Inside the Music | The Bristol Sessions | Early Years of Hillbilly | Country
If you look for country music’s Big Bang, there is nothing more momentous than Bristol, 1927. Within four summer days, two stars appeared that would change the cosmology of country – remap the sky. And it all happened in a disused office building in a quiet mountain town perched on the state line between Virginia and Tennessee.
What brought Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family to Bristol? Atlanta would have made sense, or even Memphis or Dallas – these were cities with large populations and thriving musical cultures. To answer the question it is necessary to go back four years, to when OKeh Records’ Ralph Peer, acting on a local tip-off, went to Atlanta to record Fiddlin’ John Carson. That June 1923 trip was the first time a New York record company sent a producer and engineers into the South to uncover local talent.
Such location recording soon became routine. Several times a year, OKeh, Columbia and Victor sent teams to Atlanta, Memphis, New Orleans and St Louis, set up their equipment in a warehouse or hotel room and solicited the musical offerings of the region’s blues singers, jazz bands, banjo-pickers, cowboy songsters – whatever was going.
Peer, now with Victor, had quickly realized that location recording had several advantages over the previous practice of doing it in New York. Some southerners were made nervous by big cities and formal studios. Recording on the artists’ own ground meant drawing more of them, even if they only came out of curiosity. This opened up a wider range of possibilities – you never knew what you might get. So when Peer and his assistants rolled up in Bristol in the last week of July 1927, they were doing nothing they hadn’t done before. All the same, this would be a trip like no other.
Twelve Days That Shook The World
The Bristol sessions began with a safe bet. Ernest Stoneman (1893–1968) and his family had worked with Peer before and knew how to make records. By the end of Monday 25 July, they had given him 10 good discs of mountain love-songs and hymns. Over the next few days the Taylor-Christian building on State Street saw a procession of talent from the surrounding area – men like the banjoist and ballad-singer B. F. Shelton and the gospel-singing guitarist Alfred G. Karnes from Corbin, Kentucky, or the fiddling songwriter Blind Alfred Reed from Princeton, West Virginia.
It was wonderful stuff, but Peer would have had no thoughts of a bestseller like Vernon Dalhart’s (1883–1948) ‘The Wreck Of The Old 97’, which was still moving very nicely for Victor after three years. Then, on the Monday of the second week in Bristol, prompted by a couple of articles about the session that had appeared in Bristol’s papers, a homely looking trio from Virginia stopped by to sing ‘Bury Me Under The Weeping Willow’ – and Peer knew he had a hit on his hands.
The six songs the...
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