The Bristol sessions are considered the "Big Bang" of modern country music. They were held in 1927 in Bristol, Tennessee by Victor Talking Machine Company company producer Ralph Peer. They marked the commercial debuts of Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family.
Country music before the Sessions
Country music had been recorded commercially since 1922. Among these very early artists were Vernon Dalhart, who recorded the million-selling Wreck of the Old 97, Ernest Stoneman from Galax, Virginia, Henry Whitter, A.C. (Eck) Robertson, who recorded the first documented country record along with Henry C. Gilliland ("Sallie Gooden" b/w "Arkansaw Traveler"), and Uncle Dave Macon. However, any "hillbilly" artists who recorded had to travel to the New York City studios of the major labels, and many artists, including Dalhart, were not true "hillbilly" artists but instead crossed over from other genres. ("Hillbilly" is used here to distinguish the largely secular folk music of the region from gospel and blues, and is not meant as a pejorative.)
Okeh Records and later Columbia Records had sent producers around the South in an attempt to discover new talent. Peer, who worked for Okeh at the time, recorded Fiddlin' John Carson using the old acoustic method (known for its large intrusive sound-gathering horn) in 1924, at the behest of the Okeh dealer in Atlanta, Georgia, Polk Brockman. Despite Peer's belief that the record was of poor quality, the 500 copies made of "Cluck Old Hen" sold out in weeks. This experience convinced Peer of the potential for "hillbilly" music.
Peer left Okeh for the Victor Talking Machine Company, taking a salary of $1 per year. However, Peer owned the publishing rights to all the recordings he made. Peer's arrangement of paying royalties to artists based on sales is the basis for record contracts today, and the company he founded, Peermusic, remains in existence today.
The rise of electronic recording allowed records to have a sound better than radio, which had threatened to reduce the recording industry to irrelevance by 1925. This new method allowed softer instruments such as dulcimers, guitars and jaw harps to be heard, and it also meant recording equipment was highly portable — and as such, recordings could be made nearly anywhere (the acoustic equipment was not really portable.)
Peer asked his friend Stoneman, who had recorded for Okeh, how to find more rural talent. Stoneman convinced Peer to travel through southern Appalachia and record artists who might otherwise have been unable to travel to New York. Peer recognized the potential with the mountain music, as even residents of Appalachia who didn't have electricity were using hand-cranked Victrolas. He decided to make a trip, hoping to record blues, gospel and "hillbilly" music. Artists were paid $50 on the spot for each side cut, and 2½ cents for each single sold.
In February and March, he made a trip which recorded blues and gospel music, and decided to make another trip. He decided to make a stop in Savannah, Georgia and Charlotte, North Carolina. He settled on Bristol (at the urging of Stoneman) as a third stop, because with Johnson City and Kingsport, Tennessee, it formed the Tri-Cities, the largest urban area in the Appalachians at the time. In addition, three other record companies had held or were scheduling auditions for Bristol. So Peer set out with his wife and two engineers for Bristol.
Peer then set up a record studio in a hat warehouse on State Street, which is the state line in Bristol. He placed advertisements in the local newspapers, which did not receive much response aside from artists who had already traveled to New York (such as the Powers Family) or were already known by Stoneman.
Stoneman was the first to record with Peer, doing so on July 25. He recorded with friends such as his wife Hattie, Eck Dunford and Mooney Brewer. Other acts, including the Johnson Brothers vaudeville duo (best known for their Crime of The D'Autremont Brothers) and a church choir, filled out the rest of July. However, these artists were only enough to fill the first week of recordings and Peer needed to fill out his second week.
A newspaper article about one of Stoneman's recordings (Skip To Ma Lou, My Darling), which stressed the $3,600 in royalties that Stoneman had received in 1926 and the $100 a day he was receiving for recording in Bristol, generated much more interest. Dozens of artists went to Bristol, many of whom had never been to Bristol in their lives. He had to schedule night sessions to accommodate the extra talent, which included the Carter family and Jimmie Rodgers. Rodgers had a disagreement with his band over what name to record under, and so Rodgers recorded solo and his band recorded as the Tenneva Ramblers. Rodgers and his band only found out about the sessions when they stayed at the boarding house of one of the band members' mothers.
