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The Birthplace of Country Music Museum Gives Women Their Due

September 19, 2023 12:43 pm GMT
Last Edited December 19, 2023 7:26 pm GMT

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A special exhibit at The Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Historic Downtown Bristol, VA/TN is honoring the women who played such an integral role in the creation of country music.

Often overlooked, these heroines, artists and activists finally get the recognition they so deserve courtesy of the exhibit, titled I’ve Endured: Women in Old-Time Music. Launched on March 23 and continues through to December 31, it was created by a women-led content team and will mark a first when it travels to other museums and educational institutions.

“We built it so it can travel safely and be ready go to other venues,” said Dr. René Rodgers, Head Curator of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. Indeed, the exhibition deserves wider exposure. Using old photos, documents, various archival artefacts and current video-taped interviews, it spotlights the stories shared by such iconic musicians as Mother Maybelle and Sara Carter, Ola Belle Reed, Elizabeth Cotten, Lily May Ledford, Hazel Dickens, Etta Baker and Alice Gerrard.

It also includes women who have impacted the genre in other ways, including Audrey Hash Ham, Florence Reece, Helen White, Anne Romaine and Bernice Johnson Reagon. In so doing, I’ve Endured: Women in Old-Time Music illuminates the ways that modern women including Rhiannon Giddens, Martha Spencer and Amythyst Kiah are carrying the torch forward and focusing on the work that still needs to be done to include communities that remain underrepresented in American music.

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Dr. René Rodgers, Head Curator of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, located in Bristol, VA-TN.

The content development team interviewed dozens of contemporary female old-time musicians and industry professionals as part of the exhibit, all in an effort to bring the past into the present, and from there, proceed into the future.

Rodgers said that its purpose was to share stories of women who have often been left out of old-time and traditional music’s historical narrative and/or overshadowed by the achievements of male artists due to gender bias, unequal access to financial independence and not having access to decision-making roles.

Rodgers, who has been working with the museum since before it opened in 2012, said it tends to offer two to three special exhibits per year. “The majority of the exhibits that come in are from other museums and companies. This is our fourth special exhibit that we've made ourselves. And this will be the first one that we're going to travel to other venues. We’re hoping that it'll be on the road by the end of February 2024."

She added that the museum hopes to keep it traveling for as long as it can. “Right now, we're just planning for it to travel for two years. But it just depends on how long someone wants to take it. We're offering it from three months to six months.”

It took two years to put the exhibition together. “We started work with our content team, the tutorial teams and three staff members,” she continued. “Then we brought in two guest curators - Kalia Yeagle and Cathy Fink - both of whom had been very active in music making, education and old-time and bluegrass music. We spent about nine months talking, doing research and throwing together all the different elements of what we were learning. The exhibit is organized systematically. We wanted it to not just to be biographies of women, but to talk about the challenges they faced, to talk about the people who might not be viewed as women and old-time musicians because they weren’t onstage."

In the process, the curators made it a point to also talk about current women working today. “We interviewed 18 contemporary female musicians about their inspirations and challenges, what old-time music meant to them and what they envisioned for the genres future,” Rodgers said.

“One of the things we were really looking for with this exhibit was to move beyond the typical history books that tend to tell the stories of men, the stories that people already know about. There were so many women who had made this amazing impact, and that are still influencing musicians today. We wanted to tell their stories, but also do it within the broader context of what their life might have been like. So for instance, people like the Carters or Coon Creek Girls may have been very successful in their field, but they also were around at a time when they didn't have the same access that a man had to a bank or business account.”

While the narrative dates to the 1800s, Rodgers said that the team were open-minded about their view of old-time music, incorporating the influence of a diversity of styles, instruments, voices and communities.

“It’s important to have stories that talk about women, Black artists, and LGBTQ+ artists who are making this music. If you look at radio play, if you look at gender parity at festivals, you still see this lack of diversity happening. Some of the artists we talked to are still experiencing those same challenges that that their forebears faced.”

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Carlene Carter, the daughter of June Carter Cash, was very emotional during her press conference talking about her family. Photo taken at The Birthplace of Country Music Museum

For Carlene Carter, the daughter of June Carter Cash and Carl Smith, and the granddaughter of Mother Maybelle Carter, the exhibit brought back many personal memories.

“It just feels really good,” Carter said at a press conference that took place prior to her Sunday performance at the Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion festival. “I love the exhibit. It’s so awesome. I've seen pictures I have never seen before. I’ve seen people that I didn't know even existed”.

Clearly, the feelings she felt came very close to the surface. “I wish I could take my grandma by the hand and go walk the streets of Bristol, and then come over here,” she reflected. “It feels like she's with me. It's emotional, but it's joyful. I'm so happy to see that the music is being carried on and women are being given some recognition. I think my grandma would be really proud of it”.

That said, Carter shared her praise for the other women spotlighted. “The women in this exhibit have sustained a legacy and that’s why they’re being honored. They were able to stand up for themselves at a time when it wasn't as easy for women to stand up for themselves.”

Rodgers concurred. “There was an idea of what was appropriate for a woman. A lot of women found that once they got married, it wasn't deemed appropriate for them to appear on stage. There were all sorts of things that influenced the way women achieved success in music versus the way men might have made a successful career. While we didn't have the space to do the entire story here, there are some organizations out there that are doing wonderful work to share that history and to promote this music. There's a lot more work to be done.”

Photos by Alisa B. Cherry

The Birthplace of Country Music Museum is located at 101 Country Music Way, Bristol, Virginia. For more information, phone 423-573-1927 or go to www.birthplaceofcountrymusic.org

Written by Lee Zimmerman
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