When a Belgian astronomer first floated the idea in 1927 that the universe started from a single atom, he established a concept that resonates in country music today.
His hypothesis — later dubbed “the big bang theory” — suggests that a single atom split into more atoms, and those atoms began to be shaped — and reshaped — by the environments in which they moved.
The Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol, Tenn., is currently celebrating the 90th anniversary of the big bang of country music. That designation, originally given by author-music historian Nolan Porterfield, recognizes a series of recordings as the equivalent of the universe’s original atom: the starting place of country as a serious commercial venture.
Those records were produced by Victor A&R executive Ralph S. Peer, who set up a temporary studio in a hat warehouse on State Street in Bristol to attract regional talent in the Southeast. Ironically conducted the same year that the big bang theory was constructed, the sessions yielded 76 tracks from 19 artists over 12 days, beginning with Ernest Stoneman on July 25. Those sessions would also produce the first commercial recordings of seminal acts The Carter Family (on Aug. 1) and Jimmie Rodgers (Aug. 4), whose influences are still subtly at work today.
As the genre moved farther from those Bristol dates, culture and technology significantly altered the music. Today’s country sounds vastly different from Rodgers’ and the Carters’, though the foundations of their work still resonate in the sound and artistic constructs of Florida Georgia Line, Carrie Underwood and Jason Aldean, whose producer, Michael Knox, is appropriately a vp for the Nashville office of peermusic, the publishing company Peer founded.
“What happened in Bristol is, if you will, a perfect convergence of advances in technology and changes in music,” says peermusic chair/CEO Ralph Peer II.
New developments in recording and playback equipment at the time changed what a listener could perceive from a recording. Instead of the tinny sounds that emanated from the earliest devices, accurate nuances could be detected in both the human voice and the background instruments. It’s part of the reason that Maybelle Carter’s guitar approach, which combined rhythm and melody, became a bedrock style for the genre.
“The Carter lick is something that countless artists today still rely on as the guitar technique,” says Peer. “She’s the one who started it all, and that wouldn’t have happened unless this new technology could’ve recorded and picked up the guitar in the way it did.”
Though advanced, the Western Electric recording device used at those sessions was still limited. Electricity was not always reliable, so the machines were run by a pulley system powered by weights. The weights allowed a single recording to last merely three-and-a-half minutes at a time, forcing artists to cut entire verses from lengthy story songs and setting a rough standard that remains for song length to this day.
“That’s the beginning of that verse/chorus/verse/chorus framework that we still use,” says Birthplace of Country Music Museum director/head curator Dr. Jessica Turner.
Additionally, the use of a repeating chorus mimicked the songwriting format of Tin Pan Alley. Thus, country was already adapting pop music’s style to move its own sound forward and setting up a battle that exists today: the struggle between progressive country and traditionalists.
“Country music is not what it used to be — and it never was,” says Barry Mazor, who authored Meeting Jimmie Rodgers: How America’s Original Roots Music Hero Changed the Pop Sounds of a Century and Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music.
As the genre moved further from the big bang, the advent of technology has informed that constant push and pull. Ernest Tubb helped pioneer the adaptation of the electric guitar, Garth Brooks and Reba McEntire became early proponents of headset mics that provided hands-free mobility onstage, and continued studio advances gave artists and producers options in the manipulation and perfection of sound that were not available in 1927.
“The instrumentation and the music for this genre is still piano and guitar,” says Lomax Global Music president John Lomax III, whose grandfather John Lomax was a folk music archivist who conducted a series of roots-music field recordings for the Library of Congress. (Lomax III just released an a cappella collection of old songs, Folk, performed by his father, John A. Lomax Jr.) “But we have a whole new class of machine instruments. That’s changed.”
The state of the U.S. population was in flux in 1927. The Roaring ’20s were the first decade in which more Americans lived in urban centers than on farms, and country music — often called “old-fashioned music” in that era — connected to a nostalgia for simpler times. Thus, the thematic building blocks for the genre — including family, faith, love, hard work and hard times — were set in place.
