‘The Most Important Event in the History of Country Music’

On August 6, 1927, Ralph Peer left Bristol.  By Monday, August 8, there weren’t many people who even remembered that the Bristol Sessions had happened.  Most of the musicians who had auditioned for him were already back in their everyday lives, scrambling to get by.  Peer returned to New York, Bristol went about its business and everything was as it had been before.

Ninety years later, Bristol proudly hails itself as “the birthplace of country music.”  The State Street area is studded with streets renamed Ralph Peer Street, Carter Family Way and even Stoneman Family Drive.  A lavish mural honors the Bristol Sessions, as do two monuments, and the centerpiece of the neighborhood is the gleaming new Birthplace of Country Music Museum, a Smithsonian affiliate located only a few blocks from the original site of the Sessions.  Books and record collections have been issued to honor the Sessions, and country icon Johnny Cash once called them “the single most important event in the history of country music.”

How did we get from there to here, from then to now?

 

September 16, 1927:  The first records recorded at the Bristol Sessions are released by the Victor Talking Machine Company.  Despite Ralph Peer’s later recollection that he was immediately struck by the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, either this was the wisdom of hindsight or he was unable to convince Victor executives of what he saw in their recordings.  Six acts were included in the first releases, and neither Rodgers nor the Carter Family was represented.

The releases were: Ernest Phipps and His Holiness Quartet, “Don’t You Grieve After Me”/”I Want to Go Where Jesus Is”; the Blue Ridge Corn Shuckers, “Old Time Corn Shuckin’”; Blind Alfred Reed, “Walking in the Way of Jesus”/”The Wreck of the Virginian”; Alfred G. Karnes, “I Am Bound for the Promised Land”/”Where We’ll Never Grow Old”; Ernest V. Stoneman & His Dixie Mountaineers, “Are You Washed in the Blood”/”Sweeping Through the Gates”; and B.F. Shelton, “Pretty Polly”/”Darling Cora.”

Upon the release of these first records, The Bristol Herald Courier made the first subsequent public acknowledgement of the Sessions, observing: “More than fifty mountain singers and entertainers were brought to Bristol in July and August by the Victor company for the making of phonograph records.  The recording was made by the microphone method and was in charge of Ralph S. Peer.  Those who heard the actual recording and the new records that are out say that the reproduction is actually better than the original rendition.”

 

06soldiersOctober 7, 1927:  Six more records from the Sessions are released, including Jimmie Rodgers’ “Sleep, Baby, Sleep”/”Soldier’s Sweetheart.” Appropriately, the Tenneva Ramblers’ “The Longest Train I Ever Saw”/”Sweet Heaven When I Die” is among the other releases—the last time that Rodgers and his erstwhile partners would be regarded as on an equal footing.

 

06wanderingNovember 4, 1927:  Five more records from Bristol are released, including the first release for the Carter Family, “The Poor Orphan Child”/”The Wandering Boy.”

 

November 30, 1927:  Jimmie Rodgers has his second Victor recording session, in Camden, N.J.  This session is not Ralph Peer’s idea, but Rodgers’: In mid-November, frustrated at not hearing any more from Victor, Rodgers travels to New York, checks into a posh hotel and tells them to send the bill to the Victor Talking Machine Company.  He then calls Peer and tells him that he happens to be in New York and might have time to do a little recording.  Amused by Rodgers’ blatant hustling, Peer checks the sales figures on his first record and finds them promising enough to justify a second session.

That session is intensely frustrating to him—Rodgers is grossly unprepared, with unfinished, under-rehearsed songs that aren’t ready for the studio.  Nonetheless, two additional records are recorded, and one of them, “Blue Yodel (T for Texas)”/”Away Out on the Mountain,” becomes a sensation and launches Rodgers to stardom.

 

December 2, 1927:  The Carters’ “The Storms Are on the Ocean”/”Single Girl, Married Girl” is released, along with another record from Alfred G. Karnes.

 

January 20, 1928:  The Carters’ “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow”/”Little Log Cabin by the Sea” are released.

