The Mountains' Music goes to America's roots

75th Anniversary of Country Music Celebration this summer in Bristol

The Bristol-based ‘Big Bang’ of Country Music - that singular event that started the country music movement in America - will celebrate its 75th anniversary July 25 through August 3.

The Birthplace of Country Music Alliance (BCMA) of Bristol will stage a series of concerts and performances during the 10-day period.  It will begin with two days of concerts at the Bristol Motor Speedway at the end of July

The following week, the BCMA will conduct a series of smaller shows throughout the region and conclude that weekend with the 28th annual Carter Family Memorial Music Center Festival at the Carter Family Fold at Maces Spring, near Hiltons, VA.

It was during that 12-day period in 1927 that the three most important acts in country music were discovered and recorded.  They were the Stonemans, Jimmie Rodgers, and the Carter Family. 

Country music legend Johnny Cash said, "These recordings in Bristol in 1927 are the single most important event in the history of country music".

This summer’s 75th anniversary celebration will take place in and around Bristol, the town that straddles the Virginia-Tennessee state lines. 

Through the cooperation of the BCMA, Virginia News Source will continue to update event schedules and activities.

John Maeder  has  prepared this detailed and rich history tracing the music of the mountains from its origins to present day times for the BCMA.

by John Maeder

In early 1927, thirty-five year old record producer Ralph Peer was contracted by the Victor Talking Machine Co. of Camden, New Jersey to travel throughout the south to scout and record local musical talent for possible commercial release. 

Peer, the president of Okeh records, had previous experience producing the earliest recording by Fiddlin' John Carson in Atlanta in the spring of 1924.  Peer had made the recordings as part of a  test of Okeh's newly developed portable acoustic recording equipment at the behest of the phonograph and record department manager of an Atlanta furniture store, Polk Brockman. 

Peer had pronounced the recordings "pluperful awful", but consented to press five-hundred white label sample copies for Brockman, a small-time music promoter and publisher who was also Carson's manager. 

Carson pushed the records at his live performances, and when they sold out within a matter of weeks, a surprised Peer quickly brought Carson to New York to wax twelve additional sides in the controlled environment of the Okeh studio. 

While Brockman was one of the first to put together a music promotion system of recording, radio, touring, song publishing and songwriting, he failed to integrate the individual aspects of the business, and his enterprise did not prosper. The Atlanta experience sparked a life-long fascination with rural music in Peer.  At the same time, he observed Brockman's business struggles with a critical eye. 

The Columbia Phonograph Co. had recorded folk musicians as early as 1923 in Louisiana, Texas and Georgia, but these -- as well as Peer's Okeh recordings of Carson - were only distributed regionally and achieved no national market penetration. 

The phonograph division of Thomas Edison's laboratories had also recorded and released 4-minute 'Blue Amberol' cylinders and one-quarter inch thick 'Diamond Discs' of rural artists such as Ernest Stoneman and the Fiddlin' Powers Family in 1924.  Although Edison maintained a strong sales presence in the rural market, these records also had little national impact, since Edison's vertical groove recording technologies were largely obsolete as early as World War I. 

To further marginalize rural white musicians -- and black musicians both in the city and country -- a membership ban on rural, blues, jazz and other 'semi-professional' musicians by ASCAP and the American Federation of Musicians prevented them from performing or publishing their works professionally. 

Most rural performers were unable to make a living strictly playing music, and performed when they could at barn dances, medicine shows, fairs, contests, political rallies, etc.  The market for rural music remained limited to itself, forcing it to become localized.

In 1924, an operatically-trained singer of popular vocals who recorded under the pseudonym of Vernon Dalhart, sang a version of "The Wreck Of The Old 97", backed with "The Prisoner's Song" on the flip side, which went on to sell over one million copies on the Victor company's label - the first 'country' record to do so (although Dalhart was not actually a 'country' singer). 

Victor had long positioned itself as the phonograph of choice for the wealthy and cultured -- primarily in urban areas and had cultivated that image by heavily promoting its 'Red Seal' catalog of classical and operatic recordings and signing the stars of the Metropolitan, London and Milan opera companies to exclusive contracts.

Victor's popular music catalog displayed similarly conservative musical tastes.  The unexpected success of Dalhart's proto-country train wreck ballad certainly got their attention.  Having no comparable material in the Victor catalog, they contacted Ralph Peer, who had the rural recording experience and contacts that the haughty Victor Co. lacked -- and asked him to bring them more.

Prior to 1925, all recording had been done acoustically - that is, the singers or instrumentalists were required to crowd around and project their instruments or voices into a large recording horn that had the

effect of concentrating the sound waves against a membrane with a recording stylus attached. 

What sounded the best was largely arrived at with no real scientific process involved -- just seat-of-the-pants experimentation. 

A variety of recording devices were kept under lock and key, and no one but the recording engineer and a trusted assistant or two were allowed to handle or even see the recording hardware to prevent spying by rival record labels. 

The recording heads were usually hand built by the recording engineer who was paid handsomely to prevent his leaving the employ of the company and taking his secrets with him. 

Artists were selected as much for the quality of their voices as for their inherent talent - only certain voices were powerful enough to sufficiently vibrate the recording stylus and ensure a successful record.  The cumbersome nature of the recording equipment did not lend itself to portability.

Consequently, most early country recordings were not made in the field, but in studios in New York or New Jersey on the rare occasion of a rural musician visiting the big city. 

Because of the necessity of moving the recording stylus through the wax recording disc surface mechanically via direct action of sound waves, acoustic recordings tend to sound thin with little dynamic range and a narrow frequency response.

In 1925, engineers from the Western Electric Company and the Victor Talking Machine Company concurrently began work on developing an electrical recording process  -- derived from radio and telephone technology -- using microphones and vacuum tube pre-amplifiers to drive electrical cutting heads; as well as an advanced mechanical phonograph designed to optimally play back records made with the new technology.  This electrical recording process enabled more sound energy to be packed into the record groove resulting in a louder, more natural recording, and the new phonograph extracted it powerfully.  Because of the use of microphones, the voice or instrument of the artist no longer had to be particularly suited to overcome the technical limitations of the recording process.  By simply adjusting the gain of the microphone and output level of the pre-amplifier, consistent and predictable recordings could be easily produced without all the hocus-pocus of acoustic recording.  The resulting records played on the new Victor Orthophonic Victrolas were astoundingly life-like and spurred Victor's sales to the second highest single-year sales level in the company's history - in 1927 alone, over one-million Orthophonic Victrolas were sold.  Both popular and classical music catalogs swelled with the new electrical recordings. 

An added bonus was that the new recording equipment could be transported, set-up and operated in the field with comparative ease, eliminating the need for impoverished musicians to travel at great personal expense, to large cities from remote areas to record. Western Electric leased the equipment under license to numerous recording companies, and overnight acoustic recording was rendered obsolete and electrical recording with microphones swept the country, revitalizing the sluggish phonograph and record industry.  

The ability to bring the recording equipment to the artist revolutionized the recording industry and enabled the record companies to economically record early blues, Hawaiian, hillbilly, and gospel artists.  The public clamored for the new louder, better sounding records to play on their new-style phonographs.  Even consumers who had previously spurned the old-style acoustic phonographs because of their limited sound quality, were buying machines designed to play electrical recordings.  The recorded music industry enjoyed this renewed prosperity until the stock market crash of 1929.

TOMORROW:  Ralph Peer brings portable recording equipment to Bristol to record the origins of mountain music - today's country