2017 is country music’s 90th anniversary, counting from the Bristol Sessions, aka “The Big Bang of Country Music,” which took place in Bristol, Tennessee, between July 25 and August 5, 1927.
To mark the anniversary, TennesseeWalt.com and Facebook.com/TennesseeWalt threw a marathon celebration of the Sessions, with 15 straight days’ worth of Facebook posts providing a day-to-day, blow-by-blow account of the goings-on at the Taylor-Christian Hat Company building, while 13 straight days’ worth of blog posts provided in-depth looks at the music, the musicians and the ideas that made the Bristol Sessions, in Johnny Cash’s words, “the single most important event in the history of country music.”
For the benefit of those who might have missed it, here’s the whole 28-piece extravaganza in one easy-to-use package. Dig in, and see if you don’t come out at the other end ready to listen to some classic country!
July 23: 90 Years Ago Today in Bristol …
Ralph Peer, who had arrived in Bristol late in the day on July 22 and settled into the hotel (probably the Bristol Hotel, but it isn’t definitively known) where he would live for the next two weeks, visited the offices of two local newspapers and placed advertisements announcing his presence as a representative of the Victor Talking Machine Company and inviting local musicians to come in and audition.
How many solo and group acts turned up is not known; 19 different acts passed the audition and recorded in Peer’s makeshift studio set up in the Taylor-Christian Hat Company building, but anyone who’s ever conducted public auditions (as I have many, many times) knows that not everybody who shows up at an audition has any business being there.
Peer was looking for a wide range of music, but it seems fair to guess that there was at least one reject for each successful audition – the caliber of musicians represented in the final recordings suggests that a gleaning process had gone on.
His auditions were conducted mainly on the weekend of July 30-31, when he wasn’t recording (the first four days of sessions were made up largely of musicians whom Peer had scheduled prior to his arrival in Bristol, whereas the August 1-5 sessions consisted mainly of walk-ins), and on the morning of August 1. The auditions were brief: Peer didn’t waste time with musicians who weren’t up to snuff – he was in town to record, not to make friends.
Other than the weekend, Peer was in the studio every day by 9 and, except for a 90-minute break for lunch worked until 5:00 or 5:30 – for the first few days. Starting on July 28, as new acts started turning up, Peer often extended his sessions into the evening, sometimes without a dinner break: The July 28 session ended at 6:40 p.m., The August 1 session ran until 9:30 p.m., perhaps making up for a morning of auditions, the Aug. 3 sessions to 8:30 p.m. and the marathon August 4 sessions to 11 p.m.
Music is an art, but for Peer it was also a business, and he was in Bristol to work.
July 24: 90 Years Ago in Bristol …
July 24 was a Sunday, which in Tennessee (or, if you crossed the street, in Virginia) in 1927 meant that it wasn’t a work day.
With recording scheduled to begin at 8:30 the following morning, Peer spent the afternoon reviewing arrangements at the makeshift studio that had been set up in an empty office in the Taylor-Christian Hat Company building at 408 State Street. Recording technology had improved through the 1920s to the point that it was portable, but it was still cumbersome, delicate and temperamental. Peer had a limited time in Bristol, and wanted to avoid delays due to technical problems as much as possible.
Peer didn’t handle the technical work himself, though. As he did for all his sessions that year, he had brought with him two recording engineers from the Victor Talking Machine Company, men named Edward Eckhardt and Fred Lynch. Peer’s wife, Anita, also was along on the trip as an all-purpose aide to her husband; she attended to some of the paperwork, made sure that refreshments were available and, if the artists had brought family members (as had the Carter family: Sara and A.P.’s son Joe was still nursing, and their 8-year-old daughter Gladys also came along as a babysitter), she made sure that they were comfortable … and well out of the way of the recording process, which was tricky enough without crying babies in the background.
By the end of the day, Peer, Eckhardt and Lynch had everything in ship shape: Sound-absorbent drapes hung, log books organized and ready for entries, microphones tested and optimally positioned, recording equipment set up as far away from the microphone as the midsized room allowed – since the equipment wasn’t silent, and there was always a risk of it picking up its own sounds. All was done with calm efficiency: This was their fourth such session in 1927, after previous stops in Atlanta, Memphis and New Orleans, and by this time everyone knew what he or she had to do.
