Early Country Recording and the Bristol Session
Okeh Records had pioneered the recording of old-time music beginning with a 1923 recording by Fiddlin’ John Carson of Georgia. After Carson’s commercial success, Okeh and Columbia invested heavily in the field, bringing southern performers to their northern studios and holding field sessions in various southern cities. Meanwhile, Victor’s old-time list remained somewhat thin in comparison to its competitors. Fiddle tunes by Texan Eck Robertson and Oklahoman Henry C. Gilliland recorded in 1922 remained unissued until Carson’s success spurred Victor to finally release them. A few other traditional recordings appeared, such as sides by Russell County’s Fiddlin’ Powers and Family, but Victor was clearly behind its main competitors in the southern field. The company decided to lure producer Ralph Peer away from Okeh to invigorate its old-time and “race record” lists, aimed at southern whites and African Americans, respectively.
Bristol offered a central mountain city in proximity to five states (Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Kentucky, and West Virginia) that would all contribute performers to the session. At least thirteen performers from the region had already recorded for various companies; two, Virginians Ernest V. Stoneman and Henry Whitter, recorded for Peer at Bristol. Already a studio veteran, Stoneman also acted as a scout for Peer in anticipation of the Bristol field session. Peer planned his session carefully. He made a preliminary visit to Bristol to seek out talent and also used Victor dealers in the region as talent scouts. Because of this advance work, many artists were probably identified well beforehand, although a July 27 article in the Bristol News Bulletin published during the sessions brought more musicians out to audition.
The result of Stoneman’s advance work reveals some of Peer’s ideas about making commercially successful recordings of Appalachian music. The record companies usually categorized white southern music as “old-time tunes” or, later, “hillbilly” music, but it actually encompassed a wide variety of styles. Stoneman recalled that Peer missed “some pretty good music” when he rejected some of the bands that Stoneman recommended, probably because Peer wanted vocal tunes rather than traditional instrumentals. Clarice Shelor of the Shelor Family of Patrick County, Virginia, recalled that the studio men “said they had more instrumental than singing records and said that singing helped sell the records.” Clarice Shelor’s father had to write out the words to several songs on the spot for his daughter to sing. Peer was also taken with Eck Dunford, a fiddler, storyteller, and raconteur from Galax who accompanied Stoneman’s band, the Stonemans, at the sessions and made a number of later recordings. Dunford and the Stonemans recorded the popular play-party song “Skip to Ma Lou,” and several comedic songs such as “The Mountaineer’s Courtship”; such “hillbilly” sketches were already a staple of country recording.
The Carter Family offered another approach to early country music. A. P. Carter, the family’s patriarch, recast Victorian sentimental tunes, old ballads, and sacred songs from shape-note hymnals for the family’s performances. The group’s Bristol recordings included such fare as the “Poor Orphan Child.” Carter’s wife, Sara Carter, and his sister-in-law Maybelle Carter sang compelling vocal harmonies accompanied by Maybelle Carter’s distinctive thumb-lead guitar style, picking out the melody. The trio created a new and modern sound that also sounded “old time.” Peer gladly recorded the Carter’s reworkings of older tunes, especially because he could copyright them. Jimmie Rodgers, the other performer who would later go on to great fame, split with his backup band just before the session and recorded solo. His Bristol sides are assured if somewhat conventional; his later output pioneered the integration of popular tunes and jazz and blues influences on the country music idiom. Rogers’s “Blue Yodel,” recorded by Victor in Camden, New Jersey, would launch him to stardom.
While the later stardom of Rodgers and the Carters has overshadowed the other Bristol performers, they too produced compelling music. Reverend Phipps and His Holiness Singers delivered emotionally powerful performances into the relatively new electric microphones used at the Bristol Sessions—some of the first examples of white Holiness music on record. Also presenting sacred material was Alfred G. Karnes, a Baptist minister born in Bedford County, Virginia. A resident of Kentucky, Karnes’s string-snapping guitar work and forthright vocals presaged modern gospel sounds. West Virginian Blind Alfred Reed recorded “The Wreck of the Virginian (Train No. 3),” an original composition of the popular disaster broadside type. Reed’s strong and straightforward fiddling and singing also marked his song “Walking in the Way with Jesus.” An ordained Methodist minister, Reed later went on to record original topical songs, including the classic “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live.” Virginians J. P. Nestor and Norm Edmonds’s tour-de-force banjo-fiddle duo of “Train on the Island” as well as the remarkable solo banjo sides of B. F. Shelton of Corbin, Kentucky, are high points of the traditional tunes recorded at Bristol.
Later Sessions and Legacy
Victor held a follow-up session in Bristol from October 27 to November 4, 1928, and invited some of the 1927 lineup 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.
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 play the fiddle.
Boosters in Bristol and some scholars have proclaimed the city the “Birthplace of Country Music” and the session the “Big Bang of Country Music” based largely on the later fame of the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. Yet Atlanta, Georgia, which held the historic Okeh recordings of John Carson, hosted many more sessions and preceded Bristol by several years as a southern recording center. Indeed, southern field sessions were hardly unprecedented by 1927, with Asheville, North Carolina, hosting a session as early as 1925. It is also important to note that the Bristol recordings of both the Carters and Jimmie Rodgers enjoyed relatively modest sales. Peer recognized their potential, however, and later recordings would propel them to stardom.
Despite the hype, the Bristol Sessions are indeed important. Besides providing the first recordings of two country music pioneers, the session 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.