Heads in Virginia, Feet in Tennessee: Bristol

In some places, a divided populace might spawn rivalries, but Bristol is a friendly marriage of two state municipalities. 

Photography by Jeff Greenough

In some places, a divided populace might spawn rivalries, but Bristol is a friendly marriage of two state municipalities. The border city is well-known for its NASCAR track, and somewhat less so for its status as the “birthplace of country music.” These days, bluegrass musicians and southern rockers still flock to State Street to pick, sing and enjoy the charms of a community where crisscrossing the state line is just part of the daily routine.

     Today, about 18,000 people live in Bristol, Va., compared to about 25,000 residents of Bristol, Tenn. Any rivalries in this tale of two cities are mostly for the sake of a good laugh. There is the annual V-T game, in which football players from Bristol Virginia High School square off against the squad of Bristol Tennessee High School. You will also find athletic competition between Bristol’s Virginia Intermont College and the players of King College, a liberal arts school in Bristol, Tenn. Most often, however, these two Bristols are seen as one city, joined above State Street by the arching BRISTOL sign.

     “To most people, the state line does not exist,” says Lisa Meadows, the executive director of the Bristol Chamber of Commerce. “People flow freely from state to state unaware that they’re in a totally different municipality.” According to Meadows, the per capita income in each city is nearly identical. “But our tax structures are different. I think it depends on what the individual is looking for—Tennessee with no income tax or Virginia with a lower sales tax.”

     Indeed, this is a marriage of municipalities. On Bristol’s welcome signs, the shapes of the two states are joined. By law, each Bristol must maintain its own police force, school system and city council. But the two Bristols share the same post office, hospital, public library and chamber of commerce. Just as unique, the Bristol Herald Courier, the local daily newspaper, has its main office in Virginia, but it is published in Tennessee.

     Named for Bristol, England, the original town was laid out as a real estate venture on 100 acres by Joseph Anderson in 1852, with half in Virginia and half in Tennessee. By 1856, the railroad reached Bristol, and the town would grow into a thriving shopping destination among the Appalachian Mountains. “But they couldn’t join the rails,” says Bristol historian V.N. “Bud” Phillips. “There was a gap between the rails of about three feet. For quite a while, Virginia’s rail line did not connect to Tennessee’s railroad—and for many years, they had to take the cargo off the trains and reload the cattle, barrels of whiskey, chickens, hogs—you name it—and people.”

     Made of stone and brick, Bristol’s Union Station dates to 1902. Until a few months ago, this stately railroad depot was in sorry shape after having been used in the 1980s as a shopping mall. Today, thanks to a recent $5 million restoration project, the once-dilapidated train station, at the corner of State Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., has been refurbished and can now be rented for gatherings. “It was one of the last buildings in Bristol that really needed saving,” says community activist Mary Beth Rainero. “The train station is a gathering place. This building is the most highly visible building in our community.”

     Jimmie Rodgers stopped at Bristol’s train station in August 1927. Rodgers, a wild-living musician from Meridian, Miss., came to Bristol to record two songs for Ralph Peer, a New York City talent scout, who set up microphones at a temporary recording studio on State Street in search of “hillbilly singers.” Peer’s now-fabled Bristol Sessions led to the discovery of Rodgers, the Father of Country Music, as well as the Carter Family, a singing trio from nearby Maces Spring, Va.

     The Carter Family would ultimately become the cornerstone of country music, with its homespun melodies and Maybelle Carter’s widely imitated “Carter scratch” guitar style. Rodgers, in turn, would influence generations of honky-tonk players. Coincidentally, Bristol also gave rise to several more stars, including Tennessee Ernie Ford, who was born two blocks below the Virginia line and scored a million-selling hit with “Sixteen Tons” in 1955. Decades later, in 1990, an unknown college student, Kenny Chesney, would eventually become a country music superstar after cutting his first songs—for a self-released cassette—at Bristol’s Classic Recording Studio on Moore Street.

     These days, Bristol pays homage to its firsts and footnotes of music history with its bigger-than-a-billboard “Birthplace of Country Music” mural on the Tennessee side of State Street. In 1986, artist Tim White painted this mural, showing the faces of Rodgers, Peer, the Carter Family and the Stonemans, another pioneering group of musicians. A dozen years later, in 1998, the U.S. Congress officially named Bristol the “Birthplace of Country Music” as a tribute to Peer’s Bristol Sessions.

     A gathering place below the mural is known as the Downtown Center, where, from May to October, you can find folks offering plump cantaloupes, juicy heirloom tomatoes, watermelon, zucchini and fresh brown eggs at Bristol’s Farmers’ Market. An equal number of farmers—about 30 in all—come from either Virginia or Tennessee, says the market’s director, Terrie Talbert. “A lot of people stop by to see where the Birthplace of Country Music is. We’ve had people from England and all over the country.”

