Yes, Nashville has the Grand Ole Opry and the big name recording artists. But Bristol, the town that straddles the Tennessee/Virginia border, stakes its claim as the birthplace of country music. And lately Bristol’s been working hard at capitalizing on that fact. This weekend, for example, the town expects 40,000 country and bluegrass music fans to attend the Rhythm & Roots Reunion, an extravaganza boasting 3 outdoor stages and 12 indoor venues.
Victor Talking Machine Co. was the first record producer to catch wind of the (to them!) fledging “hillbilly” music scene (it wasn’t called country music in the 1920s). In the spring of 1927 they released a single by Delaney, AR fiddle player Eck Robertson. On the heels of its success, producer Ralph Peer spearheaded the push to tap the market for rural mountain music, and in July and August he set about to discover and develop the area’s musical talent.
Musicians and singers originally traveled to Victor’s New York studios to record their music, but when remote recording became possible, Bristol became Peer’s initial hub of operations — chosen because of the proximity of local musicians such as Ernest and Hattie Stoneman, the Johnson Brothers, and Henry Whitter.
“In no section of the south have the pre-war melodies and old mountaineer songs been better preserved than in the mountains of East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia, experts declare, and it was primarily for this reason that the Victrola company chose Bristol as its operating base.” — Bristol Herald Courier, July 24, 1927.
Soon Peer recorded talent from other southern states, including West Virginia, Virginia (the Carter Family) and North Carolina (Jimmie Rodgers). The Carter Family got their start on July 31, 1927, when A.P. Carter and his family journeyed from Maces Springs, Virginia to Bristol to audition for Peer. They received $50 for each song they recorded. Both the Carters and Rodgers were unknowns when they wandered, separately, to Bristol that summer. All in all, Peer recorded 76 performances by nineteen different groups.
These early recording sessions, called the “Bristol Sessions,” would mark the birth of country music, and laid the groundwork for much of the genre’s music that followed. Because Bristol is not usually thought of as the place where country music began, it was especially important that the U.S. Congress recognized Bristol’s contribution to music history. In 1998, Congress passed a resolution recognizing Bristol as the “Birthplace of Country Music.”