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Experience it All in East Tennessee


Article by Renee S. Gordon


"Country music is three chords and the truth."  Harlan Howard


Tennessee's tri-colored flag has a blue emblem in the center of a field of red with three white stars. Each star represents one of three geographic regions, the western lowlands, central highlands and the mountainous east. Each region has a distinctive history and culture and each has a unique story to tell. The state's documented biography begins in East Tennessee in an area that takes its name from the Appalachian Mountains. Hernando de Soto named them in the 1540s after a northwestern Florida tribe, the Apalachee.

For 10,000-years prior to European contact, Native Americans, primarily the Cherokee, who called the territory "Sha-cona-ge," the "Land of the Blue Mist", settled the area. The state name is a form of the Cherokee word "Tanasi," "little river" or "meeting place." In 1673 scouts entered the region to establish trade with the natives. A limited number of hardy settlers filtered into the territory for the next century. In the 1770s Daniel Boone established the Wilderness Trail as a route for settlers and extending the frontier beyond the mountains.

Bristol, Tennessee and Bristol, Virginia are considered twin cities. The state line divides State Street and inlaid brass discs denote which state you are in and allow you to stand in two states at once. Each city has its own government but basically is a single city. www.bristoltn.org  

In addition to the state line there is another iconic symbol. The illuminated "Bristol Sign," lit by 1,300 bulbs, greets you as you enter town. It was originally placed atop a hardware store in 1910 and later relocated to the state line. The sign proclaims the city "A Good Place to Live" and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) in 1988.

The land on which the cities sit was surveyed in 1749 and in 1770 Isaac Baker and Evan Shelby erected a trading post in what was then Sapling Grove. The land was sold to Reverend James King who founded King's Meadow's. He sold a tract of land to Joseph Anderson who founded the town of Bristol in 1852 and allowed his daughter to name it. A friend, Samuel Goodson, founded Goodsonville on the Virginia side of the state line four years later. It was renamed Bristol in 1890. www.MyBristolVisit.com

ChamberGuitar in Bristol, Tennessee

A 20-ft. guitar is situated outside the Convention & Visitors Bureau in tribute to Bristol's being deemed the "Birthplace of Country Music," passed by resolution in 1998 by the US Congress. The genesis of the designation began in July and August 1927 when Victor Talking Machine Company sent Ralph Peer to Bristol to record "hillbilly music." Bristol was chosen because of its proximity to Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia (TN is bordered by more states than any other state.). Nineteen bands recorded 76 songs during the Bristol Sessions including the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. A marker at 408 State St. marks the location of the recordings in TN on the 2nd and 3rd floors of the Taylor-Christian Hat Company


A second session was held for 8 days in October and November of the following year. A number of the original artists returned, joined by Harry Gay and Steve Tarter, African American blues guitarists and singers. Gay and Tarter were pioneers in the recording of "race records." The second sessions took place on 6th St. and are also indicated with a historic marker. Additional markers honor the contributions of early artists and Ralph Peer. www.bristolsessions.com

Tim White painted a large music mural honoring the 1927 sessions in 1987. A stage located in front of the mural is the setting for free concerts May to October and the best regional pickers often perform here. While you are there look around for Rosetta Bachelor's gold. Legend has it that she buried the family fortune nearby upon the death of her husband and no one has ever found it.      


Visitors can follow a 13 stop self-guided walking tour that encompasses sites associated with the city's history and its residents. Confederate Calvary Colonel John Mosby, "The Gray Ghost," was a lawyer in Bristol when the Civil War broke out and is memorialized with a marker. His exploits were so audacious that at one point, upon riding near Washington, DC, he sent Lincoln a lock of his hair. It is said that Lincoln appreciated the joke.

