The Big Bang in Country Music – From Bristol to Cass County

In late July to early August, 1927, Ralph Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company traveled from New Jersey to Bristol, TN, in search of area musicians to record for his company. Country records had been made and the music played on radio dating back to the early 1920’s, but the newly developed electronic recording technology and Victor’s new machine, the Orthophonic Victrola, combined for the first great leap forward in recording quality.

Peer needed new artists and songs to meet the surge in demand for records. Ernest Stoneman, an early country star whom Peer had previously recorded in New Jersey, convinced him that there were many talented folks in his home area of western Virginia and eastern Tennessee who could not afford the money nor the time required to travel to studios in New Jersey and New York to try breaking into the music business. Stoneman advised Peer to go to Bristol to record them close to home.

Peer ran ads in the local newspapers to entice folks to come, audition and, if accepted, record. He set up a studio in Bristol, opened the doors and was overwhelmed by singers and players who walked, rode horses and wagons, or drove trucks and cars over rough roads. From July 25 to August 5 Peer recorded what proved to be a treasure trove of country music. He found many talented musicians and wonderful songs which his company could sell and provide to radio stations. More important, among the musicians making their first commercial recordings were the first two superstars of country music: Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family – A.P. Carter, his wife Sara and sister-in-law Maybelle. Peer made additional trips to the south as did other record producers, but nothing matched the significance of the first Bristol sessions. They are considered The Big Bang that launched modern country music.

Orthophonic Joy – The Bristol Sessions Revisited

Boxed set CDs of the original recordings are available, but frankly the sound quality and musical style of 1927 are not very appealing for everyday listening today. Thus I was delighted to learn that earlier this year The Birthplace of Country Music, Inc. in Bristol and Sony Music Entertainment released Orthophonic Joy : The 1927 Bristol Sessions Revisited. The double CD contains eighteen tunes culled from the original catalog and recorded anew by an all star cast of artists steeped in traditional country and bluegrass music. The project was led by bluegrass great Carl Jackson, and the lineup includes Emmylou Harris, Vince Gill, Dolly Parton, Steve Martin and the The Steep Canyon Rangers, Sheryl Crow, Ashley Monroe and others. The recording quality is pristine, fully revealing the wonderful harmonies and scintillating musicianship. Very importantly, the songs themselves tell great tales filled with passion, emotion, tragedy and joy with a little tom foolery thrown in to lighten the load. Remember these were songs about real life, written or passed down for generations by real people. In that sense, this is almost more a folk record than a country record, but that’s what most of country music was in the beginning. These recordings don’t copy the originals, rather they respectfully reimagine them.

I do need to alert you that between each music track are spoken word tracks that provide background on the songs and singers. They’re all very interesting, but I’m guessing that after hearing them once, you’ll want to de-select them to focus on the music.

And from that start in Bristol…
As I said earlier, these were the first recordings made by The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. They went on to become country music’s first major stars. The Carter Family’s work tended to stay with the folk and old time music vein of songs – both gospel and secular – from the hills and valleys of southwestern Virginia. In fact AP reportedly rode from farm to farm collecting songs handed down from earlier generations to add to The Carter Family’s repertory.

In comparison, Rodgers was influenced by black bluesmen and singers he’d met while working and riding the railroads. The songs he wrote reflected that experience. HIs whole “Blue Yodel” series is the prime example. He also experimented with non-traditional instrumentation. One of his biggest hits, “Blue Yodel #9 (Standing On The Corner)” recorded in 1930, featured none other than Louis Armstrong on trumpet.

(I was looking for a YouTube of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel #9” when I came across a video of Johnny Cash and Louis Armstrong recreating this classic song forty years after the original was released. Two of my all time favorites – too good to pass up.)

One might argue that country music has essentially been made up of two strands of influence flowing from these two great stars. The Carter Family’s strand runs primarily from the upper south and Appalachians through artists like Roy Acuff, Johnny Cash (who of course married a Carter girl,) Loretta Lynn and certainly much of bluegrass. Rodgers’ strand can be traced through the stars that emerged from the deep south and Texas like Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, George Jones and Merle Haggard. Put another way, The Carter Family strand would more likely be played at a neighborhood social while the Rodgers strand was at home in the honky tonks. That’s an oversimplification, and certainly over the decades those strands have been tightly woven together. Still, you can see the influences of the original big twosome in individual songs as well as artists.

I hope by now you’re intrigued by The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers and want to hear more. Similar to Orthophonic Joy, there are modern era recordings that are great introductions to their songs if not their voices. Here are great starting points.

Carlene Carter – Carter Girl

Carlene Carter is June Carter’s daughter from her first marriage to Carl Smith, and she’s the granddaughter of Maybelle Carter. The original Carter Family broke up after Sara divorced AP. Subsequently Maybelle reformed the group and performed with her three daughters Helen, Anita and June. They all later toured regularly with Johnny Cash. Carlene traveled with the Carters on the road beginning as a toddler. As an adult she’s had a moderately successful singing career with a couple of hit records in the 1990’s. She finally decided to do a project that acknowledged and took advantage of her family heritage, so she released Carter Girl about 18 months ago. I think she found her sweet spot.

