Off of interstate 81 in Bristol Tennessee, only a stones throw away from Virginia, is a larger than life symbol of the regions musical heritage; a gigantic guitar-shaped building nestled into the rich Tennessee hills. Bristol was named the birthplace of country music due to its history of the Bristol Sessions, a recording bonanza held in 1927 by producer Ralph Peer who was in search of new talent. The sessions unearthed astounding local performers such as Jimmy Rodgers and the Carter family who then went on to be nationally acclaimed and loved. The Grand guitar rests right outside of the city, partly in remembrance of those sessions and partly as a shadow of one mans embodiment of his own musical reverie.
Completed in 1983 the guitar shaped building was the dream of Joe Morrell, a local musician and entrepreneur. This incredible 70-foot-long, three-story, gigantic guitar was dubbed “the worlds only guitar-shaped music museum”. The building was made of block and plywood with windows posing as the sound holes and fret board; complete with a set of nylon rope strings. Morrell designed and built this fabulous guitar shaped building to house his collection of more than 200 unusual instruments including a fiddle made by a North Carolina man, entirely out of matchsticks. The building also housed a tiny recording studio and a gift shop, but mostly it was a museum for his plethora of musical instruments and if that wasn’t good enough, admission was free. (1)
Morrell had the idea to build his giant guitar fifteen years prior to its completion, around 1965. This was a time which was monumental for bluegrass and folk festivals and their thousands of attendees who traveled from near and far to experience the special festival scene. Cross country travel was also more embraced with gas being inexpensive, cars acquirable, and the interstates spreading out like veins across the country. The interstate highway system, begun in 1956, had by the late sixties made it possible to travel long distances with relative ease…creating a network of private and public recreational facilities catering to tourists on the road (3). These travelers who were on thier way to festivals such as the Johnson City folk festival of October of 1968 (3) would have been drawn in by a guitar big enough for Paul Bunion to play! It is easy to see Morrells train of thought for his grand guitar when in the late sixties many people were enamored with the open road and musical destinations. Whether consumers liked or disliked what they saw in roadside architecture was the preeminent test of its virtue. The hunt was also on for “authentic” experiences, engagements with people and places uncontrived…(2). This desire for the authentic was a common ground with bluegrass music lovers and certainly the guitar and its creator would have satisfied those who were hunting for authenticity had it been built fifteen years earlier.
Furthering his impact on local music, in 1990 Morrell bought out local radio station WOPI and moved its studios to his grand guitar. His goal was to bring the station back to its bluegrass and old time country roots. (4) Over the years the building has begun to deteriorate as a thing of the past but hopes of restoration are alive in Bristol. While some folks may be growing away from the music others are growing toward it, and it may be that even those for whom it is a native idiom are beginning to awaken to their own traditions (5). The grand guitar still sticks out of the Tennessee landscape as a symbol of the music Bristol and the surrounding areas represent, their heritage and their pride. Now a days at the very least tourists who stop at the welcome center across the highway to take pictures are symbolically informed of exactly what kind of country they are entering- music country!
Author: Chloey Davis
(1) “Man Builds Novel Guitar Museum.” The Nevada Daily Mail, July 13, 1983. Accessed March 20, 2015. https://news.google.com
(D2L internal link, Morrell Museum article final).
(2) Jakle, John A., and Keith A. Sculle. Motoring, The Highway Experience In America. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2008, p.118.
(3) Rosenberg, Neil. Bluegrass a History. Twentieth Anniversary Edition ed. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2005, p.272.
(4) “History of WOPI-AM.” WKPT Radio Network. January 1, 2010. Accessed March 22, 2015. http://www.wopi.com/history.php.
(5) Goldsmith, Thomas, ed. The Bluegrass Reader. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2004, p. 210.
Online museum display:
A picture of Morrell with the guitar is probably the best. I’m not sure what the copyrights are but I included one with the submission of this article.
Also, I located sources online from the archives and discovered that today when I planned to gather the last of my information they were closed so could not include that source. I understand the implications that has towards the review of my article.