Country music ‘Big Bang’ traces to 1927 sessions in Tennessee
ROANOKE, Va. — Country music was a social thing long before there was ever a “Big Bang” that made it a commercial thing. People with acoustic instruments and big voices populated porches, parlors, storefronts and wherever else it might make sense to hang around and make joyful noise at the end of a work week — or the end of a work day, if folks were feeling froggy.
The popular line among many music historians is that a series of 1927 recording sessions in Bristol, Tennessee, was the “Big Bang” of country music. Other people recorded popular country in other places in earlier days, though, for sure.
According to The Roanoke Times, Texan “Uncle” Eck Robertson and Missourian Henry C. Gilliland, a couple of fiddlers, traveled to New York City in 1922 and performed what many scholars consider the first country music recording, an instrumental take on “Arkansas Traveler.” “Fiddlin'” John Carson, from Georgia, was a radio and recording star of that era, putting to phonograph “The Little Old Cabin in the Lane,” in 1923. The next year, another Texan, Vernon Dalhart, led a small combo that recorded a hit single, “Wreck of the Old 97,” about that ill-fated train crash near Danville.
While those names are little remembered, their success at the time helped lead a Victor Talking Machine Co. talent scout named Ralph Peer to Bristol. The names from those days that can still spark imaginations are Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. They made their first splash in Bristol.
Neither act made a massive hit in that session, but they were successful enough to continue working with Peer. Soon, Rodgers would release “T for Texas,” aka “The Blue Yodel,” which rocketed the Meridian, Mississippi, native to stardom before his short life was through. The Carter Family’s “Keep on the Sunny Side,” “Wildwood Flower” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” were country hits of the day and remain folk / Americana standards.
In 2001, the Twin Cities of Bristol, Tennessee and Virginia, finally capitalized on that history, with the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion. About three years later, Virginia created The Crooked Road, 300 miles of multiple Southwest Virginia highways, featuring dozens of venues, festivals and wayside exhibits in 19 counties, four cities and at least 50 towns.
Bristol, the “Big Bang” city, is home of one of the major venues, the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, a Smithsonian Institution-affiliated place that opened in 2014. West of Bristol is another major venue, the Carter Family Fold, that clan’s ancestral home place, which preserves family relics and history and provides a space for picking and dancing.
Seventy-three miles north / northwest of Bristol is Clintwood, which was home to the late Ralph Stanley, whose voice on the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” movie soundtrack in 2000 sparked the type of international interest that would help draw people to The Crooked Road just a few years later.
Clintwood is home to the Ralph Stanley Museum, a Crooked Road major venue, The Roanoke Times reports. Nearby, Stanley’s Hills of Home Festival is a Crooked Road-affiliated event.
The Birthplace of Country Music Museum is the centerpiece of the Twin Cities’ downtown revitalization. It delivers a deep dive into the history of that time, showing the types of instruments and recording equipment used in those sessions, and provides an immersive experience that allows visitors to try their own recorded vocal takes on some of the music recorded in 1927.
Lots of information about the town, the performers and their music is available, but what stands out is the massive success that came to Peer. Jimmie Rodgers would be dead of tuberculosis six years after the sessions. The Carter Family — A.P., his wife, Sara, and Sara’s cousin Maybelle, who married A.P.’s brother — didn’t perform together after 1943. Grayson County’s Ernest Stoneman, who in 1925 had a hit with Peer, “The Titanic,” persuaded the New York talent and publishing man to set up the Bristol sessions, but he and his large family would fall into hard times during the Great Depression.
Peer, meanwhile, had copyrights, and he built an empire with them. He died in 1960, but his family business, now called peermusic, published music from acts that ranged from Rodgers and the Carters to Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones, Jason Aldean, Justin Bieber and Beyonce.
Visitors can sample music from many among the 26 acts that recorded for Peer at a State Street building owned by the Taylor-Christian Hat and Glove Company (the space is now a parking lot). Once outside, several nightspots on both sides of State Street, which rolls over the Tennessee-Virginia border, offer live music.
George Goode is one of the veterans of the scene, having played professionally for about 40 years in Bristol and beyond, singing and playing guitar to classic country and rock tunes, even some bluegrass. Goode’s Southern 76 Band has appeared frequently at the Tennessee side’s Mural Stage, a permanent fixture of the Rhythm & Roots festival scene that lies below the landmark painting of Peer, the Carters, the Stonemans and Rodgers. Roanoke native Tim White painted it 31 years ago.
Goode, whose performance history includes gigs with Mel Street, Sammi Smith and John Anderson, had a regular gig every Thursday at the Mural Stage, and still plays there with Southern 76 about three times a year. Goode was rained out of just such a gig the night we hit Bristol, but we caught up with him by phone later.
He has seen the town change a lot in the years since The Crooked Road came through. It’s more lively in some ways, but it’s more difficult for acts like his that have been around for decades to get as much work as they used to, he said.
“Downtown, they get some good bands,” Goode said. “We have some good local bands. I think most of them are like me, they have to drive 75 to 100 miles to get anything good, and then the money’s not worth it.”
