Spotlight On Music In Appalachia 2010

Spotlight On Music In Appalachia – Ralph Peer, The Bristol Sessions, & Hillbilly Music

Today’s guest post is written by Appalachian Historian Dave Tabler.

Ralph Sylvester Peer

In 1984, the Tennessee General Assembly recognized the town of Bristol, with one foot in Tennessee and one in Virginia, as the “Birthplace of Country Music.” The Commonwealth of Virginia followed in 1995, with both the State Senate and the House of Delegates passing identical resolutions honoring Bristol.

The Bristol Sessions of August 1927 are commonly acknowledged as the event that gave rise to the professional country musician and recording star. Releases from the Sessions put both the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers on the country music map.

Ralph Peer, the Victor Talking Pictures A&R man responsible for organizing the Bristol Sessions, often gets the credit as the recording industry visionary who single handedly brought Appalachian music to a national audience. He was only too happy to promote that position himself; in a 1958 interview he stated bluntly “I went to New York and worked for OKeh Records. That’s where I invented the hillbilly and the nigger stuff.”(he didn’t join Victor till 1926.)

As it happens, three other records companies had held or were scheduling auditions to record musicians in Bristol concurrent with Peer’s trip.

Why Bristol? Along with Johnson City, TN and Kingsport, TN, it formed the Tri-Cities, then the largest urban area in the Appalachians. Ernest Stoneman, whom Ralph Peer had recorded on location in Asheville, NC in August 1925, was the one who’d recommended that Peer set up shop in Bristol; ironically from our point of view, Peer had blown through Nashville in 1927 before settling on Bristol, but had dismissed it as a location.

Nor was the Bristol undertaking the first attempt by the recording industry to codify and capture this (to the general public’s ears) new musical style.

So then, what was the precise moment hillbilly music began? Was it with fiddler Eck Robertson’s 1922 New York recordings? These were done at Victor, quite likely produced by Nat Shilkret, who was head of Victor’s Foreign Department.

Robertson relates his first encounter with a Victor manager (though he doesn’t name Shilkret): “He said `Young man, get your fiddle out and start off on a tune.’ Said `I can tell that quick whether I can use you or not.’ Well, I said back to him just as honest as I could `Mister, I come a long ways to get an audition with you. Maybe I better wait and come back another time. You seem like you’re in an awful hurry.’ `No,’ he said, `Just start off a tune…’ Well, I didn’t get to play half of Sallie Gooden; he just throwed up his hands and stopped me. Said, `By Ned, that’s fine!’ And just smiled, you know. Said, `Come back in the morning at nine o’clock and we’ll make a test record.”

Shilkret played piano on three of Robertson’s first recordings, July 1, 1922.

Perhaps we could argue that hillbilly music commenced with Fiddlin’ John Carson’s June 1923 Atlanta sides. This was a Ralph Peer undertaking while he was still at OKeh. The Carson Atlanta recordings were almost an afterthought: Peer was primarily in search of black talent for OKeh’s race records division.

“OKeh had never made any recordings outside the studio,” said Peer of the experience. “We went down to Atlanta, we looked around, found a small vacant warehouse…. I had gone down ahead and began scouting around for some talent. Now, I was dependent largely upon the [Atlanta] distributor of OKeh Records. Matter of fact, I hadn’t been to Atlanta, Georgia before—this was my first trip.

“So this fellow ran a furniture store, and he began scouting around, but, to my amazement, he didn’t know of any Negro talent…. So I began to switch off, and I said, ‘I better record a local dance band, I’ve got to do something about this.’

“And he went to the local Negro theater and he tried to find acts but nothing amounted to anything, so we did a sort of fill-in job on this first trip. We went down there to get Negro stuff … [but] I don’t think we picked up any Negro stuff of any importance….

“Finally there was the deal where he wanted me to record a singer from a local church. This fellow … had quite a good reputation and occasionally worked on the radio…. So we set a date with this fellow, and this boy’s father was ill in some other town—he just couldn’t make the date.

