The period from July 2002 through July 2003 was declared by Congress the "Year of Appalachia." The year also marked the 75th anniversary of the historically important Victor recording sessions held in Bristol, Tennessee, in 1927. A small museum in Bristol administered by the Birthplace of Country Music Alliance (BCMA), a non- profit group run by country music enthusiasts and supporters of Appalachian music that is also an affiliate of the Smithsonian, approached the Smithsonian with a proposal to mount a Folklife Festival program in 2003 celebrating Appalachian culture. The year began with a series of regional concerts in Appalachia and culminated with the 2003 Festival program on the National Mall. Smithsonian staff worked closely with scholars and experts in the Appalachian region to help us tell their story, to discover what qualities in the region have made it such a hotbed of musical creativity and cooperation.
Although it was not the first time country music had been recorded for commercial distribution, the 1927 Bristol Sessions are considered the "big bang" that kicked off the country music industry. These were the first recordings of the original Carter Family and the singing brakeman, Jimmie Rodgers, the two most important early country music stars. They began what has since become a multibillion-dollar business. For this reason the area around Bristol, Virginia/Tennessee, has been referred to as "the Birthplace of Country Music."
The Festival program focused on the region within a hundred miles of Bristol, although certainly important music was and still is being made in the other parts of Appalachia. What forces converged in this one area of the United States to produce this music? There were various factors: isolation, strength of family, a strong religious faith, a feeling of community, and a sense of innovation. The area's music has influenced subsequent American popular music, but traditional music is still alive and thriving in the region, with younger people learning to play. Traditional music is even being taught in schools, such as the Mt. Rogers Combined School in Virginia and East Tennessee State University, which has a program in bluegrass. Nowadays, the music is also played and loved all over the planet, from Europe to Japan. The Festival program surveyed the different kinds of music one can find in the region. There were older master performers and those just starting out. For every group selected to bring to the Festival there were dozens of other worthy candidates.
Since its founding in 1967, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival has maintained a strong interest in the culture of Appalachia, and particularly its music. In 1968, Doc Watson & Family, Jean Ritchie, and Ralph Stanley participated in the Festival; in 1969 Dock Boggs, Maybelle Carter, Bill Monroe & the Monroe Brothers, and Merle Travis were featured. State programs on Kentucky (1973), Virginia (1977), and Tennessee (1986) have been presented on the Mall. Festival co-founder Ralph Rinzler had a great love for the region; besides "discovering" Doc Watson in 1960, Rinzler recorded and produced numerous recordings of Appalachian music and collected and documented Appalachian crafts. He was also responsible for bringing Appalachian musicians to New York and the Newport Folk Festival for concerts. The other Festival co-founder, James Morris, had been the director of the Asheville Folk Festival. Festival audiences in 2003 relished the opportunity to meet old friends again and to encounter new ones.
Jean Haskell and Jeff Place were Curators, and Arlene Reiniger was Coordinator.
This program was produced in collaboration with the Birthplace of Country Music Alliance and the Center for Appalachian Studies at East Tennessee State University. Major contributions were provided by the Recording Industries Music Performance Trust Funds, the National Endowment for the Arts, King Pharmaceuticals, the Norfolk Southern Foundation, Tennessee Tourism, and West Virginia Division ofTourism. Additional support was provided by the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Virginia Foundation for Humanities, Eastman Chemical, and The United Company.