you wouldn’t believe how many clean, dry towels bands need! And did you know that every band has a stage plot on which they list every single cable, amp, and microphone? Our amazing sound engineers rifle through each of these 120 stage plots in order to provide every act’s technical needs, then miraculously set it up between every single set at Bristol Rhythm. It’s crazy!

via GIPHY “Can you even dye my eyes to match my gown?” The Wizard of Oz (1939, Warner Bros.)

And then there are our incredible volunteers, those people who make everything come together, and Bristol Rhythm has a committee devoted to just that aspect of the festival. We recruit around 800 volunteers to work four-hour shifts throughout the 3-day weekend in dozens of areas. Scheduling and keeping track is a process, but running a festival takes a village, people!

All of these things, ya’ll. All of these logistical, micro-managy things are pondered, discussed, and executed over the course of a full year—and I haven’t come close to giving you the whole story because it would take a year to write and I’m on deadline.

Does reading the microscopic play-by-play of organizing a huge event like Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion increase your enjoyment of the festival? Would a manifesto of the entire year’s business of planning, marketing, and legwork make the music sound better? Is your attendance at the festival dependent on knowing that we have a committee for everything and that some committees have committees? (Don’t be a smarty-pants and just say “no.”)

© Birthplace of Country Music, photographer: Adam Martin

We work really hard on all those details so you can concentrate on listening to amazing music and having a good time with your family and friends. We want every single person attending Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion to feel just like they are coming home, and we’ve just tidied the house before you got here.

via GIPHY “There’s no place like home.” The Wizard of Oz (1939, Warner Bros.)

So mark your calendars and take some vacay time! Our 18th annual Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion music festival is scheduled for September 21-23, 2018. Discount weekend passes go on sale Black Friday, November 24, 2017!

Charlene Tipton Baker is a Marketing Specialist at the Birthplace of Country Music.

With a Little Help From My Friends: Creating Equal Opportunity Enjoyment for All

We all need assistance at some point in our everyday life, no matter the range of our abilities. Often, these needs ultimately put us in a position of relying on the consideration and preparation of others, usually strangers.

Some examples where there could be a need for assistance are minor injuries like a sprained ankle, maybe something like an eye procedure that causes temporary sight issues, or even accommodations for a small child. These types of things are situations that we all encounter at least at some point in our lives. But there are other members of our community who need accommodations that may not always come to mind when we are planning events, experiences, or programs – for instance, individuals with seeing, hearing, or mobility challenges. However, don’t let the word challenges misguide you – these fellow citizens are very motivated and as “able” as most of us. They enjoy the same things, and with the same small amounts of consideration, they can take part in all that the world has to offer.

I have always thought myself to be sensitive to those who are considered to be dis- or differently abled, and I guess this is most likely a result of minor physical birth defects that I have and the over-reactions to these that I have experienced throughout my life. Even though I had my own experiences, I recently learned a lot and gained some valuable insights from working with a couple of local agencies who serve these community members and from some of their individual clients as well. These relationships and exercises came about as part of the museum’s recent completion of the Museum Assessment Program, or MAP, through the American Alliance of Museums.

When our museum first opened in 2014, I assisted with some of the efforts in making sure that we are ADA compliant in the area of mobility, and as part of my graduate studies, I also researched the areas of visual and hearing compliance. Therefore, I was happy to take the lead on the accessibility learning and activity that was part of our MAP experience. Part of this activity was to reach out to members of the community to come in to the museum as visitors and give us feedback on their experiences. I was able to recruit two area organizations – the Appalachian Independence Center (AIC) in Abingdon, Virginia, and the Virginia Department for the Blind and Vision Impaired (DBVI) here in Bristol. Both agencies were very gracious in bringing multiple staff members and clients who provided us with extremely valuable information regarding accessibility elements that were already in place in the museum as well as candid suggestions for things that needed improvement.

