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The Birthplace of Country Music occupies a 1920s car dealership where, rumor has it, Jack Dempsey once boxed. (Photograph by Michael Hanson)

The Birthplace of Country: Bristol

When the Birthplace of Country Music opened in August of 2014, the Smithsonian-affiliated museum let the world in on a secret musicians have known for generations: The roots of American music run deep in Bristol, a onetime Appalachian railroad boomtown straddling the Tennessee-Virginia border.

Johnny Cash famously called Bristol’s studio sessions of 1927 “the single most important event in the history of country music,” as they marked the first recordings of some of the genre’s earliest stars, including the Carter Family and the “blue yodeler,” Jimmie Rodgers.

A similar refrain blares loud and clear throughout the museum. The “Wayback Machine” and listening stations trace Bristol’s history and the transformation of America’s recording industry, including technology innovations such as the Victor Talking Machine, while an in-house FM radio station and theater host performances (to say nothing of the sounds emanating from the sing- and yodel-along booth).

Indeed, country music never left Bristol: Live music happens most nights and around almost every bend of the region’s 333-mile Crooked Road, aka Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail, which runs through downtown.

On Saturday nights at the nearby Carter Family Fold, the first family of country music still welcomes all comers for concerts and clogging around the dance floor.

This piece, written by Maryellen Kennedy Duckett, first appeared in National Geographic Traveler‘s August/September 2014 issue.