94 Years Ago: The Bristol Sessions Bring Country Music’s First Big Names to the Studio
Country music’s place as a permanent fixture of American life and culture is a direct result of the Bristol Sessions.
Over 12 days between July 25 and Aug. 5, 1927, in Bristol — a city on the border of Virginia and Tennessee — Victor Talking Machine Company record producer Ralph Peer recorded blues, ragtime, gospel and traditional Black and European folk songs for commercial release. The sounds, styles, techniques, intonations and lyrics committed to vinyl during those two weeks — everything from Maybelle Carter’s “scratch-style” guitar work to Jimmie Rodgers’ yodel, and more — represent the creation of country music and the preservation of America’s quintessential, bedrock foundations.
As the 1920s roared, so did interest in “hillbilly” music in the United States. The 1920 Census revealed that the nation had more urban than rural residents (51.2 percent urban, 48.8 percent rural), but although the time of farmers and pioneers defining the country’s population was passing, a desire to revel in their memories via recordings of roots music familiar to the lives of Black sharecroppers and European settlers was growing in popularity.
Prior to the Bristol Sessions, New York City-based record labels such as Okeh and Columbia Records would send for artists growing in popularity along rural touring circuits and bring them to the Big Apple to record. That list of acts included performers such as Texan Vernon Dalhart, whose ballad “Wreck of the Old 97” — about a 1903 rail disaster involving the Southern Railway mail train, which was en route from Monroe, Va., to Spencer, N.C. — was country music’s first million-selling record, in 1924.
One year later, country music producer Ralph Peer — likely inspired by the potential for music industry success — left his job at Okeh Records to move to the Victor Talking Machine Company. His gamble was a safe, yet spectacular, risk.
In his 2014 biography of Peer, Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music, author Barry Mazor recalls the producer’s roots in “race records” — that is, music made by Black people for Black people. Spurred by blues singer Mamie Smith’s 1920 Okeh recording of “Crazy Blues,” which sold nearly one million copies, Peer became a pioneer in the field of what Mazor calls developing “music recorded in the performance style of its originators, reflecting the flavor of the region and people it came from.”
Early country artist Ernest Stoneman, a Peer favorite, convinced the producer to travel with newly invented and dynamic sound recording-enabled electric microphones through Appalachia to record blues, gospel and "hillbilly" music from talented artists who could not travel to New York. Bristol sat at the nexus point between two other hub cities of the “Tri-Cities” region, Johnson City and Kingsport, Tenn.
When he moved to Victor, Peer only took a salary of, adjusted for current inflation, roughly $15 per year; however, per his contract, Peer — not Victor Talking Machine Company — owned the publishing rights to all of the recordings he made. Peer's deal also arranged for royalties based on sales to be paid to the artists. Again, adjusted for current inflation, Peer, via the label, paid performers roughly $750 per song for the recording, plus 40 cents in royalties per single sold. In other words, if Peer unearthed another “Wreck of the Old 97”-level hit during the Bristol Sessions, it would have been an amazingly lucrative gamble for all parties involved.
The initial Bristol Sessions (Peer returned in 1928) did not prove to yield another mega-hit — but, their impact has been far longer-lasting. Peer recorded 76 songs by 19 performers or performing groups. For the Carter Family, their recordings began a four-year run that saw them sell over 300,000 records in the United States.
Peer’s methods also inadvertently birthed the “family tree” of sorts that creates the socio-cultural and commercial base of country music. Like Peer, family patriarch A.P. Carter paired with Black guitarist Lesley Riddle and began collecting and copyrighting more Appalachian songs. Along with those travels, a June 1931 recording session in Benton, Ky., teamed the Carters with Rodgers. Two years later, Maybelle Carter met the Speer Family at a fair in Ceredo, W. Va., and, enamored of their signature sound, asked them to tour with the Carter Family.
In 2017, while marking the 90th anniversary of the Bristol Sessions, Leah Ross, executive director of the Bristol-based Birthplace of Country Music Museum, offered a note that summarizes the impressive legacy of 12 days in the heat of the summer of 1927: “The events that happened in Bristol in 1927 revolutionized the country music industry and created a legacy that impacts the soundtrack of our lives.”
The Carter Family: A Brief Family Tree