Destinations & Diversions: Birthplace of County Music and Blackbird Bakery

J. H. Osborne • Feb 19, 2017 at 2:00 PM

When I was a child, a visit to my paternal grandparents’ home inevitably meant music would be heard. It also meant refreshments would be served.

An upright piano dominated one end of the living room. It was sometimes played, but mostly my siblings and I would fight over who got to sit on the piano bench when the room’s sofa, multiple chairs and camel-saddle-cum-ottoman were filled by adults and visiting out-of-town cousins on holidays. I still regret leaving the piano for the new owners when I left the home as an adult about 10 years ago. But I’m delighted that I have the bench, my grandmother’s sheet music and a hodgepodge of other keepsakes still tucked inside its hinged-lid seat.

A television (my grandmother, Maude Ward Osborne, lived to within two weeks of her 95th birthday, yet I never heard her simply say “TV” — all references were to “television”) typical of the mid-1960s sat at the other end of the room. It was a color set. Its neighbor: a floor-model stereo, which held an AM/FM, a three-speed turntable (33 ⅓ rpm, 45 rpm, and 78 rpm), and storage space for my grandparents’ many LPs — a lot of which bore price stickers from the nearby Grants, or Montgomery Ward or Sears.

When one had company, the television was not allowed to distract from conversation. But it was used for limited group entertainment. Since described as “event television,” for us back then it meant all watched “The Lawrence Welk Show,” Perry Como Christmas specials, and other variety shows — typically heavy on music — as if watching a live performance. It was an activity to be enjoyed and shared for the duration of the program (my grandmother never said “show”; it was a “program”). 

But for us kids, the real musical attraction was in the seldom used “den” downstairs: a floor-model wind-up phonograph brought by grandparents when they moved to Kingsport in the 1940s from rural Lee County, Va.

Only the oldest children were allowed to wind it, having been warned not to wind it too tightly or the spring inside would seize up. Its two front doors opened to reveal its speaker and the shelves of what were, to us, odd-looking and heavy records that were bigger than the 45s we played and smaller than the 33 ⅓ LPs the adults played on the new stereo upstairs and on a more ornate one at home in our own living room.

They were 78s. They had a scratchy sound. And we loved them. Our favorite: the finale of Rossini’s “William Tell Overture.” We played it time after time as we ran laps around the room — sometimes “air jousting” with one another. Our grandparents obviously enjoyed music regularly at their former home back in Blackwater. Their 78 rpm collection included many less high-tone titles than the overture. Later, when my grandmother was in her 80s and I was the last grandchild living locally, just she and I would venture downstairs to the den. She told me her favorites among the old 78s were in fact those now viewed as the heritage of our region. Her number one: “Keep on the Sunnyside” by the Carter Family. But it wasn’t until years later that I learned the importance of the Carter Family and other musicians from Southwest Virginia in bringing about the birth of county music.

Today we have the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol, Va., to celebrate that heritage. The museum’s current special exhibit, “Hometown Stars: Southwest Virginia’s Recording Legacy 1923-1943,” showcases many of the region’s early recording artists who stayed home and became stars in their communities, but did not achieve the widespread fame of those who left and made show business their full-time jobs. The time frame represented also mirrors the heyday of the 78 rpm record.

Attending the exhibit’s opening, I immediately thought “Hometown Stars” was the perfect time to introduce my mother to the museum. Mom, like my father, grew up in rural Lee County. But her family’s farm is in the Flower Gap community, on the county’s southern edge very near the Tennessee line. Dad’s family was from Blackwater, farther north and in a valley.

At the opening, I mentioned my mother’s memories of radios in her family home, while my father’s family seemed to have been more interested in amassing a 78 rpm collection. I was talking with Blue Ridge Institute & Museum Director Roddy Moore. The Blue Ridge Institute & Museum of Ferrum College created the “Hometown Stars” exhibit, which is on loan to the BCM through a partnership between the two entities.

Moore immediately asked where in Lee County my parents were from ... the southern portion? I told him where each had lived. Moore said that might be why Mom’s memories are more about radio than records, although her family also had a wind-up phonograph. Back then, Moore said, radio reception would have been far better in the area where Mom grew up than over in the valley where my Dad was raised. Another point from Moore that never had crossed my mind: wind-up phonographs, of course, made music available well before electricity reached America’s most rural areas.

Mom, the youngest of 10 siblings, believes she was about 4 years old when her oldest brother, Jack, and his wife, Leona (Clendenin) Wallen, moved home from “down south” (South Carolina) where they had gone to find work a few years earlier. They brought with them a floor-model radio — the first one many of their rural neighbors had access to. As such, Uncle Jack and Aunt Leona often found their home crowded with neighbors on Saturday nights for “The Grand Ole Opry.” This ritual even brought out a girl so timid she wouldn’t sit no matter how many times she was offered a chair. She’d stand quietly in the background until the last note was sung at that night’s Opry performance before offering a quick, polite “thank you” and heading for home.

Mom says my Uncle Guy Wallen — with earnings from a job with the WPA — bought their parents their first radio. It was a tabletop model that ran on batteries. My no-waste grandfather Null carefully monitored the use of the radio to make the batteries last. Later, “Popie” Null bought an electric tabletop radio for my grandmother, Pearl. Mom remembers that by the early 1940s “Popie” would be joined by neighbors more interested in war news from Europe. For her family, listening to war reports was a greater priority once the U.S. entered World War II. Uncle Guy, drafted into the Army, served as a combat soldier on the front lines.

Uncle Guy made it home safely. Sadly, Grandmother Pearl suffered a stroke around the same time that would leave her partially paralyzed and confined to a chair. The radio — and her growing roster of grandchildren — kept her company. One of those grandchildren, my cousin Barbara (Hurd) Carr, had a bit of a run-in with that old electric radio that she remembers well to this day. She has a scar to prove it. She was keeping Grandma Pearl company while Popie was far across the road tending one of his tobacco crops, and the radio went silent. Barbara had watched Popie take a screwdriver and work on something at the back of the radio to fix the problem in the past. So, despite Grandma Pearl’s pleas not to try, Barbara stuck the screwdriver into the radio — without unplugging it. The shock left her unable to move but able to scream, which Popie heard where he was working — and came running. Turns out, he didn’t have to tell her not to do that again.

Mom doesn’t know what happened to her family’s early phonograph, any 78 rpm records they had, or the battery-operated radio. The cathedral-arch electric tabletop radio remained at the homeplace until the early 1970s. Popie, a widower by then, was spending most of his time with Uncle Jack and Aunt Leona on their adjoining farm. Someone broke into Popie’s house and took the radio.

The phonograph my siblings and I enjoyed so much at our Osborne grandparents’ house, like the piano bench, had a better fate. It’s in my brother’s third-floor bonus room at his home in Raleigh. It was the only heirloom he specifically requested from my grandmother, and she was happy to know it would continue to be enjoyed and treasured.

“Hometown Stars” continues at BCM through June 4. It’s a wonderful exhibit, and depending on who you take along, it might just unlock all sorts of interesting little tidbits about your own family’s memories of music, radio and old records.

When you’re done, or before you go, try our favorite downtown Bristol diversion: Blackbird Bakery. It’s open nearly 24/6 — closed only from midnight Saturdays until 6 a.m. Mondays.

Voted the “Best Bakery in Virginia” a few months ago by an online review site, Blackbird Bakery is located one block away from BCM.