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

by Clayton Edwards

The Bristol Sessions don’t represent the first instance of recorded country music. However, the sessions popularized some of the most important artists in country music history, including the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. Through their recordings, the Carters and Rodgers would help to popularize the genre and influence countless future artists. In short, those recordings laid the groundwork for modern country music.

The first of those sessions took place 94 years ago today.

A Very Brief Explanation of the Bristol Sessions

 In July of 1927, the Victor Talking Machine Company brought a field recording unit to the upper floors of the Taylor-Christian Hat Company. That building sat on the Tennessee side of the border in Bristol. Ralph Peer came with the machine to direct the sessions.

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.

One of those groups was The Stonemans, a local family band. 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.

That, more than anything else, drove artists from all around the region to make the trip to the Virginia-Tennessee border. The Bristol Sessions were well underway. 

The Carter Family

The Carter Family consisted of Maybelle Addington, her sister Sara as well as Sara’s husband A.P Carter. During their August 1st Bristol recording session, they cut four songs. Victor would go on to release them later that year. As a result, the Carter Family became the most popular country music group in the nation. Many call them the First Family of Country Music to this day.

One of the most important aspects of their Bristol Sessions 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 showed up to take part in The Bristol Sessions three days after the Carters. Originally, he was supposed to record with The Tenova Ramblers. However, 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.