(Soundbite of music)
TERRY GROSS, host:
In 1927 and 1928, Ralph Peer, a talent scout for the Victor Talking Machine Company set up recording sessions in Bristol, a town which straddles the Tennessee and Virginia borders. The result was essentially the birth of country music.
Rock historian Ed Ward explains.
(Soundbite of music)
THE STONEMANS (Country Group): (Singing) I love my Lula belle, I do yes I do. I love my Lula belle, I do yes I do. But I don't expect to see her any more.
ED WARD: The Victor Company will have a recording machine in Bristol for 10 days beginning Monday to record records: inquire at our store.
That was the text in a small box that appeared in the Bristol News-Bulletin on July 24, 1927. Three days later, one of the paper's reporters sat in on a recording session, where Ralph Peer cut a few sides on Ernest Stoneman and his family. The Stonemans were locals, well-known in Bristol, and had a successful career with Victor.
He received from the company $3,600 last year as his share of the proceeds on his records, the story said. In other words, about three and a half times the average national wage.
That did it. Starting at nine on the morning of July 28th, musicians by the score showed up at the Taylor-Christian Hat Company building on State Street -Virginia on its north side, Tennessee on the south side - and waited for their chance.
The first soon-to-be-famous name to step in front of the microphone was Blind Alfred Reed, a fiddler who would later record the classic "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live." But aside from a train-wreck ballad, he recorded sacred material.
(Soundbite of song, "You Must Unload")
BLIND ALFRED REED (Musician): (Singing) You fashion loving Christians you'll surely be denied. You must unload. You must unload. You are robbing God of treasure if you feed yourselves with pride. You must, you must unload. The way is straight and narrow and the few are in the road. My brother and my sister and there's no other mode. If you want to get to heaven, your future uphold. You must, you must unload.
WARD: Peer must have figured the rural market wanted white gospel music, because he sure recorded a lot in Bristol. One of his favorites - and mine - is the very formal-sounding Alfred G. Karnes, who had just bought a Gibson harp-guitar for $375 to accompany himself.
(Soundbite of song, "Called To The Foreign Field")
Mr. ALFRED KARNES (Musician): (Singing) In the far and heathen country where the people know not God, I am going there to preach his precious word. Where they bow to worship idols I am going there to stay, where I'll labor in the vineyard of the Lord. I'll soon be with my loved ones in my happy heavenly home. Even now, the thought my soul with rapture thrills. So goodbye, my friends and brethren, for the time has come to go. I must leave you on the dear old battlefield. I am called to bear a message...
WARD: But Stoneman and his friends and family had also shown Peer that traditional material sold, so J.P. Nester and Norman Edmonds got their chance, too, and recorded a classic.
(Soundbite of song, "Train on the Island")
Mr. J.P. NESTER AND Mr. NORMAN EDMONDS (Musicians): (Singing) Train on the island, (unintelligible) go and tell my (unintelligible) I can't go.
WARD: Nobody seems to know what the lyrics to "Train on the Island" mean, but picking like that, who cares? Nester and Edmonds led off Monday, August 1st, sessions at 12:30, but at 5:30, two women and a man stepped into the room, and everything changed.
(Soundbite of song, Bury Me Beneath The Weeping Willow)
THE CARTER FAMILY (Country music singers): (Singing) My heart is sad and I'm in sorrow for the only one I love. When shall I see him? Oh, no, never, till I meet him in heaven above. Oh, bury me under the weeping willow. Yeah, under the weeping willow tree. So he may know where I am sleeping and perhaps he will weep for me. They told me that...
WARD: A.P. Carter, his wife Sara and Sara's teenage sister Maybelle Addington were from the surrounding countryside, in Maces Springs, Virginia, and Peer knew he'd struck gold - especially when Maybelle and Sara came back the next morning and cut two duets. The Carter Family, as they called themselves, became one of the biggest acts in America, continuing on in its original form until 1942.
Lightning struck again on Thursday the 4th. The Tenneva Ramblers were four young men who'd been working out of Asheville, North Carolina, who Peer had encouraged to audition. Nobody's sure just what happened, but by the time Thursday came around, their lead singer had left them and recorded two songs by himself.
(Soundbite of song, "Sleep Baby Sleep)
Mr. JIMMIE RODGERS (Musician): (Singing) Sleep, baby, sleepy. Close your bright eyes. Listen to your mother, dear. Sing these lullabies. Sleep, baby, sleepy, while angels watch over you. Listen to your mother, dear, while she sings to you.
WARD: Tuberculosis would kill Jimmie Rodgers five years later, but he probably sold more records for Victor than any artist before Elvis. And, yes, the Tenneva Ramblers got their chance later that afternoon, but they don't sound very special.
Peer packed up his equipment and took his masters with him to Camden, New Jersey, to start pressing the many keepers he'd recorded. He returned to Bristol the next year, between October 27th and November 4th, 1928. His only major find this time was the Stamps Quartet, whose "Come to the Savior" sold 13,792 copies, the most of any of the Bristol recordings.
The Stamps, in one form or another, continued through 1980, and counted Elvis Presley as a major fan. But my favorite from the 1928 sessions was the wonderfully named Shortbuckle Roark and Family, who concluded Ralph Peer's epic act of discovery with a classic.
(Soundbite of song, "I Truly Understand That You Love Another Man)
SHORTBUCKLE ROARK AND FAMILY (Country singers): (Singing) I wish to the Lord I never been born, nor died when I was young. I never would've seen them two brown eyes or heard that flattering tongue, my love, or heard that flattering tongue. I truly understand that you love another man, and your heart shall no longer be mine. Who will shoe your little feet? Who will glove your hand? Who will kiss your red rosy cheeks when I'm in the foreign land, my love, when I'm in the foreign land? I truly understand that you love another man, and your heart shall no longer be mine.
GROSS: Ed Ward reviewed The Bristol Sessions, 1927-1928 on Bear Family Records. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews Mary Gordon's new novel, The Love of My Youth.
This is FRESH AIR.