The Unbroken Circle: Remembering the Bristol Sessions

Summer 2017 Marks the 90th Anniversary of the Big Bang of Modern Country Music

This summer marks the 90th anniversary of the “Big Bang” of modern country music, and it all happened over 12 days in Bristol, Tennessee.

On July 25, 1927, New York-based producer Ralph Peer from the Victor Talking Machine Company started country music’s most famous recording sessions on the third floor of the town’s Taylor-Christian Hat Company in an effort to discover music that would appeal to an untapped market — rural music by rural people without electricity to power a radio set.

In the roaring ’20s, America had fallen in love with radio, and the sales of phonograph records were declining. Radio barn dances like the Grand Ole Opry on Nashville’s high-powered WSM broadcasted live country entertainment across the nation. Americans seemed to prefer to sit and listen to an entire program of music without having to change records every few minutes. In 1925, the same year of the first Grand Ole Opry broadcast, Victor introduced a new music player that was powered acoustically and played music that was recorded electronically, bringing a new form of entertainment to households nationwide.

Bristol was just one of the cities on Peer’s recording tour of the American south. Other cities on the schedule were Atlanta, Savannah and Memphis, and all of them were chosen because they were easily accessible by train. With him, Peer brought two engineers and a new invention called the Western Electric microphone. Before, performers were recorded using a big horn that would capture all the sounds in the room in which they played.

Peer stopped in Bristol at the suggestion of musician Ernest Stoneman, who was from the area and had previously recorded for Peer in New York. In the days leading up the recording sessions, Peer attracted local talent by taking out newspaper ads that read, “Do not deny yourself the sheer joy of orthophonic music,” with information about how to connect with Peer and his new recording machine.

Stoneman was one of the most recorded acts in the first days of the Bristol sessions, but not many artists showed up at first. Peer needed more variety, new songs and original material. So he convinced the editor of the Bristol News Bulletin to do a story on the sessions and Stoneman, who told the paper that he was paid $100 for his time and his sidemen received $25 each. Stoneman added that he made approximately $3,000 off a year’s worth of royalties.

With that news, the talent came running (that was big money in those days). Peer ended up recording 76 songs by 19 acts in Bristol. Two of them became the genre’s most influential performers and both of them were recorded within days of each other, the Carter Family, the first family of country music, and Jimmie Rodgers, the father of country music. The two iconic acts wouldn’t meet until years later.

GAB Archive/Redferns

The Carter Family, A.P. Carter, his wife Sara and Sara’s first cousin Maybelle (who married A.P.’s brother, Ezra), were from Scott County, Virginia, which is a 40-minute drive from Bristol today. But back then, it took the Carters all day to drive to Bristol. The summer rainy season had turned the surrounding Appalachian dirt roads into gullies and the family act had to stop frequently to make sure their tires were good for their return trip home. Maybelle was also eight months pregnant at the time, and with every little bump in the road, she believed her baby would arrive.

When the Carter’s finally pulled up to the Taylor-Christian Hat Company, they entered through the back because they were too embarrassed to be seen in the hillbilly clothes they had worn all day. But they sang and played beautifully. Maybelle’s famous Carter scratch guitar-picking accompanied their harmonies as they laid down their first song “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow.”

GAB Archive/Redferns

The next day, Maybelle and Sara recorded “Single Girl, Married Girl,” a song Sara hated, but it went on to become one of their first major hits. A.P. had taken their car to the mechanic to get a tire fixed that morning and so Peer recorded the two women by themselves. The family made it back to Virginia safe and sound and thought nothing of the sessions until the royalty checks started arriving by mail. They went on to record more than 300 songs for Victor and other labels such as the American Record Company and Decca. But the band broke up for good in 1943, even though A. P., Sara and Maybelle were at the peak of their performing careers. Maybelle continued the Carter legacy with her daughters, Helen, June and Anita.

GAB Archive/Redferns

Jimmie Rodgers, originally from Meridian, Mississippi, gave up his gig as a railroad man to dedicate his life to music in 1924 after he had developed tuberculosis. At the time, his music encompassed all the styles he was raised on in the delta — traditional folk music, early jazz, stage show yodeling, the work chants of railroad crews and African-American blues. In summer 1927, he had found work performing on the radio in Asheville, North Carolina with the Tenneva Ramblers and then again at a resort in the Blue Ridge Mountains. He had heard about Peer’s recording sessions in Bristol, and they loaded up a car to go audition for him. But before they even got to record, the group had a dispute over billing and broke up. Deserted by the band, Rodgers persuaded Peer to let him record alone, accompanied only by his own guitar.