 

May 9-10, 1928:  The Carter Family journeys to Camden for its second recording session.  Peer, who has been pleased with the sales of “The Storms Are on the Ocean”/”Single Girl, Married Girl,” is impressed anew by the Carters’ professionalism and their immaculate preparation.  In a day and a half, they knock out 12 songs—enough for a modern album.  Among the songs they record are “Keep on the Sunny Side,” “Anchored in Love” and “Wildwood Flower,” and their career takes off.

 

Autumn 1928: Peer gives his first interview in which he talks about the Bristol Sessions.  His comments are broadly misleading, as he emphasizes the alleged rusticity of Bristol and the musicians he met there.  His purpose is to represent the music from those sessions as authentic and unspoiled—and, incidentally, to present himself and Victor as champions of the common man.  Jimmie Rodgers probably doesn’t see this interview, which is a good thing: Peer says that, prior to the Bristol Sessions, Rodgers was “running around in the mountains” and that, when he auditioned, “he was laughed at.”

Peer will make similar comments in the next few years, speaking of barefoot musicians who signed their contracts with an X, and claiming that the Carter Family came to their recording session by going up the back fire escape because they were ashamed of their old, plain clothing.  In later years Maybelle Carter recalled that she and her in-laws were there in their Sunday best; if they did in fact come up the back way, it was probably to avoid the crowd of wannabe musicians gathered outside the Taylor-Christian Hat Company building.

 

October 27-November 4, 1928:  Peer returns to Bristol for another round of sessions, to see whether lightning will strike twice.  In town for only nine days, rather than the 12 recording days he had in 1927, he works on Saturdays and even on Sundays.

Many familiar faces are back for Round 2.  The Carters and Jimmie Rodgers are, by now, way too big to be part of a cattle-call session, but returnees include Alfred G. Karnes, Ernest Phipps and His Holiness Singers and the Stoneman Family (including Uncle Eck Dunford).

Presumably at Peer’s insistence, Karnes records several non-religious songs, Victorian parlor ballads of sentimental philosophy.  He seems less inspired by secular material, and four of the seven songs he records are never issued.

Inspired, probably, by the success of the Carter Family, Ernest V. Stoneman returns not as a solo artist with family members backing him, but as the lead singer of a family act.  The lineup is basically the same, however, and Stoneman’s career was on the wane.  None of his recordings become hits; he would have only one more recording session before the end of World War II.

(Stoneman did, however, invent the modern-day laugh track on “Going Up the Mountain After Liquor,” a two-part comic monologue by Uncle Eck in which Stoneman serves as occasional interlocutor and constant audience prompt, chuckling dutifully after each of Uncle Eck’s rustic witticisms.)

Ernest Phipps came back to Bristol with not just his Holiness Quartet, but with a large group of Holiness Singers—at least 10 people, including Alfred G. Karnes sitting in.  The recordings Phipps produced at the 1928 Sessions are landmarks of Holiness singing, and are the class of the second Sessions, especially “If the Light Has Gone Out in Your Soul” and “A Little Talk with Jesus.”

 

May 26, 1933:  Jimmie Rodgers dies at 35, collapsing on a New York City sidewalk after interrupting a recording session for a visit to Coney Island.  At the time of his death, he is personally responsible for 10% of RCA’s total sales.

 

October 14, 1941:  The original Carter Family has its last recording session, at the Victor studios in New York.  With typical efficiency, they rip through 13 songs in just over three hours.

 

 

06taylor

Old Bristol: The Taylor-Christian Hat Company is at left center.

1945: The Taylor Christian Hat Company building is severely damaged by a fire, and ultimately has to be torn down.

 

 

06smith1952:  Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, a six-LP series released by Folkways Records and drawn from Smith’s personal collection of old records, kicks off the folk revival.  In 2003, in its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, Rolling Stone magazine ranked it as No. 276.

Among the songs in Smith’s hugely influential collection were six Bristol recordings: Uncle Eck Dunford’s “Old Shoes and Leggins” (1928), Ernest Phipps & His Holiness Singers’ “Shine on Me” (1928), Ernest V. Stoneman and Hattie Stoneman’s “Mountaineer’s Courtship” (1927), the Stoneman Family’s “The Spanish Merchant’s Daughter” (1928), the Carter Family’s “Single Girl/Married Girl” (1927) and J.P. Nester’s “Train on the Island” (1927).