All of the films in the museum’s permanent exhibits have closed captioning for the hearing impaired. © Hillmann & Carr

One conversation between Museum Director Jessica Turner, myself, and a DVBI employee named Debbie Able packed a particularly powerful punch. Debbie, who happens to be blind, told us that she had visited the museum previously with a companion to assist her and that she joined as a member at the same time. I asked her about her overall experience in her previous visits to the museum – she obviously enjoyed the museum but I was surprised to hear her say that she felt like she had missed out and express a wish that she could have experienced more during those visits.

I remember looking at Jessica, and we both had the same expression of concern on our faces. This was a big deal – and something that we both agreed needed immediate attention – and so we asked for more feedback on ways to improve a museum visit for someone who might need to approach our content in a different manner than we had planned for within the exhibit layout or format. The first things that we talked about were ways to address interpretation of our content for those with visual and aural challenges. This led us to discuss technology-based solutions like audio tours, Braille captioning, and large-text labeling and gallery guides. From our conversation, it also became apparent that even when people with disabilities visit a museum with a companion who we may think will assist them, we should not assume that their companion has the knowledge or even intent to help with interpreting our exhibits and content. With the depth of time and energy that we can provide in a scheduled guided tour that addresses our visitors’ needs, we can assure that they have the best experience possible.

Since these initial visits during the MAP exercise, we have held training classes for museum staff and docents conducted by the AIC and DBVI, and these have provided invaluable information and perspectives for us to use in preparing solutions for making our museum accessible and enjoyable for everyone. During these trainings, museum staff and docents were given the opportunity to experience the museum in the same way a disabled visitor might.

Our docents and staff explored our recent special exhibit with clients of ACI and DBVI, gaining valuable insights on ways to make our content accessible and enjoyable to all of our visitors. © Birthplace of Country Music

Docent Mary Geiger was especially moved by the experience, saying: “The instructors were informative on how to approach a visually impaired visitor, how to physically contact them, how to lead, and why various movements and verbiage were necessary.  Additionally, I found invaluable the experience with the blindfold, learning the feel of degrees of darkness and to trust a person leading. Coupled with this was the exercise of actually leading an 11-year-old visually impaired visitor. This visitor was mature and articulate regarding what I was doing correctly or not (I flunked “doors,” which gave us both a good laugh!). All in all, I will feel more comfortable leading such visitors now.” Docent Barbara Smith agreed, saying: “Touring with a visually impaired person changed my perspective. I noticed things I had not seen before, I was asked about things I took for granted, and I needed to explain things for which I had no words. After this tour I had an even better understanding of the museum’s content.”

To follow up on this training – and in line with October being Disability Employment Awareness Month – the museum also held an event on October 6 to encourage our community to view their everyday surroundings and experiences through the eyes of a differently abled person. Various agencies set up tables with information to share with interested parties, enabling us to make important contacts with these agencies and for them to talk to each other about possible ways to work together in the future.

A client listens as Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services counselors discuss individuals with disabilities in the music industry (left). Jack Owens explains Virginia Relay’s services to Delegate Israel O’Quinn (right). Photographs courtesy of Kathy Malone, DBVI

All of these activities and training sessions have helped us to see our museum in a new light, to look at different ways to approach our content, and to begin working on solutions that take us beyond simple ADA compliance to providing a museum experience that brings enjoyment to all!

Scotty Almany is the Digital Resources Manager & Catalog Associate for the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. He would like to thank all of the nonprofit agencies who donated their time to attend the event on October 6 with special appreciation to the DBVI and AIC, who have given so freely and generously of their time. For more information on accessibility tours, please contact the Birthplace of Country Music Museum at (423) 573-1927 or info@birthplaceofcountrymusic.org. And if you have any suggestions or ideas for how our museum can become a more inclusive environment for those with different abilities, please feel free to contact us!

“Sixteen Tons”: Merle Travis, Tennessee Ernie Ford, and Beyond

By Summer Apostol, October 17, 2017

Today marks the anniversary of two important dates in music history. On October 17, 1991, Tennessee Ernie Ford passed away, leaving behind a wide-ranging and hugely significant musical legacy. It was also on October 17, this time in 1955, that one of Ford’s most important and well-known songs was released: “Sixteen Tons.”

