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How the Bristol Sessions Created Country Music

Ninety years ago, a yodeller named Jimmie Rodgers laid down two of the tracks he would be remembered for

Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, the first two commercially popular country music acts, got their national start at the Bristol Sessions. (Pixabay)
smithsonian.com

During two weeks in 1927, a group of singers gathered at a recording studio in a renovated hat warehouse in Bristol, Tennessee. Johnny Cash once called what happened next “the single most important event in the history of country music.”

The Bristol Sessions were innovative in a number of ways, and they helped to change the popular music landscape forever. Present for the recording sessions were a number of performers who would go down in the history of country music–the Carter Family, Ernest Stoneman and Jimmie Rodgers, among others. They travelled from the area surrounding Bristol to record with the Victor Talking Machine Company’s music producer Ralph Peer, who had put ads in the newspaper looking for “hillbilly music” singers.

Writing for the National Recording Registry, Ted Olson describes “hillbilly music” as “a catch-all term for much of the white folk and popular music composed and performed in the southern United States.” The name didn’t get changed within the record industry until 1949, writes Encyclopedia Britannica, when companies adopted the term “‘country and western music’... to replace the derogatory label.”

Olson writes that the Bristol Sessions were one of the first times a producer had traveled to a rural area to record the hillbilly music sound. It was the very first time that a producer had ever traveled to Bristol, a small city on the Tennessee-Virginia border that was in the area that many popular hillbilly music singers had come from.

“As a producer, [Peer] was one of the first to record artists on-site instead of taking them out of their environments and into an unfamiliar studio,” writes Ashira Morris for PBS.  At the same time, writes Olson, with the Bristol sessions he was able to record higher-quality tracks than previous hillbilly music recordings. “Earlier releases were generally muddy or remote in terms of sound,” he writes–mostly because the microphones used to record it weren’t as good. By bringing state-of-the-art equipment to the endeavor, including high-tech microphones, Peer produced high-quality work.

And it showed. “These early Bristol recordings laid the groundwork for much of the country music that followed,” writes the Library. They were recognized in 1998 when Congress passed a resolution recognizing Bristol as “the birthplace of Country Music, a style of music which has enjoyed broad commercial success in the United States and throughout much of the world.” The city of Bristol, Virginia, just across the state line, is now home to the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, a Smithsonian affiliate.

On this day in 1927, a yodeller named Jimmie Rodgers, who had travelled about 100 miles from his home to Bristol, Tenn., recorded two songs that paved the way for him to become famous. “Rodgers cut two test recordings, ‘The Soldier’s Sweetheart,’ and ‘Sleep, Baby, Sleep,’” writes History.com, “which were released two months later on the Victor label to moderate success.” Rodgers did a follow-up session with Victor and that October 1927 recording gave him a smash hit: “Blue Yodel.” According to the Library of Congress, it was one of the first hillbilly music records to sell a million copies.  Rodgers got singing opportunities and film roles out of his performances for Peers, though he unfortunately died in 1933 of tuberculosis.

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