1927 and 1928 Bristol Sessions Archives - Page 3 of 4 - The Birthplace of Country Music
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Remembering Georgia Warren

The 1927 Bristol Sessions story is one of developing technology, star singers, and business acumen. It’s also a very personal story for the descendants of those artists who answered Ralph Peer’s call for musicians and recorded in that makeshift studio in the Taylor-Christian Hat Company here in Bristol.

One of those Bristol Sessions artists – Georgia Warren – holds a particularly special place in our story as she was here with us at the museum’s Grand Opening in August 2014, the last surviving musician from those historic recordings. When she came to Bristol in 1927, she was only 12 years old, the daughter of George Massengill, who was the leader of a congregational choir from Bluff City, Tennessee. Known as the Tennessee Mountaineers, they recorded two songs at the Bristol Sessions: “Shall We Gather at the River” and “Standing on the Promises.”

Left pic: Georgia Warren at museum interactive wearing headphones with daughter Nancy and museum director Jessica Turner; center pic: Georgia Warren's signing of Green Board, reading: Last living member of Sessions, Georgia Warren, 98 yrs old; right pic: Georgia Warren cutting Grand Opening ribbon in front of museum with Roni Stoneman behind her.
Georgia Warren, seen here with daughter Nancy Taylor, got a sneak peek of the museum before it opened – here she is listening to the clip of the Tennessee Mountaineers at the 1927 Bristol Sessions (left). Georgia also came to the museum’s Grand Opening on August 1, 2014, signing our Green Board in the permanent exhibits (center) and cutting the Grand Opening ribbon with Roni Stoneman, daughter of Ernest and Hattie Stoneman (right). © Birthplace of Country Music

Georgia Warren passed away on March 6, 2016 at the age of 100. And so today, the anniversary of that date, we want to remember her and her part in our story. Because we actually knew Georgia, and know her family, we have had the chance to learn about the things she loved, about her life, about what singing in that dark studio all those years ago meant to her. And we’ve had the chance to learn what Georgia’s place in this history means to her family too.

Some things we learned were surprising – for instance, Georgia played basketball in high school and won MVP in 1934 when her high school team won the local championships. She kept her love for basketball in later life as a huge fan of the Lady Vols and Pat Summitt, often saying that Pat should have been the men’s coach at University of Tennessee too. (Something probably quite a few Pat Summitt fans have said in the past!)

Black and white photo of girls' basketball team -- 9 players and 1 coach
Georgia as a senior (first on the left) with her winning high school basketball team. Photograph courtesy of Nancy Taylor

Others – like her green thumb – made more sense, knowing that Georgia grew up on a farm in rural Tennessee. After marrying her husband Paul and living in California for a while, they moved back to Tennessee to build a farm on a parcel of land – with Georgia right there in the thick of it driving the tractor, baling hay, planting tobacco, helping with the animals, and growing vegetables. Her daughter Nancy Taylor remembers sitting under a tree in the yard of their house, breaking beans with her mother, and how her mother did a lot of canning of fruit and vegetables, stocking their pantry with row upon row of Mason jars filled with food. Georgia was also a keen flower gardener, filling her yard with a bounty of beautiful flowers and especially loving the first crocuses as they bloomed each year.

Left pic: B&W photograph of Paul and Georgia Warren; right pic: Paul and Georgia Warren standing in a flower bed.
Georgia with husband Paul (left) and enjoying the flowers at a garden visit (right). Photographs courtesy of Nancy Taylor

Even though Georgia’s appearance on the two Tennessee Mountaineers sides from the Bristol Sessions was her one and only professional performance, music and singing was still a big part of her life. For many years, she continued to sing (alto) in the First Christian Church in Bluff City, Tennessee, along with her parents and her husband (tenor), while Nancy’s sister played piano and organ. Georgia’s father George Massengill was one of the originators of this church, though before it was made of brick and mortar the congregation often gathered on Massengill’s front porch to sing, and Nancy remembers her grandfather saying that people would yell out song requests down the holler because they could hear them from afar. The family also used to sing together just for fun – as Nancy tells us, “We’d have a big time singing different songs,” from Elvis’s “Love Me Tender” to singing along with the record from the Sessions.

A connection to the music she sang in 1927 stayed strong through the years, and when Georgia was ailing toward the end of her life, the hospice minister would sing “Shall We Gather at the River” with her at home – apparently she knew it by heart, never missing a note or a word of the song. And at her funeral a couple of years ago, the Tennessee Mountaineer’s 1927 rendition of “Shall We Gather at the River” was played in the funeral home chapel with everyone singing together to honor Georgia.

Nancy tells us that Georgia felt enormous pride from the part she played in the 1927 Bristol Sessions recordings, and that the recognition of this history was important to her. She didn’t want to have a fuss made over her, but she enjoyed telling people about climbing the dark stairs to the put-together studio, seeing Peer and the engineers, and being a bit scared by the whole set up, staying close to her father but still singing strong and true. And the best part – seeing Jimmie Rodgers, who recorded the previous day, and thinking he was quite handsome!

Georgia Warren sits central, surrounded by her daughter Nancy and several other family members. Behind them is the Grand Opening Birthplace of Country Music Museum logo.
Georgia with her family at the museum’s Grand Opening on August 1, 2014. © Birthplace of Country Music

Nancy notes that the songs the Tennessee Mountaineers sang at the Sessions were old standards, not really sung much anymore but the kind of music she and her mother were raised on. And Georgia’s story underlines one of the fundamental truths about the Sessions recordings: many of the songs recorded were everyday sacred family songs, songs sung in church and at home, and most of the artists were working people who went back to their everyday lives after the recordings. And that’s part of what makes them special.

When asked what her mother’s place in the history of the 1927 Bristol Sessions means to her, Nancy said, “Even though she’s gone, I don’t want them to forget her.” There’s no fear of that here at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum – Georgia’s story is our story and the personal connection makes our appreciation of this history richer.

African American History in a Country Music Museum? Exhibits and Programs Explore the Connections

Each year February is highlighted as Black History Month. This call to recognize the central role of African Americans in our history was first put forward by Dr. Carter Goodwin Woodson in 1926. As a blog post on the National Museum of American History website notes: “When mainstream history either largely ignored or debased the Black presence in the American narrative, Dr. Woodson labored to inject a fair portrayal of African Americans into the national record.”

At first glance, you might not think that the history of early country music intersects a great deal with African American history. However, the intersections exist and are significant, and we’ve explored some of these in the Birthplace of Country Music Museum – for example, in the development of genre, with musicians who had impact on early commercial country music, and of course, through the African origins of the banjo, an instrument now indelibly linked to country and bluegrass music. And there has been a continuing presence of African Americans in country music beyond the early commercial years, for instance with artists like DeFord Bailey, Charley Pride, Linda Martell, and the celebration of black stringband music by the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Books like Diane Pecknold’s Hidden in the Mix: The African American Presence in Country Music and Francesca Royster’s Black Country Music: Listening for Revolutions explore these connections more deeply.

Prior to the recording music industry, musical categories such as blues or rock or country did not really exist. However, the recording and marketing of music created a need to target audiences in order to make money, and so record executives began advertising music and musicians based on what they assumed different audiences would like, leading to the development of a variety of genres.

Detail from Decca record sleeve listing several genre types such as Hill Billy, Race, Sepia, Mexican, Irish, and Scotch, along with their price.
This Decca record sleeve in the museum collections includes a list of various genres and the price of records within each series. © Birthplace of Country Music; gift of Betty Lou Dean and Roger Allen Dean

One of these genres was known as “race records,” commercial recordings that were aimed specifically at African American audiences. Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues,” produced by OKeh Records in 1920, was one of the first recordings in this new genre. Selling around 8,000 copies per week over several months, the popularity of “Crazy Blues” proved to record executives that there was a market and an audience for “race records.” Companies began developing catalogues aimed at these audiences, and they often hired black talent scouts and agents to find musicians to record. Much of these early recordings were focused on blues artists.

Despite the seeming segregation of audiences – with black audiences targeted through “race records” and “hillbilly records” marketed to white audiences – the lines between genres were often crossed with musicians, styles, and songs from each influencing the other. And, of course, just because a record was marketed to a particular audience doesn’t mean that other audiences didn’t listen to and buy that record.

Photograph of "genre" panel in the museum exhibits with listing of different genres, descriptive text, and several images illustrating artists from these genres.
The museum panel on genre explores some of the different types of music that have been marketed to different audiences, including “hillbilly records” and “race records.” © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Haley Hensley

The Bristol Sessions involved few African American musicians. Each of the two Bristol recording sessions held by Ralph Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company – the 1927 and 1928 Bristol Sessions – featured only one such act. At the 1927 Sessions, El Watson recorded two instrumental harmonica pieces, “Pot Licker Blues” and “Narrow Gauge Blues.” The fairly arbitrary categorization of genre is reflected in the marketing of Watson’s recordings – Victor released Watson’s two sides in the label’s “race records” series, while two similar blues-inspired harmonica pieces by white musician Henry Whitter were marketed as “hillbilly records” and promoted predominantly to white audiences. Watson also played the bones on some Johnson Brothers (a white duo) recordings at the 1927 Bristol Sessions, and Charles Johnson played guitar on Watson’s sides; these are some of the earliest integrated recordings of country and blues music. There is little information about El Watson to be found in the historical record, but we do know that Peer was very much impressed by Watson’s sound and musical skills, inviting him to record four more songs with Victor in New York: “Fox Chase,” “Sweet Bunch of Daisies,” “Bay Rum Blues,” and “One Sock Blues.” It’s also likely that he recorded with Columbia Records in Johnson City, Tennessee, in 1928.

Left: Two sets of historic bones; center, a set of manufactured bones; right, a photograph of a group of customers in a record shop holding manufactured bones.
In 2015 musician Dom Flemons, cofounder of The Carolina Chocolate Drops and known as “The American Songster,” donated to the museum two sets of bones (ca. 1927), a set of manufactured bones patented by Joe Birl, “The Rhythm Bone King,” and a photograph of a group of customers in a music shop with their sets of rhythm bones. © Birthplace of Country Music; gift of Dom Flemons

The duo of Tarter & Gay recorded the next year at the 1928 Bristol Sessions. As with Watson’s recordings, the two numbers recorded by these talented musicians – “Brownie Blues” and “Unknown Blues” – were also issued in Victor’s “race records” series. Before they recorded in Bristol, Stephen Tarter and Harry Gay had performed live for white and black audiences at dances, and the style reflected on their Bristol Sessions recordings touches upon ragtime and stringband music, amongst others.

Race records panel in museum, with descriptive text and three images: Lesley Riddle, a Victor race records catalog cover, and Stephen Tarter with his cousin
This panel in the museum explores “race records” – an image of one of the Victor marketing pieces for their “race records” series can be seen here. The photograph to the upper left is of Lesley Riddle; the other photograph had been previously identified as Steven Tarter and Harry Gay, but new information tells us that it might be Tarter with his cousin Carson Anderson. There are no known photographs of El Watson. © Birthplace of Country Music

And then, of course, there’s Lesley Riddle, a hugely influential musician who worked closely with A. P. Carter in his search for songs and music worth playing and turning into hits. And don’t forget: Riddle has also been credited with sharing his style of guitar picking with Maybelle Carter, who built on this learning with the now well known and revered Carter scratch. His significance to the history of early commercial country music cannot be overstated – you can read all about his impact and influence in our blog post here and here.

While Black History Month may be a starting point for talking about African American history in early country music, it is not the stopping point. This is why we have worked to share relevant content within the museum’s permanent exhibits and also to continue the conversation through special exhibits and public programming outside of this one month of the year – for example, the special exhibit We are the Music Makers: Preserving the Soul of American Music in 2016, our display of the Smithsonian poster exhibit A Place for All People, the live simulcast of the opening ceremony for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, a roundtable discussion about the history of the local African American community, and engaging performances by a host of artists. to name a few.

Two photographs of the Music Maker exhibit in the museum's Special Exhibits Gallery; the one to the right shows visitors enjoying the exhibit.
Museum visitors to the We Are the Music Makers exhibit really connected with Music Maker Relief Foundation founder Tim Duffy’s images and stories of southern old-time and blues artists. During the exhibit, the museum also hosted a performance by NEA National Heritage Fellow John Dee Holeman, a Music Maker Piedmont blues guitarist, and we got the chance to interview Dom Flemons about his work with the foundation and why its mission is so important. © Birthplace of Country Music Museum
Three shots showing different parts of A Place for All People, a poster exhibit from the Smithsonian.
The A Place for All People poster exhibit – a survey of the African American community’s powerful, deep and lasting contributions to the American story – marked the historic opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History. This poster exhibit is now a permanent part of our collection, and we rehung 10 of the posters this January to mark the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s death. © Birthplace of Country Music
Photographs of Amythyst Kiah and Jerron "Blind Boy" Paxton performing in the museum's Performance Theater.
We held several events as part of our “Lift Every Voice” series, based around a global initiative highlighting organizations co-celebrating the Grand Opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. These included a powerful performance by Southern gothic, alt-country blues singer/songwriter Amythyst Kiah, a fan favorite in Bristol, and an academic lecture by Dr. Cece Conway on the African roots of the banjo followed by a concert by Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton, a multi-instrumentalist who not only shared some amazing music with us but also had everyone in the audience enthralled by his wonderful storytelling and his deep knowledge of the history of his craft. © Birthplace of Country Music

Today there are criticisms aimed at setting aside a month or a week or a day of the year to commemorate important historical subjects – for instance, the question of whether setting aside a designated time to explore those histories means that they aren’t fully integrated into the study and understanding of American history. While in some ways the name of our museum – the Birthplace of Country Music Museum – might seem to narrow our focus, through exhibits, programming, and even collections we have tried to bring together the histories and voices of a variety of musicians and communities in order to underline just how much American music has been built and created from the intersection of different styles, different stories, different artists, and different backgrounds.


Music in the Blood: Norman Edmonds and Jimmy Edmonds

On February 9, 1889, Norman Edmonds was born in Wythe County, Virginia. Edmonds recorded four songs at the 1927 Bristol Sessions, playing fiddle alongside J. P. Nester’s singing and banjo on “Train on the Island,” “Black-Eyed Susie,” John, My Lover,” and “Georgia.” Their version of “Train on the Island” was included on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Music in 1952.

Photograph of museum case displaying an old fiddle and a photograph of Norman Edmonds, holding his fiddle.
The photograph of Norman Edmonds in the museum’s permanent exhibits shows him in later life with his fiddle. The photograph was shared with us by Mark Sanderford. ©Birthplace of Country Music

Only two sides from the Sessions recordings were released (“Train on the Island” and “Black-Eyed Susie”), but Ralph Peer was impressed with their sound, a wonderful throwback to earlier stringbands that were made up of just fiddle and banjo together. Peer invited them up to New York City – all expenses paid – to record further; however, Nester refused to leave his Blue Ridge Mountains home and so a continuation of their partnership “on record” didn’t happen.

Edmonds, who played the fiddle in the “old-time” way, where he held it against his chest rather than underneath his chin, may not have gotten another chance to record in the 1920s and 1930s, but his fame as a fiddler saw him become a local star in his later years. He performed at the Galax Old Fiddler’s Convention (amongst others), played on several LPs made in Galax and also one for independent label Davis Unlimited, and had his very own radio show called The Old Timers.

As with so many traditional musicians, whose music and instruments were passed down through the generations, Edmonds learned his playing from his father, who learned it from his father. And today, Edmonds’ grandson Jimmy Edmonds of Galax, Virginia, has also come to music and instrument building the old-fashioned way: through his family. He is a 5th-generation Edmonds fiddle player – he started playing at four years old, picking up other instruments along the way – and his father was a luthier who passed on his skills, tools, and craftsmanship to his son. Jimmy started off helping his father repair instruments and working on finishes, moving on to making his first fiddle under the encouragement of luthiers Wayne Henderson and Gerald Anderson. A busted Wayne Henderson guitar while he worked at the Myrtle Beach Opry led to guitar building.

Left-hand pic shows Jimmy Edmonds standing in his wood storage room and various types of wood on the shelves. The right-hand picture shows several guitar bodies, unfinished, waiting to be fully constructed.
Jimmy Edmonds is seen to the left in the wood storage room at his workshop. This room is filled with a variety of woods used in the different instruments Jimmy builds, from Brazilian rosewood and mahogany to Carpathian spruce and Koa. To the right, several guitar bodies are waiting to be fully constructed. © Birthplace of Country Music

The legacy of this mountain music, and the craft that makes it possible, is wonderfully on display through Jimmy’s work. A visit to Jimmy’s workshop gives you a real insight into the traditions that come together when luthiers make their instruments – the choices of wood, the techniques used, the influences from past luthiers and the innovations of present-day ones, the decorative touches that hold meaning and beauty. And it gives you the chance to see the huge amount of work, love, and care that goes into crafting each and every instrument, and why those who are lucky enough to own an instrument by Edmonds are pretty passionate about them! This video from a February 2013 Fretboard Journal article serves as a great introduction to Jimmy’s work:

Jimmy mostly makes guitars – he is almost to his 300th guitar – but he also makes fiddles, mandolins, Dobros, and dulcimers, and he helps with the fretwork, pearl inlay, and the finish on his workshop partner Kevin Fore’s banjos.  He does not copy any set style or type of guitar, but he is a big fan of 1930s and 1940s Martin guitars and therefore many of his builds reflect those iconic instruments. He has crafted some of his own innovations and decorative touches in the guitars he builds. Henderson views Jimmy’s finish work as some of the best out there – he uses varnish rather than lacquer – and he often does the finish work on Henderson’s guitars.

