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.
Bristol was one of the stops on a two-month, $60,000 trip that took Peer through several major southern cities and yielded important recordings of blues, ragtime, gospel, ballads, topical songs, and string bands.
Between 25 July and 5 August 1927, Peer held a series of recording sessions on the third floor of the Taylor-Christian Hat and Glove Company 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 Jimmie Rodgers. Rodgers had a disagreement with the band in which he was a member over what name to record under, and so Rodgers recorded solo and the band recorded as the Tenneva Ramblers. Rodgers and the band only found out about the sessions when they stayed at the boarding house of one of the band members’ mothers.
The arrival of the Carter Family was more expected. Ralph Peer had corresponded with the family earlier in the summer, but later wrote that “he was still surprised to see them,” primarily due to their appearance. “They wander in,” Peer told Lillian Borgeson during a series of interviews in 1959. “He’s dressed in overalls and the women are country women from way back there. They looked like hillbillies. But as soon as I heard Sara’s voice, that was it. I knew it was going to be wonderful.” The Carters recorded four songs on the second Monday of the sessions and two the next day. On 1 Aug., Sara sang lead while playing autoharp, A.P. sang bass, and 18-year-old Maybelle played guitar with an unusual and subsequently influential style that allowed her to provide both melody and rhythm. Victor released the first Carter Family record, “Poor Orphan Child” and “The Wandering Boy,” on 4 Nov. 1927.
Eventually, nineteen performers recorded seventy-six songs at the Sessions.
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.
A second group of sessions was made by Peer in 1928, but the artistic success was not duplicated.