The Bristol Sessions: The Birth of Country Music as We Know It

by Clayton Edwards

Country music has come a long way from its roots. Before it was the commercially viable genre that it is today, what we call country music was the music of the hills and hollers of Appalachia. This so-called Hillbilly Music grew from the rich soil of the region. Generations of Scottish, Irish, English, and Black musicians fertilized that soil with their deep-rooted musical traditions. The Bristol Sessions, which would come to be known as the Big Bang of Country Music was the first harvest of that long-tended crop.

Foundational artists like Jimmie Rodgers, The Carter Family, and The Stonemans found national acclaim after their recording sessions in Bristol, Tennessee. From there, the genre grew, changed, and flourished. These groundbreaking recording sessions and the artists who populated them helped to change the face of American music forever.

The first of those sessions took place 95 years ago today.

A Very Brief Explanation of the Bristol Sessions

In July of 1927, Ralph Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company arrived in Bristol. He came on a mission to capture Hillbilly Music to market to the masses. Peer set up a makeshift recording studio on the upper floors of the Taylor-Christian Hat Company which sat on the Tennessee side of the Virginia-Tennessee border in Bristol.

It all started with an ad in the July 24th issue of the Tennessee-based Bristol News-Bulletin. That ad stated, “The Victor Co. will have a recording machine in Bristol for 10 days beginning Monday to record records – inquire in our store,” according to NPR. So, a few musicians and groups made the trip to take part in the Bristol Sessions.

Many of the artists who made the Bristol Sessions a major milestone in the history of country music had never recorded their music before. However, The Stonemans, a family band from nearby Iron Ridge, Virginia already had a hit single – “The Sinking of the Titanic” – in circulation before Peer arrived in Bristol. Earl “Pop” Stoneman – the head family and the band – helped Peer gather musicians for the sessions.

In fact, the success of The Stonemans led many musicians to want to take part in the Bristol Sessions. A reporter for the News-Bulletin sat in to witness their recording process. In his write-up, the reporter stated that Earl Stoneman had, “…received from the company $3,600 last year as his share of the proceeds on his records.” That is the equivalent of just over $56,000 in today’s money. For most Appalachian musicians, that kind of money would have been life-changing.

The Carter Family

The Carter Family consisted of Maybelle Addington, her sister Sara, and Sara’s husband A.P Carter. They came to Bristol on August 1st and recorded four songs that Victor would release later in the year. The label released the songs in two double-sided 78 rpm records. The first, released in November of 1927 contained “Wandering Boy” and Poor Orphan Child.” The second record, released in December of the same year contained “The Storms Are on the Ocean” and “Single Girl, Married Girl”. These records became incredibly popular. By the end of the decade, the Carter Family had sold hundreds of thousands of records.

Among the most influential aspects of these recordings was Maybelle’s guitar work. She approached the instrument in such a way that it allowed her to play both rhythm and melody simultaneously. Today, that is known as the “Carter scratch” style and is still prominent in many styles of country music.

Jimmie Rodgers at The Bristol Sessions

Jimmie Rodgers arrived in Bristol three days after the Carter Family had their recording sessions. Originally, he was supposed to record with The Tenova Ramblers. However, he and the group had a falling-out and by the time August 4th rolled around, Jimmie was a solo act. He cut two songs that day, “Sleep Baby Sleep,” and “The Soldier’s Sweetheart.”

Months after The Bristol Sessions, Rodgers recorded four more songs for Victor. Among those was “Blue Yodel no. 1” also called, “T for Texas.” That record sold a million copies and cemented the Singing Brakeman as the first country superstar, according to Rhino.

The Music of the Bristol Sessions

The Bristol Sessions took place nearly a century ago, but you can still find those recordings. The Victor Talking Machine company changed hands and names several times over the years. Today, the company is RCA Records. That label released compilation albums containing the original recordings. So, if you want to hear what the birth of country music sounded like, you can check out RCA Country Legends: The Bristol Sessions on your streaming service of choice. Additionally, Bear Family Records released a deluxe 5-disc box set that comes with a deeply-researched hardcover book.

However, if you want to hear the story of the Big Bang of Country Music alongside contemporary artists covering the songs that signaled the birth of the genre, you can’t go wrong with Orthophonic Joy: The 1927 Bristol Sessions Revisited. It features some great storytelling and covers by artists like Vince Gill, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, and Marty Stuart among others.