BMI/Michael Ochs Archives/GettyImages

Based on the strong public response to Peer’s recordings of Rodgers’ “Sleep, Baby, Sleep” and “The Soldier’s Sweetheart,” Rodgers was then invited to Victor’s home studios in New Jersey where he recorded “Blue Yodel (T for Texas),” which became his first big hit. Within months, he was on his way to national stardom with regular radio gigs in Washington, D.C., and a vaudeville tour that hit all the major Southern cities. Eventually, he recorded 110 songs including “Waiting for a Train,” “In the Jailhouse Now,” “T.B. Blues” and “Miss the Mississippi and You.”

Rodgers reached the pinnacle of his career between 1928 and 1932. He even starred in the 15-minute 1929 movie, “The Singing Brakeman.” But the Depression had taken its toll on record sales and theater attendance. His failing health made it near impossible for his career to continue. On May 26, 1933, after fulfilling his contract with RCA Victor with 12 recordings, he collapsed on a New York City street and died a few hours later of a massive hemorrhage in his room at the Hotel Taft.

While the Carter Family and Rodgers will forever be known as the first family and father of country music, other visionaries were recorded during the Bristol Sessions. They were Ernest Phipps and His Holiness Quartet, Blue Ridge Corn Shuckers, Johnson Brothers with the Tennessee Wildcats, the Johnson Brothers, Blind Alfred Reed, El Watson, B.F. Shelton, Alfred Karnes, J.P. Nester, Bull Mountain Moonshiners, Alcoa Quartet, Henry Whitter, Uncle Ed Dunford, the Shelor Family, Dad Blackbird’s Moonshiners, Mr. and Mrs. J.W. Baker, Red Snodgrass’ Alabamians, the Tenneva Ramblers, the West Virginia Coon Hunters and the Tennessee Mountaineers.

It’s important to point out that there are no pictures of the Bristol Sessions, and the performers never saw the famous electronic machine that recorded them. It was kept hidden from view behind a large curtain like the man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz. The only people who got to see the machine were Peer, the engineers who operated it and record label staffers. The reason it was kept so secret is because it was considered as valuable as the recipe for Coca-Cola. No one involved wanted the machine to be replicated by a competitor.

On July 15, Bristol’s Birthplace of Country Music Museum kicked off a series of events celebrating the 90th anniversary of the 1927 Bristol Sessions. The first event featured panel discussions by Nashville-based journalist and author Barry Mazor, Dr. Ted Olson from East Tennessee State University’s department of Appalachian Studies, screenings of PBS’ American Epic, a Q&A with the series’ producers Bernard MacMahon and Allison McGourty and a keynote address by Ralph Peer II, CEO of peermusic, with his wife Liz Peer.

It was also a day-long musical family reunion that hosted approximately 30 descendants of those who participated in the famous recording sessions. Country music’s Big Bang is their family legacy, and the impact of the sessions resonates throughout popular music today.

While today’s mainstream country music sounds nothing like the sounds made during the Bristol Sessions, record labels everywhere remain in a constant search for the next big thing that will ensure the success of the genre for generations to follow.

But what will ultimately carry country music through the constant changes in popular music will be what Peer initially set out to do with his field recordings — find country talent for country people. Or as Kenny Rogers said in our 2016 interview, “Country music is what country people will buy.”

Celebrations for the 90th anniversary of the Bristol Sessions continue in the Tennessee town and Scott County, Virginia. The Birthplace of Country Music Museum will host special film screenings and concert series through August. The three-day Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion starts Sept. 15 and will feature performances by Dwight Yoakam, Judah & the Lion, Jerry Douglas Presents Earls of Leicester, Son Volt, Rodney Crowell, Amanda Shires and more.

The Carter Fold in Hiltons, Virginia, will host a special Carter Festival on Nov. 4 to celebrate the anniversary of the first Carter Family ’78 being released in Nov. 4, 1927.

Lauren Tingle is a Tennessean and storyteller who eats music for breakfast, lunch and dinner. When she’s not writing or rocking out, she enjoys yoga and getting lost in the great outdoors.