They were ready to start the Bristol Sessions.
July 25: 90 Years Ago Today in Bristol
At 8:30 a.m. on Monday, July 25, Ernest V. Stoneman – better known at “Pops” Stoneman, patriarch of the musical Stoneman Family – picked up his guitar and stepped up to the microphone in Peer’s makeshift studio in the Taylor-Christian Hat Company building.
He launched into “The Dying Girl’s Farewell,” a typically sentimental parlor ballad dating from 1902, and the Bristol Sessions were officially underway.
Stoneman was a natural to open the sessions, because he was the biggest star there, an established recording artist with a track record in exactly the kind of music that Peer was looking for. Suffice it to say that, while all the other artists at Bristol received an up-front payment of $50 per side (of a record, which in most cases meant per song), Stoneman received $100 per side. He also was the only attendee at the Sessions, other than Peer, the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, eventually inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
He arrived in Bristol with an entourage of at least 11 people, most of them musicians. Stoneman and his family and friends accounted not only for the recordings credited to Stoneman, but also to those credited to the Dixie Mountaineers, Uncle Eck Dunford and the Blue Ridge Corn Shuckers, representing nearly everything recorded on the first and third days of the Sessions.
Why were they all in Bristol? Well, check out today’s blog post for everything you could want to know about the city that was about to become the Birthplace of Country Music.
July 26: 90 Years Ago Today in Bristol …
On Tuesday, June 26, while Ernest Stoneman and his friends and family caught their breath, Ralph Peer spent the whole day on a single act, recording six songs by Ernest Phipps & His Holiness Quartet.
Phipps, who came to Bristol from Corbin, Kentucky, was a singing preacher and an exponent of Holiness singing, a high-energy, dynamic school of gospel associated with the Pentacostal church. Some critics have seen in its driving, up-tempo beat a predecessor to rock ‘n’ roll.
No better way to understand Holiness singing than to hear a sample, though, so check out Phipps & Co. tearing the cover off the Holiness classic “Do, Lord, Remember Me,” recorded 90 years ago today in Bristol.
Peer didn’t note down the other performers in his 1927 session notes, but the quartet was back–and was awarded the honor of kicking off the sessions – for the Bristol Sessions of 1928, and at that time Phipps was the lead singer, A.G. Baker was the second singer, Roland Johnson was on fiddle and Ancil McVay was on guitar. Chances are, that was the 1927 lineup as well.
The two Bristol Sessions were Phipps’ only venture into recording. He returned to Corbin, where he remained a preacher (and singer) until his death in 1963.
One song not enough? Here’s Phipps and his quartet on “I Want to Go Where Jesus Is.”
Who was Ernest “Pop” Stoneman and why did Ralph Peer think he was worth twice what any other musician got for recording at Bristol? Check today’s blog post for the answer.
July 27: 90 Years Ago Today in Bristol …
On Wednesday, July 27, as Ernest Phipps & His Holiness Quartet headed home to Corbin, Kentucky, Ernest Stoneman returned for a second day in the Peer studio at 408 State Street.
July 25 had been mainly about Stoneman himself, but on July 27, while Stoneman did plenty of singing (and talking), the focus was on some of the people he’d brought with him – most notably his cousin-in-law, fiddler/comedian Uncle Eck Dunford.
Alex Dunford (1875-1953) was an eccentric man with great gifts as an entertainer. Born in Ballard Branch, Virginia, he worked variously as a truck farmer, a photographer and a cobbler, but took great pleasure in his music and comedy.
Peer wasn’t impressed by most of the other people that Stoneman brought with him to Bristol, but Dunford intrigued him. In Bristol he focused mainly on Uncle Eck’s music, recording six sides that included two solos, a duet with Stoneman, a duet with Hattie Stoneman and a shticky music/talk combination called “Old-Time Corn-Shuckin'” that extended to two sides. In October 1927, however, Peer brought Dunford to Atlanta to record four two-side comic monologues showcasing Uncle Eck’s strange, one-of-a-kind accent. Dunford also returned to Bristol in 1928 with the Stonemans, and recorded two more solos as well as assorted ensemble pieces.
