This summer, country music achieved a major milestone: July 25th through August 3rd 2002 marked the 75th anniversary of the historic 1927 ‘Bristol Sessions,’ literally, the “Big Bang” of country music.
Over that 12-day period, the three most important acts in early country music — the Stonemans, Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family — were discovered or recorded, and the country music industry was born. According to Johnny Cash, “These recordings in Bristol in 1927 are the single most important event in the history of country music”.
The 75th anniversary will be celebrated this summer with a series of appropriate regional musical events and the organizers hope that you can join them in the beautiful mountains of Appalachia at the friendly town of Bristol, which straddles the Tennessee-Virginia state line.
In early 1927, 35-year-old record producer Ralph Peer was contracted by the Victor Talking Machine Co. of Camden, New Jersey to travel throughout the South to scout and record local musical talent for possible commercial release.
Peer, the general manager of Okeh records, had previous experience producing the earliest recording by Fiddlin’ John Carson in Atlanta in the spring of 1924. Peer had made the recordings as part of a test of Okeh’s newly developed portable acoustic recording equipment at the behest of the phonograph and record department manager of an Atlanta furniture store, Polk Brockman.
Peer had pronounced the recordings “pluperfect awful,” but consented to press 500 white label sample copies for Brockman, a small-time music promoter and publisher who was also Carson’s manager. Carson pushed the records at his live performances, and when they sold out within a matter of weeks, a surprised Peer quickly brought Carson to New York to wax 12 additional sides in the controlled environment of the Okeh studio.
While Brockman was one of the first to put together a music promotion system of recording, radio, touring, song publishing and songwriting, he failed to integrate the individual aspects of the business, and his enterprise did not prosper. The Atlanta experience sparked a life-long fascination with rural music in Peer.
The Columbia Phonograph Co. had recorded folk musicians as early as 1923 in Louisiana, Texas and Georgia, but these — as well as Peer’s Okeh recordings of Carson – were only distributed regionally and achieved no national market penetration.
Rural white musicians — and black musicians both in the city and country — were marginalized by a membership ban on rural, blues, jazz and other ‘semi-professional’ musicians by ASCAP and the American Federation of Musicians prevented them from performing or publishing their works professionally.
Most rural performers were unable to make a living strictly playing music, and performed when they could at barn dances, medicine shows, fairs, contests, political rallies, etc. The market for rural music remained limited to itself, and was forced to remain localized.
In 1924, an operatically-trained singer of popular vocals who recorded under the pseudonym of Vernon Dalhart, sang a version of “The Wreck Of The Old 97”, backed with “The Prisoner’s Song” on the flip side, which went on to sell over one million copies on the Victor company’s label – the first ‘country’ record to do so (although Dalhart was not actually a ‘country’ singer).
Victor had long positioned itself as the phonograph of choice for the wealthy and cultured — primarily in urban areas, and had cultivated that image by heavily promoting its ‘Red Seal’ catalog of classical and operatic recordings and signing the stars of the Metropolitan, London and Milan opera companies to exclusive contracts.
Victor’s popular music catalog displayed similarly conservative musical tastes.The unexpected success of Dal-hart’s proto-country train wreck ballad certainly got their attention. Having no comparable material in the Victor catalog, they contacted Ralph Peer, who had the rural recording experience and contacts that the haughty Victor Co. lacked — and asked him to bring them more.
Prior to 1925, all recording had been done acoustically – that is, the singers or instrumentalists were required to crowd around and project their instruments or voices into a large recording horn that had the effect of concentrating the sound waves against a membrane with a recording stylus attached. What sounded the best was largely arrived at with no real scientific process involved — just seat-of-the-pants experimentation.
The cumbersome nature of the recording equipment did not lend itself to portability. Consequently, most early country recordings were not made in the field, but in studios in New York or New Jersey on the rare occasion of a rural musician visiting the big city. Because of the necessity of moving the recording stylus through the wax recording disc surface mechanically via direct action of sound waves, acoustic recordings tend to sound thin with little dynamic range and a narrow frequency response.
In 1925, engineers from the Western Electric Company and the Victor Talking Machine Company concurrently began work on developing an electrical recording process — derived from radio and telephone technology — using microphones and vacuum tube pre-amplifiers to drive electrical cutting heads.
This electrical recording process enabled more sound energy to be packed into the record groove resulting in a louder, more natural recording, and the new phonograph extracted it powerfully. Because of the use of microphones, the voice or instrument of the artist no longer had to be particularly suited to overcome the technical limitations of the recording process.
The resulting records played on the new Victor Orthophonic Victrolas were astoundingly life-like and spurred Victor’s sales to the second highest single-year sales level in the company’s history – in 1927 alone, over 1 million Orthophonic Victrolas were sold. Both popular and classical music catalogs swelled with the new electrical recordings.
An added bonus was that the new recording equipment could be transported, set-up and operated in the field with comparative ease, eliminating the need for impoverished musicians to travel at great personal expense, to large cities from remote areas to record. Western Electric leased the equipment under license to numerous recording companies, and overnight acoustic recording was rendered obsolete and electrical recording with microphones swept the country, revitalizing the sluggish phonograph and record industry.
The ability to bring the recording equipment to the artist revolutionized the recording industry and enabled the record companies to economically record early blues, Hawaiian, hillbilly,