Bristol: The Birthplace of Country Music
Virginia’s rich country music heritage
Whenever we think of country music recordings, Nashville immediately springs to mind. For decades it’s been regarded as the home of country music … known as Music City, it’s where the famed Grand Ole Opry radio show (and latterly also television show) has been broadcast from for almost 90 years; it’s where the majority of the record labels, country acts, songwriters, music publishing companies are based. But it’s not where country music first got its early beginnings. It was in Bristol, a small city straddling the Tennessee-Virginia state line, that country music’s first commercial recordings were made in 1927, and in 1998, Congress declared Bristol the ‘birthplace of country music.’
On August 1, 2014, the newly enlarged Birthplace of Country Music® Museum, opened its doors to the public in Historic Downtown Bristol. It’s taken more than a dozen years of planning and fund-raising. It was in November 2002 that the Birthplace of Country Music Alliance opened a museum in the Bristol Mall. This small exhibition centre soon outgrew its space, and having attracted thousands of visitors, it was obvious that a much larger building was needed.
The new location has a massive 24,000 sq. ft. space that retells Bristol’s story as the home of the Bristol Sessions through permanent exhibits, a special exhibits gallery, educational programmes, multiple film experiences, and a theatre dedicated exclusively to live, year-round music performances. In addition, the museum features interactive music mixing and listening stations and technology-infused media.
In the summer of 1927, Ralph S. Peer, a freelance producer for the Victor Talking Machine Company in Camden, New Jersey, saw Bristol’s potential as a hub for country music and decided to hold auditions there. It was a decision that would make history. Victor, one of the major record companies of the 1920s promoting country music (though not known as such at that time) and recording it on its home ground, hired Peer to scout out and record new artists. Peer, a pioneer of recording in Southern locations, had made the first such recordings in 1923 for OKeh Records in Atlanta, Georgia. After working in a number of locations, he identified Bristol as an ideal place to make such recordings as a number of artists resided in the area, among them Ernest V. Stoneman and Henry Whitter, both having been recorded previously by him.
Peer set up a temporary recording studio on the second and third floors of the Christian-Taylor Hat Company warehouse on State Street. He chose the location because of its proximity to the rail station and the city’s largest hotel. From July 25 through to August 5 1927 Peer and his recording engineers recorded fiddle tunes, sacred songs, string bands, and harmonica solos. It was an assembling of rural music comprising ballad singers, street evangelists, string bands, gospel quartets, harmonica virtuosos, Holiness preachers, blues guitarists and rural storytellers. The aim was to make recordings available for the vast untapped rural population, many of whom had been forced to move to the larger industrial cities of the north and had for years been ignored by the burgeoning recording industry.
Several sessions had been booked in advance, but concerned that he had not attracted sufficient publicity to attract musicians to the recording sessions, on the third morning Peer invited an editor of the Bristol News Bulletin to visit the makeshift studios and listen to ‘Pops’ Stoneman and members of his family perform some traditional songs. It was written up in that evening’s edition. According to Peer: ‘The story worked like dynamite and the very next day I was deluged with long-distance telephone calls from the surrounding mountain region.’
One of the acts that showed up that week was the Carter Family (A.P., Sarah and Maybelle). The Carter Family’s session had come about following Peer’s scouting trip to Bristol prior to the sessions. At that time a local Victrola dealer, Cecil McClister, connected Peer with the Maces Spring, Virginia trio. Their session, on Monday August 1, resulted in six songs—Big Bend Girl, Suzanna Gal, Sandy River Belle (two versions), Billy Grimes The Rover, The Newmarket Wreck and On The Banks Of The Sunny Tennessee. Peer paid the family $50 per song and released their music on the Victor label. Within two years, the family was one of the top musical acts in the country.
Many myths and exaggerations about the Bristol Sessions have developed over the years. Peer himself perpetuated several, not the least of which was the image of the artists as unsophisticated country folk. Some even claimed that Sara and Maybelle Carter didn’t wear shoes at the session. In fact, images of the group show them dressed in modest but very up-to-date clothing; the family had relatives in Bristol, and they were not unfamiliar with the city. The Bristol session was not even the first time that the Carters had met with a record company. The family had previously auditioned for Brunswick, but A. P. Carter was unhappy with Brunswick’s handling of the group, especially the company’s insistence that he plays the fiddle.
The other major performer to have been first recorded at the historic Bristol Sessions was Jimmie Rodgers, arguably the most successful of them all and certainly the most influential. He emerged during the late 1920s as country music’s first singing star and was subsequently heralded as ‘the Father Of Country Music.’ His first record, The Soldier's Sweetheart coupled with Sleep, Baby Sleep, became an instant success leading to Victor recording more songs, including T For Texas. The latter was originally released as Blue Yodel and became a million-seller and gained him the nickname—‘The Blue Yodeler.’
Overall Ralph Peer recorded 19 separate acts and obtained 76 recordings, 69 of which were issued. Some 80-odd years later these recordings—even those by the more obscure musicians—are generally judged to have been technically excellent for the era in which they were made. In recent years the 1927 Bristol Sessions have been called ‘the Big Bang of Country Music,’ a phrase originated by country music historian Nolan Porterfield in a 1994 article, in which he referred to the sessions as the: ‘Big Bang of country music evolution, the genesis of every shape and species of Pickin’-and-Singin’ down through the years … [Bristol was] the place where it all started.’
The songs of the Sessions still serve as an influential soundtrack for fans and artists alike. As prolific songwriter and performer, Johnny Cash, once said: ‘These recordings in Bristol in 1927 are the single most important event in the history of country music.’ The Bristol Sessions are indeed important. Besides providing the first recordings of two country music pioneers, the sessions featured a fascinating cross section of mountain music, including rare glimpses of Appalachian blues styles and Holiness religious music. Fine performers such as Alfred Karnes, Blind Alfred Reed, Norm Edmonds, and the Shelor family recorded memorable sides that deserve their place in Virginia and Appalachian musical history alongside the Carters and Rodgers.
For the uninitiated, Appalachia is a spine-like series of mountain ranges that stretch from New York to north Alabama. These ranges—the Alleghenies, the Blue Ridge, the Shenandoah, the Smokies—have historically shielded their residents from the rest of American society, creating an insular, hard-edged culture of its own.
Victor held a follow-up session in Bristol from October 27 to November 4, 1928, and invited some of the 1927 line-up of artists, including Karnes, the Stonemans, and Phipps. There were also some fine newcomers, such as the blues duo of Steve Tarter, a native of Scott County, and Harry Gay. One of the few African American acts to record at either session, the duo only had two issued songs, a pair of brilliant guitar duets in the syncopated East Coast guitar style. Columbia Records would also visit the tri-cities region in 1928 and 1929, recording in nearby Johnson City, Tennessee.
Truly these sessions were a defining moment in country music history. In 2011 Germany’s Bear Family Records released a lavish 5-CD box set—THE BRISTOL SESSIONS: The Big Bang of Country Music—that includes all the recordings made during the 1927 and 1928 Bristol Sessions. The large 120pp hard-back book that accompanied the CDs includes all the session details along with biographical information on many of the performers along with rare photos and also the lyrics to most of the songs. It is a vital release for all those interested in the beginnings and history country music.
Interest in these historic sessions will be rekindled in October 2014 with the planned release of ORTHOPHONIC JOY: The 1927 Bristol Sessions Revisited. Grammy Award-winning Nashville producer Carl Jackson has assembled a number of A-list country music artists, including Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Vince Gill, Marty Stuart, Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers, Ashley Monroe, Doyle Lawson, and many more, to re-imagine the historic 1927 Bristol Sessions with brand new recordings of 16 of the most important songs originally recorded some 87 years ago.
The idea to recreate the Bristol Sessions had been discussed within the Birthplace of Country Music organisation for years, but the serendipitous connection between board member John Rainero, veteran songwriter Rusty Morrell and producer Carl Jackson helped bring the ORTHOPHONIC JOY project to fruition.
“My dear friend Rusty Morrell approached me with the idea to produce a project honouring the original 1927 Bristol Sessions,” Carl Jackson said. “He was very aware and fond of a couple of other multi-artist ‘tribute’ projects I had produced and felt I was the guy who could bring his vision to life. In my opinion, the importance of those ’27 recordings cannot be overstated, and I am truly honoured that Rusty asked me to shine a new and loving light on some of those classic works.”
Alongside the well-known ‘commercial country artists’ involved, several local Virginia performers will also feature, including the Church Sisters—Savannah and her twin sister Sarah—teenagers who are keeping alive the traditional Appalachian music through singing, songwriting and playing fiddle and mandolin.
I’ve been following the girls’ music for the past three or four years and recently had the opportunity to meet up with them in London and see them play with their skilled band. Totally down-to-earth and unassuming, they sang like angels whilst their band played a distinctive blend of old-time, bluegrass-inflected music that captured the pure essence of Appalachian mountain music with a fresh modern touch. I predict a great future for these Church Sisters.
ORTHOPHONIC JOY: The 1927 Bristol Sessions Revisited has been made possible through a partnership with the Tennessee Dept. of Tourist Development, Virginia Tourism Corporation, and the Bristol Convention of Visitors Bureau. The region around Bristol—encompassing portions of Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and West Virginia—has been an historic centre of cultural creativity for generations. The roots of country music lie in the inclination of ordinary folks to turn experience into story, song and music. Dolly Parton, Ralph Stanley, Kathy Mattea, Tim O’Brien, Ricky Skaggs, Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, Bill Monroe, Brad Paisley and Loretta Lynn, among many others, all come from the region.
A non-profit organisation, the Birthplace of Country Music® goal is to enhance Bristol’s role in the birth and development of country music through various events encompassing music festivals, educational outreach and programming.
Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion, a three-day music festival founded in 2001, features over 150 artists—the very best in country, bluegrass, western swing and Americana—on over 20 stages, attracting over 50,000 music enthusiasts to Downtown Bristol every third weekend in September. The RTE 23 Music Festival, which takes place on August 30, 2014, will be held at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise off RTE 23. A mini-fest including a vendor village, children’s activities, and local food vendors, music will be provided by the David Mayfield Parade, Sol Driven Train, Jarekus Singleton, and Derek Hoke. All acts but Singleton have previously performed at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion.
Other musical history attractions in the Bristol area include:
The Carter Family Memorial Music Center: About 20 miles to the northeast of Bristol, at the base of Clinch Mountain, in Hiltons, Virginia., is the Carter Family Memorial Music Center (known as the Carter Fold). The center has hosted live musical shows every weekend since 1974, honouring the music of the area's First Family (www.carterfamilyfold.org).
The A.P. Carter Store, a general store owned and operated by A.P. Carter in the later years of his life. Located adjacent to the Carter Fold, the store is open 6-7:30 p.m. Saturdays.
The Tennessee Ernie Ford home: 1223 Anderson St. A tribute to one of Bristol’s favourite sons and maintained by the Bristol Historical Association, Ford’s childhood home has on display photographs and memorabilia from his life. Open by appointment for tours and located about two miles from downtown.
The Bristol Sessions Monument: Located at the corner of Fourth and State streets, on the approximate sight of the Bristol recordings. The monument was dedicated on Aug. 16, 1971. The original Christian-Taylor warehouse building was damaged by a fire in 1945 and later torn down, but many of the artefacts from the sessions are housed in the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.
The Birthplace of Country Music Mural: Located on the side wall of Lark Amusement Co. building, in the 800 block of State Street. The mural was painted by local artist and musician Tim White in the late 1980s to commemorate the Bristol Sessions. In the summer, the stage in front of the mural is the site of free bluegrass concerts every Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday evenings.
All of these attractions are included on the famed Crooked Road, a dedicated tourist route for music fans to travel and enjoy music of the Appalachians. Much of the aptly named Crooked Road is both glorious and remote. It spills down treacherous Shooting Creek Road and climbs over the back of 5,520-foot White Top Mountain. Roadside notices reassure that ‘God Loves You’ and billboards tout ammunition sales. The Blue Ridge Parkway lies to the east, Virginia’s coal fields to the west. One-of-a-kind cafes dish out softball-sized biscuits with gravy and ‘thin-sliced taters’ (home fries) for breakfast. White coconut cake is a staple dessert, and fried apple pies are the local snack.
Its music sprang from the meeting of the African banjo and the European violin in the early settlements of Tidewater Virginia. It evolved there as settlers migrated west across the Blue Ridge.
Along the Crooked Road, there is a resurgence of young people playing old-time and bluegrass music like never before. Besides the Crooked Road’s theatres featuring old-time music, dozens of less formal venues—a local Dairy Queen, a carpet store, a barbershop— host regular jam sessions.
Blue Ridge Music Center and Museum on the Blue Ridge Parkway hosts Saturday night bluegrass concerts in its outdoor theatre through August and informal jam sessions on Sunday afternoons. Blue Ridge Institute and Farm Museum in Ferrum is a rural culture museum that hosts a folk life festival in October. The Rex Theater in Galax features the live radio show Blue Ridge Backroads on Fridays. The Floyd Country Store Friday Night Jamboree in Floyd draws multiple bands and street acts.
At the eastern end of the road in Clintwood, there is the Ralph Stanley Museum and Traditional Mountain Music Center an ode to bluegrass pioneer Ralph Stanley that stands in a century-old Victorian building. Stanley is a rarity in bluegrass, as he never left for Nashville when his career started to take off. A small man with sharp blue eyes, Stanley grew up in the hills around Clintwood in a community one would expect for a bluegrass legend. He learned to sing in a little white Baptist church with home-made benches. The pastor discouraged instruments in church, but Ralph and his older brother Carter took up the banjo and guitar nevertheless, playing some of their first songs at the high school in town.
Stanley has recorded hundreds of albums since then, receiving most of his recent acclaim by singing a cappella, the way he once did in church. Today, in the twilight of his career, he is one of the grandfathers of bluegrass music. The Ralph Stanley story is told through artefacts in illuminated glass cases, professionally produced panels of text and clever wooden displays that mimic banjos and fiddles on a large scale.
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