     During the summer, regular concerts are held three nights a week at the mural, offering a mix of country, bluegrass and southern rock. Such sounds stem from the local tradition of musicians picking tunes on flatbed trucks or amateurs jamming with fiddles inside barbershops. “Bristol has always been known for its musicians,” says Darlene Cole, the Downtown Center’s venue manager. “Music gives life to anything.”

     In 2001, an annual festival, Bristol’s Rhythm & Roots Reunion, grew out of the downtown shows held at the mural. Now this three-day event, held during the third weekend of September, boasts as many as 17 stages and attracts about 30,000 visitors, says the event’s director, Leah Ross. “It’s to promote—and to let the region and the world know about—our musical heritage,” Ross adds. “And the artists love being a part of that history.”

     In recent years, various side streets have been renamed for the musical heroes who recorded here, like Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. Along the way, State Street’s rows of century-old buildings have been renovated and converted into shops offering a mix of clothing, jewelry, art, antiques and records. “And,” says Christina Blevins, the executive director of Believe in Bristol’s Main Street program, “we want to make downtown a destination for live music year-round.”

     Originally from Grundy, Va., Blevins and her husband, Eric, have invested money in downtown Bristol’s buildings. The pair live in a loft, high atop State Street, overlooking the flashing marquee of the Paramount Center for the Arts, an art-deco theater on Bristol’s Tennessee side. An anchor of State Street’s renaissance, the Paramount was built in 1931 and restored in 1991 by many of the same people who helped save Bristol’s train station, says Mary Beth Rainero.

     Away from State Street, the Mountain Music Museum at the Bristol Mall pays homage to the city’s musical heritage with an array of instruments on display. In addition, the not-for-profit Birthplace of Country Music Alliance (BCMA) has plans to raise $3.5 million to construct a state-of-the-art museum “to promote the heritage of what happened here—not just in 1927, but what’s going on today,” says Kevin Triplett, who chairs the museum’s capital campaign. “A large part of this cultural heritage center will be very interactive.”

     The BCMA’s 24,000-square-foot museum is slated to stand on the “Virginia Side,” at the corner of Moore Street and Cumberland Avenue, near the green space of Cumberland Square Park. “This will be the anchor and cornerstone for downtown prosperity,” Triplett asserts.

     Triplett knows Bristol. Besides helping the BCMA, he also oversees much of what goes on at the area’s most famous landmark: the 160,000-seat Bristol Motor Speedway, a gargantuan structure standing among the hills of Northeast Tennessee. “We’ve had the last four Virginia governors here [attending races]—Allen, Gilmore, Warner and Kaine,” says Triplett, the track’s vice president of public affairs. “Yeah, we’re six miles south of the state line, but the impact of our races is felt a significant distance up Interstate 81, which means it is felt in Richmond. A large portion of our suites are leased by Virginia corporations. This is good place to see and be seen during race time.”

      Bristol is one of eight NASCAR tracks owned by Bruton Smith, a charismatic character and ambitious businessman who has, in recent years, wrestled more than a few times with the powerful France family, which controls NASCAR and owns 12 tracks. Smith purchased the track, built in 1960-61 by Carl Moore and Larry Carrier, in 1996.

     NASCAR races are held in Bristol in March and August, and the overwhelming influx of visitors is felt on both sides of the border, with restaurants, hotels and streets swelling to capacity. Fans may ride into the State Line Bar & Grille, a landmark on the Tennessee side of State Street, with its antique furnishings and full-service bar, or check out the quaint décor of Eatz, a popular café on Moore Street. Java J’s, a longtime State Street coffee shop, is another popular downtown spot.

     In August, on the Thursday before the race, thousands of people crowd blocked-off portions of State Street during the Food City Family Race Night, grabbing giveaway goodies and seeking autographs from NASCAR stars. Staging such events on State Street, with pedestrians crisscrossing the state line, is all part of Bristol’s charm, says Meadows, of the Bristol Chamber.

     Flashing bright with lights, the steel Bristol sign was moved to its present site in 1915, near the train station. The landmark’s original slogan—“PUSH! THAT’S BRISTOL”—was a phrase meant to represent the city’s growing pains. Unfortunately, that phrase led to comical mishaps, with various letters burning out and the sign reading “-SH! THAT’S BRISTOL” or, worse, “PU- THAT’S BRISTOL.”

     Finally, in 1921, a contest was held to find a new slogan, and James T. Cecil conceived the simple words that have been the city’s catchphrase ever since: “BRISTOL VA TENN: A GOOD PLACE TO LIVE.” •

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