State Street is filled with shops, restaurants and music venues and no visit is complete without a visit to at least two of each.  620 State is the perfect establishment in which to combine fine dining and live music. The restaurant serves everything from sushi to southern fried chicken and features musicians on a regular schedule. www.620state.com. If you get lucky you might stop in on a night when Amythyst Kiah, an African American artist, whose playing and renditions of original compositions, bluegrass and old time music are stunning. www.reverbnation.com/rpk/1309412

Hank Williams died on December 30, 1952 at the age of 29, his legacy as a seminal figure in country music solidified. He was taught to play the guitar and given performance pointers by Ralph "Tee-Tot" Payne, a black street musician. Due to bad weather he was being driven to his next concert and as he arrived in Bristol the driver stopped at an all night restaurant, the Burger Bar, and asked if Hank were hungry. He replied that he was not and that was the last time he was seen alive. The historic Burger Bar is still serving food made from scratch using local and seasonal products and authentic, historic, recipes. It is small and you may have to wait to be seated but it is worth the wait. www.burgerbarbristol.com

A few miles out of Bristol, but a definite must visit, is the 100-year old Bellamy Hardware Store. This is the place to hear bluegrass music up close and personal. The hardware store now sells antiques and an adjacent building is equipped with a stage and seating.  The experience is genuine and is one of being a guest in someone's home and being entertained by old friends. www.bluegrassatbellamy.com

The state-of-the-art Birthplace of Country Music Museum is scheduled to open in August 2014. The 2-level museum will interpret the entire history of the music from its roots in Europe, the fields, churches and front porches to its modern incarnations. An area will be devoted to race music and its significance.


While in the Bristol area you are at the intersection of several scenic trails. Thunder Road is arguably the most famous. It gained fame during prohibition when moonshiners transported untaxed alcohol from stills in the hills. The cars were fast, the roads circuitous and during their free time the drivers raced each other. These activities are credited with being the start of NASCAR. In 2001 a NASCAR Mural was painted to honor Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty. www.tntrailsandbyways.com

a race at Bristol Dragway in Bristol, Tennessee


NASCAR Races are held only twice annually but drag races are regularly scheduled and on Thursdays and Saturdays "Street Fights" are held in which an individual races whoever pulls up next to them. Tours of the track are offered and a trip to the Bristol Motor Speedway, "The World's Fastest Half-Mile," is one of the "10 Events to See Before You Die." The half-mile track is 60-ft. wide with a pit size of 16-ft. by 27-ft. Cars travel at 128-mph on the straightaway, 90-mph on the turns and a lap is completed in 15 seconds. The speed record is 333-mph in 4-seconds.

The annual Speedway in Lights will be held November 15 - January 4, 2014. This awesome event includes a 4-mile route adorned with 2-million lights, 12 Xmas scenes, food and craft vendors and an ice skating rink. Guests can drive their personal vehicles around the track to view the lights and the gigantic tree. Proceeds are donated to children's charities. www.bristolmotorspeedway.com


Bristol Dragway in Bristol, Tennessee


Stickley Farm Maze and Zipline is an entertainment complex that was a dairy farm until the 1990s. Today it has one of the country's largest corn mazes on 11-acres with 5-miles of trails. The newest attraction, a 1080-ft. zipline that travels 30-mph has been added to the pony rides, trampoline and other activities. www.thestickleyfarm.com

Bays Mountain Park and Planetarium in Kingsport, opened in 1971, is situated on 3,550-acres and is a nature preserve. The park offers 38-miles of trails, a 44-acre lake, Steadman Heritage Farmstead Museum, Nature Center, 152-seat planetarium and an Adventure Course with a 300-ft. zipline. Wolves left this area more than 200-years ago but at Bay's Mountain's Native Habitat a pack of gray wolves are showcased and you can have a wolf howling experience. www.baysmountain.com

Kingsport's Exchange Place, a living history museum, was listed on the NRHP in 1978. Exchange Place, the Preston Farm, uses 6 original and 2 restored structures to interpret life on a self-sustaining farm in the 1850s. The farm is located on the Old Stage Road, the oldest road in the state. In the 1820s the complex served as a relay station where the stagecoach driver could exchange horses and patrons could exchange currency. It was necessary to exchange currency because in that era there was no common legal tender. The family owned several slaves but the cook's cabin was the sole slave cabin on the farm. An interesting side note is that it is on this land in 1775 that Daniel Boone killed a bear and carved evidence of the event on a tree. Costumed interpreters perform craft demonstrations.  www.exchangeplace.org

