The Bristol sessions are variously known as “the single most important event in the history of country music” (John R. Cash) and the “Big Bang of country music” (Nolan Porterfield), with Bristol, Tennessee declared the “Birthplace of Country Music” (the Bristol Chamber of Commerce, among others.)
Was it, though?
This new, concise summary of the 1927 and 1928 Bristol sessions revisits the music captured by Ralph Peer and his colleagues ninety-some years ago. Not exhaustive (as were the previously released—and unheard by this writer—Bear Family collection The Bristol Sessions 1927-1928: The Big Bang of Country Music), the current, single-disc volume summarizes the music recorded, featuring a single track from the many participants. While the music has been presented on other occasions in various formats—bargain collections from RCA and JSP included–the appeal of the set under consideration is the new and extensive essays contained within, artfully written and argued by re-issue producer Ted Olson.
Obvious is that Olson has a passion for the music recorded during the Bristol sessions. His study of the recordings and their surround minutiae is readily apparent in the detail his essay contains; his fervor for the subject is equally and readily communicated.
I will leave the intricacies of Olson’s thesis to those who purchase the volume to discover themselves, but safe to say that Olson holds that the importance of the sessions extends far beyond the recordings made by the most famous of the participants, The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. He also adroitly challenges the “entrenched notions about 1920-era ‘hillbilly music’ (early country music) and examine[s] the vernacular origin myths that have influence assessments of the Bristol sessions…”
In Olson’s estimable manner, he traces the origins of country music recording (Eck Robertson? Fiddlin’ John Carson? Don Robertson?) and shares his interpretation of the ‘lay of the land’ pre-July, 1927. As Olson zeros in on Bristol, 1927 and 1928, he convincingly and unceremoniously (although always politely and respectfully) challenges the myths that have been perpetrated by folk who may have something to gain—directly or indirectly—from labeling the Bristol sessions with specific monikers and historical heft.
Olson doesn’t so much downplay the significance of Peer’s Bristol sessions—truly he can’t as they were important, artistically, financially, and historically—but he places them into their wider context alongside later sessions in Johnson City, Knoxville, and elsewhere. As Olson states, “Interpretive efforts should focus less on Bristol—the sessions were not strictly a local story—and more on the larger narrative linking early country music to the collective Appalachian cultural experience.” He utilizes scholarship to support his arguments and successfully challenges the common message supported by “politicians, tourism officials, [and] the mainstream media.” In doing so Olson diminishes not the importance of the recordings, the artists, and the songs; rather, he elevates each.
Olson’s most significant claim, and there are many within the 40-plus page booklet, comes when discussing the album’s closing number, Alfred G. Karnes’ uplifting “We Shall All Be Reunited,” the piece that provides this volume its title. The following should provide a sense of Olson’s measured, yet undeniably enthusiastic writing style:
“Listening to Karnes’s poignant rendition of ‘We Shall All Be Reunited’—evocative of a profound engagement with the world—might serve to remind us today that public appreciation of the Bristol sessions should not be based primarily on the perceived historical legitimacy granted that narrative by a few entities that were ‘successful’ (whether the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, Ralph Peers, VICTOR RECORDS, or the City of Bristol). The Bristol sessions documented a shared legacy of songs and tunes infused with the cultural values of an Appalachian generation that came of age amidst the turbulent transition from tradition to modernity just before the Great Depression, and a number of talented musicians of that generation travelled to Bristol and trusted that the new technology would capture and disseminate the wisdom of their music to all the ages.”
As I type these words, I happen to be listening to the latest release from British Columbia, wife and husband duo Pharis and Jason Romero. The music they perform, in a manner most would (very) generally associate with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings—two voices, a guitar, a banjo, and ‘homespun’ themes—has its very roots in the music captured off Bristol’s State Street by Ralph Peer those many years ago. As with the music compiled (yet again, but pristinely) within We Shall All Be Reunited: Revisiting the Bristol Sessions, 1927-1928, the sounds appear primitive, simple and homely. Companionable, even. It is only upon more judicious consideration that the complexities reveal themselves.
The harmonies of the volume—especially on sacred numbers—are often complex, layered and fragile in their temperament: one false note, and the effect would be tarnished. The instrumentation is rudimentary considering what we now hear within Americana’s bluegrass, old-time, and associated sounds. But again, the seemingly simple execution would not be so easily replicated, the melody floating in and around the voices, the acoustic instruments revealing several generations of musical evolution. And the lead voices—of another world—but as Welch, Rawlings, the Romeros, Rhiannon Giddens, Laurie Lewis, James Reams, and others of the contemporary set admirably demonstrate, not one with which we have lost connection.
Whether based in church, holler, field, kitchen, or porch, these sounds connect us to our past, whether we have tangible connection to Appalachia or not. This volume reminds us of What Once Was and That Which Continues to Develop.
Some of the performers are familiar, in name and song: “The Poor Orphan Child” from the Carters, Jimmie Rodgers’ “Sleep Baby Sleep, and even Blind Alfred Reed’s “The Wreck of the Virginian” (Take 2); the character of Reed’s voice creates the effect of seemingly being just across the table from the listener. It is upon these that the bulk of the Bristol sessions—less familiar to many–are presented.
Highlights? How about 26 of them, but notably, El Watson’s “Narrow Gauge Blues,” Henry Whitter’s (he of Grayson &)“Rain Crow Bill,” and the Smith Brothers’ “My Mother Is Waiting For Me In Heaven Above.” Olson takes the time to develop the story of each session, highlighting the elements of each performance, and does so in a manner that would make my efforts gratuitous. Trust me, this is the good stuff: orthophonic joy abounds.
I especially appreciated hearing a crystal clear mastering of the Bull Mountain Moonshiners’ “Johnny Goodwin,” the only recording capturing Jim & Jesse McReynolds’ fiddling grandfather Charles M. West Virginia Coon Hunters’ “Your Blue Eyes Run Me Crazy” and Uncle Eck Dunford’s (I think we need more Ecks in our world today) “Old Shoes and Leggin’s” keep me coming back to this download, as does B. F. Shelton’s “Oh Molly Dear” and the Tenneva Ramblers’ “The Longest Train I Ever Saw”: yup, that’s sure sounds like mountain music! (That is what I received for review, a download with the booklet file attached—I can only imagine the quality of the physical product; I trust it is considerable.)
If the music didn’t appeal—and it does—the monikers must: Dad Blackard’s Moonshiners; Alcoa Quartet; Tennessee Mountaineers; Shortbuckle Roark & Family; Johnson Brothers with Tennessee Wildcats; Ernest Phipps & His Holiness Singers; J. P. Nester; West Virginia Coon Hunters.
My, beats the heck of some of the band names we hear today!
Remastered and most importantly reconsidered, We Shall All Be Reunited: Revisiting the Bristol Sessions, 1927-1928 is revealing in the consideration given its scholarly presentation of information, in both written and aural forms. Highest recommendation. I can only hope that Olson and Bear Family continue their mission, and reexamine the Knoxville sessions in a similar manner; the Johnson City received a (presumably) similar treatment last year.