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A Brief Comparison of the Johnson City and Bristol Sessions

State Street, Bristol, VA/TN, 1931 - Photo by Denise Beverly

The region of East Tennessee should be proud to boast that it hosted arguable two of the most important recording sessions in country music history in the late 1920s. Located merely 25 miles apart, Johnson City, Tennessee and Bristol, Tennessee, and more importantly, the recording sessions that took place there in 1928 and 1927 respectively, brought together the area’s best hillbilly musicians. Though the two recording sessions differed greatly later in popularity, they both provided the groundwork for the evolution of hillbilly music into today’s old-time and country music.

Ralph Peer

Ralph Peer

 

First, the Bristol Sessions occurred from July 25 to August 5 in Bristol, Tennessee in the second floor of a hat factory on State Street. Orchestrated by Victor Talking Machine Company producer, Ralph Peer, the sessions have become widely known as “The Big Bang of Country Music” due to their colossal impact on country music. Many musicians came from all over the east coast to record their hillbilly music for Peer. Most notable of these musicians were Jimmie Rodgers, from Meridian, Mississippi, and the Carter Family, from nearby Maces Spring, Virginia. The recordings of Rodgers and the Carter Family, A.P., Sara and Maybelle, went on to influence later, popular country artists such as Ernest Tubb, Merle Haggard, Hank Williams, and many more. Because the Bristol Sessions produced such famed recordings, it is commonly viewed as the sole, most important session to country music, despite several similar sessions occurring in the southeast United States around the same time, including Knoxville and Johnson City.

Jimmie Rodgers with the Carter Family

 

According to an essay written by music historian Dr. Ted Olson in 2002, these sessions influenced country music in three ways. First, “Peer introduced a now a soon-to-be-widespread music marketing model,” which included a “one-time payment to the act for recording his/her/their music and the promise of a share of profits generated from sales of copyrighted material on records and in songbooks; others…would retain a share of profits from sales...” Next, it emphasized the “vocals and the lyrics over purely instrumental numbers,”1 which influenced future singer-songwriters of the genre. Lastly, the Bristol Sessions established the popularity of commercially-recorded gospel music in the late 1920s.

 

Historical marker in downtown Johnson City, TN

 

A year later down the road in Johnson City, Tennessee, another important recording session was arranged by Frank B. Walker. The Johnson City Sessions differed immediately from Bristol because of Walker’s use of newspaper advertising to recruit Appalachian musicians for the sessions. The most popular records from Johnson City were those recorded by Clarence “Tom” Ashley and Fiddlin’ Charlie Bowman, among others. Though seemingly obscure, the Johnson City sessions proved to be important in its own right, featuring a wider Appalachian sound, and “capturing vocal performances of sacred material or secular songs with concisely-structured lyrics projecting generalized emotions – ostensibly to reach the broadest possible audience”2. Quite possibly the most popular record made during the Johnson City Sessions was “Steamboat Man” and “When the Roses Bloom Again for the Bootlegger,” by Roy Harper and Earl Shirkey, which sold about 75,000 copies. Walker returned to Johnson City the next year to record again.  Although the Johnson City Sessions are not as widely known as the Bristol Sessions, Walker and the musicians involved “provided a strong, distinctive cross-section of old-time Appalachian music made at the cusp of the Great Depression.”2

Walker's advertisement for the Johnson City Sessions

 

In conclusion, both recording sessions marked important dates on the music history timeline. Additionally, it skyrocketed not only the careers of several local, Appalachian musicians, but also producers Ralph Peer and Frank B. Walker, who became very important figures in the music business industry. 

 

 

1 = https://www.loc.gov/programs/static/national-recording-preservation-board/documents/Bristol.pdf

2 = https://bluegrasstoday.com/the-johnson-city-sessions-can-you-sing-or-play-old-time-music/