Reflections From Bristol: Being in the Birthplace of Country Music on Juneteenth 2021
On June 19, 2021, I awoke in a quaint, yet elegantly appointed, hotel room to a picturesque vista of rolling hills and Southern, rural, small-city life. Then, my phone buzzed with a text.
Friend: Hey Black man, peace to you! It’s Juneteenth! What. Is. Good. We’ve gotta get up and celebrate!
Me: Man, I can’t. I’m in Appalachia in the birthplace of country music.
Friend: Hell, brother. Are you gonna be okay? What’s your address in case they string you up?
Me: It’s not that kinda party, lol. Good folks down here. I swear if this weren’t the Virginia/Tennessee border, you’d have it confused for the progressive North.
Friend: Alright, man, lol, Birthplace of Country Music Museum. Got the address. You wild to be down there today. Some stuff might pop off. You know how they are.
Me: Funny you say that because I think that ‘they,’ after all these years, know how ‘they’ are, too.
As I’d boarded a train for the ancestral home of country music — the sleepy, yet significant, Appalachian town of Bristol, at the border of Tennessee and Virginia — two days earlier (June 17), Pres. Joe Biden made Juneteenth a federal holiday. The day’s humble roots begin in Texas, 155 years ago, establishing June 19 as a jubilee day of freedom celebration and political mobilization for newly freed African-Americans; now, it’s a date symbolizing a national reckoning for stabilizing freedoms earned but still socially frustrated by dehumanizing acts.
And on the United States’ first federally recognized Juneteenth holiday, instead of potentially walking the streets in defiant pride in my hometown of Washington, DC, I was doing something wholly different: I was busying myself by metaphorically walking up to America’s most hallowed unbroken circle and, as Black people rarely — yet powerfully — do, taking my well-earned seat, by and by.
The fact that it was the first official Juneteenth weekend was actually lost on me after my first 24 hours in Bristol. Yes, I was the only Black person walking down State Street, but, more importantly, I was having a “pinch me, this ain’t real” moment that impressively overwhelmed most everything else on my mind in that instant: I was casually chatting about modern country artists with iconic singer-songwriter Jim Lauderdale.
In the hazy gauze of a humid late evening, after a brief post-dinner walk with a crew of Bristol natives, musicians and journalists, Lauderdale sang George Strait’s “The King of Broken Hearts” at a bare, wooden stage named for him adjacent to the Sessions Hotel. Over our meal, I’d told the legendary artist that the song he wrote for Strait was one of my all-time favorites. As he sang it — seated onstage, accompanied by an acoustic guitar — the moistness of the air and the profound emotion of the moment allowed the moment to stick to my bones and soul deeply.
I had to pause when my heart went aflutter and my eyes got misty. At some point during the past 12 months, country music had stopped affecting me, a Black man, in this way — but after six months of bearing witness to the symbolic citadel of country music being torn asunder by issues of race and gender, this moment really mattered.
Because I’m Black, my love of country music is deeply problematic to juxtapose against an industry beset as never before by the plague of racism. I needed to ask two other Black folks familiar with Bristol —- emerging folk-country star Amythyst Kiah and the American Songster-turned-Black Cowboy himself, Dom Flemons — just what it is about this 46-square-mile city that allowed my angst to be superseded during a racially and socially frustrating moment in country music’s century-long history.
“Bristol is a place that’s close, near and dear to my heart,” says Kiah, a Black, queer Americana musician and native of Bristol’s neighbor — Johnson City, Tenn. — who still claims the area as her home. She owes a significant debt of gratitude to the region, as she credits her studies at East Tennessee State University for stoking the musical fires that launched material such as her brilliantly incendiary, folk-tinged 2021 country album Wary + Strange.
“I can’t think of any recent reports of any lynchings in the area,” Kiah says with a half-laugh in regard to my friend’s earlier concerns about me being in the heart of Appalachia on Juneteenth. But, she continues, “‘Racist white people absolutely do live here. [The Bristol area] is not a utopia. There are certain, more rural places around here, out in the holler, that, as a Black person — or, especially, me and my white girlfriend — I would not hang out at by myself.