Despite Peer’s interest, though, Dunford’s records didn’t catch on. He would record occasionally for the rest of his life, with “Old Shoes and Leggins” (1928) his biggest hit, but would never become a star.
Hear Dunford singing “The Whip-poor-will’s Song” (with silly bird imitations by Hattie Stoneman). Want to hear that bizarre accent? Try this.
There was someone else in the studio on the morning of July 27, though, besides Dunford, the Stonemans and Peer’s team. Wonder who it was? Find the answer here.
July 28: 90 Years Ago Today in Bristol …
Ralph Peer spent the morning recording the Johnson Brothers, with whom he had previously worked a session in Camden, New Jersey, the preceding May. Paul Johnson sang and played the steel guitar, with Charles Johnson on guitar and El Watson backing on harmonica or bones.
Little is known about the brothers – the assumption that they were from eastern Tennessee is due mainly because one of their Bristol numbers was “Two Brothers Are We (from East Tennessee).” However, another of their Bristol songs, “Just a Message from Carolina,” suggests that they’re from North or South Carolina, while “The Jealous Sweetheart” strongly suggests that Paul Johnson was a murderer. Neither of which is, probably, true.
The Johnsons recorded three songs and then broke at noon, and were replaced by Blind Alfred Reed, who worked form 1:30 to 4:00 and recorded four songs, most notably “The Wreck of the Virginian.” The brothers returned at 4 and, in an hour and a half, laid down three songs.
Charles Johnson then stuck around to back Watson on two harmonica solos, “Pot Licker Blues” and “Narrow Gauge Blues,” the latter of which features an impressive train imitation. (See today’s blog for more on Watson and the African-American presence at the Sessions.)
Blind Alfred Reed, a singer/songwriter/fiddler, was 47 years old when he arrived at the Sessions. He has the unique distinction of being the only artist at the Sessions to have supported himself (not to mention his wife and six children) as a professional musician: He was a well-known figure in Princeton, West Virginia, busking in the streets, hiring out for dances and social occasions and offering music lessons as well.
Despite being blind, apparently from birth, he was a snappy dresser. He also was a gifted songwriter whose repertoire of what later would be dubbed protest songs has earned him considerable posthumous acclaim, and induction into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame. He died in 1956.
I’m late posting today because I was performing “Bristol & Beyond: The Birth of Country Music” for a large and appreciative audience in Elmont. They were particularly engaged when I told them that I was singing Reed’s “The Wreck of the Virginian” 90 years after he recorded it, almost to the minute.
So what better way to mark the date than to listen to Reed’s own version, recorded 90 years ago today?
July 29: 90 Years Ago Today in Bristol …
The Bristol Sessions of Friday, July 29, focused on two musicians from Corbin, Kentucky: B.F. Shelton in the morning and Alfred G. Karnes in the afternoon. The two men were friends, and presumably had driven down to Bristol together; they had been in town for at least three days, because Karnes’ distinctive harp guitar can be heard on recordings by Ernest Phipps & His Holiness Quartet on July 26.
Little is known about Benjamin Frank Shelton (1901-1963), whose full name was probably Benjamin Franklin Shelton. He was a barber, and apparently met Karnes when some excesses landed him in the county jail, where Karnes frequently visited to preach.
Shelton would also record at Columbia’s Johnson City Sessions in 1928 (an attempt, largely unsuccessful, by Columbia to duplicate Peer’s success at Bristol the previous year), but would never record again. Nonetheless, Ralph Peer apparently liked him: He recorded two of Shelton’s songs on 12-inch disks, a format allowing for 4 1/2 minutes of music per side (as opposed to the 3 1/2 that was usual) and usually reserved for classical music.