The automobile, the airplane and even radio were new products that were changing the way Americans lived. One song from that era — The Carolina Tar Heels’ “Peg and Awl,” which is included in a new five-disc box, American Epic, drawn from a documentary on 1920s field recordings — finds a shoemaker fearful that a machine will take over his job. It’s a topic that still holds sway as country offers blue-collar themes at a time when robots are the latest technological threat to employment.
“The best country music — not all of it, but the best country music — speaks to the facts of people’s lives,” says Mazor. “The change in the technology that changes your life — sometimes for the better, sometimes [it’s] scary — is always there, so you find those connections in the old songs.”
In addition to the technology involved in making records and in the culture at large, changes in the playback devices have altered the kinds of experiences that listeners expect from country. When Rodgers and the Carters made those first recordings, few rural consumers even owned a radio. For those who did, listening was a communal event for families, sometimes entire neighborhoods, and it’s easy to envision them taking in some songs in the same way as they would a sermon.
With the advent of car radios, commuters began to listen to country and other genres in isolation on the way to work. Programmers have increasingly sought upbeat themes — the antithesis of much early country — to satisfy listeners as they travel to and from a job they may despise. Even beyond radio, people listen increasingly alone, says Lomax, “on their computer or cellphone with some app, and they’re not gathered around together. There are more ways to hear it.”
The most sweeping change that was instituted at Bristol revolved around the significance and compensation of the artist. Previous country sessions were usually instrumentals by nondescript musicians who were merely giving the public songs to dance to at home. They were paid a one-time fee and no more. Peer wanted artists who created their own material, and he compensated them with a smaller upfront payment, but also offered them royalties.
The power of the dollar influenced those sessions. A newspaper story that ran in the midst of the Bristol sessions indicated that Stoneman had made a then-hefty $3,600 the previous year. As a result, Peer attracted some performers who saw recording as a means to wealth. Still others saw it simply as a way to make a difference, or at least leave a legacy.
“A lot of people who came to Bristol were just thinking, ‘Let’s go make a record. Then people will remember us,’ ” notes Turner. “I think that carries over now.”
But the savviest acts created an identity — now commonly referred to as a brand — that generated its own interest. Rodgers, says Mazor, was Saturday-night country, while the Carters were the Sunday-morning version.
“The fact that they were recording new material rather than traditional material made the audience interested in what the next recording was going to be,” says Peer II.
That paradigm also operates today. “You don’t associate Miranda Lambert, Toby Keith and Brad Paisley with the same kind of songs,” says Mazor. “You have stars doing songs that represent a certain feel, and we come back to them again and again.”
Ultimately, Aldean shows the connection between the big bang of 1927 and the modern artist of 2017 quite nicely. His adaptation of rock power chords within country, beginning with his debut single, “Hicktown,” is the contemporary equivalent of Rodgers and the Carters borrowing Tin Pan Alley’s pop-song structure for their records. He has established a highly individual brand with distinct enunciations and a blue-collar dress code. And with 80 percent of the American population now clustered in urban areas, his embrace of small-town values in such songs as “Fly Over States,” “They Don’t Know” and “Big Green Tractor” hints at the same sort of nostalgia for simplicity that the audience felt 90 years ago. Even “Tattoos on This Town” speaks to the musical motivation Turner noted: the desire to leave a legacy.
Detractors scowl in 2017 that such progressive voices as Aldean, Sam Hunt or Thomas Rhett don’t sound like country music. But even traditionalists like Chris Young, William Michael Morgan and Jon Pardi don’t sound like the traditional voices from previous eras.
That’s one of the precepts of the big bang. The farther that Father Time moves from the 1927 Bristol sessions, the more technological and cultural innovations influence the genre’s direction. But below the surface, the star system, the compensation system, the song structure and the core themes of the music endure.
“Things were set in motion at Bristol, which is why Nolan Porterfield called it the big bang,” says Mazor. “The concepts were solid, and those concepts still work.”