Toeing the Line in Bristol

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Bristol is such an amazing “small town” that it takes two states to contain it. First a disclaimer for those of you who like to get technical. Bristol, Virginia isn’t a town at all. It’s an independent city. However, with a population of less than 18,000, it qualifies as a small town in my book. As the twin city with Bristol, Tennessee, the entire region makes for an exciting vacation destination.

What is there to do in Bristol? Well, does the roar of the crowd and the tantalizing aroma of gasoline send a chill up your spine? Bristol Motor Sportsway stands imposingly on the Tennessee side of town.

If you’re a fan of country music (and who isn’t?), you will absolutely love the opportunity a visit to the Birthplace of Country Music Museum gives you to tunefully travel back in time.

Outdoor adventures? Indoor dining? Shopping? It’s all waiting for you in Bristol. Come along. I’ll show you some of the sites.

“It’s Bristol Baby” 

On August 28, 2004, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. having taken the checkered flag at Bristol Motor Speedway, climbed out of his car and declared, “This has to be one of the biggest wins of my career.” When asked to explain, Junior simply stated, “It’s Bristol baby!” That line has become the speedway’s official slogan.

There truly is something special about BMS. With over 150,000 seats, you have to see the speedway, the fourth largest sports venue in America, especially from the infield looking up at the grandstands, to fully appreciate what a massive facility this is.

“We jokingly call ourselves a football stadium on steroids,” says Jerry Caldwell, executive vice president and general manager of the facility. “That’s really what it is,” he adds. He could have added “literally” to that. Back in September 2016, the “Battle at Bristol” featured the Virginia Tech Hokies being shellacked (24-45) by the Volunteers from the University of Tennessee at the race track. The 156,990 fans in the crowd, shattered the previous college-football attendance record of 115,109, set in 2013 when the University of Michigan hosted Notre Dame. Although the artificial turf has been removed, the speedway infield still sports the outline of a football field on the concrete surface.

With the quarter-mile Bristol International Dragway just across the parking lot, it’s no wonder folks around here call this complex “Thunder Valley.” Even if you’re not in town for a race, you can take a tour of the place, which includes a few laps around the quarter-mile oval in a van. Tours, which originate from the Speedway World Gift Shop, are available daily except during major Speedway and Dragway events. And the price tag to take a behind-the-scenes look is quite reasonable – $5 for adults, $4 for seniors (55+) and $3 for children and military.

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“Guitars, Cadillacs and Hillbilly Music”

It was the summer of 1927. Babe Ruth was on his way to hitting a record-breaking 60 home runs for the New York Yankees. Down in Bristol, Ralph Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company (later RCA Victor) was making records of his own. Between July 25 and August 5 of that year, Peer conducted recording sessions using the new Western Electric electronic microphone during which 19 performers (or groups of performers) recorded 76 songs. Among those on hand were Jimmie Rodgers, now known as the “Father of Country Music,” and the “First Family of Country Music,” the Carter family, including Maybelle Carter. The famous “Bristol Sessions” launched the careers of those legendary performer and also helped to initiate the broad commercialization of country music. Much of the music that we listen to today, regardless of how far afield your tastes may take you, has been shaped by the music that was recorded in Bristol in 1927. Johnny Cash once called these sessions, “the single most important event in the history of country music.”

A visit to the Birthplace of Country Music Museum will take you back to those events of more than 90 years ago. Permanent and special exhibits will have you not only humming the Carter Family’s Single Girl, Married Girl, but you can step into a recording booth and create your own rendition of that and other tunes from the Bristol Sessions.

Although they don’t often call it hillbilly music these days, there’s still plenty of traditional Southern music being played in venues around town. And the annual Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion at the museum (September 20 – 22, 2019) brings an eclectic group of musicians together to showcase the far-reaching branches of the original music captured so many decades ago.

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“You Put One Foot In…”

Okay, it may be kind of hokey, but it’s also pretty cool to put one foot on the left side and one foot on the right of the yellow lines that run through the middle of Bristol’s State Street. Why? Because you’re standing in both Virginia and Tennessee at the same time. Just a word of caution, to avoid that rundown feeling make sure there’s no traffic when you try this. Regardless of which side of the street you’re on, you’ll discover a wide variety cool little businesses from art galleries and antique stores to ice cream and coffee shops.

