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Tradition. This word tends to be used fairly frequently in conversations surrounding the various events, attractions, and general goings-on around Bristol. Its meaning, however, occasionally becomes a bit lost or even clichéd due to its frequent use. Some people even view tradition as a negative at times, equating its meaning with being stuck in the past or outdated. In reality, tradition is anything but that. Tradition means handing down information, customs, stories, and more from one generation to the next, both through our words and our actions. To know Bristol is to know the true meaning of this word, and to see how our roots are steeped in the traditions of the past while we simultaneously create new traditions every day for future generations to pass on.
There are few, if any, traditions that more truly represent the fabric of our American heritage than the holidays that serve as milestones throughout the summer. We remember our fallen heroes on Memorial Day, widely considered to be the unofficial beginning of the season. We march onward toward the 4th of July, the birth of our independent nation in 1776, watching fireworks symbolizing the “bombs bursting in air” seen by Francis Scott Key in 1814, perhaps following a game of America’s national pastime. Lastly we arrive, just as we did this past week, to the ceremonial end of the summer, Labor Day; a holiday to commemorate the heritage of blood, sweat, tears, and hard work that could only be made in America. For each of these celebrations, many of us celebrate with a customary family cookout, featuring such classic favorites as hamburgers, hot dogs, and maybe even a few uniquely southern staples (like our treasured sweet tea).
While these summer traditions are lauded and celebrated throughout our great country, Bristol has a few unique traditions of our own. Just over a month before Memorial Day, Bristol Motor Speedway roars to life for the Sunday afternoon NASCAR race, just like it did for the first time in July of 1961. A few months later, the sun goes down and the track lights come on for the most exciting night race in the country. Each of these races would be spectacular on their own, but they are made all the more special by the gratitude and hospitality shown to the drivers and fans alike that is absolutely unique to Bristol. This year, another contest of epic proportions took place under those same lights, when the Tennessee Volunteers and Virginia Tech Hokies met each other in the largest football game in history. On the eve of this record-breaking spectacle, the Last Great Colosseum welcomed fans as the Speedway was filled with the sounds of East Tennessee’s own Kenny Chesney and The Band Perry. Could this perhaps be the start of another Bristol tradition?
Before long, the summer heat begins to give way, and suddenly, to borrow a phrase, the hills are alive with the sound of music. When the dust of the gridiron has barely settled, the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion, now in its 15th year, will fill historic downtown Bristol with the familiar sounds of the old-time, folk, bluegrass, Americana, and country music first made famous right here at the 1927 Bristol sessions. While this collective country or “hillbilly” music was certainly introduced to the world in Bristol, it wasn’t necessarily born here; in fact, it’s hard to point out any specific physical birthplace. Instead, this music was born out of that same sense of tradition that the early settlers of these mountains brought with them from Europe, Africa, and many other cultures they encountered on their journey. Their ballads, hymns, chants, and string tunes melded together, and were passed down through families as a way to express joy and praise, grief and sadness, but above all, to tell their story. That said, in a sense, while this music certainly gestated and grew in these hills, it was Ralph Peer and his electric microphone that really brought it out into the light of popular recorded music, so one would certainly be correct in proclaiming Bristol’s tradition as the Birthplace of Country Music.
By the close of the festival, the first official days of fall will be on our doorstep, a familiar chill will come into the air, and we just might start to see the first tinges of color in the leaves atop the mountains. Perhaps it is that crisp air that holds the secret to the most precious tradition of all: the intangible, indescribable feeling of comfort knowing that this beautiful place will always be “home.” In the end, Bristol doesn’t seem so much to be a product or sum of the traditions that take place here; it’s more than that. Bristol is tradition, and we couldn’t be more proud of that.