Shelton’s taste in music was macabre. His four songs include the murder ballad “Pretty Polly” and “Darling Cora,” a strange song about a woman apparently killed in a shootout with revenue agents. “Cold Penitentiary Blues” speaks for itself, and “Oh Molly Dear” is an even stranger song, a lament which takes a bizarre twist at the end: “She’s lying on her bed of rest/and in one hand she holds a dagger/to kill the man that I love best.”
Here’s Shelton singing “Darling Cora.”
All of Karnes’ six sides at Bristol were on religious subjects, and that’s not too surprising: At the time he was a Baptist minister leading four separate congregations in Kentucky, and didn’t have time for anything except religion. (He had graduated from seminary as a Methodist minister, but shortly thereafter participated in a debate with a Baptist minister over which sect was more truly Christian; apparently Karnes wasn’t much of a debater, because after the debate he himself converted to become a Baptist.)
Karnes was a skilled fiddler and banjo player, but at Bristol he accompanied himself on the harp guitar, a rarely heard instrument (vaguely resembling Junior Brown’s guit-steel) which was basically a guitar with an extra set of strings that allowed the player to accompany himself. It was cumbersome and difficult to play, so it was rarely heard, but Karnes (a naturally gifted musician who made many of the instruments he played, though not the harp guitar, which was a Gibson) apparently took to it readily.
He and Shelton were natural friends because before his call to the ministry (and occasionally afterward) Karnes too worked as a barber.
His Bristol recordings apparently sold well, because Peer brought him back to Bristol for his 1928 sessions there, but that was Karnes’ last recording.
Here’s Karnes singing the classic “I’m Bound for the Promised Land” (the words date from 1787 and the tune from 1835). His was the first recording, but not the last: It’s been covered by everyone from Hank Williams and Johnny Cash to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, but Karnes’ deft syncopation makes his version still the best. Check out that harp guitar, as Karnes sings and accompanies himself on two instruments at once.
Wondering how the money worked at the Bristol Sessions? who paid it, who got it and how much was involved? Check today’s blog post.
July 30: 90 Years Ago Today in Bristol …
July 30, 1927, was a Saturday, and Ralph Peer duly shut down his recording studio for the weekend.
Instead he spent the day auditioning acts which had shown up in town after the widely disseminated front-page story in the Bristol News Bulletin of July 27. He hadn’t had time to hear new acts in the intervening two days, being tied up in the studio, but the newspaper story had made a huge difference. As Peer told Billboard in 1953, “the very next day I was deluged with long-distance telephone calls from the surrounding mountain region. Groups of singers who had not visited Bristol during their entire lifetime arrived by bus, horse and buggy, trains or on foot.”
Peer’s response to those calls, and Anita Peer’s response to those who showed up at the Taylor-Christian Hat Company building on July 28 or July 29, was “Come in on Saturday.” (For those unable to do so, he said “Come in on Monday morning.”)
We have no way of knowing how many acts showed up to these auditions – looking back in later years, Peer understandably focused on those who had made the grade (especially Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family) and not on those whom he’d sent away empty-handed.
It’s fair to guess, though, that for every act he accepted, there was at least one that he turned away. As anyone who’s ever conducted auditions knows, performing artists are not the best judges of their own talent, and there’s a Florence Foster Jenkins for every Jenny Lind. Usually several Florence Foster Jenkinses.
It’s fair to guess that engineers Edward Eckhardt and Fred Lynch took advantage of the opportunity to inspect and repair their equipment after a long week of recording.
There would be more to come. While they did not know it, of course, the second half of the Bristol Sessions would be the week that changed country music forever.
How did the Bristol Sessions change country music? Part of it is summed up in the phrase “straight from the heart,” which would become a country mantra. Get the inside scoop here.
July 31: 90 Years Ago Today in Bristol …
July 31, 1927, was a Sunday, and on the seventh day Ralph Peer rested. Tennessee’s blue laws were still in force, but the social pressure not to work on the sabbath was the more powerful deterrent.
Most of the musicians in town for the Bristol Sessions probably made their way to churches, of which Bristol had plenty. Ralph and Anita Peer probably didn’t; we know little about his religious background, but there’s nothing in his published writings or the record of his activities to suggest that he was actively religious.