The Great Outdoors

Fly-fishing and kayaking are among the adventures to be enjoyed on the Holston River, which flows some 136 miles from Kingsport to Knoxville. From fishing equipment, tackle, rods and reels to clothing specially made for the rivers, the South Holston River Fly Shop is an excellent source for virtually anything an angler would need. Although not operational during the winter, Adventure Mendota offers unguided kayak river trips from its base camp on Swinging Bridge Road on the North Fork of the Holston.

If you prefer your adventures dry, numerous city parks offer opportunities for hiking, biking and camping. Steele Creek Park offers 2,200+ acre with playgrounds, picnic areas, amphitheater, nature center, paddle boats, train ride, walking trails and a golf course. Inside the Steele Creek Nature Center you’ll find live animals and educational displays showcasing the natural world inside the park.

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A Dining Destination

There are a variety of excellent restaurants not only in Bristol, but in the entire Tennessee tri-cities area (Bristol, Kingsport and Johnson City) One of my favorites is J. Frank’s (412 6th St. Bristol, TN). When he was 19, Jason Vanover put in an application to work at the Troutville Dining Room, a fine dining establishment in Bristol. He didn’t get the job. Fast forward nearly three decades and Vanover comes back, buys the building (a restored 1850s Victorian house), renames the restaurant J. Frank’s in honor of his grandfather and, viola! Today J. Frank’s is a big hit with locals and visitors, alike. Vanover, who is also the chef, is a friendly, personable sort of guy with a quick and pleasant smile. His skills in the kitchen have turned this spot into one of the city’s most popular eateries, known for its steaks and seafood. (See directory for more dining suggestions)

The Bottom Line 

When you stop and think about it, Bristol truly provide the amenities you’d expect to find in a city. But the nice thing is, no matter which side of the line you may be standing on, you’re going to feel that small-town welcome.  The folks I met actually took the time to smile and say “hello” as they passed by on the sidewalk. It would be easy to settle down in Bristol. And I’ve only skimmed the surface. The accompanying directory will provide you with a few suggestions on dining, lodging and other attractions in the area.


Birthplace of Country Music Museum: 101 Country Music Way, Bristol, VA

Bristol Motor Speedway: 151 Speedway Blvd., Bristol, TN

South Holston River Fly Shop: 608 Emmett Road, Bristol, TN

Steele Creek Park: 4 Little Lane, Bristol, TN


Bays Mountain Park and Planetarium: A 3,550-acre nature park and planetarium – 853 Bays Mountain Road, Kingsport, TN

Hands On! Discovery Center at Gray Fossil Site: Pliocene-epoch assemblage of fossils; plus family-friendly science museum – 1212 Suncrest Dr., Gray, TN

Wautaga Kayak: Guided whitewater rafting trips – 1409 Broad Street, Elizabethton, TN

DINING (distance from Bristol is shown in parentheses)

Brumley’s Inn: Restaurant serving seasonal fare with a creative flair; located in an 1884 inn – 111 N. Main St., Greenville, TN (55 miles)

J. Frank’s: See article above – 412 N. 6th St., Bristol, TN

Phil’s Dream Pit: Classic BBQ dishes and sides in an old-school setting with homey accents – 534 Eastern Star Road, Kingsport, TN (25 miles)

Southern Craft BBQ: Lofty, urban eatery serving smoked beef brisket, bourbon smoked salmon, burgers and cocktails – 601 Spring St., Johnson City, TN (25 miles)

LODGING (distance from Bristol is shown in parentheses)

Bristol Hotel: After a massive renovation of a 1925 architectural landmark, this recently opened boutique hotel features a rooftop bar with sweeping views of the Appalachian Mountains, street-front dining with family style regional fare, and a historic arcade for unforgettable social gatherings and special events – 510 Birthplace of Country Music Way, Bristol, VA

Historic Eureka Inn: This historic inn sits in the heart of Tennessee’s oldest town, Jonesborough. Offering beautiful accommodations and delicious breakfasts – 127 W. Main St., Jonesborough (27 miles)

Meadow View Conference Resort & Convention Center: This beautiful facility offers spacious, modern rooms; golf course; indoor pool and more – 1901 Meadowview Pkwy., Kingsport, TN (27 miles)

Steve Cook
Author: Steve Cook