William and Barsheba Cobb moved into the wilderness of the Appalachian valley at the forks of 2 rivers around 1770 and over a 2-year period constructed a 2-story log house.  At that time TN was part of North Carolina. In May 1790 Congress created the Territory of the United States South-West of the River Ohio and named William Blount the governor. Blount moved in with the Cobbs and ran the government from there from 1790-92 making it the first territorial capitol.  

Rocky Mount Living History Museum interprets the lifestyle of Blount and the Cobbs in the latter 1700s. Authentically clad docents portray friends, family, servants and slaves that actually lived there at the time. Tours begin with a 10-minute orientation film that provides family and historic background. Some of the items belonged to the family and objects not to be missed are the wig curling iron, swiveling cradle and traveling medicine chest.

Rocky_Mount_Docen demosntrates life in the 1700s


A territorial census was taken in 1791 and of the 35,691 people, 3,417 were enslaved. The Cobb's cook was a slave and the interpreter does an outstanding job of explaining what her job entailed. The kitchen, a separate building, is fully equipped and there is a garden. www.rockymountmuseum.com   

The most historic luxury hotel in the region is the 1890s Carnegie Hotel in Johnson City. The full-service, 6-level, hotel has 139 oversized rooms, deluxe amenities, 24-hour fitness room and Austin Springs, a full service day spa. Wellington's, the on-site restaurant, features an antique bar and gourmet dining. Specials are available online. www.carnegiehotel.com

The area that is now Kingsport's Long Island of the Holston was once a place where the Native Americans held their councils. The 4.5-mile long island was considered a sacred place and both the Great Warrior' Path and the Great Trading Path crossed the land. In the 1750s a few scattered cabins were erected to trade with the Cherokee and in 1761 Fort Robinson was constructed at the river junction but was soon abandoned. Daniel Boone and 30 axemen set out from here in 1775 to blaze the now famous Wilderness Trail that allowed settlers to push further westward from the first frontier. The following year Fort Patrick Henry was established near the site of the previous fort. It is believed that the first Independence Day celebration was held at Patrick Henry and it was manned throughout the American Revolution.

Jobs and opportunities created by river trade brought settlers to the town. One of the most successful businessmen was James King the owner of King's Mill Station. In the late 1700s the town was referred to as King's Port, later Kingsport. Tennessee (TN) took ownership of Kingsport in 1802 after having been claimed earlier by North Carolina, Virginia and the State of Franklin. www.visitkingsport.com


Downtown Kingsport is filled with more than 45 gift and specialty stores, bakeries and restaurants and the largest collection of antique stores in the Southeast Region. This is the perfect place to purchase a memento or souvenir. Between serious bouts of shopping you can take in the city's Sculpture Walk VII. Sculptures are juried and ten works are selected for display for a one-year period. Kingsport also showcases its permanent collection of eight sculptures. Visitors can tour using Guide By Cell for additional information on each work. www.downtownkingsport.org

Kingsport's commitment to the community and the arts is evident in the Kingsport Carousel Project. More than 100 residents are building a menagerie-style carousel including carving and painting 32 animals and 2 chariots. Rounding boards, with scenes of the area prior to 1956, are created by local artists. Located atop the ticket booth will be a carved flying pig, a reference to the fact that early on the project was considered so fanciful that someone said it would only happen when pigs fly. www.engagekingsport.com

Riverfront Seafood Company is situated on the shore of the Holston River and is a regional favorite. The restaurant provides splendid views as you dine on the freshest catches of the day. www.riverfrontseafood.com

Morristown was always a popular crossroads because of its location on the Buffalo Trail and the Big Road that linked TN with Baltimore. The town was named in honor of Absalom Morris one of its earliest nonindigenous settlers. Another of those early settlers was John Crockett, father of Davy. The family lived in Morristown during Davy's childhood and legend has it that he learned to shoot on what is now known as Crockett Ridge. Crockett Tavern Museum has been interpreting the pioneer culture of the 1700s since opening in 1958. A reproduction of the family's cabin is situated near the site of the original family tavern.


