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story.lead_photo.caption Bill Kirchen (front) and Redd Volkaert perform at the Down Home in Johnson City, Tenn. "The New York Times/MIKE BELLEME"

While the rest of America was roaring to jazz during the '20s, in a small corner of the South, where back roads snake through early-morning mist and porches are used for melody-making as much as sitting in rocking chairs, another form of music was quietly taking root.

In the heart of southern Appalachia, at the convergence of northeast Tennessee and southwest Virginia, a set of early recording sessions, conducted by a New York record producer over two epoch-making weeks in the summer of 1927, would catapult the careers of the Carter Family from Virginia, the "first family of country music," and the Mississippi singer-songwriter Jimmie Rodgers, who would become known as "the father of country music."

Ken Burns’

Country Music

Today-Wednesday. AETN will re-broadcast episodes 1-4 starting at 11 a.m. today prior to the airing of episode 5 at 7-9 p.m. today. Episode 6-8 will air at 7 p.m. Monday-Wednesday

NOTE: Episodes 5, 6 and 8 will repeat at 9:30-11:30 p.m. Episode 7 will air 7-9:30 p.m. Tuesday and repeats at 12:30 a.m.

After each episode, at 9 p.m. (9:30 p.m. on Tuesday), AETN will present Talkin’ Country, with Bob Robbins of radio station The Wolf, FM-105.1. Robbins and guests will discuss each episode.


The recordings would become an inflection point in the history of what we now refer to as country music. And though musicologists may take issue with the assigning of its origin to any one time or place, the famous Bristol Sessions of 1927 were influential enough to be widely referred to as the "big bang" of country music, a topic that the documentarian Ken Burns takes a broad look at in his Country Music series on PBS, which continues today.

The music those early sessions gave birth to are celebrated in the Tri-Cities of Kingsport, Johnson City and Bristol, which is a two-state town straddling the border of Tennessee and Virginia. In 1998, Congress named Bristol the "Birthplace of Country Music." Sixteen years later, the Virginia side built the 24,000-square-foot Birthplace of Country Music Museum, a sleek Smithsonian Institution affiliate and part of the nonprofit Birthplace of Country Music organization.

While the Birthplace of Country Music and other museums in the area tell the narrative of this quintessentially American musical form, it's the musical venues, ad hoc pickin' parties and barn dances that are its soundtrack.


Johnson City is the largest of the three towns in the Tri-Cities area. It appears on a number of lists of best places to live and visit, and is home to East Tennessee State University, which offers Appalachian-related studies. Ted Olson, a professor of American Roots Music in the Department of Appalachian Studies and an expert on the Bristol Sessions, said country music primarily sprang from two "seedbeds": "One was, of course, Appalachia," he said. "The other was the Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana area."

Downtown Bristol, Va., in 1927 — it and Bristol, Tenn., are where many consider the “big bang” of country music took place. (Bristol Historical Association)
Downtown Bristol, Va., in 1927 — it and Bristol, Tenn., are where many consider the “big bang” of country music took place. (Bristol Historical Association)

If Bristol is the birthplace of country music, then Ralph Peer, the record producer from New York, acted as the stork. Peer, armed with new portable technology -- including a type of carbon microphone that made sound recordings considerably truer -- traveled to Tennessee to record what he called the area's "hillbilly music." He put out the word, and they came by foot, horse and buggy, train and car from the surrounding mountains to assemble in a hat warehouse on State Street in downtown Bristol, Tenn. In all, 19 individuals or groups recorded 76 songs.

Among them were A.P. Carter, who sang and composed; his wife, Sara Carter, on vocals and autoharp; and A.P.'s sister-in-law, Maybelle Carter, on vocals and guitar. Maybelle's guitar style, a method for playing lead and rhythm simultaneously, called the "Carter scratch," would change the course of acoustic guitar playing forever. The influence of Jimmie Rodgers, who had honed a blend of traditional country, blues, hobo and cowboy songs, would have an impact on a number of later artists, among them Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, and would earn him spots in the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Blues Hall of Fame.

(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)
(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

Peer released the Carter Family songs "The Wandering Boy" and "Poor Orphan Child" from the Bristol Sessions that November. In December, he released "The Storms Are on the Ocean" and "Single Girl, Married Girl." By the end of 1930, the Carters were becoming widely known. Rodgers would record a number of songs with Peer, but it was "T for Texas" (recorded as "Blue Yodel" that November) that would sell half a million copies.


Nearby Kingsport, the second largest of the Tri-Cities, is home to Bays Mountain Park, a 3,550-acre nature preserve, park and planetarium. Spring in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains is nothing less than an endowment from the natural world: flowering dogwoods and pink redbud trees, daffodils, crocuses and winter jasmine infuse the already verdant landscape. Along the way, signs for cavern tours and fossil sites beckon travelers to meander off road. The mountainous area is also known for its walking trails and fishing lakes.

Rick Dollar, former executive director of the Appalachian Cultural Music Association, is a longtime torchbearer of the region's musical history.

"Appalachian-style music has enhanced or motivated every style of music that you can think of -- from blues and rock to country. And it all just keeps growing and changing every day," said Dollar, who was, until recently, executive director of the Mountain Music Museum, a small gallery that told the story of southern Appalachian music for more than 20 years before it closed this summer. Roy Acuff's fiddle (which was found on Goodwill's website by a volunteer) and first pressings of the Carter Family classic "Keep on the Sunny Side" were among the exhibits, all of which will go to the Birthplace of Country Music Museum or be returned to their owners.

A country music mural adorns a building in Bristol, Va. (The New York Times/MIKE BELLEME)
A country music mural adorns a building in Bristol, Va. (The New York Times/MIKE BELLEME)

Dollar emphasized that the Bristol Sessions weren't the only recordings made in the area. "What a lot of people don't understand is that in 1927 and just after, there were sessions all around here, and they went on for 2 to 3 years."

Johnson City had its own set of sessions in 1928 and 1929, as did Knoxville, Tenn., the latter capturing a diverse gathering of black blues and gospel singers and musicians. The assumption that the songs that came from the Appalachian Mountains all passed through the hands of Scottish and Irish immigrants leaves out other groups in what was certainly a complicated tapestry of people who arrived in the mountains over the years. Leslie Riddle, a black musician and friend of A.P. Carter, would famously wander with him through the mountains looking for songs to record for Ralph Peer.


The Down Home in Jefferson City is a landmark listening room that seats 150 in an oak-paneled room. The beer and Tex-Mex food take a back seat to music. The club has hosted Townes Van Zandt, the Red Clay Ramblers, New Grass Revival, John Hartford, Jerry Douglas, Del McCoury and others.

"Over the years, word-of-mouth has gotten around about the Down Home," said Ed Snodderly, who owns the club and is a working singer, songwriter and musician who also teaches music at ETSU. "In 1976, we opened up a place where people would have to listen to music or at least behave."

Ask five people who have lived shoulder to shoulder with the mountains for generations what they think Appalachia is, and it's possible to get five answers because Appalachia is, according to some cultural anthropologists, a cognitive region -- as much a state of mind, as it is a specific place.

The Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol, Va., immerses visitors into the Bristol recording sessions. (The New York Times/MIKE BELLEME)
The Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol, Va., immerses visitors into the Bristol recording sessions. (The New York Times/MIKE BELLEME)

The Birthplace of Country Music Museum in the heart of Bristol, Va., is an unmistakable brick-and-glass building that forms a dramatic V at the corner of Cumberland and Moore streets. Visitors open the doors to a two-story glass foyer and a sculpture, nearly as tall, composed of images of the 1927 musicians and the city of Bristol. The gallery is an interactive telling of the Bristol Sessions through images and artifacts, including relevant instruments such as the fiddle, banjo, harp guitar, guitar, kazoo and jaw harp, as well as film and music.

