Country Music – Where It Began
Sometimes it’s hard to be definitive about what led to what. Who was first and what were key causal events? The same with music. Genres merge, history is, well, a long time ago. Who started rock n roll? – some say “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston & Ike Turner, some say Elvis blew everyone away. How about Sam Phillips at his Sun Studio in Memphis before Elvis, or Fats Domino and Bill Haley? Hard to tell, really.
In the case of Country Music, though, it’s a lot clearer.
The mountains of the southern Appalachia in the eastern United States have long been recognised as a breeding ground for traditional music. The central and southern Appalachian Mountains include the States of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and North Carolina. The earliest settlers to these parts brought their instruments and musical traditions, which were fused together to form country, blues, folk and other styles of American popular music.
Bristol is a small town right on the Virginia (VA) and Tennessee (TN) Border (in fact, the State line runs through the main street, appropriately called State Street) which has earned its place in musical history. It’s best known these days for its Nascar racing and, more interesting for me, the annual Rhythm and Roots Reunion music and food festival which is held every September. Its biggest claim to fame, though, is its place in music history. I was there just recently.
These recordings in Bristol are the single most important event in the history of Country Music
– Johnny Cash
In 1927 Ralph Peer, a record producer from Victor Talking Machine Company took the most advanced recording equipment every developed and set up a portable recording studio in the middle of Bristol, on State Street, on the Tennessee side. Over the course of two weeks, Peer recorded no less than seventy six songs by nineteen different acts. Singers came from all over as Peer was paying artists to record. Two acts became stars as a result of those recordings – The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers and this catalogue of songs is now known as “the 1927 Bristol Sessions” and are regarded as “The Big Bang of Country Music”.
The Carter Family were A.P. Carter, Sara Carter, and Maybelle Carter and, during the next 17 years, they recorded some 300 old-time ballads, traditional tunes, country songs, and Gospel hymns. They did their last radio show together in 1942, after which Maybelle continued her career with her three daughters, Anita, Helen, and June (who was married to Johnny Cash). Carlene Carter and Roseanne Cash continue the family tradition today. The original Carters became known as “The First Family of Country Music”.
Jimmie Rodgers made four songs out of The Bristol Sessions and shortly after rocketed to stardom and stayed as a performer at the top of his game until his early death. He has since become known as “The Father of Country Music”.
To cement the momentous 1927 event, the U.S. Congress officially declared Bristol the Birthplace of Country Music in 1998 and The Birthplace of Country Music Museum just opened in the town (on the Virginian side) in August this year. The $10.5 million museum was built in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution and has everything, loads of information about The Bristol Sessions, so many different interactive and interesting displays.
The 24,000 square foot area features the most diverse exhibit spaces – featuring both temporary and permanent exhibitions – while also accommodating educational and interactive programming. It has films, listening posts, a “Chapel experience”, a Singing Station and “The Unbroken Circle”, a wonderful immersion experience. Even the visitors’ book is unique. It is the best music museum I’ve seen.