When the Stars Came Out At Bristol: The Summer Ralph Peer Discovered Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family
VPM begins its series on country music in Virginia by going back nearly a century to the mountain town of Bristol. Recording sessions that took place here helped launch the careers of the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers.
It was the summer of 1927 and music producer Ralph Peer was headed to Bristol. The town, which straddles Virginia and Tennessee, didn’t have a recording studio. But with a sizable budget of $60,000, Peer set one up on the third floor of a warehouse on Main Street.
[Music: “O Molly Dear” by B.F. Shelton]
Peer recorded 19 different acts during his time in Bristol, groups like The Bull Mountain Moonshiners, Ernest Phipps and His Holiness Quartet and the Blue Ridge Corn Shuckers. Each was paid $50 per song, or the equivalent of about $750 today.
[Music: “Old Time Corn Shuckin’ Part 1” by Blue Ridge Corn Shuckers]
Peer was a 35 year-old music executive and talent scout with the company that would later become RCA Victor.
Barry Mazor: Ralph Peer practically defined the job that's existed in the music business ever since of the artists and repertoire man. A and R.
Barry Mazor is Peer’s biographer. He says the A & R Man decided which artists were recorded and what songs they performed, or to put it more succinctly:
Mazor: A and R men are looking for hit records.
Peer had a knack for it. His discoveries included a string of pioneering hit makers in the fields of blues, jazz and what would come to be known as country and western.
Mazor: He brought the star system to roots music. It hadn’t existed.
[Music: “Black-Eyed Susie” by J.P. Nestor]
During his first week in Bristol, Peer was introduced to a variety of old-time string bands. He sent a lot of them away because they missed an essential quality that he was looking for.
In the 1920’s, record companies concentrated on selling the song, It didn’t matter who sang or played it. Peer had the revolutionary idea that a performer with enough charisma or star quality could be the deciding factor in creating those highly sought-after hits.
Mazor: If you had the right artist with the right strong personality and a song to match, which was reflected on the record, the person would be in effect buying the personality.
Peer did find what he was looking for in a trio of musicians from Maces Spring, Virginia: AP Carter, his wife Sara and his sister-in-law Maybelle.
[Music: “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow” by The Carter Family]
There was a lot about the Carter Family that made Peer sit up and take notice. One thing he liked was their deep repertoire of songs. Playing to the same live audiences again and again, they learned to keep things fresh by drawing on a wealth of old country songs, hymns and ballads.
Mazor: Peer said they could hear a song sung once forty years ago. They could still sing it.
Another vital component of the Carters’ appeal was Maybelle’s guitar style, which was called “The Carter Scratch.”
Mazor: She could play rhythm and the tune at the same time.
[Music: “Single Girl, Married Girl” by The Carter Family]
Mazor: It became the basis for a whole lot of, a whole lot of guitar playing. If you’re going to accompany yourself and not be completely dull, you picked up something from what she was doing.
But the biggest reason that Peer decided to sign the group was the unmistakable voice of Sara Carter.
[Music: “Single Girl, Married Girl” by The Carter Family]
Mazor: Sara's voice cut through for him instantly. You can hear who she was, which was a very declarative, very distinctive woman. A modern one in many ways.
If Sara Carter came across as a modern, independent woman, it was somewhat at odds with the traditional values that they embraced. They advertised themselves as morally good on the handbills for their local programs. Peer made sure that their public image remained in line with that conservative ideal.
Mazor: In fact, there were a lot of pressures on Sara and A.P.’s marriage, which would break up before the act did, but people didn't know that. Peer would tell them it was important that people not be too clear about their home life situation because they were promoting them as domestic.
The Carters remained an act until 1944. That was just the beginning of the Carter Family legacy, which continued with Maybelle and her daughters, who kept working into the 60s and 70s.
[Music: ”The Soldier’s Sweetheart” by Jimmie Rodgers]
Out of the 19 artists who recorded at Bristol, there was one other that had the star quality that Peer was searching for: Jimmie Rodgers. In 1927, the man who would eventually become known as “The Father of Country Music” was 29 and still struggling.
Mazor: Jimmie had been knocking around for years trying to find some way to really get into show business. He'd played tent shows, he played small time things.
When Rodgers showed up in Bristol, he was singing with a string band. He had only been working with the group for a few weeks and Peer sensed that they didn’t have good chemistry.
Mazor: There was this total clash between his kind of blues and Vaudeville singing that he was about and the string band breakdowns that they were about.
So, instead of recording them together, Peer asked Rodgers to perform solo. He sang “The Soldier’s Sweetheart” and a nineteenth century lullaby called “Sleep Baby Sleep.”
[Music: “Sleep, Baby, Sleep” by Jimmie Rodgers]
Mazor: The fact was the two tunes at Bristol wouldn't really be that significant in his career. One of them, Peer did something he didn’t usually allow. Sleep Baby Sleep was a 19th century song many people had recorded.
Peer normally asked artists to play either original numbers or tunes that hadn’t been recorded previously. He bent his rules because he knew that Rodgers was in desperate circumstances.
Mazor: He was virtually homeless at that point. His wife and baby were holed up in a hotel down the street and he was dying for a contract.
Weeks after the Bristol sessions were completed, Rodgers traveled to New York, checked into an expensive hotel, and telephoned Ralph Peer to say “I’m ready for my next session.” Peer was impressed by Rodgers’ audacity and immediately arranged another recording session at Victor’s studios in Camden New Jersey.
Mazor: The very first record they recorded at Victor's offices at Camden at the studio was “T for Texas.” And we're talking about something that approached a million copies.
Peer served as Rodgers’ manager, and in just five years, he recorded more than 100 songs. He stayed busy during this period touring and recording and making films. He accomplished a lot despite his physical state. An earlier diagnosis of tuberculosis led to health problems. Sometimes he sang about his predicament.
[Music: “T.B. Blues” by Jimmie Rodgers]
“,,,I've been fightin' like a lion...Looks like I'm going to lose...I'm fightin' like a lion....Looks like I'm going to lose...Cause there aren’t nobody....Ever whipped the T.B. blues…”
The final recording sessions were in May 1933. Rodgers’ health was rapidly declining and he had to rest on a cot between every take. The night after finishing his last song, he suffered a lung hemorrhage and passed away.
Though he died young at age 35, Mazor says Jimmie Rodgers laid the ground work for musical developments that came later.
Mazor: People know “Mule Skinner Blues,” which would eventually be the basis of bluegrass. He wrote “Traveling Blues,” which will become a basic song in western swing. He had bad ass songs, like "Rough and Rowdy Ways" that prefigured rock and roll.
[Music: “My Rough and Rowdy Ways” by Jimmie Rodgers]
Mazor says that if country music wasn’t exactly born in Bristol, it was forever changed by Ralph Peer’s ideas about how to market music.
Barry Mazor: And when he was signing Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter family at the same time -- in some ways opposites from each other -- both could be marketed. That was the beginning of where things would go
But what about the other music that was recorded there? There were some other pioneering recordings, like the religious songs of Alfred Karnes and Ernest Phipps set to raucous string band music. According to Mazor, this marked the beginnings of what became Southern gospel. And Ernest Stoneman who was featured on several of the recordings started a country music dynasty. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2008, joining Ralph Peer, the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers.
[Music: “I Want to Go Where Jesus Is” by Ernest Phipps and His Holiness Quartet]
For Virginia Currents, I’m Peter Solomon, VPM News
*Barry Mazor is host of the Roots Now podcast and author of "Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music" and "Meeting Jimmie Rodgers: How America's Original Roots Music Hero Changed the Pop Sounds of a Century."