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Tennessee Ernie Ford
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Fiddlin' John Carson
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Dock Boggs album cover
Bristol’s not the only town that could claim the ‘birthplace’ label.
Contrary to the “Birthplace of Country Music” trademark, the genre really wasn’t born in Bristol, although the town has long been a musical showplace. The famous country singer Tennessee Ernie Ford was born here, after all, and got his first job as a disc jockey at the pioneering hillbilly radio station WOPI (which is still around, sort of, airing sports talk). Country music legend Hank Williams was said to have eaten his final meal here — a takeout order from the downtown Burger Bar — just before he died while riding in the backseat of his Cadillac on Jan. 1, 1953.
Country, or “hillbilly,” music had actually been around as a commercial concern for years prior to the Bristol Sessions. If we are to judge history purely on where the music was recorded, New York City could also claim itself the “Birthplace of Country Music” if it wanted to.
In 1922, a fiddler from the Texas panhandle, Eck Robertson, met up with an older fiddler of mysterious origin, Henry Gilliland, at an Old Confederates Reunion in Richmond. They decided to travel to the Big Apple and inquire about playing on one of those new talking machine platters. The duo auditioned for executives at Victor, who said what the heck, and captured what are considered the first commercial recordings of what we now know as old-time music.
The executives didn’t know what they had, so they shelved the songs until a guy from Georgia named Fiddlin’ John Carson started moving copies of similar homegrown music for another label, OKeh.
You could have a “birthplace” museum in Atlanta too. That’s where, in 1923, Ralph Peer — future Bristol Sessions producer — had recorded Carson, performing a little number called “Little Old Cabin by the Lane.” Peer, then a fledging producer at OKeh, thought the record was terrible, but when it started to sell, he brought Carson back up to New York for more recordings. Peer was no dummy.
“After Fiddlin’ John Carson, OKeh really jumped in with both feet,” says Gregg Kimball, director of public outreach at the Library of Virginia. “And then Columbia, which eventually acquired OKeh, likewise.” Despite the fact that it recorded a few of country’s earliest performers, like Robertson and Gilliland, as well as the Bristol-based Fiddlin’ Powers string band in 1924, the Victor label, he says, “was sort of behind the times when it came to rural music.”
A guitarist and harmonica player named Henry Whitter, from Fries in Southwest Virginia, made numerous recordings for the OKeh label (he would show up memorably in Bristol). Brunswick Records summoned Wise County banjo player Dock Boggs and the family band Dykes Magic City Trio to New York a few months before Peer’s journey to the border town. In all, more than a half-dozen Virginia old-time musicians had recorded for major labels before the Bristol Sessions.
And from the very beginnings of the music, there were questions about authenticity.
In 1924, the first blockbuster country music “hit” was waxed, by a man named Vernon Dalhart, a singer who had recorded for Thomas Edison’s company in the light-classical division. His “Wreck of the Old 97” recounted the story of the famous derailment of the Fast Mail train near Danville. Little matter that it was about as authentic as a third foot. It sold a million copies.
Asheville, North Carolina, can stake a claim as a country birthplace, too. Ralph Peer had set up a studio in the George Vanderbilt Hotel two years prior to Bristol. There, he recorded a slew of important early musicians — including, for the first time, Ernest Stoneman, who was the man who recommended Bristol as a recording locale and helped to gather many of the performers waxed there.
By 1927, many labels were advertising “hillbilly” discs, and location recordings by the commercial disc companies — as opposed to field recordings, initiated by folklorists and ethnologists — were becoming a regular thing. Victor needed to get in on the action. It made a deal with Peer. It would furnish the equipment, and he would find and record the artists. It got the recordings, and he got the copyrights.
“Bristol wasn’t unprecedented,” Jessica Turner, the head curator at the Birthplace of Country Music, acknowledges. “What made Bristol possible was that technology kept getting smaller and lighter — it was easier to transport to areas in rural America. Bristol was easy to get to because of the railroad, and that was one of the reasons it happened here.”
Musically, it was the epicenter of Appalachian music, says Gregg Kimball. “Geographically, it is so well-centered if your goal is to try and capture a wide range of mountain music. You’ve got Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, all within easy reach. And Peer got artists in all of those places to come. So it was a pretty smart move.”
“Ernest Stoneman made sure that there were a lot of string bands represented,” says Chris King, who co-produced the Bristol Sessions box set released by Bear Family Records. He maintains that the sessions helped to define country music’s future.
“In a way, the sessions stand to me as the power and majesty of old-time string band music that ultimately kind of lost the battle in terms of winning the definition of what country music was. When they talk about country music now, they don’t really talk old-time string band music, they talk about those multi-vocal guitar traditions. So I think Ernest Stoneman was advocating for this string band tradition that he loved, but it didn’t quite win the war.”
Visit RichmagLabs.com/Bristol to read our feature on Bristol, check out our interactive timeline on early country music in Virginia, and listen to recording samplings from the Bristol Sessions.