The Bristol Sessions are considered by many as 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 had been recorded commercially since 1922. Among the very early country 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 negotiated to own the publishing rights to all the recordings he made. Peer’s arrangement of paying royalties to artists based on sales is still the basis for contemporary recording contracts, and the company he founded then, and known now as 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 now highly portable — and as such, recordings could be made practically anywhere.
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 2 1/2 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 an old hat warehouse on State Street, which is actually the state line in downtown Bristol. He placed advertisements in the local newspapers, which did not receive much immediate response, aside from artists who had already traveled to New York 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.
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. Through either chance or providence, 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.