Jimmie Rodgers almost certainly didn’t go to church. He was still in North Carolina, trying to convince his fellow band members that a trip to Bristol would be good for them. Besides, Sunday afternoon was a big day at the North Fork Mountain Resort, and his Jimmie Rodgers Entertainers (as his partners reluctantly allowed the band to be called) had a busy afternoon scheduled.
July 31 isn’t a Sunday in 2017; if you’d like to hear four religious songs (or, rather, four versions of the same religious song), check out today’s post on TennesseeWalt.com.
August 1: 90 Years Ago Today in Bristol …
As of 9 a.m. on Monday, August 1, 1927, the Bristol Sessions had basically been a washout. Ralph Peer had heard a lot of music, some of it excellent, but – while he wasn’t sure what he was listening for – he did know he hadn’t heard it.
(The day before he’d talked to a pushy young man named Jimmie Rodgers, but he’d talked to a lot of pushy young men that week, and Rodgers had gone away without singing – though he promised that he’d be back next week with his band.)
Then things changed. Peer spent Monday morning auditioning acts which had come into Bristol over the weekend, most of them in response to the front-page story in The Bristol News Bulletin. Some of them were good, some of them were bad, none of them were what he was listening for … until, sometime that morning, a vocal trio called the Carter Family came in.
The Carters had had a long drive from Mace’s Spring, Virginia, over rutted country roads. A.P. had had to change several flat tires, forcing a skeptical Sara and a seven-months-pregnant Maybelle to get out and stand around in the hot sun of a Virginia summer. They’d gotten into Bristol, where they were staying with A.P.’s sister, Virgie, and her husband, Roy Hobbs (Not the famous-but-fictitious ballplayer of the same name). A.P. wanted to rehearse, but Sara and Maybelle made it clear that this wasn’t going to happen: They were tired and they were going to eat and go to bed.
They were ready to go the next morning, though, and it didn’t take Peer long to realize that this was what he’d been waiting for. He immediately invited the Carters to come in that afternoon for a recording session – and, when Anita Peer reminded him that his afternoon schedule was already jammed, Peer invited the Carters in for an impromptu evening session.
Peer spent the afternoon recording J.P. Nestor and Norman Edmonds, a banjo-and-fiddle duo from Carroll Country, Virginia, and the Bull Mountain Mountaineers, a square-dance band from Wise, Virginia, who had come up with their name during the ride over to Bristol. Nestor and Edmonds, in particular, were skilled musicians, but Peer was probably listening with one ear and, with the other, hearing the Carter Family.
(What had he heard that morning? See this post for some ideas.)
The Carters returned at 6:30 and launched into “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow,” and country music as we know it came into existence. The Carters recorded three more songs in less than three hours – “Little Log Cabin by the Sea,” “The Poor Orphan Child” and “The Storms Are on the Ocean” – and, by the time they were done, Peer had only one question: Could they come back the next morning and do some more?
August 2: 90 Years Ago Today in Bristol …
Ralph Peer’s day peaked early, as the Carter Family opened its 9:00 session in style with the classic “Single Girl, Married Girl,” the best single recording from the Bristol Sessions. They went on to record “The Wandering Boy,” the last of their six Bristol recordings.
(Check out “Single Girl, Married Girl” here: Sara’s focused vocal and Maybelle’s deft guitar get better each time I hear it.)
Sara and Maybelle were alone in the studio that morning. Where A.P. was is unclear; he had family in the area, but he’d been so invested in the idea of recording that it seems unlikely that he’s simply sit out 1/3 of the group’s records.
However, A.P. was an eccentric man who, as Sara and Maybelle recorded in later years, dropped in and out of recording sessions as he saw fit. Even during a take, he’d wander around the studio, crossing over to the microphone when he felt the urge to sing. To the other two Carters, who were both disciplined and businesslike in their music, it was incomprehensible.
After the Carters, Peer recorded two songs apiece by the Alcoa Quartet and by Henry Whitter.
