The Birthplace of Country Music Museum celebrates Bristol's 'big bang'
By Don Harrison, July 2014
Five years ago, when a special roadside marker was erected to commemorate the site of the famed “Bristol Sessions,” this diehard country music fan took a half-day’s drive to the mountainous Virginia/Tennessee border town of Bristol to see the thing.
There it was planted, somewhat inconspicuously, in front of a parking lot on the Tennessee side of State Street, not far from an iconic mural, painted by artist Tim White in 1986, that pays tribute to the sessions.
“In 1927 Ralph Peer, a record producer with the Victor Talking Machine Company, set up a temporary music studio on this site,” it read. “Over the next 12 days he recorded 76 songs by 19 artists, including the Stonemans, and the first recordings of Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. These recordings launched the country music industry.”
Countless books, essays and American Studies dissertations have been written about what happened in Bristol; it’s been called “the Big Bang.” Jazz traditionalist Wynton Marsalis — no dirt-kicking honky-tonker — has stated that any serious study of American music has to include these sounds. In 1998, as the marker makes clear, the U.S. Congress proclaimed Bristol the “birthplace of country music,” even though what was captured was a wider snapshot of rural traditions, including gospel.
Flash forward to April 2014. I’m back in Bristol, where the side streets have been renamed things like Carter Family Way and Stoneman Family Drive, and standing in the middle of a busy construction site, watching workmen and acoustics experts begin the process of turning an old automobile showroom on the Virginia side of town into the Birthplace of Country Music museum. That modest marker is becoming a monument.
“The museum has been brewing for 40 years, and it’s really been money, development, energy, revitalization,” says Jessica Turner, the BCM’s head curator. “Everything is coming together just at the right moment.”
The 24,000-square-foot building, opening in August, will tell the story of that unique confluence of capitalism, music, technology and pure dumb luck that happened in Bristol 87 years ago. That’s when a shrewd New York producer, a pioneer of location recording in the early days of the music industry, used newly developed technology to record, clearly, the varied sounds of rural Appalachia and to help make it a true commercial commodity.
“We don’t have to convince people around here that the sessions were important,” she says. “Or that music history or Americana, roots music, bluegrass, early country, is part of the region’s history and should be celebrated and remembered.” The museum will become a key stop on the Crooked Road, a regional heritage music trail and driving route started in 2003 that ties together venues and music festivals across Southwest Virginia. It has near-total buy-in with the community. So does a popular country music festival, the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion, which fills up downtown venues each September. The folks here “get it,” Turner says.
“Building a museum, that’s a pretty big old task,” says Jack Hinshelwood, executive director of the Crooked Road. “It took a lot of people passionate about that dream, that vision, for [this] to happen.”
The Birthplace Museum, at a cost of $11.5 million, will be affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution and boast interactive displays, an educational wing and a functioning 1940s-style radio station (WBCM-LP) that will broadcast a low-power signal of early country music throughout the Bristol area.
The 12,000 feet of exhibition space includes a mini-chapel that commemorates the gospel music captured in 1927, as well as a 100-seat performance theater wired up for recording and live transmission. Among other sources, the project is being funded through historic tax credits, grant money from the Tobacco Commission and the Appalachian Regional Commission, and operational support from the arts commissions of both Virginia and Tennessee. “The state of Tennessee gave half a million dollars,” Turner says. “We’re trying to get Virginia to match that.”
The two-floor museum site, formerly the Goodpasture Motor Co. building, is spacious. You enter into a large reception area where a gigantic sculpture piece will be installed. “There’s a special gallery where we’ll have rotating exhibits,” Turner says. “Some might be traveling exhibits from the Smithsonian … a lot of them we’ll curate ourselves.”
A classroom space for after-school programs and outreach classes for adults is being readied. “Some classes will be very music-focused, about music history, but others might be about technology or copyright laws,” she says.
Which brings us to Peer. The Missouri-born talent scout and producer had recognized early in the 1920s that there was monetary value in rural old-time music, and had set up recording sessions before, in other parts of the South. He would eventually become one of country music’s most dominant music publishers, and Bristol was his springboard.
“The recording sessions took place here on State Street, just outside this parking lot here on the corner,” Turner says, sitting in the offices of the Country Music Alliance, a few blocks from the museum site. “It was the Taylor Christian Hat factory and they set up, on the second floor, this makeshift studio with the recording equipment that Peer brought down from the Victor Talking Machine Co.” To entice local musicians, Peer placed advertisements in regional newspapers.
A CD box set, issued by Bear Family Records, compiles all of the surviving 1927 recordings for the first time. It also includes the songs and performers from a lesser-known follow-up session in 1928 that saw the return of many of the performers. Those recordings were done at the Peters Building, which is now the catering site of a local restaurant.
“Peer and his engineers didn’t quite know how to use the new carbon electric microphones in a field recording environment rather than a controlled studio environment, like up in New York City,” reveals Chris King, a Nelson County resident who co-produced and mastered the Bristol Sessions box set. “They had to come up with all sorts of strange strategies, like hanging burlap and mattresses here and there, to cut down on echo and vibration.”
Turner says that the new museum has a story to tell about the then-emerging technology. “One of the things that mark the Bristol recordings is the invention of the Western Electric Microphone in 1926.” The museum will display an original Double Button Carbon mic, like the one Peer used. “There’s one area of the museum where you will listen to an acoustically recorded John Philip Sousa march from 1918, and hear the same band recording it on a Western Electric in 1926, and you can hear the difference in the sound.”
