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In 1984, the Tennessee General Assembly recognized the town of Bristol, with one foot in Tennessee and one in Virginia, as the “Birthplace of Country Music.” The Commonwealth of Virginia followed in 1995, with both the State Senate and the House of Delegates passing identical resolutions honoring Bristol.
The Bristol Sessions of August 1927 are commonly acknowledged as the event that gave rise to the professional country musician and recording star. Releases from the Sessions put both the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers on the country music map.
Ralph Peer, the Victor Talking Pictures A&R man responsible for organizing the Bristol Sessions, often gets the credit as the recording industry visionary who single handedly brought Appalachian music to a national audience. He was only too happy to promote that position himself; in a 1958 interview he stated bluntly “I went to New York and worked for OKeh Records. That’s where I invented the hillbilly and the nigger stuff.”(he didn’t join Victor till 1926.)
As it happens, three other records companies had held or were scheduling auditions to record musicians in Bristol concurrent with Peer’s trip.
Why Bristol? Along with Johnson City, TN and Kingsport, TN, it formed the Tri-Cities, then the largest urban area in the Appalachians. Ernest Stoneman, whom Ralph Peer had recorded on location in Asheville, NC in August 1925, was the one who’d recommended that Peer set up shop in Bristol; ironically from our point of view, Peer had blown through Nashville in 1927 before settling on Bristol, but had dismissed it as a location.
Nor was the Bristol undertaking the first attempt by the recording industry to codify and capture this (to the general public’s ears) new musical style.
So then, what was the precise moment hillbilly music began? Was it with fiddler Eck Robertson’s 1922 New York recordings? These were done at Victor, quite likely produced by Nat Shilkret, who was head of Victor’s Foreign Department.
Robertson relates his first encounter with a Victor manager (though he doesn’t name Shilkret): “He said `Young man, get your fiddle out and start off on a tune.’ Said `I can tell that quick whether I can use you or not.’ Well, I said back to him just as honest as I could `Mister, I come a long ways to get an audition with you. Maybe I better wait and come back another time. You seem like you’re in an awful hurry.’ `No,’ he said, `Just start off a tune…’ Well, I didn’t get to play half of Sallie Gooden; he just throwed up his hands and stopped me. Said, `By Ned, that’s fine!’ And just smiled, you know. Said, `Come back in the morning at nine o’clock and we’ll make a test record.”
Shilkret played piano on three of Robertson’s first recordings, July 1, 1922.
Perhaps we could argue that hillbilly music commenced with Fiddlin’ John Carson’s June 1923 Atlanta sides. This was a Ralph Peer undertaking while he was still at OKeh. The Carson Atlanta recordings were almost an afterthought: Peer was primarily in search of black talent for OKeh’s race records division.
“OKeh had never made any recordings outside the studio,” said Peer of the experience. “We went down to Atlanta, we looked around, found a small vacant warehouse…. I had gone down ahead and began scouting around for some talent. Now, I was dependent largely upon the [Atlanta] distributor of OKeh Records. Matter of fact, I hadn’t been to Atlanta, Georgia before—this was my first trip.
“So this fellow ran a furniture store, and he began scouting around, but, to my amazement, he didn’t know of any Negro talent…. So I began to switch off, and I said, ‘I better record a local dance band, I’ve got to do something about this.’
“And he went to the local Negro theater and he tried to find acts but nothing amounted to anything, so we did a sort of fill-in job on this first trip. We went down there to get Negro stuff … [but] I don’t think we picked up any Negro stuff of any importance….
“Finally there was the deal where he wanted me to record a singer from a local church. This fellow … had quite a good reputation and occasionally worked on the radio…. So we set a date with this fellow, and this boy’s father was ill in some other town—he just couldn’t make the date.
“So to take up that time, my distributor brought in [white fiddler] Fiddlin’ John Carson…. He said Fiddlin’ John had been on the radio station, and he’s got quite a following. He’s really not a good singer, but let’s see what it is. So the beginning of the hillbilly was just this effort to take up some time.
“He would never have recommended Fiddling John except that we had a vacant date and the time would otherwise have been lost. So I can’t claim there was any genius connected with it, not on my part, not on his part.”
Although OKeh held the Atlanta effort in low esteem, the record-buying public depleted the initial supply of 500 records within days, and company record-pressing facilities were rushed into service to fill back orders. When sales reached the 500,000 figure, the company greatly altered its assessment of Fiddlin’ John Carson’s abilities. Carson was called to New York to record more of the music from his considerable repertoire of old-time ballads and traditional fiddle tunes.
Frank Buckley Walker was the Artist and Repertoire (A & R) talent scout for Columbia Records’ Country Music Division during the 1920s and 1930s, and he was monitoring Peer’s activities closely.
After the success of Okeh’s recording with Fiddlin’ John Carson, Walker sent the word out to his record distributors that he was looking for similar talent.
Recorded music in American life: the phonograph and popular memory, 1890-1945, by William Howland Kenney
Creating country music: fabricating authenticity By Richard A. Peterson
“Hillbilly Music: Source and Symbol,” by Archie Green, Journal of American Folklore 78:309 (July- September 1965)
Ralph Peer interview–Lillian Borgeson, 1958. Southern Folklife Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
“The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records,” By Sarah Filzen
Wisconsin Magazine of History 82/2 ( Winter 1998-99): 104-127
Brunswick records: a discography of recordings, 1916-1931, by Ross Laird