The former was essentially a barbershop group specializing in gospel songs, all from the Alcoa/Maryville area outside of Knoxville. They had a long career (their 1925 recording of “Shall We Gather at the River” for Columbia was one of the earliest recordings of this gospel standard), and in the late 1930s would appear on Knoxville-area radio with an up-and-coming Roy Acuff, providing an interesting link in country history.
Henry Whitter played the guitar and fiddle, but his specialty was the harmonica, which he deployed for two songs at Bristol. A recording veteran, he had worked with Peer at Okeh Records in the early 1920s, and probably was in Bristol at Peer’s personal invitation. His August 2 recordings include inarguably the weirdest number recorded at Bristol, the bizarre “Henry Whitter’s Fox Chase,” in which Peer represents a fox hunt from the perspective of the fox, with the harmonica as the hunters and Whitter providing vocals for the fox.
And for more on Ralph Peer, the Carter Family, the Bristol Sessions and what this was all about, see today’s post.
August 3: 90 Years Ago Today in Bristol …
… Ralph Peer spent the afternoon recording first the Shelor Family and then Mr. & Mrs. J.W. Baker.
The most important thing to happen that day, however, took place in the morning, when Peer conducted another series of auditions. One of the acts was the Jimmie Rodgers Entertainers, who had driven in from North Carolina. Peer wasn’t impressed—he was looking for old-time music, and they were giving him dance tunes and pop hits. He tried to send them away, but their singer, a 29-year-old Mississippian, fast-talked his way into a recording session the next day, promising that the band could come up with some old-time songs by then. Against his better judgment, Peer agreed.
The Shelor Family might as easily have been called the Blackard Family, since its lead singer was Joe Blackard (and, indeed, two of their songs were released as by “Dad Blackard’s Mountaineers”). He was joined by his daughter, Clarice Blackard Shelor, her husband Jesse Shelor and his brother Pyrhus D. Shelor, however, so the majority ruled. They were from Meadows of Dan, Virginia, and were the only act at the Bristol Sessions which used a piano. An enduring mystery of the Sessions is where that piano came from. Did the Shelors bring it from Meadows of Dan? Did Peer rent one for that day, or for throughout the Sessions? Was there one already in the Taylor-Christian Hat Company building for some reason?
(My guess: Despite multiple sources, possibly all derived from the Bear Family Records set “The Bristol Sessions: 1927-1928,” I don’t hear a piano in these recordings – I’d guess it’s a banjo with a capo – and I don’t believe it’s likely that there was one on the second floor of the Taylor-Christian building that day.)
Listen for yourself, though. Here are the Shelors singing “Billy Grimes, the Rover.”
Mr. & Mrs. J.W. Baker (James Wiley Baker and his wife, Flora) were from Coeburn, Virginia, and were cousins of the Carter Family. Most likely the Bakers heard about the Bristol Sessions from A.P. Carter.
Their two songs include “The Newmarket Wreck,” a based-on-fact train-wreck ballad which Peer recorded as by J.W. Baker. This is unlikely, though. The song they sing is the same as “The New Market Wreck” (1906), which was written by Robert Huston Brooks of Whitesburg, Tennessee – and they follow his sheet music so obediently that, in the second stanza, they actually sing “You’ll see a picture of the wreck/just over on the back,” referring to the cover illustration.
I don’t have that cover illustration, but a picture of the wreck itself will have to do. Looks pretty awful; 62 people were killed.
Meanwhile, though, the Jimmie Rodgers Entertainers had blown into Bristol, had scheduled an audition and were well into the process of breaking up. Get the gory details here.
August 4: 90 Years Ago Today in Bristol …
Ralph Peer devoted most of August 4, 1927, to clearing up the wreckage of the Jimmie Rodgers Entertainers. (See yesterday’s blog post if that doesn’t ring a bell).
After taking the morning off (for reasons which aren’t clear, but possibly simply because the flow of acts to be recorded was trailing off), Peer spent 2 p.m. to 4:20 p.m. laboriously recording two songs with Jimmie Rodgers. He then spent 45 minutes on one song from Red Snodgrass’ Alabamians, and after dinner came back to spend three hours with the Tenneva Ramblers, ending at 11 p.m. The evening session may have been scheduled specifically to make sure that Rodgers and the Ramblers (who less than 24 hours before had collectively been the Entertainers) didn’t run into each other in the studio.
