The double yellow line painted along the middle of State Street in downtown Bristol doesn't simply provide direction for motorists. It's also the state line. The businesses on the south side of the street are in Tennessee. Just steps to the north lies Virginia.
Only tourists seem to take notice of the quirk. To locals, it's all Bristol, a small but bustling Appalachian community that in 1927 gave rise to what people all over the world now know as country music.
In August of that year, a former hat factory became a makeshift recording studio to capture what was known as "mountain" or "Southern" music.
The performances in front of an early microphone came to be known as "the Bristol Sessions." Decades later, country legend Johnny Cash would describe them as "the single most important event in the history of country music." Around here, folks simply call it the "big bang."
Nashville may have the Grand Old Opry and high-tech studios. But thanks to those early sessions, Congress in 1998 proclaimed Bristol as the "Birthplace of Country Music," an honor preserved by historians and musicians. Music venues abound, and a Smithsonian-affiliated museum opens there this summer, near a smaller museum.
What many people might not know is that the sessions were the brainchild of Missouri-born Ralph Peer, a record company executive from New York.
"Peer brought two engineers and all the equipment," noted Jessica Turner, director of the new Birthplace of Country Music (BCM) Museum. "He put an ad in the newspaper … to start setting up appointments for the recording sessions."
"Peer was marketing this as hillbilly music," she added. He also was instrumental in early jazz and blues recordings.
The ad attracted future country legends, including A.P., Sara and Maybelle Carter; the Stonemans; and Jimmie Rodgers. As their music made its way into living rooms across America, the nation was introduced to a new sound.
"People make a pilgrimage here to experience the real deal," banjo picker Tim White proudly pointed out. "It all started right here in these hills and hollers."
Seated inside the Mountain Music Museum at 626 State St., on the Tennessee side, White, one of the museum's founders, quickly differentiated his community from its much-bigger state cousin about 300 miles to the west.
"It's totally different from Nashville music," he said. "It's probably everything from the voice inflection and the lyrics to the way the music is played.
"It's people telling stories. Our music's about babies being born and divorces and, you know, even buying a new truck. It's the stories of our lives."
The tales of those early storytellers are shared at the museum. So too are the 78-rpm discs recorded just a couple of blocks down the street.
Upstairs at the museum, at a venue called the Pickin' Porch, White hosts live musicians each Monday evening.
"It's a different ambience (from Nashville)," White said of the old-time music that's performed. "People tell us, 'Y'all just got this sound.' "
To fully experience that different sound, visitors to the area also can make the 23-mile, winding drive to Hiltons, Va., home of the Carter Family Fold. The log cabin in which A.P. Carter was born and raised is lovingly preserved there.
Inside what once was his grocery store, A.P.'s granddaughter continues to stage concerts most Friday and Saturday evenings.
Now in their 40th year, the performances are the result of a promise Janette Carter, A.P.'s daughter, made to him on his deathbed.
"She had assured him she would do something to keep his memory and his music alive," explained Janette's daughter, Rita Forrester, who is carrying on the legacy.
"Her idea was to preserve the type of music that she grew up with and that the Carter family worked so hard to preserve, which was old-time mountain music, ballads (and) gospel music. There's no experience quite like it. It defies description. It's almost like stepping back in time."
Forrester added that, with rare exceptions, performers are required to use only acoustic instruments.
"It's been a pretty steadfast rule," she said. Rules, however, can be broken, and that's what happened when Johnny Cash played at the homestead. Forrester said the country music superstar, who was married to Maybelle's daughter June Carter, was allowed to "plug in" his guitar.
He could be forgiven. The Man in Black was one of the biggest boosters of his mother-in-law's music and performed there many times, though it typically is a venue for regional acts. His last performance there was July 10, 2003. He died that September.
Bristol also showcases the birthplace of another famous country singer, Tennessee Ernie Ford. He lived in the now-restored house at 1223 Anderson St. until age 5.
"He had such fond memories for this house," recalled Brenda Otis, a member of the historical association that restored the home and gathered a wealth of memorabilia to display inside. Ford, who has three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, got his start in show business working as a deejay at a local radio station.
Too, Bristol is where local legend has it that Hank Williams Sr. ate his last meal, one purchased from the popular Burger Bar. Williams died on his way to a New Year's Day performance in 1953. Though the history is murky, his driver pulled up outside the downtown hangout to get food.
At the museums, the emphasis predates Cash, Ford and even Williams.
"What we're doing is telling the story of the Bristol Sessions," said the BCM Museum's Turner. "We're talking about a historic moment."
Turner's museum will tell that story with a much bigger budget — and more technology — than its neighbor just across the state line.
Though his Mountain Music Museum is about to be dwarfed, White is optimistic — and lyrical — in his outlook.
"All ships rise with the tide," he concluded.
There must be a song in there somewhere.
If you go
Geography: Bristol is about midway between Knoxville, Tenn., which is less than two hours by car to the southwest, and Roanoke, Va., which is about two hours to the northeast.
The sights: The Mountain Music Museum (626 State St., Bristol, Tenn.; 423-573-2262; mountainmusicmuseum.org) is open Monday through Saturday.
Follow the progress of the BCM Museum, opening Aug. 1, at birthplaceofcountrymusic.org.
Tours of the Ford house are by appointment only. Call 276-466-9116.
The sounds: Get details on the various attractions at the Carter Family Fold by calling 276-386-6054 or visiting carterfamilyfold.org. Admission to the Friday and Saturday concerts is $10 for adults, $1 for ages 6-11. For the Pickin' Porch, call 423-573-2262 or visit pickinporch.org. The Monday night concerts are free, but a $5 donation is requested. See a comprehensive list of music events in Bristol at pickbristol.com.
Visitor info: 423-989-4850 or visitbristoltnva.org.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun