Mountain music spreads across the homeland
After 1927 through technology

State Street
State Street (circa 1900) separates Tennessee from Virginia in Bristol where country music was born

Editor's note:  The 12-day long Bristol-based 'Big Bang' that gave birth to the country music movement in 1927 is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year.

Events, sponsored by the Birthplace of Country Music Alliance (BCMA), will be held from July 25 through Aug. 3. 

In this 2nd part of a two-part series, John Maeder continues his full and rich history the movement has taken from 1927 to today. 

Part I recounted the technology and music history up to the stock market crash of 1929 when portable recording equipment was brought to the mountain area of East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia to make the first commercial country music recording. 

For people, many of whom lived in homes without electricity or running water, the 'magic recording' equipment brought to their homeland had to be akin to sending a man to the moon in our lifetime.

by John Maeder

It was electrical recording equipment that Ralph Peer brought with him to Bristol, Tennessee in July of 1927.

Accompanying him were his wife, Anita, and two assistants, Messrs. Eckhart and Lynch. Peer had already been in touch with Ernest Stoneman, the carpenter/musician from nearby Galax, Virginia and Cecil McLister, the Bristol Victor dealer, and these men had been spreading the word about Peer's sessions and helping to arrange talent.

It was Stoneman, who had previously recorded for Peer for Okeh in 1924, who suggested using Bristol as a recording location because of its accessibility (being on a major railroad line) and its central location to what Stoneman knew was a wealth of untapped talent.

Peer rented the top two floors over the Taylor-Christian hat factory at 410 State Street on the Tennessee side of town, and set up a makeshift studio.

He spent most of the first week recording acts that were already booked for him by Stoneman and McLister.

The second week schedule was largely open, and an ad placed in the Sunday paper asking for talent had generated little response.

On the session's third day, Peer arranged for a reporter from the Bristol newspaper to witness the Stonemans and fiddler 'Uncle' Eck Dunford record 'Skip To My Lou'.

Reluctant musicians brought in with dreams of riches

In the article appearing in the next day's paper, the reporter quoted Stoneman (who had already recorded over 100 sides for other labels) as saying he was being paid $100 per day and that his accompanists each received $25 per day, and that he had received a total of $3600 in recording royalties in 1926.

That was all it took. Bristol was flooded with aspiring musicians arriving by car, truck, train, buggy, horse-back and on foot.

Peer found it necessary to add evening hours to audition all who came.

Over the twelve days of the sessions, Peer recorded a veritable cross-section of rural American mountain music, both popular and sacred - 76 recordings by 19 different artists.

Records made at the sessions were on sale at record shops all across America less than a month after they were recorded.

Musicians who had never left the counties of their birth were being heard in living rooms on the other side of the continent.

Songs from the deepest hollows of southwest Virginia and northeast Tennessee were being snapped up and sung in New York City.

A shrewd businessman, Peer reasoned that the money lay in owning the publishing rights to the songs he was recording.

His contract with Victor paid him only one dollar a year, but he was allowed to retain the publishing rights to all songs he recorded.

Determined to improve on Polk Brockman's flawed and fragile system of music production and promotion he had observed in Atlanta three years earlier, Peer's genius lay in structuring his publishing company based on royalties, making copyrights profitable for the artist as well as himself - the financial model of the modern music industry.

New industry makes $250,000 in 3 months

In a three month span a year after the Bristol sessions recordings first went on sale, Peer's Southern Music publishing company earned a quarter-of-a-million dollars in royalties.

As a result of the recordings made in Bristol, the cross-pollination of American culture with rural music began, and the country music industry was born.

Seventy-five years later, the influence of the Bristol Sessions is global.

Musicians & moonshiners make records

Among the musicians Peer recorded in Bristol were protest singer Blind Alfred Reed; banjoist B.F. Shelton; the West Virginia Coon Hunters; expressive harmonica player Henry Whitter, the Johnson Brothers from Happy Valley, Tennessee; preacher Alfred Karnes; Dad Blackard's Moonshiners;

And the Bull Mountain Moonshiners (with Jim and Jessee McReynolds' grandfather Charles on fiddle); the Alcoa Quartet; Ernest Phipps and His Holiness Quartet; the Tenneva Ramblers (Jimmie Rodger's band until they broke with him on the eve of their first recordings); the Shelor Family from Meadows of Dan, Virginia and many others.

Stonemans, Rodgers, Carter family became legends after recording for Peer

The Stoneman Family

The most famous artists to come out of the Bristol Sessions were Ernest V. 'Pop' Stoneman -- patriarch of the still-performing Stoneman Family - whose importance in the history of country music was cast in Bristol; Jimmie Rodgers - 'The Singing Brakeman'-- the first 'superstar' of country music; and Alvin Pleasant 'A.P.' Carter, his wife Sara, and her guitar playing cousin, Maybelle - the immortal, original Carter Family.

Oringal Carter Family
The original Carter family - A.P., Sara, & Maybelle

The impact of these artists upon the history and course of country music cannot be measured.

The Author 

John Maeder is originally from Kentucky, but has lived in New York and California as well.  

An amateur historian and banjo picker, he has studied and collected antique phonographs and recordings for over 33 years and is the author of a number of articles and books on early recorded sound.  

He is fascinated with the arcane.  John is an avid photographer and artist and is publicist for Fat Dog Records.  

He shares a rambling 100-year old house with his wife Ann and son Henry, and two Mexican Hairless dogs, Sis and Bonita.

Bluegrass and mountain music is still vibrant in Bristol. It is part and parcel of the local culture. In 1994, the Birthplace Of Country Music Alliance (BCMA) was formed "to bring national and international recognition to the people of the southern Appalachian region, the musical and cultural heritage of the region, its role in the development of country music, and its influence on music around the world". The mission area of the BCMA encompasses not only Bristol, but East Tennessee, Eastern Kentucky, Southern West Virginia, Southwest Virginia and Western North Carolina. The BCMA currently counts nearly 400 members including musicians, business leaders and other interested citizens.

BCMA Advisory Council is packed with notables promoting country music

Members of the BCMA Advisory Council include Janette Carter (daughter of A.P. and Sara), John Cephas and Phil Wiggins, "Little" Jimmie Dickens, Larry Groce (host of ‘Mountain Stage’), Tom T. & Dixie Hall, Sen Jesse Helms (NC), Sen. Mitch McConnell (KY), Dolly Parton, Mike Seeger, Dr. Ralph Stanley, Marty and Connie Stuart, Patsy Stoneman Murphy (daughter of ‘Pop’ Stoneman), Sen. Fred Thompson (TN), Sen. John Warner (VA), Joe Wilson (Director of the National Council for the Traditional Arts), Doc Watson, and Mac Wiseman. 

Rodgers, left, with Peer, center rear

The BCMA staff and volunteers work diligently to preserve and promote the region’s musical heritage, educate the public about the significance of the Bristol Sessions, and to support and promote the region’s living culture through live musical performances.  

The BCMA operates a museum and gift shop of educational exhibits, artifacts and mementos. Currently housed in the Bristol Mall, plans are underway to move to larger quarters.  

Every Thursday night, BCMA sponsors weekly live music shows at its ‘Pickin’ Porch’ venue located near the museum and gift shop in the Bristol Mall. 

These free live music shows are broadcast in stereo over WGOC, a 10,000-watt radio station, and always draw a packed house.  

The BCMA also administers the Benny Sims Memorial Scholarship at East Tennessee State University.  

It was also instrumental in the passage of US Cong. Res. H.R. 214, in 1998 which formally designated Bristol TN/VA and the surrounding region as ‘The Birthplace Of Country Music’.  

BCMA is affiliate of Smithsonian Institute  

In February 2000, the BCMA became an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution. The 75th anniversary of the Bristol Sessions is the first event in the 2002-2003 Smithsonian Folklife Festival ‘Year Of Appalachia.’ 

It will culminate with a ten-day musical event in the summer of 2003 on the National Mall in Washington, DC.  The BCMA was chosen as the lead organization for this event due to its commitment to the musical traditions of the area and its status as an affiliate of the Smithsonian.

75th Anniversary events this summer

During the summer of 2002, the Birthplace Of Country Music Alliance will stage a series of performances within the region extending over a ten-day period to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the historic Bristol Sessions.  

The celebration will begin with two days of concerts at the Bristol Motor Speedway at the end of July.

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

The Carter Family Music Center is operated by Janette and Joe Carter – son and daughter of A.P and Sara – and presents live traditional music every Saturday night (unless Saturday falls on Christmas).  

Janette and Joe were both present at the 1927 Bristol Sessions, but Janette had to take infant Joe from the studio when he began crying.   

It is fortunate that in our lifetimes we can still interact with people who were so close to those who made history.

Everyone is urged to join the BCMA in the Bristol TN-VA region July 25th through August 5th 2002, as this milestone of the country's unique musical heritage is celebrated. 

Many other venues available

There are many other regional venues presenting authentic mountain and bluegrass music in the Bristol region and links to these may be found on the BCMA website.

You can access the BCMA website at or contact the BCMA at PO Box 216 Bristol TN/VA 37621. Phone: 423-990-BCMA (2262) or 276-645-0035.  

All photos courtesy of the BCMA

See:  Also Part I of history of Country Music