Bristol, Tennessee-Virginia isn’t the only American city to straddle two states but it probably makes more of its duality than others. As you ride along State Street(right) — the state line — the street signs on one side read Virginia and the other Tennessee.
But Bristol is a city split not only by a state line but also by competing cultures: the red-neck good-old-boy Southern tradition and the artsy crowd On State Street, the city’s main drag, you find pickup trucks with Richard Petty bumper stickers parked next to Volvos with “save the earth” logos.
I had’t visited Bristol since coming back to Southwestern Virginia in 2004 and wasn’t planning to go there when I turned my Harley South on U.S. 221 early Saturday morning. After breakfast at Jim’s in Willis, I headed South again on 221, not sure if I would stay on that road or head towards Mt. Airy on U.S. 52 out of Hillsville. At Hillsville, I stayed on 221, riding on to Galax and then Independence. Decision time again: 52 through Mt. Rogers or stay on 221. Opted again for 221 and enjoyed the twisties on to Boone where I planned to stop but the town was packed and I couldn’t find a parking spot, even for a motorcycle, so I turned north on U.S. 421 and headed towards Mountain City, TN. Topped the Harley off with gas and headed on to Bristol.
At Java J’s on State Street, a large cup of the House blend costs $2.00 — less than a similar cup at Cafe del Sol in Floyd. I grabbed an outside table and watched the passing scene. Bristol’s main street is a busy place on a Saturday afternoon. At the next table, a couple discussed pitching a film project on the changing art scene in Bristol. Across the street, Theatre Bristol teemed with activity and just up the street, The Paramount Theater advertised an upcoming performance by “3 Redneck Tenors.” When I walked up the street to photograph Bristol’s neon state line sign (above), Noah Gaston looked at the Roanoke Valley Harley Owners Group patch on the back of my vest and struck up a conversation.
“You from Roanoke?”
‘Floyd? Isn’t that where they have that big bluegrass thingy?”
“Yep. The Friday Night Jamboree.”
“Well Floyd. Welcome to the birthplace of country music.”
Bristol laid claim to the birthplace of country music in 1994 and is now an ongoing operation aligned with The Smithsonian Institution. It shares affiliation on The Crooked Road with Floyd. Throughout Bristol, you find many signs promoting The Crooking Road and Round the Mountain, Southwestern Virginia’s Artisan Network. On the web site for the city’s Chamber of Commerce, you find a page dedicated to “music and the arts.”
As I rode out of Bristol Saturday afternoon, I realized that Bristol has found a way to bridge the gaps between the old and new and recognize that both contribute to the city’s heritage and tradition.
Other communities, including Floyd, should learn to do the same.