Making History

A talk with Rene Rodgers, new head curator at Bristol’s Birthplace of Country Music Museum.

Photo courtesy of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum

Bristol native Rene Rodgers joined the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in her hometown in 2012 as a member of the content team working on exhibit script and design for permanent exhibits, becoming a permanent member of staff in 2014 right before the museum opened. Last year, she took on a new role as the museum’s head curator. We asked Rodgers about her love for country music and her vision for one of Southwest Virginia’s most popular attractions.

What does it feel like to go to work every day a few blocks from where country music was born during the famous Bristol Sessions in 1927?

I’m from Bristol originally, but when I was younger I didn’t really know much about the Bristol Sessions. The more I learned through the years, though, the more I really appreciated Bristol’s place in this music history. And so to now find myself working for a museum that celebrates the story and legacy of the Bristol Sessions is pretty special—every day I get to be a part of an institution that shares that story in an engaging way and to learn more about that history myself. It means a lot to me to be part of that.

How many artifacts does the museum currently own and what is your most prized possession?

The museum’s permanent exhibit is not artifact heavy—we do have many artifacts on display, along with text and photograph panels, but the museum is very much an interactive experience with a host of films and touchscreen technology so visitors can get a full picture of the Sessions and their influence on future generations through sight and sound. Within the full museum collections, I don’t know the number of artifacts off the top of my head, but certainly over 7,000, and these include physical and digital items.

I can certainly speak to some of the objects that mean something to me within the museum collections. Several of the artifacts in our collections have ‘personal’ stories, such as the military dog tags of Ernest Phipps, the radio owned by George Massengill, and photographs from the family of Alfred Karnes. While these were less well-known artists from the Bristol Sessions, having these artifacts in our collection—and hearing the stories that the families have also shared about their relatives who recorded at the Bristol Sessions—helps us to build more context about these musicians and their lives, which brings depth to our interpretation of the story. We also have a variety of wonderful cylinder and 78 players—technology is a big part of the 1927 Bristol Sessions story so it’s great to have these types of machines in our collection to help us explain the technology and its significance.”

TennesseeNashville in particularis widely known as country music’s mecca. Did Bristol get an unfair shake?

I wouldn’t say we got an unfair shake, but it took a while for Bristol’s significant impact on the history of early commercial country music to be more widely recognized. We are part of a story that derives from so many different places and so many different people that set the foundation for the sounds we associate with country music and the contemporary country music industry, and I’m so pleased that we now have the chance to share that legacy with our visitors to the museum and festival, and with our radio listeners.

Rene Rodgers

Photo courtesy of the BCMM

How much of the Bristol Sessions spirit has survived in modern country music?

I think you can certainly find many artists who still look back at the Bristol Sessions as an inspiration for the music they create today. They recognize the impact artists like The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers and the Stonemans made and know that the songs and the sound that came out of these recordings are part of their history.

What does the museum have planned for this year?

There’s a lot on the horizon for the museum in 2018. We have two great traveling exhibits heading our way: Cecil Sharp in Appalachia in March and For All the World To See (about civil rights) in November. Plus we are hoping to do an exhibit focused on Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion photography during our festival in September. We will have complementary programming with these exhibits too.

The year ahead will see the return of our Pick Along summer camps, along with public programs like a Family Fun Day, film screenings, performances, and educational talks. And of course, there are a variety of great Radio Bristol events in the museum, including the live broadcast of our monthly Farm and Fun Time radio show.

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