Though the museum focuses on the 1927 sessions, it uses that story to tell ancillary narratives about the role of sacred music and life in Appalachia at the time. The museum's head curator, Rene Rodgers, said that explaining the story well was part of the mission. For instance, a Carter Family tree shows the original Carter family, which blossomed into three generations of musicians. It includes A.P. and Sara's children, Joe and Janette Carter, and the enduring group of Maybelle and her daughters, Helen, June and Anita, and their children. June Carter would famously marry Johnny Cash in 1968, and together they would become one of country music's most enduring couples.

	Jimmie Rodgers was also known as "The Singing Brakeman." (API)
Jimmie Rodgers was also known as "The Singing Brakeman." (API)

Jimmie Rodgers, who would die at 35 from complications related to tuberculosis, is featured in several places, from a panel on the stars of the sessions to a signed guitar and photographs. In honor of his contributions, Meridian, Miss., holds an annual Jimmie Rodgers Music Festival each May.

"I think the thing about our museum that works so well for the people who visit is that it has a really nice narrative arc," Rodgers said. "We want them to understand that they [the Bristol Sessions] were a part of a larger picture that had to do with recordings in other places and technological developments in the recording industry at the time."

After viewing the film Bound to Bristol, which explains why Peer picked the area to find talent, and some of the stories behind the artists who recorded, visitors come to the large round Bristol Sessions station. There they can listen to songs that were released after the Sessions, including "Are You Washed in the Blood" by Ernest Stoneman & His Dixie Mountaineers, and "Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow," by the Carter Family. Further into the exhibition, visitors can also hear interpretations by other artists, such as the Tenneva Ramblers' "The Longest Train I Ever Saw," later reimagined by Lead Belly as "In the Pines" and Nirvana as "Where Did You Sleep Last Night."


Twenty-five miles northwest of the Tennessee-Virginia state line is the Carter Family Fold in Hiltons, Va., at the foot of Clinch Mountain, memorialized in song by the Carters and other musicians. The Fold is on Virginia's The Crooked Road, a musical heritage trail that traverses 330 miles in the southwest part of the state. From the outside, the entertainment venue looks like a barn when, in fact, it's a stadium-seating venue that holds 600 people.

A couple dances to the music of the Hogslop String Band at the Carter Family Fold in Hiltons, Va. (The New York Times/MIKE BELLEME)
A couple dances to the music of the Hogslop String Band at the Carter Family Fold in Hiltons, Va. (The New York Times/MIKE BELLEME)

I paid the $10 entrance fee and watched families and couples take their seats. Lone dancers and couples began flatfooting (some say clogging) or waltzing to traditional bluegrass by the Morehead State University Mountain Music Ambassadors. On sale were Mason jars filled with spicy peanuts, popcorn, hot dogs, chips and soft drinks. A beagle puppy named Wilson, the apparent heir to Opie, the Fold's mascot who passed away, was getting a lot of attention. This was some good, clean fun, so cheerful it was almost head-spinning.

Rita Forrester, the daughter of Janette Carter and granddaughter of A.P. and Sara Carter, explained how the Fold came to be.

"When my mom got my brother and [me] through high school, she thought she would fulfill the promise she made to my grandfather and start music shows, and we all thought she was insane," Forrester said. "She didn't have tourism in mind. I mean, we are in the middle of nowhere. But the first night they spilled out into the road. That lasted about 2 years. We did the best we could. Then we built that big building next-door."

They spilled out of that larger venue when Johnny Cash came to perform his final concert here on July 5, 2003, a few months before his death.

The nearby Mount Vernon Methodist Church is a small, steepled sanctuary with a gabled roof. Clinch Mountain rises above the church, which also overlooks an extraordinarily green valley: hill and hollow. At the headstones of A.P. and Sara Carter, I recalled their 1928 song, "Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone?"

Perhaps you'll plant a flower

On my poor unworthy grave

Come and sit along

beside me

When the roses nod

and wave ...

This feels like a place that beckons people to return. Appalachia, it appears, is a place defined as much by music, faith and family as it is by county and state line, and it felt abundant.

Style on 09/22/2019

Print Headline: The Big Twang


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