BRISTOL, Va. — Visitors to a new exhibit at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum can play albums on a record player or pick up the spoons, a washboard, strum a guitar or try their hand at the banjo or fiddle.
New Harmonies, a Smithsonian exhibit that includes a wide range of American music styles, opened Wednesday and will appear there for the next six months. It includes a mixture of artifacts, photos, audio-visual components, text and graphics, plus some interactive components.
“New Harmonies focuses on a variety of American music styles that we call roots music,” museum Director Jessica Turner said Tuesday. “It includes sacred — not just gospel but native American — blues, country and old time starting with Appalachian mountain music, other immigrant roots music like polka or Tejano music from Texas. And the roots revival protest music and roots music today, so festivals is a component.”
Visitors can listen to a wide range of musical forms, including bluegrass, traditional country, spiritual and zydeco through the interactive exhibits. Or they can actually experience music from behind the instrument.
At one end of the gallery sit a guitar, banjo, fiddle and mandolin that visitors are encouraged to pick up. Push a button and a three-minute introductory lesson about each instrument appears.
“This isn’t a quiet exhibit,” Turner said. “We hope people will sit here and just explore and play and feel comfortable with that.”
The videos, which include museum employees, introduce visitors to the instruments.
“When we were thinking about the videos, we thought, what can you do in three minutes? You can’t teach anyone how to play in three minutes, but what you are teaching is an appreciation and a more visceral, tactile understanding of how that music happens on a fiddle — if they’ve only seen it on a stage. How does it really work? Hopefully, they’ll come away with an appreciation and it’s fun,” said Thomas Richardson, curator of education and outreach.
In another corner of the gallery, visitors can sit on a vinyl sofa and play records by Charlie Pride, Tennessee Ernie Ford or everything from polka music to Maya Angelou.
“There are some listening stations in New Harmonies, but we had the capacity to expand that so the two areas we expanded was hands-on listening and instruments,” Richardson said. “Where we have the audio box with 30-second clips of different types of music, we already have the appropriate music licenses that we can have full LPs for visitors who want to listen to a lot more.”
Admission to the exhibit is included in the cost of a museum ticket, which is $13 for adults, $11 for seniors, students, military and children ages 6-17 and groups of more than 20. Children ages 5 and under are admitted free.