Thomas B. “Red” Snodgrass and his jazz band played at the Bristol Hotel, which may have been where Peer was staying; it has been suggested that Peer recorded their “Weary Blues” as a personal favor to Snodgrass or possibly that he was paid to do so as a vanity recording.
Either explanation is plausible, but what’s certain is that Peer never had any intention of adding Snodgrass and his band to Victor’s artist roster. The simple listing of their instrumentation testifies that they weren’t anything like the traditional music Peer had come to Bristol to find: a cornet, two clarinets, a trombone, a banjo and a drum set. They were, in short, a contemporary jazz ensemble, which wasn’t on Peer’s agenda.
The giveaway, though, is that the Alabamians recorded only one song with Peer. Everybody else who recorded at Bristol recorded at least two songs – because records had two sides, virtually always by the same artist (for accounting purposes – it made calculating royalties easier), and a single song was commercially unreleasable.
As to Jimmie Rodgers, in later years Peer would say that he had immediately realized the 29-year-old singer’s potential, but that doesn’t seem likely. If he had, he would have recorded more than two songs. He’d recorded six with the Carter Family. The unexpectedly high sales of Rodgers’ single record, and the singer’s own pushiness in coming to New York to see Peer (without an invitation) for another recording session, would be required before Peer saw what he had in Rodgers. It was one of the songs from that second session, “Blue Yodel” (T for Texas), that would be the making of Rodgers.
Peer didn’t leave Bristol on August 6 thinking that he’d found two iconic acts – he thought he’d found one, the Carter Family. Jimmie Rodgers’ arc to stardom would be almost as much a surprise to him as it would be to everybody else.
For the implications of finding two rather than one iconic act, see today’s blog post.
August 5: 90 Years Ago Today in Bristol …
The Bristol Sessions wrapped up with Ralph Peer recording two songs apiece by the West Virginia Coon Hunters and the Tennessee Mountaineers.
Peer may have saved these acts for last because they posed the most daunting technical challenges, and he didn’t want to risk having his entire schedule fall behind by scheduling them earlier.
In the early era of sound recording, multi-source music was difficult to capture. The ideal act was someone like Jimmie Rodgers or Blind Alfred Reed, a solo singer accompanied by a single instrument he played himself – producing a minimum of balance problems.
The Coon Hunters had nine members, though, and the Mountaineers a daunting 20. The possibility of it taking all night to get the latter group down was a real one.
In the event, it didn’t work out that way. The Coon Hunters were a veteran string band who might have been expected to make short work of their songs, but only five of their nine members had made it to Bristol. That doubtless produced balance problems and on-the-spot rearrangements, and probably accounted for the fact that it took Peer and his two-man crew three hours to get down those two songs.
The Mountaineers, on the other hand, were a church group from Bluff City, Tennessee, which was close enough that the whole group (including A.P. Carter’s brother-in-law, Roy “Not the Fictional Ballplayer” Hobbs) made it. The church didn’t want its name associated with a commercial recording, though, so they arrived without a name to go on the record label. Peer himself made up “Tennessee Mountaineers” on the spot.
They were singing two songs from their standard church repertoire, and they dashed off each in a single take, being in and out of the studio in a half-hour total. This doubtless pleased Peer, who could get an early start on packing up his equipment for the long trip back to New York, which would begin the following day.
Here are the West Virginia Coon Hunters with “Blue Eyes Run Me Crazy.” (In the photo, top row from left: Fred Belcher, Clyde Meadows, Jim Brown and Vernal Vest; bottom row from left, Dutch Stewart, Wesley “Bane” Boyles, Regal Mooney, Fred Pendleton and Joe Stephens. Brown, Stewart, Mooney and Pendleton weren’t at Bristol.)
Check today’s blog entry for some interesting stuff on train-wreck songs, murder ballads and “far from my dying mother” songs.
Tomorrow: Ralph Peer Goes Home!
