Long before Nashville became established as a recording center for country music, there were a few historic sessions that took place outside of Music City. Perhaps the most important took place about 300 miles to the east in Bristol, TN. Bristol is celebrating its role in the history of country music with the opening of the new Birthplace of Country Music Museum in the downtown portion of the city, which sits on the Tennessee-Virginia border.
In 1927, Columbia and Okeh — two of the major recording companies of the day — had records enjoying success in the “hillbilly” market, and the Victor Talking Machine Company (later RCA) wanted to get in on the burgeoning action. Producer Ralph Peer helmed several recording sessions in the south, with the biggest taking place in Bristol from July 25-Aug, 5 of that year.
Peer deemed the city an ideal place to record the new style because of the music traditions of the mountains. One of the top musicians of the day, Ernest V. Stoneman — who had worked with Peer before — was brought in to help out with the sessions. Many regional performers were brought in for the sessions, including Henry Whitter, the Bull Mountain Moonshiners, and the Carter Family, who cut six tracks during the sessions, including “The Storms Are On The Ocean.”
Though the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers — who came in to cut two songs on Aug. 4 — are generally regarded as the stars of the sessions, Stoneman’s contribution to the two weeks worth of sessions should not go overlooked.
Of the 76 songs that comprise the Bristol Sessions, Stoneman appeared as the lead figure in 10 of them, including the Gospel standard “I Am Resolved.” The story of those sessions — as well as the musical legacy of the region — are documented within the walls of the museum.
“The museum tells the story of the 1927 Bristol Sessions through a variety of engaging, innovative ways,” says Jessica Anderson Turner, director and head curator of the museum. “It also explores a number of themes related to early commercial music, including copyright, technology, and musical innovation. The museum encourages visitors to think about the technology of capturing and sharing sound in the 1920s, and compare that to their own experiences in sharing music. We want to engage visitors to think about the Bristol Sessions, and recorded music history, as part of a larger story of American music history.
“In addition to the exhibits, the museum will host a variety of live performances and programming that focus on early commercial country music and its impact on a variety of American music styles.”
While largely focusing on the recording sessions that took place there in 1927 and 1928, the Birthplace of Country Music Museum also shines the spotlight on Gospel and Old-Time String Music. Visitors can take selected tracks from the sessions, edit vocals or instruments out of the mix, and enter into a recording studio to put their voice on some of the classic instrumental tracks. The studio experience has been a favorite of many who have entered the museum so far.
Other exhibits pay tribute to broadcasting entities of the day in the area, and how the music embodied by the museum thrived in television programs like Hee Haw (which featured Stoneman’s daughter Roni as a cast member) and movies such as O Brother, Where Art Thou. Outside of the Bristol Sessions, the museum details the city’s history as well as information about its most famous native, Tennessee Ernie Ford. Born in 1919, Ford became one of music’s biggest stars in the 1950s and 1960s, hosting a popular NBC weekly series and achieving success in pop, country, and gospel.
There is also a spacious theater inside the museum that will be used for live performances and lecture sessions about the history of the area. Many will get their first taste of the museum when the city plays host to the 14th Annual Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion, held Sept. 19-21. The event will feature performances from Emmylou Harris, Dale Watson, Billy Joe Shaver, and the Black Lillies.
According to Leah Ross, executive director of Birthplace of Country Music, the event tries to feature a very diverse musical lineup. “Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion honors the roots of Appalachian music and its branches, which are far-reaching,” says Ross. “Our award-winning festival is known for booking acts whose stars are on the rise. With 21 stages and more than 150 acts, you’ll see folk-rock, alt-country, and Celtic influences alongside old-time and traditional bluegrass. It’s a very unique music experience.”