by Ted Olson
Like any fan of American roots music, I’m a fan of Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. And like many fans of those great artists I heard years ago that they had made their first records at the Bristol Sessions, the 1927 location recording sessions in Bristol, Tennessee. I learned that one scholar (Nolan Porterfield) had dubbed what happened in Bristol as “the Big Bang of Country Music” and that a former mayor of Bristol had called that small city “the Birthplace of Country Music.” I sought to know more. As a fan first and eventually a scholar of the music (and, after 1999, a resident of the Tri-Cities area in which Bristol is situated), I asked legendary music historian Charles Wolfe–who had written a splendid essay about the Bristol Sessions–if he might be interested in collaborating on an edited collection of writings about those sessions. Dr. Wolfe agreed, and we created a book that represented the Bristol Sessions from many angles. We assessed the participation in those sessions of Rodgers, the Carters, and Victor Records producer Ralph Peer, and we also included information about such unheralded but talented Bristol participants as Ernest Stoneman, Blind Alfred Reed, Henry Whitter, and Alfred Karnes. In many respects, the book’s most impactful chapter was one written by Dr. Wolfe entitled “The Rest of the Story,” which sketched what happened during Victor’s follow-up session in Bristol in 1928 as well as during Columbia Records’ location recording sessions in nearby Johnson City, Tennessee, in 1928 and 1929. After Dr. Wolfe’s death in 2006, I decided to explore the rest of the story. Working with esteemed country music scholar Tony Russell, I helped compile and curate three boxed sets for Germany’s Bear Family Records, which collected all the extant recordings from Bristol, from Johnson City, as well as from the 1929 and 1930 Brunswick/Vocalion location recording sessions held in Knoxville, Tennessee. My main objective with this work was to hear all of the recordings from those sessions for myself and to introduce those recordings to a new generation (including my students at East Tennessee State University). It would be better, I thought, for this new generation to decide for itself the historical merit of cultural artifacts than to let slogans do the listening and thinking for them!
Needless to say, there is more to “the rest of the story,” and a story that has needed to be told for decades is this one–what happened “before the Big Bang.” Whatever the enthusiasts might proclaim, country music wasn’t created in a cosmic epiphany in Bristol. But no one has ever investigated that story…until now. It is a natural continuation of my work to explore the “before” side of “the Big Bang,” having spent years exploring the “after” side, and I am thrilled to be working with the Grammy Award-winning team of Richard Martin and Meagan Hennessey in preparing Archeophone Records’ Before the Big Bang, the first-ever exploration into country music’s early acoustic era. This boxed set should be of interest to anyone who might want to participate in the rediscovery of the genre’s deep, forgotten history. You’ll never think of country music the same old way after hearing these recordings from “before the Big Bang”!