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Behind the “Big Bang”: The Roots of Country Music

In late July of 1927, New York record producer and music publisher Ralph Peer showed up in a Tennessee, a tiny town on the Virginia border, carrying with him all the necessary equipment to set up a portable studio.  He came to record then best-selling country star Ernest Stoneman and his family, who Peer had previously recorded for OKeh Records.  Now working for Victor, Peer asked Stoneman how he could locate other acts that might have the same sales appeal as his group.  Stoneman told the producer that if he wanted to record “authentic” country, blues, and gospel music he had to travel to where the music was made, and not wait for groups to find their way to New York.  Stoneman suggested that the producer make his base in Bristol, because it was the hub of the Tri-Cities region, then the largest urban area in the South.  Lacking a proper recording studio, Peer found an open space above a hat factory, which was conveniently located right on the town’s main street.

            In anticipation of his trip, Peer had run newspaper ads announcing that he’d pay any artist $50 per accepted “side” (song recorded and issued) plus a small 2½ cent royalty on any sales.  Not surprisingly, the first act Peer recorded was Stoneman and his group.  Few others came until a local newspaper ran an article noting that Stoneman had made $3600 in royalties on a single hit record—his recording of the old play-party song, “Skip to My Lou”—released in 1926.  This article caught the eye of the mother of a member of the band, the Teneva Ramblers; the group originally hailed from Bristol and had been working on the radio out of Asheville, North Carolina.  She urged them to return to Bristol, where they successfully auditioned for Peer.  However, before actually recording, the band had a falling out with their lead singer over how they would be credited on record, so he ended up recording as a solo artist.  That singer was Jimmie Rodgers, who recorded a single 78, “The Soldier’s Sweetheart” backed with “Sleep, Baby, Sleep,” earning the promised $100 for his work.  The resulting 78 sold well enough to convince Peer to bring Rodgers to Victor’s main studios in Camden, New Jersey, where that fall he cut 4 more songs, including his signature, best-selling hit “Blue Yodel” (also known as “T for Texas”), launching his career.

            Three days before Rodgers arrived in Bristol, another group made the journey to the town from their home base in rural Southwest Virginia.  Alvin Pleasant Carter (known as “A.P.”) was a travelling fruit-tree salesman who was married to Sara Addington, a talented singer and autoharp player.  Carter, Sara, and A.P.’s sister-in-law, Maybelle, would often sing together at home, particularly enjoying the popular sentimental songs of the day.  Sara’s deep lead voice was complemented by A.P.’s bass and Maybelle’s tenor harmony; Maybelle had also developed a unique way of playing the guitar, connecting the individual chords by playing short runs on the bass strings.  Peer had heard of the family and had written to them to let them know he’d be in Bristol, but had no response.  So when they showed up in late July, he was somewhat surprised to see them. His initial impression was not too positive.  “They wander[ed] in,” Peer told an interviewer in 1959, “He’s dressed in overalls and the women are country women from way back there. They looked like hillbillies. But as soon as I heard Sara’s voice, that was it. I knew it was going to be wonderful.”  On August 1st, the group recorded 4 songs, 2 of which were issued by Victor the following November.  Thus began the phenomenal career of the Carter Family.

            Many scholars have come to view Peer’s sessions in Bristol as a key date in country music history, dubbing it the “big bang” that ignited an entire industry.  Like all founding myths, this somewhat simplifies the story: As early as 1922, there had been successful country recordings.  But the presence in one place of these two seminal acts—representing as they did two important strands in the country style—was indeed an important event.  It is possible to argue that Rodgers’ blues influenced singing represented one strand of the country sound, drawing on traditional African-American music; while the Carters represented the other, the older Anglo-American traditions.  This of course is also an oversimplification but it serves as a stepping off point for our story.  How did country music evolve?  What were its antecedents?  How did this unique style draw on different cultures to become a uniquely American creation?

READ MORE: Check out Country Music: A Very Short Introduction:

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