“So yes, in [my Grammy-nominated song] “Black Myself,” I say, ‘I can go anywhere that I wanna go because I’m Black myself,’ but I still have to be smart about that decision,” Kiah adds. “However, there are a lot of people in this area that are not that way and don’t put up with that.”
Kiah was on the road, touring outside Appalachia, on June 19, 2021. However, she recalled the area’s first Pride celebration, in 2018, to impart knowledge regarding how the region accepts marginalized people celebrating their emergent civil rights.
“Johnson City is a college town, so it’s somewhat liberal, but we’re also in the Bible Belt, so there’s tons of conservatism, too,” Kiah recalls. “We were concerned that the Ku Klux Klan chapter in Carter Country [an area 20 miles east of Johnson City] would show up [to that inaugural Pride event], so police helicopters, state troopers and private security teams were called.
“However,” she continues, “there were only six white dudes yelling with signs who were the ‘counter-protestors.’ The open-minded and progressive people in this area have a strong anti-racist sentiment.”
Still, though, I struggle with the fact that, while in Bristol, almost magically, in my mind, country music — for once this year — was separated from the evils of racism and prejudice. Thankfully, Americana musician and ethnomusicologist of sorts Flemons offered notes regarding race, commerce and music that, as they tie together, explain the bizarre confluence that inspired my conflicted emotions.
“At that edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia come together. So towns like Bristol, in their early 20th century roots, have a ton of Southern cultures [of various races and ethnicities] coming together,” Flemons explains. “As well, there was still segregation, so by the time of the Bristol Sessions in 1927, race and racism are still inherently tied to the music and the culture of the region, too.
"Ralph Peer, who recorded those sessions, though, was best known for being a marketing guy trying to sell records who recorded ‘race records’ with the likes of [blues crooner] Mamie Smith," Flemons continues. "Peer was told by a local Bristol musician, Ernest Stoneman, to come to town because the city was full of musicians.”
Nonetheless, the initial 1927 Bristol Sessions involved only one Black performer: harmonica player El Watson, who recorded two instrumental pieces, “Pot Licker Blues” and “Narrow Gauge Blues.” (Impressed by his work, Peer later invited him to record four more songs: “Fox Chase,” “Sweet Bunch of Daisies,” “Bay Rum Blues” and “One Sock Blues.”) Thus, for as much as Bristol is a unique outlier to the persistent perils of American history, it’s still just as guilty as any other Southern or Appalachian locale of allowing the roots of still-present inequality to grip its landscape.
However, according to Flemons, these issues, after nearly a century, are slowly evolving. “Back when I started playing Bristol regularly in 2007, the town [hadn’t really started modernizing], so it felt like a new idea having Black folks and white folks playing together in a bigger musical concert setting. People in town coexisted nicely but were [still segregated] socially,” he recalls.
“However, the city has done a lot to create a more welcoming atmosphere since then,” Flemons adds. “I’m sure the City of Bristol understands the [racist, prejudiced] connotations of [Appalachia and the American South], but they still want people to come and visit.”
Regarding music, Bristol and how the city’s essence could potentially color the sounds heard there (and melt my heart like Cindy Lou Who did to the Grinch), Flemons adds a poignant note: “Music, especially the music with roots in the South, when people get together and play it, defies marketing terms. So, Bristol is important, especially for country music, because it’s a place and time that existed before marketing terms and expectations defined what it, as a genre, could and could not be.”
A self-described empath, I always try to stay consciously in the moment at all times. However, for as knowledgeable as I believe myself to be in my consciousness, I was almost entirely unaware of the context of Bristol and how extraordinarily unique it is as a space and place I was occupying during America’s inaugural Juneteenth weekend. Now, though, my response to Lauderdale’s performance makes sense: Maybe a song — given the nature of the moment and the full context of the space and place in which I heard it — is more significant than just three chords and the truth.
The king of broken hearts is so sad and wise
He can smile while he's crying inside
We know he'll be brave tonight
‘Cause he's the king of broken hearts
America — now, finally, celebrating Juneteenth, among its many uncomfortable evolutions — is, in a multitude of ways, the broken-hearted king, bravely surviving all.
A Brief History of Black Country Music, From Tee Tot to Breland: