In the summer of 1927, Victor Talking Machine Company talent scout Ralph Peer brought an electric recording machine to the city of Bristol, Tennessee. For 10 days, in what would come to be known as the Bristol sessions, in a makeshift studio with state-of-the-art equipment, Peer recorded 76 songs from 19 different groups. In the process, Peer discovered the two most important acts of early country music, the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, and laid the foundation for the country music industry. The Bristol Sessions ultimately proved to be one of the most pivotal and influential episodes in the history of recorded music, if not American cultural history.
The Music Industry Circa 1927
To really put these events into context, one has to take a jump into the wayback machine to almost a century ago. At that time, the music recording industry was truly in its infancy. The industry largely consisted of a handful of companies in the New York and New Jersey area that had conceived of the idea of selling recorded music to the masses on various devices. At this stage, most of the devices were simple modifications on Thomas Edison's phongraph, and the first records (78s) were just entering wide circulation.
Even at this stage in the history of the recording industry, there was already a wide variety of music that was recorded and sold: jazz, rag, blues, classical, gospel, and folk music were all being sold. The industry consisted mostly of a number of tiny labels with one large gorilla: Victor, which would later be rechristened RCA.
The Victor Talking Machine Company (as the company was fully called) sold numerous records in each of those genres, but they could not help but notice that even though a number of playback machines were being sold outside of urban areas, very few records were being sold to people outside of the cities. In 1923, the company attempted to change this by inviting a handful of "old time" musicians (as the music was called then) to New York for a handful of recording sessions. Among these were The Fiddlin' Powers Family, Ernest Stoneman, and G.B. Grayson, the latter of which recorded The Wreck of the Old Southern 97. These musicians, however, were adept at producing only instrumentals. Although instrumentals sold well, it was clear even at that stage that vocal-led arrangements were much more popular with record buyers.
The Events Leading To The Bristol Sessions
Thus, in the summer of 1927, Victor sent their top talent scout, Ralph Peer, on a long trip through the south with the purpose of evaluating talent and determining whether or not it would be worthwhile to record them. After disembarking in May, Peer travelled through the states of Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia, mostly through the hills of Appalachia. He stopped in most of the small towns along the way and listened to shows that would be played in the local town halls and general stores. And he loved what he heard.
When his trip wound up in the city of Bristol, Tennessee in late June, Peer decided that the company would be well-advised to bring recording equipment to this area of the country to record some of the music, and he chose Bristol as the place. Bristol was very convenient for such a choice, as it sat where the states of Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina met, with several nearby towns in those states. Peer placed a newspaper ad in the Bristol newspaper stating that "the Victor Recording Company is coming to town" and arranged for space on the second floor of 410 State Street in Bristol, the headquarters of the Taylor-Christian Hat Company. Then, Peer returned to New York to give his report on the situation.
A Shaky Start
Peer returned to Bristol, Tennessee on July 23, 1927, with a car loaded down with the latest recording equipment and set up a makeshift studio at 410 State Street. On July 25, 1927, Peer planned to begin recording music from the various groups and musicians in the area, but to his dismay, next to no one showed up. The only musicians that appeared were Ernest Stoneman and some of his friends. Stoneman was already well known to Peer and Victor, as he was one of the musicians who had travelled to New York to record music.
Realizing that his sessions were in serious trouble, Peer rushed to the newspaper office and convinced them (part of the legend is that he offered the newspaper editor $100 in cash for this, although this is not verifiable fact) to run a front-page story on the sessions in the next day's newspaper. A reporter came down to the sessions with him and took a picture of Ralph Stoneman singing into a large microphone. The next morning, the article covered the front page of the Bristol Gazette.
The article itself was mostly produced from Peer's description of the goal of the sessions:
In no other section of the south have the pre-war melodies and old mountaineer songs been better preserved than in the mountains of East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia...and it is primarily for this reason that the Victrola Company chose Bristol as its operating base
But the part that really grabbed people was the section about Stoneman and his musicians that finished off the article. It was mentioned that in the previous year, Ernest Stoneman had received $3,600 in royalties from the records which he had made, and that his session musicians would earn as much as $100 a day for their work.
By noon that day, Peer had more musicians on the doorstep of his studio than he could have possibly dreamed of. And they would keep coming for the next week.
The Music Comes Rolling In
From July 25, 1927 to August 5, 1927, Peer was holed up in the studio on 410 State Street in Bristol, recording what would become the foundations of country and bluegrass music. He would record music from nineteen acts. Most of the acts have faded into obscurity, including Henry Whitter, gospel preacher and singer Albert Karnes, Ernest Phillips and His Holiness Quartet, B.F. Shelton, E.L. Watson, Blind Alfred Reed, the Johnson Brothers, J.P. Nextor and Norman Edmonds, the Coeburn Boys (which did include Charles McReynolds, whose grandchildren are today involved in contemporary bluegrass), Dad Blackard and the Shelors, the Alcoa Quartet, Mr. & Mrs. J.W. Baker, Red Snodgrass, the West Virginia Coonhunters, and the Bluff City Church Choir. All of these musicians had their music distributed in the late 1920s, and some went on to have lengthy though quiet careers recording for RCA/Victor.
But two musicians stood out from the rest. On July 28, A.P. Carter, a general store manager in Maces Springs, West Virginia, acquired a copy of the day's Bristol Gazette and decided to visit the recording session with his wife, Sara Carter. The two were in their mid-30s and had long been popular with the locals as they would sing each week inside of the general store. It was widely reknowned that Sara had an amazing voice, and so A.P. thought this would be a golden opportunity for them. After packing up the car (and inviting A.P.'s cousin Maybelle along, as she could play the guitar and often accompanied the duo), they headed for Bristol.
The Carter Family, as they would come to be known, recorded a large number of selections for Peer on August 1, 1927 and August 2, 1927. Peer later recalled that he was extremely uncertain of them, as they appeared in a broken-down automobile, all of them wearing overalls, and A.P. speaking very quietly to him with a deep mountain twang in his voice, but from the first note out of Sara's mouth, it was apparent that he had stumbled across something special. The Carter Family would for a long period in the 1920s and 1930s be the largest-selling artist on the Victor and RCA labels and provided much of the foundation of traditional country music. Their songs have been covered countless times, including a cover of their song No Depression by alt.country group Uncle Tupelo, as the title track on the album that is said to have kicked off the alt.country genre.
The other major find of the Bristol sessions was Jimmie Rodgers, whose music would lay the foundations for bluegrass and also contribute a great deal to the development of country and folk music as well. At the time, Jimmie was the frontman for the Jimmie Rodgers Entertainers, who were centralized in Asheville, North Carolina. They were regulars on the radio there, playing live at the station twice weekly, and also played a large number of shows in the local area. Jimmie heard about the sessions via word of mouth, and the group arrived in Bristol on August 2, 1927, with Peer scheduling them to record the next morning.
The night before the sessions, the group broke up over an argument concerning what to call themselves, and Jimmie decided to go ahead with the session and record alone. Jimmie recorded several numbers that morning and first demonstrated his haunting yodel, which would go on to be his signature in such classics as Muleskinner Blues. Jimmie's career was relatively short; he only actively recorded for four years, but his recordings would go on to inspire most bluegrass musicians, as well as greatly influence country and folk music.
Peer left town on August 6, 1927 with a stack of heavy wax masters which contained the future of recorded music. The first wave of recordings began to appear on October 6, 1927 as a collection of singles which Victor described as the New Southern Series. The tremendous popularity of these recordings both in urban and in rural areas took the company (and the industry) largely by surprise, so Victor, along with the other labels, began to recruit and nurture acts within the new "country" genre.
The Impact of the Bristol Sessions
The recordings made at the Bristol sessions were the first ones to be widely circulated in rural America, which provided countless people with their first exposure to recorded music. In most cases, it was music that the listeners could easily identify with and quite often were able to play themselves.
By the 1940s, a group of children who had grown up listening to Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family and trying to play their songs began to record the next generation of country music, which would incorporate elements of blues, jazz, rag, r & b, and other genres. This confluence of genres would produce musicians like Bill Monroe, Hank Williams, and later, Elvis Presley.
The Bristol sessions were one of a small handful of truly watershed moments in the history and development of recorded music. It introduced country and bluegrass in their recorded forms and also greatly influenced the already-existing folk genre. Beyond this, it contributed immensely to the melting pot of sounds that would become rock music. The impact of these sessions can be heard today all over the radio dial and the internet.