Tuesday, August 8, 2023

The NRR Project: The Victor Bristol sessions

The Carter family.

Victor Talking Machine recording sessions

Bristol, Tennessee

July 25 – Aug. 5, 1927

Wonder of wonders! There is a legendary story about a music producer swinging into a sleepy Appalachian town for a couple of weeks in the hot summer of 1927 and discovering the first greats of American country music. Fortunately, that story is true.

Country music had not really been recorded or heard popularly until 1922 in New York City, and even then was referred to as “hillbilly music.” It proved to be quite popular, spurring a search for more of the same. Also helpfully, the transition from acoustic to electric recordings in 1925 meant that microphones were more sensitive and could pick up softer instruments such as the guitar. By the late ‘20s, the leading record manufacturers were sending recording teams out into the country to find and develop new talent.

Ralph Peer was an A & R (“Artists and repertoire”) producer for Victor, one who sought out and signed artists. He took only $1 a year in salary, but he retained all the publishing rights to everything he recorded, paying the recording artists royalties based on sales – a business practice still in effect today. Peer asked one of his early hitmakers Ernest Stoneman where he could find more hillbilly musicians. Stoneman directed him towards the heart of Appalachia: Bristol, which straddled the line between Tennessee and Virginia.

There he and his engineers set up an impromptu recording studio, on the third floor of the Taylor-Christian Hat and Glove Company. Advertisements in the local newspaper solicited performers. Eventually, Peer would capture 76 performances by 19 different groups and individuals, some of which were contracted to produce more work.

Most prominent among these performers, which included such acts as Ernest Phipps and his Holiness Quartet, the Blue Ridge Corn Shuckers, and the West Virginia Coon Hunters, were the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. A.P. Carter, his wife Sara and her sister-in-law Maybelle formed a trio that would wind up recording many of the foundational country songs – “Wabash Cannonball,” “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes,” and many more. (Their best-known cut from Bristol was probably “Single Girl, Married Girl.") Their prominence in the genre was undisputed, and they rapidly rose to fame.

Similarly, Jimmie Rodgers, the Singing Brakeman, was massively influential. Known as “the Father of Country Music,” his sessions in Bristol were solos, as he had broken up with his band shortly before recording time. While he only cut two sides that day, the singer and songwriter made an impression that led to many hit recordings before his untimely death six years later.

It wasn’t until 2011 that a multi-CD set of all the Bristol recordings was curated an pressed, but now we can hear all of the sessions (Peer found that gospel music was a big seller, too) aand think about the amazing intersection of talent and technology that produced this music.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: Marika Papagika and ‘Smyrneikos Balos.’


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