The Bristol Sessions

Writings About the Big Bang of Country Music

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About the Book

In the summer of 1927, nineteen bands gathered for a recording session in Bristol, on the Tennessee-Virginia border, including some of the most influential names in American music—the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, Ernest Stoneman and more. Organized by Ralph Peer for Victor records to capitalize on the popularity of “hillbilly” music, the Bristol sessions were a key moment in country music’s evolution. The musicians played a variety of styles largely endemic to the Appalachian region. Rather than attempting to record purely traditional sounds, however, Peer sought a combination of musical elements, an amalgam that would form the backbone of modern country music. The reverberations of the Bristol sessions are still felt today, yet their influence is widely misunderstood, and popular accounts of the event are more legend than history.

These 19 essays offer an examination and reevaluation of the Bristol sessions—from their germination, to the actual sessions, to their place in history and their continuing influence. The first section discusses technological advances that resulted in the unmatched quality of the Bristol recordings. The second section chronicles the people and musical acts involved in the event. The third section gives first-hand accounts of the Bristol sessions, while the fourth presents musicological studies of two of the prominent acts. The final section details subsequent recording sessions in Bristol and nearby Johnson City, and explores the lasting local musical legacy. Instructors considering this book for use in a course may request an examination copy here.

About the Author(s)

The late Charles K. Wolfe lived in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and taught English at Middle Tennessee State University.

Ted Olson lives in Johnson City, Tennessee, and teaches Appalachian Studies and English at East Tennessee State University.

Bibliographic Details

Edited by Charles K. Wolfe and Ted Olson

Format: softcover (6 x 9)
Pages: 306
Bibliographic Info: 65 photos, notes, bibliography, index
Copyright Date: 2005
pISBN: 978-0-7864-1945-6
Imprint: McFarland
Series: Contributions to Southern Appalachian Studies

Table of Contents

Introduction by Ted Olson      1

Part I: Before the Bristol Sessions
1. Early Sound Recording Technology and the Bristol Sessions      7
Eric Morritt

Part II: The Bristol Sessions
2. The Legend That Peer Built: Reappraising the Bristol Sessions      17
Charles K. Wolfe
3. The Bristol Sessions: The Cast of Characters      40
Charles K. Wolfe
4. Jimmie Rodgers and the Bristol Sessions      54
John Lilly
5. Something Old, Something New: The Carter Family’s Bristol Sessions Recordings      66
Katie Doman
6. The Blackard-Shelor Story: Biography of a Hillbilly String Band      87
Tom Carter
7. Gospel According to Bristol: The Life, Music and Ministry of Ernest Phipps      95
Brandon Story
8. The Life of Alfred G. Karnes      119
Donald Lee Nelson
9. The Life of Blind Alfred Reed      125
The Rounder Collective
10. The West Virginia Coon Hunters: On the Trail of a Lost Mountain State String Band      130
John Lilly

Part III: Remembering the Bristol Sessions
11. Discovery of the First Hillbilly Great      137
Ralph Peer
12. My Husband, Jimmie Rodgers      142
Carrie Rodgers
13. Before the Myth Was Born: Claude Grant of the Tenneva Ramblers Remembers Jimmie Rodgers      161
Richard Blaustein
14. I Remember Daddy      172
Gladys Carter Millard
15. My Memories of the Bristol Sessions      183
Mabel Phelps Morrell

Part IV: Musicological Studies of the Bristol Sessions
16. Ernest Stoneman’s 1927 Session: Hillbilly Recordings of Gospel Hymns      187
Jocelyn Neal
17. On the Vanguard of Change: Jimmie Rodgers and Alfred G. Karnes in Bristol, 1927      214
Thomas Townsend

Part V: After the Bristol Sessions
18. The Rest of the Story: Other Early Recording Sessions in the Tri-Cities Area      235
Charles K. Wolfe
19. The Birthplace of Country Music, 75 Years Later: The Cradle Still Rocks      257
Ted Olson and Ajay Kalra

Contributors      271
Index      275

Book Reviews & Awards

  • Appalachian Book of the Year for Nonfiction—Appalachian Writers Association
  • “highly recommended”—Choice
  • “an astonishing piece of research”—MOJO
  • “well-researched…valuable”—ARSC Journal
  • “illuminating”—Appalachian Heritage
  • “detailed…very interesting…fascinating”—Northeast State
  • “a useful contribution”—The Journal of Southern History
  • “unique insight”—Bluegrassmusic.com
  • “fine book”—The Old-Time Herald