Hockey & Heels
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If you've given Bristol any thought, it may be as the home to the Bristol Motor Speedway, the NASCAR track and site of last year's record-setting Battle at Bristol football game (156,000 people watched Tennessee beat Virginia Tech). Or, perhaps you recognize the Geico Insurance animated gecko who stands on the border that splits Bristol's Main Street down the middle, half in Tennessee and half in Virginia.
But you should know the city for the 1927 Bristol Sessions, the recordings that people consider the “Big Bang” of country music: where hillbilly music morphed into commercial success. In honor of the event's 90th anniversary, Bristol's Birthplace of Country Music Museum is premiering a “Born in Bristol” documentary August 4 and 5. The party will continue with music and exhibitions, followed by homages during the 17th annual Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion music festival September 15 through 17. There’s no better excuse, or moment in time, to road trip to one of the state’s most charming destinations.
Bristol is 290 miles northeast of Nashville, along I-40 and I-81; it is in the Eastern Time Zone.
5 p.m. — Check in at one of the mid-range hotel chains, most of which are close to the Speedway. Make sure your phone is charged, because this is a selfie city. You need snaps of yourself walking down the middle of Main Street, which serves as the state line. Don't worry that an approaching police officer is going to bust you for jaywalking; he's likely going to ask if he can take your photo for you. And State Street's “the Bristol Sign” is lit with more than 1,200 light bulbs—it’s now on the National Register. The landmark has shown people that Bristol is a “good place to live” since 1910.
7 p.m. — Continue the two-state theme by eating at the Stateline Bar & Grille and then shooting some pool at Borderline Billiards.
8 a.m. — Blackbird Bakery is open 24 hours (Monday through Saturday), so, if you plan your carbs right, you can eat here twice in one weekend, perhaps for baklava or a cupcake for a late-night dessert. Head back again for organic coffee and a doughnut the next morning.
10 a.m. — The heart and soul of Bristol is the aforementioned Birthplace Museum, which chronicles how Ralph Peer recorded hillbilly music so that people outside these mountains could hear it. A Smithsonian Affiliate, the museum is an interactive wonder. Your ticket is good all day, so you can leave and come back for more.
Noon — Lunch must be at Burger Bar. You’ll come because it is the last place Hank Williams is believed to be seen alive; you'll stay for the Parmesan fries.
1 p.m. — Browse downtown Bristol’s shopping scene. It seems small, but it’s deceptively deep. Chief among your destinations should be L.C. King Manufacturing, a 100-plus-year-old American-made work-wear company (think: Southern Carhartt). Jack King is the fourth generation to run the business, which sews its bags and jeans and jackets right above the store. If you ask nicely, they'll give you a factory tour. Need a sweet pick-me-up to keep browsing? Stop by The Southern Churn for ice cream or fudge.
Other walkable retail highlights include William King Clothiers, an upscale clothing boutique (related to the L.C. King family); at The Distressed Gentleman, old furniture is brought back to life with interesting paint and perspective.
4 p.m. — Head back to the Birthplace if you want a second look (or listen), to browse the expansive gift shop, and check out who’s playing on Radio Bristol. You might hit the auditory jackpot with a live show.
7 p.m. — Sit and sip for dinner at Whiskey Rebellion, a downtown steakhouse with an impressive whiskey list.
8 a.m. — Up and at ‘em early, so you can fit in a short hike in the nearby Cherokee National Forest. (You’ll want to work off all those delicious, Bristol-made carbs.)
11 a.m. — Get to Eatz on Moore Street, where you can order a soul-food brunch or lunch to fill you up for the drive. The banana pudding is a local favorite.
1 p.m. — On your way out of town, swing by the birthplace of Tennessee Ernie Ford. Remember to bless everyone's “pea-pickin' hearts,” just like Ernie would have done as you head back to Nashville.
Photos by Margaret Littman and Birthplace of Country Music.