By René Rodgers and Emily Robinson
Each year, the month of May is designated as National Photograph Month. In this day and age, every single day seems like it is devoted to photographs, as we are all constantly shooting pics on our phones — and finding our storage full of photographs of the minutiae of our lives.
With a museum devoted to the history and legacy of early commercial country music, a music festival in its 17th year, and a radio station on air each day, the Birthplace of Country Music is now the repository of a wonderful variety of digital and physical images. To mark National Photograph Month, we wanted to share just a few of our favorites from our collections:
Tennessee Ernie Ford on South Holston Lake, Bristol, Tennessee-Virginia
Ernest Jennings Ford – better known by his stage persona, Tennessee Ernie Ford – was born in Bristol, Tennessee, on February 13, 1919. Ford was a star behind the mic and on screen, and he was awarded three Hollywood Walk of Fame stars for his achievements in radio, recording, and television. During the height of his career, a visit from Ford to his hometown was an occasion for celebration, including a presentation of the key to the city, press meet-and-greets, and parades on State Street. Locals remember the times they met Ford on his returns to Bristol and speak fondly of his genuineness, his reverence and love for his hometown and the Appalachian area, and his star quality.
For Ford, coming home also meant being himself. He spent much of his life in front of an audience or a camera, but what he truly loved was getting back to his rural roots and enjoying the outdoors – at his ranch, in the woods, and on the water. This photograph, taken by his friend Karl Smith, shows him fishing from a boat on South Holston Lake, perhaps even catching his dinner!
Jesse McReynolds on Farm and Fun Time
In February 2017, Jesse McReynolds appeared on Radio Bristol’s Farm and Fun Time show, broadcast live from the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. On August 1, 1927, his grandfather Charles played the fiddle with the Bull Mountain Moonshiners as they recorded two songs for Ralph Peer at the Bristol Sessions. McReynolds followed in his grandfather’s musical footsteps, establishing a successful bluegrass career in a duo with his brother Jim and then as a solo musician – singing and playing fiddle and mandolin. McReynolds played his grandfather’s fiddle at the February radio show, bringing its history full circle – from its time at the 1927 Bristol Session to its place on stage at the Birthplace of Country Music. And at the age of 87, McReynolds’s hands show the strength and skill bought from a lifetime of playing.
Johnny Cash at the Carter Family Fold, Hiltons, Virginia
This photograph of Johnny Cash is full of energy – he’s seen here dancing at the Carter Festival in Hiltons, Virginia. Photographer Robert Alexander gives some insight into the image:
“[This photograph was] taken in August 1977 at the 50th anniversary of the Bristol Recordings held at the Carter Fold. After performing with June Carter on stage, Johnny changed out of his black outfit into informal clothes and danced a bit with the festivalgoers. This particular photograph was taken moments before he did a 360 cartwheel in front of the stage. I missed that shot.”
The Carter Festival was originated by Janette Carter in 1975 as a memorial festival in honor of her father A. P. Carter and is held annually at the Carter Family Fold. Johnny Cash married Maybelle Carter’s daughter June in 1968, and they came often to the Carter Family Fold to perform and revel in the music made there.
Photograph from WOPI scrapbook
Bill Mountjoy was a disc jockey, engineer, reporter, and executive for several radio stations in Northeast Tennesee, Southwest Virginia, and the Washington DC suburbs, including local station WOPI in Bristol. At the time of his death in April 2014, he owned Custom Audio/Video Services of Elizabethton, Tennessee.
We are fortunate to have Mr. Mountjoy’s scrapbook from his time at WOPI in our collections. It is full of wonderful memories and, like all scrapbooks, a few mysterious unlabeled photos, like this one from inside a lingerie store. Take a closer look at the banner and you can see that the store is running a “WOPI Special!” We don’t know what the radio station has to do with unmentionables, but we are intrigued… If you have any memories of this sale and can shed some light, let us know!
Boo Hanks and Dom Flemons at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion
Boo Hanks, an acoustic guitarist with roots in Piedmont string band and blues traditions, learned the music he loved to play from his father and by listening to the records of Blind Boy Fuller. He passed away at the age of 87 on April 15, 2016. Hanks is seen here with his friend and musical collaborator Dom Flemons when they played together at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion in 2015. This intimate shot hints at the close friendship between the two men.
Emily Robinson is the Collections Manager and René Rodgers is the Curator of Exhibits & Publications, both at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.