 

May 16, 1953:  Peer writes an article, “Discovery of the First Hillbilly Great,” for Billboard.  This article, while filled with errors (Peer spent very little time with Rodgers or, indeed, any of the acts at Bristol except in the studio, and didn’t get to know them until later), is free of the cornpone hype of his 1920s interviews and represents the first major step toward recognition of the Bristol Sessions as a turning point in the history of country music.

 

January and May, 1958:  Peer conducts a two-part, 14-hour interview with researcher Lillian Borgeson, in which he discusses the Bristol Sessions and the early years of country music in some detail.  Though unpublished, it is preserved in the records of the John Edwards Memorial Foundation, which from 1962 to 1983 was devoted to unearthing and preserving the history of American folk music.  Its archives are currently at the University of North Carolina/Chapel Hill, in the library’s Southern Folklife Collection.

 

1958:  The Country Music Association is founded.  It is the first trade association designed specifically to promote a particular genre of music, and reflects the increasing awareness of country as a substantial genre with its own qualities, history and interests.

 

06rodgers1961:  Under the auspices of the Country Music Association, the Country Music Hall of Fame is established.  Jimmie Rodgers heads its first class of inductees (alongside Hank Williams and songwriter/publisher Fred Rose).  His plaque hails him as “the man who started it all” and adds: “Though small in stature, he was a giant among men, starting a trend in the musical taste of millions.”

 

May 24, 1962:  In an unpublished interview with Mike Seeger, Ernest V. “Pop” Stoneman records his recollections of the Bristol Sessions.

 

1964:  The Country Music Foundation is chartered as a nonprofit foundation by the State of Tennessee.  Its mission statement: “The Country Music Foundation, Inc. (CMF) is dedicated to preserving and teaching the evolving history of country music—from its early, traditional roots to its present-day manifestations as a community-based music and a thriving form of popular culture.”

 

malone pb.indd1968:  In Country Music USA: A Fifty-Year History (University of Texas Press, 1968), the first major scholarly book about country music, Bill C. Malone describes the Bristol Sessions as “one of country music’s most seminal events.”

 

06carters1970: The Carter Family is elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame.  Their plaque says: “They are regarded by many as the epitome of country greatness and originators of a much-copied style.”  Or, rather, it almost does.  Typical of the disrespect accorded by the Hall to the Carters, who had to wait almost a decade for their induction, there is a typo in the plaque, which actually reads “much copied-style.”

 

06monumentAugust 16, 1971:  A monument to the Bristol Sessions is unveiled in Bristol, standing at the former site of the Taylor Christian Hat Company.

 

Summer 1972:  Scholar Charles K. Wolfe, the greatest individual authority on the Bristol Sessions, publishes the ground-breaking “Ralph Peer at Work: The Victor 1927 Bristol Sessions” in the journal Old Time Music (Issue 5, Summer 1972).

 

Summer 1973:  Wolfe expands on his earlier essay in “The Discovery of Jimmie Rodgers: A Further Note” (Old Time Music, Issue 9, Summer 1973).

 

June 1, 1975:  Graduate student Glenn Sellers interviews Claude Grant, last surviving member of the Tenneva Ramblers.  His recollections of the Bristol Sessions (and, in particular, the eleventh-hour breakup of the Jimmie Rodgers Entertainers) are obviously subjective, but generally consistent with verifiable facts.

 

06jrstampMay 24, 1978: A United States Postal Service series of stamps honoring the performing arts is launched with one honoring Jimmie Rodgers.  The series runs through 1991, with the subsequent honorees being George M. Cohan; Will Rogers; W.C. Fields; John, Ethel and Lionel Barrymore; Douglas Fairbanks; John McCormack; Jerome Kern; Duke Ellington; and Enrico Caruso.

 

06porterfield1979:  Nolan Porterfield’s definitive Jimmie Rodgers: The Life and Times of America’s Blue Yodeler (University of Illinois Press, 1979) is published, with a remarkable array of detail and documentation.  It unavoidably distorts the Sessions by viewing them through the lens of Rodgers’ future stardom, which produces a skewing effect, but on the whole is magnificent.