Mountain Makins Festival has been voted both the "Best Festival in East TN" and "One Of the Top 20 Events in the Southeast." Morristown has been hosting this celebration of Appalachian cultures since 1976. This is a crash course in the best of the regional food, music, dance, craft and storytelling traditions. More than 70-juried craftspeople showcase their art and demonstrations of traditional skills are also on view. www.morristowntn.com

Morristown, Tennessee Main Street

Downtown Morristown is a short walk from the festival venue and it is totally unique. Twenty-five years ago the city added a "SkyMart," a sidewalk at the buildings' second level. You can stroll the main street along either the upper or sheltered lower level. www.visitmorristown.com

There are no chain restaurants or shops downtown and there are many choices for dining and shopping. You must stop in Jersey Girl Diner. All of the choices are great and the diner has won the People's Choice Award for " Best Lunch."  Cross the street to Yummy Cakes & More for dessert. The desserts are handmade and delicious.

 TN Story Note: The "Evil Dead" was filmed in an unused cabin on the outskirts of Morristown.

Fourteen years before TN's statehood the town of Jonesborough was founded and named in honor of Willie Jones a North Carolina legislator. Jonesborough is the oldest city in the state and the area is filled with meticulously maintained historic structures and is a repository of the stories and legends of East TN.

It was the first TN town listed on the NRHP.

In order to ensure the continuation of the stories and the storytelling traditions of Appalachia the National Storytelling Festival was established in Jonesborough in 1973. The annual festival has continued and is now the most highly regarded and oldest storytelling event in the country. Jonesborough's National Storytelling Center recently began collaboration with the Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation to use the art of storytelling to promote international peace. Individuals are invited to share their stories. www.tutufoundationusa.org and www.storytellingcenter.net

A 21-year old Andrew Jackson practiced law in Jonesborough for 5-months in 1788 prior to moving to Nashville. He rented a cabin from Christopher Taylor on the outskirts of town that was reconstructed and relocated to Main Street in 1974. Not only is the 2-story cabin the oldest building in the town, it is also said to be haunted by Andrew Jackson.

Pennsylvanian Dr. William Chester constructed the first boarding house in TN in 1797. Three U.S. presidents lodged in the Italianate Chester Inn on the Great Stage Road. Today the inn is home to the National Story Telling Society.

Jonesborough had a slave population but it also had a Philadelphia Quaker abolitionist named Elihu Embree. In 1819 he began publication of the "Manumission Intelligencier." One year later he started "The Emancipator," the country's first newspaper dedicated exclusively to ending slavery. After a mere 8 issues Embree died. Ironically, Embree had been a slaveowner until 1812 when he freed them. A historic marker denotes the site where the paper was printed. www.historicjonesborough.com

Blair-Moore House
is an exceptional Greek Revival-style, 2-story brick, home constructed in 1832. In 1997, after a 5-year restoration by Jack and Tami Moore, the house opened as a B&B. This home is filled with antiques and modern amenities, has been featured in "Southern Living" and is listed on the NRHP. A stay here is an exceptional experience. www.blairmoorehouse.com

Henry Johnson founded Johnson City in 1856 by constructing his home at the site of a branch of the railroad. He went on to establish an inn, post office, store and railroad depot. Originally the town was known as Johnson's Depot but in 1869 it was incorporated as Johnson City. Story Note: Al Capone is known to have hidden out here during prohibition. www.visitjohnsoncitytn.com

The Reece Museum is located on the campus of East TN State University and takes as its mission the preservation and presentation of Appalachian culture. The museum's only permanent exhibit relates the story of regional music beginning with the ballads settlers brought with them. Kiosks allow you to access 46 hours of video. On view until January 4, 2014 is the Smithsonian's traveling exhibit, "IndiVisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americas." www.etsu.edu/cass/reece

