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by Joe Pagetta
There are dozens of key players in Ken Burns’ sprawling eight-episode, 16-hour documentary, Country Music. Jimmie Rodgers, The Carter Family, Hank Williams, Emmylou Harris and Johnny Cash are just a few of the individuals whose stories and influences are weaved throughout the entire program. But there’s another player with a unique story that shows up in every episode as well: the State of Tennessee.
From Ralph Peer’s recording sessions in Bristol, Tennessee, introducing The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers to the world; to the Grand Ole Opry and WSM Radio in Nashville; and those first records produced by Sam Phillips at Sun Studios in Memphis, Burns’ film continually returns to Tennessee to document the innovations to the industry and the setting for its stars. Dolly Parton was born in Sevier County and made a name for herself here, before becoming one of the biggest entertainers in the world. Chet Atkins was born in Lutrell, Tennessee, and became a guitar virtuoso and architect of the Nashville Sound. Sarah Colley was born in Centerville, Tennessee, turned into Minnie Pearl and claimed she was from a fictitious town named Grinder’s Switch, Tennessee. She was a star of the Grand Ole Opry for 50 years. Many artists, like Ernest Tubb, came to Tennessee to make it in the business and stayed. Others, like Willie Nelson, had moderate success before finding his career was better suited going back to Texas. Still others, like Patsy Cline, who died in a plane crash in Camden, Tennessee, lost their lives here and will always be a part of the state’s history.
At the Tennessee State Museum, an official location on the Tennessee Music Pathways trail, artifacts connected to the state’s role in music, in all genres, are a significant part of the collection. Ken Burns’ film offers a timely opportunity to dig into the collection and make those connections.
Several cases in the Museum’s temporary exhibition, The State of Sound: Tennessee’s Music Heritage, focus on the growth of country music in Tennessee. The section on the Bristol Sessions includes a panel about the historical significance of the events, right next to a display of a bow tie belonging to Jimmie Rodgers. The gallery also includes a sequined coat worn by Parton that dates to 1980 along with her 1970 Epiphone 12-string guitar. Our Tennessee Transforms gallery includes a Lucy Adams outfit worn by Parton while performing on her Dolly TV show during its 1976-77 season, displayed with her 1965 Kingston banjo. Cash, whose career provides a narrative thread through many of the episodes of the documentary, is also featured with outfits in both our State of Sound and Tennessee Transforms galleries. Additionally, in a connection to Sun Records, where Cash started his career in the 1950s, The State of Sound features a Presto Vinyl Disc Cutter, Type 6N, like the model Phillips used to cut records on Presley and others.
Among the artists and institutions mentioned in episode two of the documentary are DeFord Bailey, Uncle Dave Macon, Roy Acuff and The Grand Ole Opry. All are represented in one case in the Museum’s Time Tunnel. Included is a Grand Ole Opry ticket from 1936, during the time it called the Hillsboro Theatre, now the Belcourt Theatre, home from 1934-36. There is also a Hohner International Bluesband harmonica in the key of C owned and played by Bailey. Born in Smith County, Bailey was a harmonica virtuoso and the first black featured performer on the Opry. He was inducted posthumously into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005. Acuff, born in 1903 in Maynardville, Tennessee, was the first living inductee into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1962. Our display includes a Pulsar Watch worn by Acuff along with Opry star Macon’s recording of the novelty song, “Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy.” Macon, who hailed from Smartt Station, Tennessee, is also featured in The State of Sound, with one of his shirts and ties on display.
George Jones and Tammy Wynette’s careers, and their tumultuous relationship with each other, figures prominently in Burns’ film after they’re introduced in the sixth episode. In our collection is a copy of the sheet music for their 1974 duet, “We Loved it Away,” written by George Richey and Carmol Taylor and produced by Billy Sherrill. The song peaked at No. 8 on the Billboard Country Charts and included the bittersweet lyrics, “All my friends told me, we’d never make it / That love to you was just a game you played / And I’ll admit at times we had rough goin’ / But in each other’s arms, we loved it away.” The couple divorced a year later in 1975.
One of our visitors’ favorite artifacts is connected to Tubb – a neon and metal Ernest Tubb Record Shop sign that appears in a photograph used in the Burns documentary. It was installed when Tubb opened his Nashville record store in 1947 and was used until it was replaced about 1960. The record store became famous for Tubb’s Midnight Jamboree radio show, beginning in 1948, where Tubb used his celebrity status to help many performers break into the music business, and later showcased new artists like Loretta Lynn and the Wilburn Brothers. It was his way to pay forward the kindness shown to him by the widow of his idol, Jimmie Rodgers.
The State of Sound: Tennessee’s Music Heritage, runs through February 2, 2020. Displays in our permanent exhibitions, including Tennessee Transforms and the Tennessee Time Tunnel, will run indefinitely. Country Music: A Film by Ken Burns, premiered on PBS stations in September and is available on PBS.org, other video streaming sites and on DVD.
This article also appears in the Fall 2019/Winter 2020 of the Tennessee State Museum Quarterly Newsletter & Calendar of Events.
Joe Pagetta is the Tennessee State Museum Director of Communications
Photo captions, from the top:
Our music gallery, The State of Sound, features a panel dedicated to the historic Bristol Sessions and their significance in country music history. We also have on a display a bowtie that belonged to Jimmie Rodgers.
Our Tennessee Transforms gallery includes a Lucy Adams outfit worn by Parton while performing on her Dolly TV show during its 1976-77 season, displayed with her 1965 Kingston banjo.
This neon and metal sign for the Ernest Tubb Record Shop appeared in a photograph used in the Burns documentary. It was installed when Tubb opened his Nashville record store in 1947 and was used until it was replaced about 1960. The sign was donated by David McCormick with original restoration donated by Cummings Sign Co.
In this case in the Museum Time Tunnel, is a Grand Ole Opry ticket from 1936, during the time it called the Hillsboro Theatre, now the Belcourt Theatre, home. On the lower left is a Hohner International Bluesband harmonica in the key of C owned and played by DeFord Bailey. On the right is a Pulsar watch worn by Roy Acuff.The record in the middle of the case is Opry star Uncle Dave Macon’s recording of “Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy.”