“So to take up that time, my distributor brought in [white fiddler] Fiddlin’ John Carson…. He said Fiddlin’ John had been on the radio station, and he’s got quite a following. He’s really not a good singer, but let’s see what it is. So the beginning of the hillbilly was just this effort to take up some time.

“He would never have recommended Fiddling John except that we had a vacant date and the time would otherwise have been lost. So I can’t claim there was any genius connected with it, not on my part, not on his part.”

Although OKeh held the Atlanta effort in low esteem, the record-buying public depleted the initial supply of 500 records within days, and company record-pressing facilities were rushed into service to fill back orders. When sales reached the 500,000 figure, the company greatly altered its assessment of Fiddlin’ John Carson’s abilities. Carson was called to New York to record more of the music from his considerable repertoire of old-time ballads and traditional fiddle tunes.

Frank Buckley Walker was the Artist and Repertoire (A & R) talent scout for Columbia Records’ Country Music Division during the 1920s and 1930s, and he was monitoring Peer’s activities closely.

After the success of Okeh’s recording with Fiddlin’ John Carson, Walker sent the word out to his record distributors that he was looking for similar talent.

In Atlanta Gid Tanner was recommended and Tanner brought blind guitarist Riley Puckett with him to New York on March 7, 1924 to back-up his fiddle. Puckett became Columbia’s and Walker’s first country star, and picked his way through “Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane” accompanied on fiddle by Tanner.

On the flip side Puckett yodeled on “Rock All Our Babies to Sleep,” introducing a technique that was destined to longevity in country music. Their disc was released on May 20 and was an immediate success.

Columbia viewed this new music style as niche music for poor southern whites, and didn’t want to alienate their existing base of both northerners and wealthier southerners.

Initially, says Walker, “The music was not understood by my own people, and they said under no circumstances could we put anything of that sort on the market. But after due pleading on my part they agreed to let me do it providing we not make mention of it in any way. We must not put it on any of our [advertising] hangers or anything.”

The year 1924 is noteworthy in country music’s history because it produced the first multi-million selling tune ever. For Thomas Edison’s recording firm that summer vaudeville singer Vernon Dalhart recorded a cover of a Henry Whitter railroad ballad accompanied by his own harmonica playing and Frank Ferara’s Hawaiian guitar. “The Wreck on the Southern Old 97″ (Edison Diamond Disc 51316) was issued in August, and a month later was dubbed for release on Edison Blue Amberol Cylinder 4898.

Neither disc nor cylinder made a special stir, but their good sales did help Dalhart persuade his Victor executives, one of whom was Nat Shilkret, to let him record the ballad for them. Dalhart now coupled “The Wreck of the Old 97″ with his cousin Guy Massey’s piece, “The Prisoner’s Song.” It was released on October 3, 1924 on Victor’s Olde Time label, and went on to sell more than seven million copies.

Nor were the big New York recording companies the only ones interested in the newly emerging country music market. Art Satherley had joined Wisconsin Chair Company’s new Chicago based record label, Paramount, in 1918, first in manufacturing, then as a salesman. Although the label was known mostly for its race records, Satherley recorded a large number of old time country artists.

Paramount’s first foray into the genre came in 1924 with harmonica and guitar player Walter C. Peterson on the budget “Broadway” label (catalog #33150), though his work was tucked into the middle of a pop dance catalog series. By the mid-1920s, after earning a reputation as an expert in the infant genres of hillbilly and race music, Satherley was spending more time scouting and recording talent than working as a salesman.

“He tried to do a job and he did do a job,” noted Ralph Peer about Satherley. “He was a good judge of what the market needed.”

In January, 1925, Columbia had enough folk material to begin a Columbia 15000-D series, Familiar Tunes – Old and New, paralleling its own 14000-D race offerings. “I created a special series number, as I remember,” said Frank Walker, “at Columbia called the 15000 series, and we would make a record and we would manufacture and release it and offer it quietly by a little letter to our various distributors through the South.”

