BRISTOL, Va. — With a focus on Bristol in two of its first three episodes, local officials expect the upcoming Ken Burns documentary “Country Music” to attract visitors to the Twin City and the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.
Burns was in Bristol on Sunday to kick off a 30-city road show tour promoting the eight-episode, 16-hour series that begins airing Sept. 15. During his time here, Burns toured the BCM Museum and participated in two events to promote the documentary, which will air locally on East Tennessee PBS out of Knoxville.
Attendance at U.S. national parks increased by 10 million the year after his “National Parks” film was released, Burns told a Sunday night audience at the Paramount Center for the Arts. He also said the state of Tennessee helped underwrite his latest project because officials understood the value his work provides in validating topics and sparking interest.
Part of the first episode focuses on the 1927 Bristol Sessions recordings that discovered Country Music Hall of Fame performers the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. A portion of episode three includes the Stanley Brothers from Clintwood and the “Farm and Fun Time” radio show broadcast in Bristol in the 1950s.
“I think this could be part of our dream. If you look at Ken Burns’ other efforts and what kind of impact they’ve had, you can figure it will have an impact here, probably very much to give the museum the attention and the boost we were hoping for,” Bristol Tennessee Mayor Margaret Feierabend said Monday after attending Sunday’s events. “I think it’s very, very, very exciting.”
During his remarks, Burns also praised the BCM Museum as a worthy destination and a place for anyone interested in tracing the early roots of country music.
“For people across the nation and people around the world that will see this, they’ll learn about the music, and they’ll want to go out and learn more,” said Bristol Virginia City Councilman Bill Hartley, who also attended both Sunday sessions. “That’s one of the reasons Tennessee tourism came onboard as a sponsor because when you’re talking country music, you’re talking Bristol, Knoxville and particularly Nashville. So they [Tennessee] would see a great impact of people coming to visit.”
Hartley, who previously managed the BCM’s predecessor organization, the BCMA, said Burns’ film will further fortify this region’s claim as the birthplace of country music to new audiences.
“To have a filmmaker of that caliber deal with the subject of country music — a big, intricate subject — and weaving it into the culture and fabric of American history gives a certain element of legitimacy to that story,” Hartley said. “The BCM and other groups have been telling the story of this region’s heritage for years. To have it elevated to that level gives it an air of legitimacy I don’t think [heretofore[ you may have seen.”
BCM officials who hosted Burns and his entourage Sunday expect the impact to be “tangible,” BCM spokeswoman Kim Davis said on Monday. “We are excited for the premiere of the film in September and believe that this film will bring so much awareness to Bristol’s musical legacy as the birthplace of country music. We do anticipate more visitors coming to the museum and Bristol after the film airs.”
Davis said the organization is considering hosting an event this fall in connection with the documentary.
Courtney Cacatian, executive director of Discover Bristol — the convention and visitors bureau — said Burns has a proven track record of sparking interest in the subjects of his films.
“Ken Burns is probably the best known documentarian of our time. When his Civil War documentary came out, visitation to Civil War sites grew exponentially. Whatever sites are featured in his work see increased visitation for years to come,” Cacatian said. “Bristol is blessed to be in the opening episode and will undoubtedly see a near immediate increase in Burns’ enthusiasts.”