 

06peer1984:  Ralph Peer is inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.  His plaque highlights the Bristol Sessions, evidence that, by 1984, the Sessions were widely seen as uniquely important.

 

1986: Tim White’s mural, “Birthplace of Country Music,” is unveiled in Bristol.  Depicting Peer, Rodgers, the Carter Family and Ernest V. Stoneman, it remains a Bristol landmark.

 

06cmf1987:  Country Music Foundation Records releases The Bristol Sessions, a two-LP set which, for the first time, includes all of the surviving music from the Sessions.  It is released on CD in 1991, and remains a useful reference.

 

1988:  Historian Nolan Porterfield writes, “’Bristol, August 1927’ has come to signal the Big Bang of country-music evolution, the genesis of every shape and species of Pickin’ & Singin’ down through the years.”  The phrase caught on, and today “the Big Bang of country music” is a common catch phrase to describe the Sessions and their significance.

 

06cstamp1993: A series of four U.S. Postal Service stamps includes one that honors the Carter Family, alongside Hank Williams, Patsy Cline and Bob Wills.

 

April 7, 1994:  Bristol citizens incorporate the Birthplace of Country Music, a local booster group designed to promote Bristol through emphasis on its musical heritage and the legacy of the Bristol Sessions.  It becomes a recognized nonprofit organization in 1996.

 

1998:  The United States Congress passes, with bipartisan support, a bill recognizing Bristol as “the birthplace of country music.”

 

2001: The Bristol Rhythm & Roots Festival is launched.  It continues to take place for three days each year, in the third weekend in September, focusing on classic country and old-time folk music as interpreted by new generations of artists.

 

2002:  The Library of Congress identifies what it considers the 50 most significant sound-recording events of all time.  The Bristol Sessions are on that list, alongside such events as Thomas Edison’s first public exhibition of the phonograph in 1888-1889, George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (1924) with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “fireside chats” (1933-1934) and Orson Welles’ The War of the Worlds (1938) with the Mercury Theater of the Air.

 

06book2005:  The Bristol Sessions: Writings about the Big Bang of Country Music (McFarland, 2005), is published, edited by Charles K. Wolfe and Ted Olson.

06stoneman

2008:  Ernest V. Stoneman is elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame.

 

July 2009:  A Tennessee State Historical Marker on the site of the Bristol Sessions is dedicated. Among the attendees is Georgia Warren, last surviving veteran of the Sessions: She was 11 when, on August 5, 1927, she sang for Peer as a member of the Tennessee Mountaineers.

06marker

06bear2011: Bear Family Records releases its definitive collection, The Bristol Sessions: 1927-1928.  Beyond presenting all surviving recordings from the Sessions of 1927, including alternate takes, it does the same for the Sessions of 1928.  Its hardcover liner notes, compiled by Ted Olson and Tony Russell, include some unfortunate errors (especially in the transcription of Peer’s session logs), but is the best overall summary of the Sessions.

 

06museumAugust 2, 2014: The Birthplace of Country Music Museum opens in Bristol.  I’ve been there twice, and look forward to the next time.  Its standing collection is particularly strong in placing the Sessions in the context of 1927 Bristol, and its rotating exhibitions are diverse and fascinating.

 

06joy2015: Sony Records releases Orthophonic Joy: The Bristol Sessions Revisited, a special benefit for the museum that includes covers of classic songs from the Bristol Sessions by such artists as the Chuck Wagon Gang, Sheryl Crow, Vince Gill, Emmylou Harris, Steve Martin, Jesse McReynolds, Keb’ Mo’, Brad Paisley and Dolly Parton.  The title is derived from a Victor promotional slogan of the 1920s.

 

 

Footnote:  As we wrap up our anniversary celebration today, I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge the contributions of webmaster/graphic designer/copy editor Sara Holliday, without whom this website/Facebook series would have been literally impossible.  She knows more about country music now than she ever expected (or wanted) to know, and I appreciate beyond words her willingness to place her gifts at the service of the Tennessee Walt project.

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