If you’re into music, history, or regional heritage, detour off I-81 to Bristol, TN-VA—home of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. Honoring the legendary 1927 Bristol Sessions, this Smithsonian-affiliated museum is a tribute to the “Big Bang” of country music and provides an immersive, interactive experience.
What can visitors expect? I’m giving you a sneak peek of all the fun. Keep reading!
Hit the Highlights
For a complete adventure, plan around 2-2½ hours to soak up the entire museum. But if time’s tight, here’s your hit list for the Birthplace of Country Music Museum:
- Catch the ten-minute “Bound to Bristol” overview film when you arrive and dance into the Immersion Theater at the end of your visit to be part of “the unbroken circle.”
- Listen to the 1927 Bristol Sessions recordings!
- Belt out a tune at the Sing-Along Booth and record your own country moment.
What’s the Museum About?
1927 Bristol, Tennessee set the stage for a groundbreaking musical revolution. Local Appalachian legends, including the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, gathered in a makeshift studio for recording sessions organized by Ralph Peer. Their music, blending Appalachian, blues, and folk vibes, became legendary—marking the birth of country music. These recordings didn’t just make history; they defined a whole new sound that still echoes today.
Snap a Selfie with the Giant Guitar
Capture a cool moment before you step in—snap a selfie with the massive guitar right at the entrance!
Immerse Yourself in Theater Experiences
- Orientation Theater – Not everyone’s into museum films, but trust me, this one’s worth it—especially if you’re unfamiliar with the Bristol Sessions. And hey, it’s just ten minutes!
- Greasy Strings Theater – This looping film deeply delves into the artistry and skills behind the 1927 Bristol Sessions recordings.
- Chapel Theater – Listen to local gospel groups share their stories and melodies, illustrating how faith influences music.
- Immersion Theater – This wraparound theater lets you sing, clap, and dance along to the Carter Family classic “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” sung by a blend of old-time country voices and contemporary artists.
There are also a few short films throughout the museum including oral histories of 1927 Bristol Sessions participants, Tennessee Ernie Ford’s career, and the music’s impact on TV and film.
Groove to the Sessions’ Sounds
You’ll come across this massive 78-record when you leave the Orientation Theater. It’s surrounded by cool interactives where you can dive deep into the 1927 Bristols Sessions recordings and artists. You can search by artist, song, or vibe (like drinking and dancing, betrayal, love and longing, and death) and listen to snippets from those original recordings. It’s a fun way to explore the tunes from way back when!
Explore the Exhibits
Wander through exhibits uncovering the roots of the recording industry and the trailblazing artists from the Bristol Sessions. Learn about the impact of talents like Ernest V. Stoneman, The Carter Family, and Jimmie Rodgers on the ‘hillbilly’ music scene. Trace the evolution of music technology and check out the iconic instruments that crafted country music’s distinct sound.
Give Old Songs New Sounds
Put your spin on your favorite Bristol Sessions songs at the mix station, adding your flair to these timeless tunes.
Listen to how other artists have reimagined the 1927 recordings. For instance, Nirvana’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” gives me chills every time I hear it—so gritty and haunting. I was blown away when I first heard it during the band’s acoustic performance on MTV Unplugged.
Step into the Sing-Along Booth and channel your inner country music star. Pick your favorite tune, hit the record button, and belt it out. Get ready to jam alongside the original artists during practice, but it’s all you when it’s recording time!
Pro Tip: Lean toward the center microphone as you sing! We discovered this a little late and our voices recorded too softly.
Peek in on Radio Bristol
Get a behind-the-scenes glimpse into Radio Bristol’s operations. Located within the museum’s permanent exhibits, this 24-hour community broadcasting station is largely volunteer-driven and has about 40 different shows.
Explore the Rotating Special Exhibits and Events
On my recent visit to the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, the featured exhibit was ‘I’ve Endured: Women in Old-Time Music’, which celebrates the crucial role of women in old-time music—both onstage and behind the scenes. It highlights their influence as instrumentalists, singers, preservationists, activists, and promoters.
The museum also hosts numerous special events, including WBCM Radio Bristol’s popular Farm and Fun Time musical variety shows, monthly jam sessions, concerts, weekly music lessons for kids, and monthly speaker series.
I attended a Murder Ballads speaker session with guest Donna Ray Norton, an eighth-generation ballad singer. She shared the history of murder ballads in story and song. This was my initial experience with this singing style, and I found it to be raw, haunting, and emotional. The mournful vibe hits you, but there are also funny lines!
The museum filmed the session, so take a peek below.
Search for Souvenirs at the Museum Store
I’m a travel souvenir junkie, so I always pop into the gift shop. The museum store has a nice collection of handcrafted artisan and music-themed gifts, books, CDs, Bristol souvenirs, and Birthplace of Country Music and Rhythm & Roots Festival merch.
Thanks for joining my journey through the Birthplace of Country Music Museum! From uncovering the roots of iconic tunes to exploring the vibrant exhibits, we’ve dived into the heart of musical history. Don’t miss the chance to experience this dynamic museum in person—it’s a rockin’ adventure for every music enthusiast!
Know Before You Go
Address: 101 Country Music Way, Bristol, VA 24201
Operating Hours: Tuesday—Saturday, 10 am—6 pm and Sunday, 1—5 pm. Closed Mondays and major holidays.
Admission Fees: Tickets to the museum are $13.65 for adults; $11.55 for seniors, college students, military, and children ages 6—17. Children 5 and under are free.
Parking: Free parking is available in the city lot across the street from the museum. Some street parking is also available.
Photography: Photography (non-flash) is allowed, but video is not.
Accessibility: All exhibits and theaters are wheelchair-accessible, and films are closed-captioned. An elevator is available, and three wheelchairs can be used on a first-come, first-served basis.
Events and Programs: Check the museum’s schedule for any live performances, workshops, or special events during your visit.