At this time Okeh, like Paramount, was still releasing country material on pop labels. Hence, Columbia was the first company to see the possibilities in an exclusive white folk series. By October 1925, OKeh followed suit with a similar 45000 Old Time Tunes category.

The record companies hadn’t quite yet settled on the moniker of ‘hillbilly music’ for this new style of music: descriptions included “Old- Time Tunes” (OKeh), “Old Familiar Tunes” (Columbia), “tunes from Dixie” (Brunswick), and “Olde Time Fiddlin’ Tunes from the Sunny South” (Victor).

The term first appeared on an OKeh release from 1925, a recording of a string band from Watauga County, NC, who showed up at the New York recording studio without having decided what to call themselves. When Ralph Peer, who was supervising the sessions, asked for their names, one of the group’s members responded, “We’re nothing but a bunch of hillbillies from North Carolina and Virginia. Call us anything.” So Peer released the sides under the name “the Hill Billies.”

Jack Kapp’s father was a Chicago based salesman for Columbia Records, and young Kapp joined that firm in 1914 as a shipping clerk. He was hired by Brunswick Records (also Chicago) in 1926 to form a race record division, with initial releases on the Vocalion label.

By 1927 Brunswick’s “tunes from Dixie” series featured Vernon Dalhart (he of the 1924 ‘Wreck of the Old 97’ fame), Al Hopkins, Uncle Dave Macon, Dock Boggs, and Buell Kazee.  The Vocalion 5000 series featured Uncle Dave Macon, Am Stewart, Sid Harkreader, and Charlie Oaks.

“Kapp’s promotion follows a concrete survey of the country’s musical tastes, particularly in the Southern and Midwestern demands for ‘hill-billy’ and ‘race’ records,” Varietymagazine noted on March 21, 1928. “These two departments have been chiefly developed by Kapp and have contributed to Vocalion’s financial success.

“It was Kapp who taught the mountaineer music dealers to capitalize the hill-billy folks’ penchant for purchasing from 6 to 15 copies of the same record.  The mountain people don’t come down into the valley towns for months at a time, and their chief amusement is the constant repetition of their favorite record, wearing one out and playing a new one.”

Johnny Cash called the 1927 Bristol Sessions “the Big Bang of country music.” It’s a great sound bite, but it wildly oversimplifies the truth. Fiddlin’ John Carson, Uncle Dave Macon, Vernon Dalhart, Frank Hutchison, Ernest Stoneman, the Skillet Lickers, Riley Puckett and Charlie Poole were already established recording artists by the summer of 1927.

Victor Talking Pictures and its star producer Ralph Peer had plenty of competitors in the field, and while Peer’s contributions are many, he and Victor were far from being the only show in town.

Recorded music in American life: the phonograph and popular memory, 1890-1945,by William Howland Kenney
Creating country music: fabricating authenticity By Richard A. Peterson
“Hillbilly Music: Source and Symbol,” by Archie Green, Journal of American Folklore 78:309 (July- September 1965)
Ralph Peer interview–Lillian Borgeson, 1958. Southern Folklife Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill–a–r-man-for-columbia.aspx
“The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records,” By Sarah Filzen
Wisconsin Magazine of History 82/2 ( Winter 1998-99): 104-127
Brunswick records: a discography of recordings, 1916-1931,by Ross Laird


I hope you enjoyed Dave’s informative post as much as I did. A couple of things that jumped out at me:

  • Amusing how in the beginning, the recording studios had a hard time believing folks would actually like the old time sound and even went so far as to forbid any advertising of the records for fear they would offend the customers of their established artists
  • I love what the string band from Watauga NC told Ralph Peer-sounds like something Pap would say about his music
  • I liked the reference to mountain people playing their favorite song over and over until they ruined the record-been there done that.



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  • Reply
    September 9, 2010 at 11:26 am

    The love interview, Tipper!
    Where would we be now without our hillbilly music?!

