Country music’s place as a permanent part of American life and culture is a direct result of the Bristol Sessions.
For 12 days between July 25 and August 5, 1927, in Bristol – a town on the border of Virginia and Tennessee – Victor Talking Machine Company record producer Ralph Peer recorded blues, ragtime, gospel and traditional black and European folk songs for a commercial release. The sounds, styles, techniques, intonations and lyrics devoted to vinyl over the two weeks – from Maybelle Carter’s “scratch-style” guitar work to Jimmie Rodgers yodeling, and more – represent the creation of the country music and the preservation of the epitome of America. , rock foundations.
As the 1920s roared, so did interest in hillbilly music in the United States. The 1920 census found that the nation had more urban than rural residents (51.2 percent urban, 48.8 percent rural), but although the time of farmers and pioneers defining the country’s population Gone were the desire to revel in their memories via recordings of roots music familiar to the lives of black sharecroppers and European settlers was gaining in popularity.
Before the Bristol Sessions, New York-based record companies such as Okeh and Columbia Records sent increasingly popular artists along rural touring circuits and took them to the Big Apple to record. This list of acts included artists such as Texan Vernon Dalhart, whose ballad “Wreck of the Old 97” – about a rail disaster in 1903 involving the Southern Railway mail train, which was en route to Monroe, in Virginia, in Spencer, North Carolina – was the first million-dollar country music record, in 1924.
A year later, country music producer Ralph Peer – likely inspired by the music industry’s potential for success – quit his job at Okeh Records to join the Victor Talking Machine Company. His bet was a sure risk, but a spectacular one.
In his biography of Peer in 2014, Ralph Peer and the Creation of Popular Music Roots, the author Barry Mazor recalls the roots of the producer in the “race records”, that is to say the music made by blacks for blacks. Spurred on by blues singer Mamie Smith’s Okeh recording in 1920 of “Crazy Blues”, which sold nearly a million copies, Peer became a pioneer in the field of Mazor calls the development “of recorded music in the performance style of its creators, reflecting the flavor of the region and the people it comes from.
Leading country artist Ernest Stoneman, a favorite of peers, convinced the producer to travel with newly invented and dynamic electric microphones compatible with sound recording across Appalachia to record blues, gospel and “hillbilly” music from talented artists who couldn’t make it to New York. Bristol was located at the connection point between two other hub towns in the Tri-Cities region, Johnson City and Kingsport, Tenn.
When he moved to Victor, Peer only received a salary of about $ 15 per year, adjusted for current inflation; However, under his contract, Peer – and not Victor Talking Machine Company – owned the publishing rights to all of the recordings he made. Peer’s agreement also provided for the payment of royalties based on sales to artists. Again, adjusted for current inflation, Peer, through the label, paid artists about $ 750 per song for the recording, plus 40 cents in royalties per single sold. In other words, if Peer had unearthed another “Wreck of the Old 97” level hit during the Bristol sessions, it would have been an incredibly lucrative bet for all parties involved.
Bristol’s first sessions (Peer returned in 1928) didn’t turn out to produce another mega-hit – but their impact was much more lasting. Peer recorded 76 songs by 19 performers or groups of performers. For the Carter Family, their recordings began a four-year span that saw them sell over 300,000 records in the United States.
Peer’s methods have also inadvertently given rise to a kind of “family tree” that creates the socio-cultural and commercial basis of country music. Like Peer, the patriarch of the AP Carter family teamed up with black guitarist Lesley Riddle and began collecting and protecting more Appalachian songs. Along with these trips, a recording session in June 1931 in Benton, Ky., Associated the Carters with Rodgers. Two years later, Maybelle Carter met the Speer Family at a fair in Ceredo, West Virginia, and, infatuated with their signature sound, asked them to tour with the Carter Family.
In 2017, on the occasion of the 90th anniversary of the Bristol Sessions, Leah Ross, Executive Director of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol, offered a note that sums up the impressive legacy of 12 days in the heat of the summer of 1927: “The events that happened in Bristol in 1927 revolutionized the country music industry and created a legacy that impacts the soundtrack of our lives.
The Carter Family: A Brief Family Tree