Today “the Bristol Sessions” is a portmanteau phrase in its own right, so much a given to country-music aficionados that it hardly seems necessary to ask questions such as “why were there sessions in Bristol?” or, more relevant to this discussion, “Why were the sessions in Bristol?”
They didn’t have to be. In the 1910s and early 1920s, most recording sessions were held in big cities such as Chicago, Detroit and, pre-eminently, New York. They had to be, because recording equipment wasn’t portable in any meaningful sense. If a singer from Virginia or Mississippi aspired to make records, he would make his way to a regional center such as Atlanta or New Orleans—or, if he was serious about this thing, he’d head for New York. Muhammad would go to the mountain.
By the late 1920s the technology had improved enough to allow recording equipment to be transported by train or by road. A special room still had to be outfitted as a recording studio, with sound-dampening curtains, bulky, temperamental microphones and touchy engineers—the slightest unnecessary sound could ruin a take, necessitating a new start from scratch—but that room didn’t have to be in New York.
Ralph Peer was one of the earliest record-industry professionals to see the potential in this technological advance. At least in theory, it opened the world of recorded music to people who didn’t live in or around a major metropolis. The mountain could, it turned out, be brought to Muhammad.
Still, it was no slam dunk that Peer’s travels as, essentially, a contract producer/recording engineer first for Okeh Records and then for the Victor Talking Machine Company would bring him to Bristol. It was a small city—the whole “Tri-Cities” region, which included Bristol, Kingsport and Johnson City, housed only a combined 32,000 people in the 1920s. Peer’s earlier trips in 1927 featured sessions in Atlanta, Memphis and New Orleans, and after Bristol he went on to Charlotte and Savannah. Any of these cities dwarfed Bristol in size, population, wealth and cultural significance. What was Peer doing in Bristol?
Driving southwest on Route I-81, down through the Shenandoah Valley, the road slopes uphill as you come into Bristol. The Appalachian Mountains rise to the north, the Smokies to the south and west, but Bristol is located in the foothills, neither flatland nor mountain. It’s an in-between place, close enough to the mountains where many of the musicians whom Peer coveted lived that they could get to Bristol, but low enough and accessible enough that Peer himself could get there. It wasn’t New York or even Atlanta, but it also wasn’t Mace’s Spring, Va.; it was between them, close enough for a connection.
Betweenness comes naturally to Bristol, which is legally two towns: Bristol, Tennessee, and Bristol, Virginia, united by a main street that runs down the middle of town and is called State Street—though more accurately it should be called States Street, because the north side of the street is in Virginia and the south side is in Tennessee. If you’re trying to attract musicians from Virginia and musicians from Tennessee alike, where better to set up shop?
There’s more to that betweenness than meets the eye, though. Every photo of Bristol seems to feature the big sign on State Street proclaiming it “VA – TENN: A GOOD PLACE TO LIVE,” but there’s more to Bristol than two states. The border between Virginia and West Virginia is only 50 miles to the northwest; the border between Tennessee and North Carolina is only 48 miles to the southeast; the border between Virginia and Kentucky is a paltry 30 miles to the northwest.
In an age in which state borders still meant something, and many people lived and died without ever crossing one, Bristol was in two states and practically next door to three more. All of those states were rich in the traditional music that Ralph Peer was looking for, and Bristol stood at the nexus of a web of highways and railroads which, in the pre-air-travel, pre-interstate age, made it more accessible to more people than many bigger cities were.
It was also an economically diverse area. Bristol itself was a bustling, business-friendly city which had leveraged its location to make its fortune in interstate commerce. The Virginia and West Virginia mountains only a few miles away were desperately poor, straitened rural communities, but just over the North Carolina border was a string of posh resorts, and East Tennessee was thriving, with bustling Knoxville only 100 miles to the west. Bristol was the kind of place where up-and-coming business titans rubbed elbows with mountain men who owned only one suit of clothes—and where an up-and-coming music executive could get together with mountain people whose only luxuries were a fiddle or a banjo.
Peer’s choice of location was a brilliant one, characteristic of a born businessman who never hesitated to challenge conventional orthodoxy. The Carter Family and Ernest V. “Pops” Stoneman came from Virginia. Blind Alfred Reed came from West Virginia. Alfred G. Karnes and B.F. Shelton drove down from Kentucky, while Jimmie Rodgers and the Tenneva Ramblers came over from North Carolina, where they had been gigging in the elegant resorts that catered to the Southern aristocracy. (Other than Rodgers, as it happened, the other three Ramblers were all from Bristol.)
Given the music legacy of Memphis or New Orleans, it may seem remarkable that Ralph Peer came away from sessions in those cities essentially empty-handed, only to strike gold—and his own, secondhand stake in immortality—in tiny, unheralded Bristol. It probably didn’t surprise Peer, though. Peer was from Missouri and worked out of New York, but he wasn’t in Bristol by accident. He could read a map and, while he couldn’t read music, he knew how to find the music he was looking for.
When he got to Bristol on July 22, 1927, he knew where he was.