The Tipton-Haynes State Historic Site is, arguably, one of the most important and representative sites in East TN. Tipton-Hayes history stretches back at least 10,500-years and archeologists have proven that a trace ran across the property indicating that prehistoric animals and native hunters occupied the area. Col. John Tipton purchased 100-acres in 1783 and constructed a 25' X 30' cabin. In 1831 his son inherited the property and in 1837 it was sold to David Haynes who gifted the land to his son in the 1850s. Landon Haynes made additions to the house and added a Greek revival portico. There are 18 locations, including a museum and education center, and an orientation video on the tour.

Oral tradition states that George Haynes, a slave of David Haynes, was actually his son and half-brother of Langdon. George's story and that of 2 additional Haynes slaves is fully interpreted. Records show that in 1853 George was used as collateral for Langdon's loans and during the Civil War he continued working on the property when the family relocated to Virginia. The family was forced to move because of the region's Unionist sentiments. Modern Haynes family reunions include both the white and black members. www.tipton-haynes.org

From December 22, 1863 until January 28, 1864 General Longstreet was headquartered in the Nenny House in Russellville. The area was chosen because food was available and the house was selected because it provided easy access to the railroad station and telegraph lines. The first portion of the 1.5-story house had 2-rooms and dates from the 1820s. Nenny purchased the land and moved the cabin here in 1834. Four rooms were added 20-years later. A highlight of the headquarters tour is the Civil War communications center complete with period telegraph and audio. Longstreet's Garden on the exterior features medicinal and culinary herbs as well as Civil War heirloom vegetables. www.longstreetmuseum.com

Nenny House in Russellville, Tennessee where General Longstreet stayed

Greenville's Dickson-Williams Mansion typifies the southern experience in the 1860s. It was truly a house divided with brother pitted against brother and during the Civil War Catherine Williams refused to divulge which side she was on because two sons were Confederates and one was Union. www.mainstreetgreeneville.org

The Federal mansion was constructed in 1815 using skilled Irish and enslaved labor and was considered the "Showplace of East TN." Guests were always welcome here and a list includes Henry Clay, Davy Crockett, Andrew Jackson and Lafayette. John Hunt Morgan, "The Thunderbolt of the Confederacy," was discovered to be staying in the mansion on September 4, 1864 by Federal soldiers and was killed while attempting to escape.

Tours of the house are outstanding. Furnishings are family heirlooms or pieces from the 1850s to 1870s. Raphael Peale portraits, artwork owned by R. E. Lee and books printed prior to 1872 are displayed and all of the mansion's clocks are still working. The home has a number of breathtaking items handcrafted by the Burgner Brothers, the most flamboyant being a kitchen cabinet. Upstairs the tour includes the bedroom in which Morgan spent the night. It is laid out as if he just walked into the corridor. After his death the body was brought back to the house and laid out in the parlor. www.visitgreenvilletn.com


John Hunt Morgan's bedroom

TN Story Note: The Melungeons are an East TN ethnic group with untraced origins. It is believed that they are a blend of Native American, Sub-Saharan African, Portuguese and possibly Viking ancestry that precedes the first documented settlements in the New World. With the encroachment of Europeans they moved into the Appalachian region. Their largest community is located in and around Sneedville and their most (in)famous person is Mahala Mullins. Mahala was a moonshining 500-lb widow with 18 children. When lawmen came to arrest her she put up no resistance but it was impossible to get her out of her cabin or transport her down the mountain. A deputy stated that Mahala was "catchable but not fetchable." Mahala's 2-story dogtrot cabin is on display in the Vardy Historic District. www.melungeons.com

Tennessee Is filled with outdoor recreational opportunities, historic sites, eclectic dining venues, entertainment spots and stories, lots of stories. Plan a visit and hear them for yourself. www.tnvacation.com

Photo credits:

Chamber Guitar-Malcolm  J. Wilson

Bristol Motor Speedway-Bristol Motor Speedway

Hank Williams and band - Lum York




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