August 6: 90 Years Ago Today in Bristol …
On Saturday, August 6, 1927, Ralph Peer and his small entourage (wife Anita and engineers Edward Eckhardt and Fred Lynch) boarded an eastbound train out of Bristol, accompanied by a large amount of luggage—containing, among other things, all the gear for a full recording studio.
The most important item they’d brought had been shipped ahead, however: a carefully packed crate containing the master recordings for 76 songs recorded in Bristol, heavy disks which would be used to manufacture the actual records for sale.
They would be home by Monday morning, when Peer would set to work on converting the Bristol Sessions into salable records. Ultimately 69 of the records would be released.
Having put their daughter, Anita, on a train to Alabama, where she would stay with her grandparents, Jimmie and Carrie Rodgers hit the road to Washington, D.C., driving the Tenneva Ramblers’ old Dodge, which Rodgers had bought with money lent to him by Carrie’s sister, Annie. Annie lived in Washington, and the Rodgerses would stay with them while Rodgers tried to hustle up some singing work in the nation’s capital. (This is a later photo of Jimmie, Carrie, and Anita Rodgers with the Peers.)
The Carter Family were back in Maces Spring, Virginia, where Sara got settled back at home, A.P. started thinking about new songs and Maybelle prepared for the upcoming birth of her first child, a daughter she would name Helen.
In Corbin, Kentucky, Alfred G. Karnes and Ernest Phipps had been home for a week and, each in his own church, were preparing for a busy Sunday of praying and singing. So was the choir at a church in Bluff City, Tennessee, a choir which had been known as the Tennessee Mountaineers for half an hour on August 5, and would be remembered as such in music history.
Elsewhere in Corbin, B.F. Shelton was cutting hair. Saturday morning was a busy time for a barber, and Shelton needed the money – he loved to sing, but it didn’t pay the bills.
Blind Alfred Reed spent Saturday, August 6, as he spent most Saturdays, busking in the streets of Princeton, West Virginia. Saturday afternoon was the high point of a busker’s week, and Reed – with a wife and six children to support – couldn’t ever take a Saturday off.
Saturday was also the biggest day of the week for Red Snodgrass and His Alabamians, who as usual played for dancing at the Bristol Hotel into the wee hours.
The Tenneva Ramblers were still in Bristol, staying with Jack Pierce at his mother’s boarding house while trying to figure out their next move. Jimmie Rodgers had not only quit the band the night before their audition, but also talked them into quitting the best gig they’d ever had, at North Fork Mountain Resort, in order to go to Bristol to audition. The Ramblers ultimately went their separate ways, with Jack and Claude Grant touring as the Grant Brothers while Jack Pierce moved into more modern music, ending up fronting a band called the Oklahoma Cowboys.
J.P. Nester and Norman Edmonds had taken their shot at Bristol and, at least as far as Nester was concerned, that was enough. When Peer’s office called, a few months later, and invited the duo on an all-expenses-paid trip to New York to record some more, Nester said “No, thanks.”
The Bull Mountain Moonshiners’ performance at Bristol was their last. The band was led by a father-and-son duo, fiddler Charles M. McReynolds and banjoist William McReynolds. Soon after the Bristol Sessions, however, William died of appendicitis and Charlie gave up the fiddle. (However, music ran in the blood: His grandsons Jim and Jesse McReynolds became bluegrass stars in the 1950s; today Jesse McReynolds, at 88, is still an active musician and the oldest living member of the Grand Ole Opry. He can be heard on the 2015 album “Orthophonic Joy: The Bristol Sessions Revisited.”)
Of other Bristol musicians’ activities the day after the Sessions, we can only speculate. Most likely, though, they kept making music. They hadn’t come to Bristol because they wanted to become pop stars; they were there because it was an excuse to play, to get paid for doing so and, maybe, to become a pop star … and get to play all the time.
What happened next in country-music history? Check out today’s blog post.
This concludes our “90 Years Ago Today in Bristol” … for now, at least. Ralph Peer was back in Bristol in 1928 for his second and final Bristol Sessions, so join us on this page on October 27, 2018, and we’ll see what’s what.