Eventually, nineteen performers recorded seventy-six songs at the Sessions.
A second group of sessions was made by Peer in 1928, but the artistic success was not duplicated. In those twelve days in Bristol, Peer had managed to fully introduce America to the authentic music of southern Appalachia. The results were two new superstars, the Carter family and Jimmie Rodgers, and Peer's becoming very wealthy.
Artists Who Recorded
Ernest Stoneman/M. Mooney Brewer: The Dying Girl's Farewell, Tell Mother I Will Meet Her (7/25)
Ernest Stoneman/Eck Dunford/Miss Frost: The Mountaineer's Courtship, Midnight on the Stormy Deep (7/25)
Stoneman's Dixie Mountaineers: Sweeping Through the Gates, I Know My Name is There, Are You Washed in the Blood?, No More Goodbyes, The Resurrection, I Am Resolved (7/25)
Ernest Phipps and His Holiness Quartet: I Want to Go Where Jesus Is, Do Lord Remember Me, Old Ship of Zion, Jesus is Getting Us Ready for That Great Day, Happy in Prison, Don't You Grieve After Me (7/26)
Uncle Eck Dunford/Ernest Stoneman/Hattie Stoneman/T. Edwards: The Whippoorwill's Song, What Will I Do, For My Money's All Gone, Skip to Ma Lou Ma Darling, Barney McCoy (7/27)
Blue Ridge Corn Shuckers (Ernest Stoneman/Hattie Stoneman/Eck Dunford/T. Edwards): Old Time Corn Shucking (7/27-28)
Charles and Paul Johnson with the Tennessee Wildcats: Two Brothers are We (From East TN), The Jealous Sweetheart (7/28)
Blind Alfred Reed: The Wreck of the Virginian, I Mean to Live for Jesus, You Must Unload, Walking in the Way With Jesus (7/28)
Charles and Paul Johnson: The Soldier's Poor Little Boy, Just A Message from Carolina, I Want to See My Mother (7/28)
El Watson and Charles Johnson: Pot Licker Blues, Narrow Gauge Blues (7/28)
B. F. Shelton: Cold Penitentiary Blues, O Molly Dear, Pretty Polly, Darling Cora (7/29)
Alfred G. Karnes: Called to the Foreign Field, I Am Bound for the Promised Land, Where We'll Never Grow Old, When I See the Blood, When They Ring the Golden Bells for You and Me, To the Work (7/29)
J.P. Nestor: Train on the Island, Georgia, John My Lover, Black Eyed Susie (8/1)
Bull Mountain Moonshiners: Sweet Marie, Johnny Goodwin (8/1)
The Carter Family (A.P., Sara and Maybelle): Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow, Little Log Cabin By the Sea, The Storms are on the Ocean, Single Girl, Married Girl, The Wandering Boy (8/1, last two 8/2)
Alcoa Quartet: Remember Me O Might One, I'm Redeemed (8/2)
Henry Whitter: Henry Whiter's Fox Chase, Rain Crow Bill (8/2)
The Shelor Family: Big Bend Gal, Billy Grimes the Rover (8/3)
The Shelor Family (as Dad Blackard's Moonshiners): Suzanna Gal, Sandy River Belle (8/3)
Mr. and Mrs. J. W. Baker: The New Market Wreck, On the Banks of the Sunny Tennessee (8/3)
Jimmie Rodgers: The Soldier's Sweetheart; Sleep, Baby, Sleep (8/4)
Red Snodgrass and His Alabamians: Weary Blues (8/4)
Tenneva Ramblers (Jack Pierce, Claude Grant, Jack Grant, Claude Slagle): The Longest Train I Ever Saw; Sweet Heaven, When I Die; Miss Liza, Poor Gal (8/4)
West Virginia Coon Hunters (W. S. Meadows et al.): Greasy String, Your Blue Eyes Run Me Crazy (8/5)
Tennessee Mountaineers (20 mixed voices): Standing on the Promises, At the River (Beautiful River) (8/5)
Birthplace of Country Music Alliance
The Bristol Sessions: Writings About the Big Bang of Country Music
The Bristol Sessions, 1927-1928: The Big Bang of Country Music
Johnson City sessions