  • Reply
    September 2, 2010 at 10:43 pm

    Great post Tipper, thanks for sharing. I learned alot from it.

  • Reply
    September 2, 2010 at 11:32 am

    Great research! What a fun read 🙂

  • Reply
    September 2, 2010 at 10:12 am

    Hi Tipper, I loved this post. For you see, I lived not far from Bristol and the Tri-cities… I had family in Bristol, and we would go there from our small town of Big Stone Gap, VA to do our clothes shopping –in the bigger stores there… I have such good memories as a child of going to Bristol.
    Thanks for the info on Hillbilly Music…

  • Reply
    David Templeton
    September 1, 2010 at 7:58 pm

    After I added my two cents worth I realized I hadn’t thanked and complimented Mr. Tabler for his very fine article and history. I read it with much enjoyment and learned so much from him. I set out to thank him for his article and failed to do so in my rambling. Tipper, I hope you will tell him for me how very good his contribution is.

  • Reply
    David Templeton
    September 1, 2010 at 7:51 pm

    Mr. Tabler is correct to remind us that there is seldom if ever a single “big bang” birthing any phenomenon. Ol’ timey music and “hillbilly” music grew and evolved from many roots over many centuries. Bristol wasn’t the sole crucible for country music no more than was Alan Freed the first to bandy the term “rock and roll” around (actually, the use of that term and variations of it had been a part of and used in rhythm and blues for a long time before Mr. Freed took it as his invention).
    Having said that, the Bristol Sessions were seminal if for no other reason than the establishment of Jimmie Rogers and The Carter family as major, if not THE major, forces in the sales and propagation of country (ol’timey) music during the 1920s and 1930 (albeit with much competition and with many fellow travelers along the pathway).
    A search of the internet easily yields many references to and histories of string bands, hillbilly bands, jug bands working, performing and recording in the first quarter of the 20th century, from all around the country.
    I have long enjoyed an album or collection named “Music from The Lost Provinces” and reading about its performers, one quickly understands, for example, how important were the many string bands and many hillbilly bands of western North Carolina in 1910s and 1920s, and onward to the spawning and growth of “Hillbilly Music”.
    Yet, and again, Bristol occupies a special place in the roots of country music. And if seizing the sobriquet helps their commerce and helps establish such wonderful music festivals as The 10th Annual Rhythm and Roots Reunion at Bristol in a couple of weeks, I’ll grant them the liberty.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    September 1, 2010 at 1:37 pm

    HillBillies, I guess that’s us! lol!
    Tipper it’s great to hear about the beginnings of our mountain music coming out. These are stories I’ve never heard before. Thank you and thank Dave!
    They sure must have played those records a LOT to wear them out.

  • Reply
    August 31, 2010 at 11:53 pm

    Great article! I had heard little bits of this story before, about some of the early recordings in Asheville and the move to Bristol, and about some of the local talent that did not make it. I enjoyed this very much.

  • Reply
    kenneth o. hoffman
    August 31, 2010 at 9:01 pm

    tipper: what a great post, all though most of those artists were gone as i grew, up my dad raised me on those one sided records. dalhart, the skillet lickers charlie poole and others. so now i have the remakes of those songs in albums,that i still enjoy. thanks for these peeks into the past. im feeling right at home your friend k.o.h

  • Reply
    B. Ruth
    August 31, 2010 at 6:38 pm

    Great Post….
    Didn’t see one “ioda of a mention” about Nashville…guess the opry didn’t come into view until the late 30’s 40’s….
    I think this article would be interesting to young folks who think all country hillbilly music got its roots in Nashville. The music crossover from blue grass and folk songs of the mountaineer and hill billy to country western is an interesting study…
    I’ve been privy to a few of those old worn out 78s…scratched so bad you couldn’t hear them..

  • Reply
    "Rooster" in Missouri
    August 31, 2010 at 4:48 pm

    Ralph,recorded Ernest “pop” Stoneman.Pop’s daughter,Ronnie,was the nagging woman with rolling pin hitting her drunk husband on Hee haw,she also played banjo on there.
    Everything comes from somewhere.