Born Ernest Jennings Ford in Bristol, Tennessee, on February 13, 1919, Ford would become a local legend and a national treasure. He paved his way in the world through his gregarious personality, his humor, his wit, and most notably, his distinctive baritone singing voice. Music had been a part of Ford’s life from a young age; in his memoir, he recalled: “We sang at home, we sang at church, and we sang at weddings and funerals and at prisons or wherever there happened to be a need for it. Not for money, mind you – we never got paid. We just enjoyed singing.” And, everyone sure did enjoy hearing Ernie sing – from his hometown, childhood church to his professors at the Cincinnati Music conservatory to the nation through the radio and television airwaves and the many songs he recorded.

Radio station KXLA produced in-house promotional publicity photographs featuring Ford in 1949. From the collection of Tennessee Ernie Ford Enterprises LLP

“Sixteen Tons,” the song popularized by Tennessee Ernie Ford, was originally written by Merle Travis. In 1947 Capitol Records encouraged Travis to write a series of songs that “sounded folky” for an album, one that would tap into the American folk music revival that was just starting to take off. Travis drew inspiration from his family back home in Ebeneezer, Kentucky. He took the line “You load sixteen tons, what do you get / Another day older and deeper in debt” from a letter his brother had sent to him about the death of World War II journalist Ernie Pyle. Another famous line of the song came from a saying Travis’s father used to say: “I can’t afford to die. I owe my soul to the company store.” And so, “Sixteen Tons” was born on Travis’s album Folk Songs of the Hills.

Ford and Travis knew each other from the recording of Ford’s first album, on which Travis played the guitar. As support for his friend and a general love for the song, Ernie performed the song on his daily NBC television show, resulting in a huge amount of fan mail focused on this song. Ford’s live performance of the song later that year at the Indiana State Fair brought the crowd to its feet – they loved it! So, when Ford came under pressure from Capitol to record a new song as he approached breach of contract due to an overfull schedule, he turned again to the song written by his friend. On September 17, 1955, Ford recorded “Sixteen Tons” as the B-side to the record’s A-side: “You Don’t Have to Be a Baby to Cry.”

Ford and Travis shared a long friendship and a strong working relationship. The picture on the left shows them having a laugh together, while the one on the right shows them performing together on Hee Haw in 1977. From the collection of Tennessee Ernie Ford Enterprises LLP

Capitol thought the A-side song was going to be the record’s big hit, but “Sixteen Tons” – with its innovative modern instrumentation and a jazz-like arrangement including Ford’s distinctive snapping – was played more by DJs at radio stations across the nation. The success of Ernie’s version of “Sixteen Tons” was much bigger than the recording label could have ever expected. After only 11 days, the single sold over 400,000 copies, and after only a few months it became the fastest selling single in Capitol’s history with over 4 million copies sold. The record dominated both the country & western and pop charts in late 1955 and early 1956 – this crossover from country & western to pop was a rare thing, underlining the impact and appeal of Ford’s version of this song.

Tennessee Ernie Ford recorded hundreds of albums, won countless awards and honors – including three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a Grammy, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom – and hosted and guest starred on a number of television shows. His wide range of talent garnered him massive appeal, making him one of the most well-regarded crossover artists in modern history. His strides in multiple facets of the entertainment industry helped pave the way for other artists throughout the years.

Ford’s version, coupled with Travis’s relatable lyrics, account for the large number of covers of the classic “Sixteen Tons.” Notably, several of the covers are by artists whose musical background does not necessarily match with Ford’s musical legacy. Some of our favorite covers of “Sixteen Tons” are included below – have a listen and explore the evolution of Tennessee Ernie Ford’s influence on music through the years!

B.B. King & His Orchestra, 1956

Jose Guardiola (Spanish version “16 Toneladas”), 1960

Stevie Wonder, 1966

Johnny Cash, 1987

ZZ Top with Jeff Beck, 2016

Summer Apostol is an intern at the Birthplace of Country Music; she is studying history and sociology at Emory & Henry College.