A town without peer- Bristol celebrates its vital role in the history of country music
You might miss the monument at first. It’s just a small granite pillar, partly overshadowed by trees at the edge of a parking lot on the corner of State Street and Edgemont Avenue in downtown Bristol. State Street is a literal name — it marks the border between Tennessee and Virginia that neatly splits the city in two. The monument is on the Tennessee side.
At the top is an engraving of a dog with its ear cocked toward a phonograph horn — the familiar logo of the Victor recording company. Then comes a list of names, and a dedication:
Who recorded the first country and western music to be distributed nationwide, in Bristol, Tennessee on August 2, 1927.”
Those recordings, known as the Bristol Sessions, took place right here at 410 State Street. But the Taylor-Christian Hat Company where Victor representative Ralph Peer set up his cutting-edge microphones and vacuum tubes 75 hot summers ago is long gone. Now there’s just a parking lot, as empty on a Saturday afternoon as the beautiful but abandoned train station across the street.
Fortunately, the memory of those sessions is more lovingly preserved elsewhere in this small Appalachian city of about 45,000. After decades of passive indifference, Bristol over the past 15 years has awoken both to the significance of its musical heritage and to the commercial potential therein. Although the city remains best-known for the massive Bristol Speedway, which hosts NASCAR races that draw up to 150,000 checkered-flag enthusiasts, its emphasis on music in general and the Bristol Sessions in particular is growing.
For ten days in late July and early August, the Bristol-based Birthplace of Country Music Alliance is hosting a 75th anniversary celebration of the Bristol Sessions. It kicks off July 25 with a concert at the city’s historic Paramount Theatre (a lavish 1930s movie palace) followed by a weekend festival at the Bristol Motor Speedway, and wraps up August 2-3 with the annual Carter Family Memorial Festival at the nearby Carter Family Fold in Hiltons, Virginia. In between are concerts in Wytheville, Galax, and Big Stone Gap, Virginia; Greeneville, Tennessee; and Boone, North Carolina. Among the artists appearing at the various shows are Earl Scruggs, Loretta Lynn, Doc Watson, Mac Wiseman, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, Jim & Jesse McReynolds, and Little Jimmy Dickens & the Grand Ole Opry Band.
Much of this is thanks to a man named Tim White, a banjo picker and Roanoke native who moved to Bristol in the early 1980s. At the time, he was only vaguely aware of the Bristol Sessions. But he learned more.
“Nashville is the Hollywood of country music,” says White, who is co-founder of the Birthplace of Country Music Alliance. “Branson is the Las Vegas of country music. And we strive to be the Williamsburg of country music. If you want to see the real deal, come to Bristol and the Bristol region.”
The story goes like this: In the summer of 1927, recording pioneer Ralph Peer arrived in Bristol with state-of-the-art electronic recording equipment. The new portable microphones and pre-amplifiers had recently made it possible for prospecting labels to send representatives anywhere in the country looking for hit records. The highbrow Victor company was best-known for opera and symphonic recordings, but had an unexpected smash in 1924 with Vernon Dalhart’s rendition of “The Wreck Of The Old 97”. Looking for more inroads into the rural or “hillbilly” music market, it hired Peer, who had begun recording country and blues in 1923, including early sessions with Fiddlin’ John Carson and Galax-based Ernest Stoneman.
Peer contacted Stoneman, who recommended Bristol as a central location with easy rail access to the surrounding hotbeds of mountain music. An advertisement in the Bristol Herald-Courier solicited musicians to come audition. It didn’t hurt that the newspaper also ran a story quoting Stoneman as saying he had made $3,600 in recording royalties the previous year.
Peer’s slots filled up quickly. Over 12 days, he recorded 76 songs by 19 different artists. Among them were Stoneman and his wife Hattie, along with the Carter Family and a North Carolina railroad man named Jimmie Rodgers. In launching the recording careers of the Carters and Rodgers, Peer may not have invented “country music,” but he inarguably gave the form its first legitimate superstars. Virtually everything that came after 1927 in country music (and rock ‘n’ roll, for that matter) can be traced at least in part back to Bristol.