Carlene picked a terrific batch of songs rom the Carter Family’s treasure trove and wisely avoided war horses like “Wildwood Flower” and “Will The Circle Be Unbroken.” Some date back to the original group. A couple were written by June and her sisters. Carlene contributed one original song about her early life on the road with the family, and she re-worked one of the early classics with lyrics to include contemporary references to June and Johnny.

She’s always had a bit of rock ’n’ roll attitude, and she uses just the right amount to season these otherwise traditional country songs. As a result, it all feels new.

She recruited Willie, Kris Kristofferson, Vince Gill and Elizabeth Cook to add variety , and although she didn’t really need any help, their presence is welcome and supportive. Carlene clearly loves, respects and is protective of the source of this music. She’s an excellent singer fronting great musicians, especially Jim Keltner on drums and Greg Leisz on pedal steel and electric guitar. Don Was gave it what’s been described as “traditional-modern production.” Ironically given music’s connection to the Big Bang in Country Music, I doubt you’ll ever hear it on today’s country radio.  To heck with ’em. If you like what’s referred to as roots, Americana, or Outlaw Country, you’ll want to spend a lot of time with this Carter Girl.

Same Train, A Different Time: Merle Haggard Sings The Songs Of Jimmie Rodgers

In 1969, in the midst of his surge from country star to country icon with “Okee from Muskogee,” Merle Haggard paused to release a heartfelt tribute to his idol Jimmie Rodgers with this double album. The record went to the top of the country album charts even though it did not have a hit single to carry it. Both this sales result and the double album format were almost unheard of at the time in country music. I fear with the lack of a hit single, the album may be largely forgotten today. That would be a shame because Merle is at the peak of his vocal powers, his band The Strangers is in superb form, and both the arrangements and the songs hold up very well indeed. By the way, Merle’s band at the time included the legendary James Burton on electric and acoustic guitar and dobro. Burton shortly afterwards became lead guitarist for Elvis and many others.

Rodgers’ songs ran the gamut from sad to witty in ways that connected with his depression era audience like no singer before him. Yet, they are universal enough to be appealing in any time or place. The record has five very brief vocal tracks on which Merle gives a bit of background on Rodgers and the songs, and although they are not terribly intrusive, you can skip them in subsequent listenings. As Merle notes, Rodgers often employed yodeling in an unusual manner to emphasize the blues aspect of a song. Merle may not be quite as facile a yodeler as Rodgers, but his rich and expressive voice more than makes up for that. From the opener “California Blues” to “Jimmie Rodgers Last Blue Yodel (Women Make A Fool Out Of Me)” this is a great way to hear why Jimmie became country’s first legend, despite dying in 1933, just in his mid thirties .

Author’s Note: if you feel a double album is too much of any singer, even Merle, check out a Bob Dylan led tribute project, The Songs of Jimmie Rodgers: A Tribute from 1996. In addition to Bob, there are cuts from a richly diverse cast including Bono, Dickey Betts, Allison Krauss, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Van Morrison, Jerry Garcia, and Aaron Neville. Either way, you owe it to your ears to get into Jimmie Rodgers’ music.

Don Henley – Cass County

First, I have to say that, although I like the Eagles okay, I never really cared much for Don Henley’s solo work. Something about him seemed a bit pretentious, and too often he sounded like he was straining to sing in a key that was too high for him. Then recently I saw a piece with him on “CBS Sunday Morning” that convinced me to listen to his new album Cass County with an open mind. I did, and I liked it. I really liked it.

No, Cass County does not contain a single Carter Family nor Jimmie Rodgers tune. (And there are no guest appearances by Willie Nelson.) But I hear their ghosts in many of the songs, even if I can’t put my finger on specific references. One might say the duet with Dolly Parton on the Louvin Brothers’ “When I Stop Dreaming” links to The Carter Family. Or that “No Thank You” carries the vibe and humor of Jimmie Rodgers. I say don’t get too hung up. Just enjoy some modern, yet real country music that’s played and sung beautifully.

Henley co-wrote eleven of the songs and he puts his stamp on well chosen covers by writers like Tift Merritt, the Louvin Brothers, Billy Sherrill and Jesse Winchester. For the most part his singing is relaxed and assured, belying my old criticism, and he’s also chosen vocal collaborators for certain cuts who marvelously match the material. Well crafted songs performed very well indeed – what’s not to like.

Henley himself seems unsure if this is really a country album, certainly not as it’s defined commercially these days. He has said that maybe “Americana” is a better category. Still, there is no question he leaned on the traditions of country music to convey what was in his mind and heart as he put Cass County together.

Had this album been cut by any one of several other artists I’ve blogged about this year, it would have probably been ignored by the suits in Nashville and country radio. Lucky for everybody Henley’s name was big enough to draw major attention from CBS, Rolling Stone and the like, so it topped country album charts right out of the box. For once, the quality of the product came pretty darn close to the hype. I think you’ll keep this one in heavy rotation for quite a while.

Note: Cass County is offered in a regular or deluxe edition. Spring a couple of extra bucks loose for the deluxe edition. You get four additional strong songs including Billy Sherrill’s beautiful, sad “Too Far Gone” and Henley’s own rueful, bluesy admonition to beware of “Too Much Pride,” which he performed on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.” It’s well worth the difference.

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