But he cares less about money than about playing — and making sure people hear him.
“I love to play,” he said. “A bass player asked me one time, George, don’t you ever get tired of doing it? I said, all the time, man. But in this type of business, you can’t quit. If you quit for any length of time, they forget about you.”
Rain didn’t hamper Americana singer/songwriter Ella Patrick, who was performing on the Virginia side of Bristol, inside Blackbird Bakery. Patrick, who uses the stage name Momma Molasses, is based in Johnson City, Tennessee, and plays in northeast Tennessee and western North Carolina. She said she has gotten plenty of love in Bristol.
Patrick, 29, a central North Carolinian by birth, said she has lived in Tennessee for two years. Her boyfriend, whose family is from Bristol, took her to the Birthplace museum, where she said she was “blown away” by the depth of the region’s historical connection to the music. In particular, she was glad to learn so much more about Maybelle Carter, whose “Carter scratch” guitar method she works to emulate. North Carolina finger-style guitarist Elizabeth Cotton is also a big influence, she added.
As time goes by, she continues to build a connection to The Crooked Road, playing Blackberry and other venues, including Bristol Station Brews & Taproom.
“I think it’s so incredible,” Patrick said. “I really had no idea how rich the history was.”
CARTER FAMILY FOLD
Country music legend Johnny Cash called the Bristol Sessions “the most important event in the history of country music.” He might have been a little bit biased, seeing as how the love of his life, June Carter Cash, was Maybelle Carter’s daughter. The two met while “Mother” Maybelle and The Carter Sisters were on tour together. Cash, the “Man in Black,” played his final show at the Carter Family Fold, in June 2003. He died that September, four months after June passed away.
Of course, the Carter Family Fold was an original “major venue” on the road upon its dedication in May 2004. On the Hiltons property is the A.P. Carter store, where A.P. hosted regular old-time, country and bluegrass performances after he and Sara split up and retired from performing. The store is a museum now, part of a venue that A.P. and Sara Carter’s daughter, Janette, established in the late 1970s to promote the old music and pay tribute to the Carter Family band. The family cabin has been moved nearby and restored, as well.
Janette Carter died in 2006. Her daughter, Rita Forrester, keeps the 42-year-old venue’s mission alive.
“She would always say, I don’t know when I became a tourism destination,” Forrester said of her mother. “She never really set out to be that. She just wanted to do something to keep her dad’s music alive, because she promised him that she would do that, as he was dying. I pretty much made her that same promise, that I would do my best. I had no idea what I was promising, because it’s a huge undertaking.”
Audience members at a recent show came from across the country, including Hawaii, Oregon and California, and one couple was there from the German state of Bavaria. All listened and some danced to music from the Whitetop Mountain Band, a regular act at the Fold. Banjo player Emily Spencer and fiddler Thornton Spencer head the family band, founded by fiddler and luthier Albert Hash in the 1940s. Hash had played music with Henry Whittier, who was in on the Bristol Sessions.
“They’re one of two groups I know of that played at the little store and still play here today,” Forrester said.
RALPH STANLEY MUSEUM
Clintwood is as far out of the way as any major venue on the road, close to Virginia’s border with Kentucky. The town of no more than 1,500, though, was home to Ralph Stanley, who made as strong an imprint as any Virginian on bluegrass and mountain music.
Stanley started out with his gregarious brother, Carter, as The Stanley Brothers. They made a name for themselves on the bluegrass circuit from the 1940s until 1966, when Carter died. Ralph Stanley, the quiet one, took over their band, The Clinch Mountain Boys, and used his haunted tenor to make history of his own.
Among other career highlights, his a cappella rendition of the traditional “O Death” was a highlight of the aforementioned “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack, and it won Stanley a Grammy Award in 2002, for best male country vocal performance. Two years later, Stanley, then-Gov. Mark Warner and other commonwealth dignitaries stood in front of a still-unfinished Stanley museum to celebrate the beginning of The Crooked Road.
The museum, a renovated four-story home built in 1904, features instruments, vinyl records, documents, even the 2002 Grammy, all of which Stanley donated. Nice and welcoming as it is, it has had trouble drawing lots of visitors. It even closed for a time, in January 2011. On the day we visited in May 2016, no one had come in, said Vonda Shortridge, the museum director.
Eventually, a couple from Salt Lake City, Brian Swim, 70, and wife, Linda Swim, 68, came through the front door. They were on a cross-country jaunt inspired, in part, by an old Stanley Brothers album, “Mountain Song Favorites,” Brian Swim said.
The former governor, now Sen. Warner, said he hopes for a marketing strategy that draws tourists not just to Clintwood and the museum, but to outdoor opportunities nearby. For example, Breaks Interstate Park, nicknamed “The Grand Canyon of the South,” is about an hour away, at the very end of the road.
“I think that’s where you’ve got to have a multi-layered approach,” Warner, who counted the late Stanley as a friend, said in a phone call last week. “If somebody’s gonna go to Clintwood, check out the Breaks, as well.”