  • Reply
    "Rooster" in Missouri
    August 31, 2010 at 4:39 pm

    Thank GOD for Ralph Peer,there wdn’t be Jimmie Rodgers “Father Of Country Music” more less-white blues/train songs. And the Carter family.They paved the way & influenced alot of people, and not just Country Music people.

  • Reply
    David N Lee
    August 31, 2010 at 4:39 pm

    Tiper, I have a copy of the Bristol sessions and some of Gid Tanner and Reily Pucket’s work with the Skillet Lickers. Also some of the early Carter Family. My Mother had several old Okeh 78’s including “The Wreak of Old 97”. Someone (oh, that would be me) wore them out. Being a young 70 I grew up with this music and still enjoy it.
    You, Pap and Paul have brought a lot of joy and happiness to me as I wait to go Home and sing once more wih Mom and Dad and many Aunts, Uncles and cousins. Spent a lot of night’s doing that!
    thanks, God Bless
    Uncle Dave Richmond, Kentucky

  • Reply
    Jim Casada
    August 31, 2010 at 4:24 pm

    Tipper–A nice piece of historical research, and as a “recovering” university history I appreciated the inclusion of sources at the end.
    I would add something of a personal note. My undergraduate years were spent in Bristol (King College) and mountain music still thrived then as I’m sure it does now. That was in the early 1960s (yes, I’m a wee bit long in the tooth, but young in spirit). On weekends you could always find a square dance somewhere (I could clog for hours back then, while a minute to something like “Under the Double Eagle” or “Down Yonder” seems a precious plenty today), hear wonderful local bands on local radio stations, and sense a rich heritage all around you. On top of that, I got to enjoy speakers at King like that wonderful exemplar of Appalachian literature, Jesse Stuart.
    I was back in Bristol just a couple of months back to speak at a gathering of fly fishermen, and predictably, the entertainment the first evening for exhibitors and speakers was a fine bluegrass band.
    Good stuff by Mr. Tabler.
    Jim Casada

  • Reply
    Eva Nell Mull Wike, Ph.D.
    August 31, 2010 at 3:57 pm

    Lord have mercy! This is a wonderful documentary about HILLBILLY MUSIC! I’ll bet my Mama(b.1907,d.2002) first heard “The Wreck of the Old 97” through this source. It was her favor right tune! At her 94th birthday party she and my sister, Eddie Lee (on guitar) sang “The Wreck of the Old 97” and Mama didn’t miss a word of it! I love it!
    Eva Nell

  • Reply
    Donna W
    August 31, 2010 at 3:49 pm

    Well, I learned a lot of things I didn’t know! Thanks for the education.

  • Reply
    August 31, 2010 at 3:24 pm

    interesting, i did not know about Bristol or the tri cities. a lot of country music history in this post. thanks

  • Reply
    August 31, 2010 at 2:15 pm

    I didn’t know all this! And Dave
    seemed to have a lot of sources to
    back up what he wrote. I always gave credit to the Carter bunch and Roy Acuff for doing “hillbilly” music and bringing country music to life. I
    can still hear those old train songs my mama use to sing…Ken

  • Reply
    Bob Dalsemer
    August 31, 2010 at 2:04 pm

    Great article! Many thanks. The Hill Billies (aka the Original Hill Billies) were a terrific band judging from their surviving recordings. They played extensively on several vaudeville theater circuits and had a quite an entertaining show by all accounts. I was fortunate enough to meet the oldest surviving member of the group, Tony Alderman, in the mid-1970’s. After the Hill Billies disbanded he moved to Washington, D.C. became an X-Ray technician and was retired when we met. By then he had quit playing fiddle, but still played musical saw.

  • Reply
    August 31, 2010 at 1:31 pm

    Lots of interesting things to read in this post. Really enjoyed it Tipper.

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