“With these new microphones, Peer was able to pick up nuances,” says King, a Grammy nominee through his mastering work on many archival music projects. “You could now hear nuances in, say, a string-band configuration or a vocal ensemble configuration that were completely and totally elusive to the earlier acoustic recording technology.”
The former method was a tad primitive, too. “You basically played or you shouted as loud as you could into a wooden horn, etching the sound into a wax cylinder or wax disc.”
Sixty-nine 78-rpm sides were eventually released by Victor, but a lot of the music made in 1927 was never issued. (Only seven other takes have been unearthed.) One lost item was a jazz song from a combo that was the regular band at the Hotel Bristol, Red Snodgrass and his Alabamians.
But Peer wasn’t interested in Appalachian jazz covers. “He wanted original material that could be copyrighted,” says Gregg Kimball, director of public services and outreach at the Library of Virginia. “Everyone in the industry knew that the money wasn’t in recording. It was in publishing.”
Kimball, an author, archivist and modern old-time musician, wrote the entry on the Bristol Sessions for the Library’s Encyclopedia of Virginia. “Ernest Stoneman said that Peer turned down a lot of good music,” he says. “What I think he meant was that Peer was interested in songs that he could copyright. He didn’t want just fiddle tunes. He wanted vocal tunes, so there was a certain spin that he was looking for.”
Musically, Bristol was the epicenter of Appalachian music, he says. “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 artists in all of those places came. So it was a pretty smart move.”
For that, we can thank the industrious musician Ernest Stoneman. “He recommended to Ralph Peer that he come to Bristol,” the BCM’s Turner says. The Carroll County guitarist had already had success with his own song, “The Titanic,” recorded for OKeh Records in 1924. When the traffic of artists slowed down during the Bristol recordings, a newspaper article was arranged that revealed Stoneman had earned $3,000 in royalties (a lot of money in 1920s Appalachia) from earlier recordings with other labels. Things picked up.
“He was the star, going in,” Kimball maintains. “We are kind of reading history backwards here. We think of Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family as the big stars. But Stoneman was the man.”
“He almost served as a truffle hound for Peer,” King says. “He made sure that there were a lot of string bands at the session.” In 2010, King’s Long Gone Sound Productions released a definitive CD overview of Ernest Stoneman’s early career. It was titled The Unsung Father of Country Music.
The Scott County trio of A.P., Sara and Maybelle Carter almost didn’t make it to the sessions. Treacherous mountain roads were responsible for two flat tires getting to Bristol, and A.P. didn’t even attend the second of the group’s two sessions because he had to fix the car. This left wife Sara and her sister Maybelle to wax the immortal “Wandering Boy” and “Single Girl, Married Girl” as a duo.
Their songs were fast sellers, so Victor eventually signed the Carter Family to a long-term contract; they became known affectionately as the First Family of Country Music, armed with a repertoire of reworked traditional songs appropriated by A.P. Carter during scouting sessions in the mountains. (A revamped edition of the Carter Family, with mother Maybelle teaming with her daughters June, Helen and Anita, was a popular attraction on Richmond’s Old Dominion Barn Dance, a country variety show broadcast live on WRVA radio in the 1950s.)
The story of Mississippi-born Jimmie Rodgers’ involvement has always been shrouded in mystery. The former railroad man traveled to town with another group, but after a quarrel he went solo and his ex-bandmates, the Tenneva Ramblers, recorded separately.
Rodgers’ two Bristol songs were not a big commercial success, but Peer was impressed enough to invite him to New York City for more sessions. Soon, “the singing brakeman” was the most popular vocalist in America, thanks to his “Blue Yodel #9.” Although his life and career were cut short by tuberculosis in 1933, Rodgers’ musical influence throughout the years, on both whites and blacks, is immeasurable. His popularity was such that he was still appearing on the covers of country fan magazines 30 years after his death.
But the religious recordings made in Bristol, like those of the white gospel quartet from Tennessee, the Alcoa Quartet, and the Kentucky-based Ernest Phipps and his Congregation, were also important. “The Phipps stuff is rare. There’s only a handful of recordings of Holiness music from this period,” Kimball says. “Holiness and Pentecostalism were pretty new innovations in American music at the time … with a very strong African-American influence. If you don’t know a lot about mountain music and all of its varieties, it can be kind of mindboggling to hear.”
The sessions offered a clear window into a disappearing past. But, as King argues, they also pointed the way for country music’s future. “It defined where country music would go for the next 30, 40 years — i.e. multi-part harmony-singing by the Carters, and yodeling with guitar defined by Jimmie Rodgers. Up until that time, what was being considered ‘country music’ was basically guitar and harmonica, or fiddle band configurations that we would now call old-time string band music.”
No less an authority than the late Johnny Cash (who married June Carter) stated that what happened in Bristol was “the single most important event in the history of country music.” But the challenge for Turner and the staff at the new Birthplace of Country Music museum will be to engage a modern audience with sounds that are seminal, but far removed from modern ears.
“What we have to offer is the story of music that has carried across time,” the curator says. “Music that had a lot of commercial impact at the time, but is really a story of how popular American music was recorded and marketed, and how the sound traveled.”
Turner promises a multimedia experience. “There will be listening booths that will take a Bristol Sessions song and see how it was recorded by Bob Dylan or Joan Baez or Nirvana.” In this way, we will hear “all the different trajectories of song.”
Roots music should be celebrated, not embalmed, she says. “We want to keep this a living tradition, rather than an archaeological one.”