Archive for April, 2011

Country Music’s Big Bang

April 8, 2011

This article from the Wall Street Journal is pretty interesting… Thought I’d snag it for posterity!


Bristol, Tenn.—and Va.

Even people who know little about the lives of country music pioneers the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers seem to have heard of the historic midsummer 1927 recording sessions at Bristol, the town straddling the Tennessee-Virginia border where Ralph S. Peer, a seminal music producer and publisher, first recorded both acts for Victor Records. (He also recorded 17 others, among them such important early hillbilly stars as Ernest V. Stoneman and Blind Alfred Reed.) The eventual recognition of the Carters as progenitors of country music’s more harmonious, domesticated, Sunday-friendly side, and of “Singing Brakeman” Rodgers as the father of country’s more individualist, slier, more raucous Saturday-night music, led the Bristol Sessions to be referred to as “The Big Bang of Country Music.”

Jimmie Rodgers (far left) and Maybelle, A.P. and Sara Carter.

Yet few of those 1927 recordings have been readily accessible, and virtually none of the follow-up recordings Peer produced in Bristol the next year. That deficiency is dealt with in high style with the unleashing last month of “The Bristol Sessions 1927-1928,” a lavish, elucidating boxed set of five CDs and a hardbound book marketed globally by Germany’s Bear Family Records.

“The Bristol Sessions are one of the watershed moments in American cultural history, but their full story has never been told,” Ted Olson, co-author of the book with discographer Tony Russell, noted in an interview during a recent weekend of events in Bristol marking the set’s release. “It’s my hope that this box set, providing the historical context, unseen photographs, song lyrics and, especially, the full set of recordings from ’27 and ’28, will make the sessions, and Bristol itself, better understood across this country and around the world.”

These were among the first American roots-music recordings of any stripe to be captured with the vastly improved dynamics and sensitivity of electronic microphones, a technology only a year and a half old when Peer brought it to Bristol. In recording such engaging exemplars of the just-emerging, emotionally expressive Holiness Church style of gospel singing as Alfred Karnes and Ernest Phipps, Peer was breaking new ground as well, paving the way for the new Southern Gospel commercial genre. (On hand for the events in Bristol was Georgia Warren, now 96, who as a child sang in the Tennessee Mountaineers church choir led by her father. She is the last of the session performers still among us.)

The wide-ranging sessions included the first recordings ever of such old songs as the murder ballad “Pretty Polly” (performed by the eerie singer and remarkable banjo player B.F. Shelton) and, in an opposite mood, “Skip to Ma Lou, My Darling” (in the hands of fiddling comedian Eck Dunford, an uncle of the Stonemans). But listening to the set makes it clear that the sessions did not focus primarily on preserving what had come before. They were about sparking the popularization of American roots music—the infusion of what some call “folk” music into mainstream pop.

“Consider the Carters’ wonderful ‘The Storms Are on the Ocean,’ which has been so well known ever since,'” Mr. Olson said during a talk at the Bristol Library. “Ralph Peer, in conversation with A.P., Sara and Maybelle Carter, came up with a unique approach to the song, taking a really lengthy old ballad [‘The Lass of Roch Royal’] and creating a three-minute song with a few verses and, now, a chorus. Listen to 95% of country songs to this day, and you’ll find the same popular-music approach and structure.”

The celebrations around the boxed set’s release included a live two-hour edition of West Virginia Public Radio’s “Mountain Stage” show. It was Ernest V. Stoneman who in the ’20s had suggested Bristol to Peer as a potentially ripe recording location, and in a kind of homecoming Stoneman’s celebrated daughters Patsy, Roni and Donna performed “Whip-porwhil,” adapted from a song recorded at the sessions. In a rare joint appearance, A.P. and Sara Carter’s grandson Dale Jett and Maybelle Carter’s grandson John Carter Cash, plus his wife Laura, revisited such Carter gems as “Bury Me Beneath the Willow.” (The third-generation trio has been recording as “Carter Family III.”)

John Carter Cash, in a backstage interview, said of his maternal grandmother: “Maybelle had a great sense of roots, and of the importance of the work ethic, also. Pregnant, she still took that trip to Bristol as the right thing for her to do—and I’m really grateful that she took the chance and got in that car with A.P. She was such a sweet, good-natured woman, and she also had a vision; she most certainly did. The songs have touched so many people, for so many years, in so many different ways.”

The finale of the Bristol radio broadcast was, almost inevitably, an emotional, “all join in” rendition of the Carters’ “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” with Nashville country-rock veterans the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band leading the way. They had introduced new generations to Bristol-engendered music with their historic 1973 album named for that song, with Maybelle Carter’s participation. “This is hallowed ground for us, as it is for all of country,” lead singer Jeff Hanna said backstage before the finale.

The new Bear Family set will no doubt be a boon to Bristol’s understandable promotion of itself as ‘The Birthplace of Country Music.” A building only yards away from the original recording site has been purchased and millions of dollars have been raised, with more needed, toward the opening of a Bristol Cultural Heritage Center. There’s much to celebrate here on such a permanent basis. As Mr. Olson puts it, “People sometimes misunderstand all of Appalachia as having been a very isolated, marginalized place, out of time and backward—when these very modern, state-of-the-art recording sessions that revolutionized American music happened in this very spot.”

Mr. Mazor, the author of “Meeting Jimmie Rodgers” (Oxford University Press), writes about country, roots and pop music for the Journal. He is at work on the first full biography of Ralph Peer.