In Southern Appalachia, Searching for the Big Bang of Country Music
August 19, 2019
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 inrockingchairs, 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 City 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 and songwriter Jimmie Rodgers, who would become known as “the father of country music.”
The recordings would become an inflection point in the history of what we now refer to as countrymusic.And though musicologists may take issue with the assigning of its origin to any one time or place, the famousBristol Sessionsof 1927 were influential enough to be widely referred to as the “big bang” of country music, a topic that the documentarian Ken Burns is taking a broad look atin an upcoming series on PBS.
In April, I headed east of Nashville to the place where those early sessions were recorded, and where the music they gave birth to are celebrated: the Tri-Cities ofKingsport,Johnson Cityand Bristol, which is a two-statetownstraddling the border of Tennessee and Virginia. In 1998, Congress namedBristolthe “Birthplace of Country Music.” Sixteen years later, the Virginia side built the 24,000-square-footBirthplace of Country Music Museum, a sleek Smithsonian Institution affiliate and part of the nonprofit Birthplace of Country Music organization, which, during the third week of September, hosts theBristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion,one of the largest assemblages of country music, Americana, roots and bluegrass in the United States.While the Birthplace of Country Music and other museums in the area tell the narrativeof this quintessentially American musical form,it’s the musical venues, ad hoc pickin’ parties and barn dances that are its soundtrack. I was hoping to sample all of them.
By foot, train, horse and car
After heading east toward the mountains, I hit the Cumberland Plateau and rolled down the windows to let in the cool air. Two hours on, I was planting my bags at an Airbnb rental in Johnson City, and the largest of the three towns in the Tri-Cities area.Johnson City appears on a number of lists of best places to live and visit, and is home toEast 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.”I
If Bristol is the birthplace of country music, thenRalph Peer, the record producer from New York City, acted as stork. Mr. 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 themMuddy WatersandHowlin’ Wolf, and would earn him spots in theCountry Music Hall of Fame, theSongwriters Hall of Fameand theBlues Hall of Fame.
Mr. Peer released the Carter 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. Jimmie Rodgers would record a number of songs with Mr. Peer, but it was “T for Texas” (recorded as “Blue Yodel” that November) that would sell half a million copies.
A complex tapestry
After a quick lunch, I headed to nearby Kingsport, the second largest of the Tri-Cities and home toBays 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 redbuds, 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 “Mountain Empire,” which spans a part of southwest Virginia and the mountainous counties in northeastern Tennessee, is also known for its walking trails and fishing lakes.
My goal was to meet Rick Dollar, former executive director of the Appalachian Cultural Music Association and a longtime torch bearer of issues surrounding the region’s musical history. Mr. Dollar had recently hosted Ken Burns’s documentary crew, who had been traveling through the area.
“Appalachian-style music has enhanced or motivated every style of music that you can think of — from blues to rock to country. And it all just keeps growing and changing every day,” said Mr. Dollar, who was, until recently, the 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.
We went on to discuss the period of the late 1920s and its influence on the region’s music. Mr. 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 two to three years.”
Johnson City, indeed, had its own set of sessions in 1928 and 1929, as did Knoxville, Tenn., the latter capturing a diverse gathering of African-American 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, an African-American musician and friend of A.P. Carter, would famously wander with him through the mountains looking for songs to record for Ralph Peer.
In the listening room
The following morning I woke early to explore the small towns in the Tri-Cities area, many with stroll-worthy town squares. Six miles east of Johnson City liesJonesborough, the oldest town in Tennessee and home to theInternational Storytelling Center, which holds a widely attendedNational Storytelling Festivaleach October.Elizabethton’s downtown is listed on the National Register of Historic Places almost in its entirety, but it may be their 134-foot-long covered bridge over the Doe River that is the most photogenic.
Later that evening, back in Johnson City, I drifted into the Down Home to talk to Ed Snodderly, who owns the landmark listening room (a musical venue where talking is discouraged) that has hosted Townes Van Zandt, the Red Clay Ramblers, New Grass Revival, John Hartford, Jerry Douglas, Del McCoury and others. The club, which seats 150 in an oak-paneled room, offers a nice selection of beers and Tex-Mex food, all of which takes a back seat to the live music.
“Over the years, word of mouth has gotten around about the Down Home,” said Mr. Snodderly, a working singer, songwriter and musician who also teaches music at E.T.S.U. “In 1976, we opened up a place where people would have to listen to music or at least behave.”
That evening, no one talked over a nearly spectral folk duo from Nova Scotia, two women who switched from fiddle, banjo, guitar and mandolin while harmonizing to deliciously grim original songs, still somehow managing to incorporate foot percussion.
As I drove back to my Airbnb late that night, I thought about the people I had met so far, some more incidentally than others, but many who have lived shoulder to the mountains for generations. Ask five people 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.
On an overcast morning after coffee the following day, I departed Johnson City for Bristol, Va., and theBirthplace of Country Music Museumin the heart of town, 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 like the fiddle, banjo, harp guitar, guitar, kazoo and jaw harp, as well as film and music. It also includes a 110-seat theater. 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 — to include 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, 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 annualJimmie Rodgers Music Festivaleach 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,” Ms. 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 Ralph 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.”
Hill and hollow
Already at the Tennessee-Virginia state line, I decided to drive 25 miles northwest to theCarter Family Foldin Hiltons, Va., at the foot of Clinch Mountain, memorialized in song by the Carters and other musicians. The Fold is on Virginia’sThe 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 rather enormous stadium-seating venue that happens to hold 600 people.
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 theMorehead State University Mountain Music Ambassadors. On sale were Mason jars filled with spicy peanuts, popcorn, hot dogs, chips and nonalcoholic drinks. A beagle puppy named Wilson, the apparent heir to Opie, the Fold’s mascot who had recently passed away, was getting a lot of attention. This was some good, clean fun, so cheerful it was almost head spinning.
While there, I met with Rita Forrester, the daughter of Janette Carter and granddaughter of A. P. and Sara Carter, who explained how the Fold came to be.
“When my mom got my brother and I 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,” Ms. 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 two 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.
While it was still light, I drove to the nearby Mount Vernon Methodist Church, a small, steepled sanctuary with a gabled roof. Clinch Mountain rises above the church, which also overlooks an extraordinarily green valley: hill and hollow. I found the headstones of A. P. and Sara Carter and remembered 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 ...
I was certainly in the middle of nowhere, but it still felt like a place that beckons people to return — one way or another. Appalachia, it appears, is a place defined as much by music, faith and family as it is by county and state line, and from where I stood that felt abundant.