Close up of a Jimmy Edmonds guitar in its framing, reading to be worked on.
Jimmy’s decorative flourishes are pretty special; for instance, his rosette decorations – the circular bands around the sound hole – are a delicate mix of light and dark woods and tortoise. His guitars for country musician Zack Brown bear a particularly beautiful Martin-style herringbone pattern. © Birthplace of Country Music

The passing down of tradition amongst families and from luthier to apprentice is what keeps this craft and this music alive. And so today, we celebrate that passing on from grandfather to grandson, and from father to son, as an appropriate way to mark the anniversary of Norman Edmonds’ birth!

Jimmy Edmonds is featured in our current special exhibit The Luthier’s Craft: Instrument Making Traditions of the Blue Ridge. The exhibit is open through March 4, 2018. He is also a member of the Virginia Luthiers, alongside other luthier band members Wayne Henderson, Gerald Anderson, and Spencer Strickland.

Instrument Interview: Maybelle Carter’s Guitar

“Instrument Interview” posts are a chance to sit down with the instruments of traditional, country, bluegrass, and roots music – from different types of instruments to specific ones related to artists, luthiers, and songwriters – and learn more about them. Ten questions are posed, and the instruments answer! Today we talk to one of Maybelle Carter’s guitars:

 What model are you, and when were you made?

I’m a 1928 Gibson L-5 guitar, made at the old Gibson factory in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Lloyd Loar, the famous engineer who redesigned a lot of Gibson’s product line in the early 1920s, introduced my model in 1922 as the top-of-the-line guitar. Unlike most earlier guitars, I have a carved arched top and violin-style F-holes instead of the round sound hole in the middle. You might say I’m like a guitar that thinks it’s some kind of oversized violin. But at least Maybelle didn’t try to play me with a bow!

Well, speaking of Maybelle Carter, when did you become her instrument? Did she play you at the famous Bristol Sessions when The Carter Family made its first recordings?

Well, no, Maybelle didn’t have me yet when she did those recordings in Bristol in 1927. That was actually a year before I was built in Kalamazoo. On those first six sides that Maybelle recorded with Sara and A. P., she was playing a cheap Stella flat-top guitar. That would have been a good enough instrument for most early country musicians, but Maybelle was no ordinary player. She deserved something bigger, louder, with a more authoritative voice. So after their records started selling well and Ralph Peer invited them to come to New Jersey to make new recordings with better equipment, Maybelle and her husband Eck (A. P.’s brother) went out and bought her the best guitar they could find. I cost $275, which was an awful lot of money in 1928.

A picture of The Carter Family -- Maybelle holding her guitar, A. P., and Sarah holding her guitar
A publicity still of The Carter Family – Maybelle holds her Gibson L-5 guitar. From the collection of the Center for Popular Music, Middle Tennessee State University

What did Maybelle do to bring out your true and distinctive voice? What made her such a great player?

The biggest thing, I guess, is that she played me with such command and authority. She was the driving force of the band’s instrumentation, since Sara just played some lighter second guitar or autoharp, and A. P. hardly ever played any instrument on record. Sometimes Maybelle was the whole band! So she took some of the existing folk guitar styles and made them strong, polished, and professional. She made the guitar into a solo instrument in the country band, playing melody between vocal refrains and also providing a driving rhythm.

Really? How on earth did she do that?

Mostly it was her powerful right hand. It still makes me shudder to think about how clear and purposeful she was when she played. She commanded the sound out of me. Her most famous method was a thumb-lead style, which some people call the “Carter scratch.” I never did quite understand that, since it wasn’t really scratchy sounding at all. She wore a thumbpick on her right hand and used that to play bass notes and all those wonderful melodies on the bass strings of the guitar, and meanwhile she had a metal fingerpick on her index finger and used that to strum those great, driving chords on the upper strings. A real one-woman band!

How did that style suit you, as an instrument?

It suited me perfectly. Because I have an arched top and F-holes, my bass strings have more punchiness and less sustain than flat-top guitars. With all the activity of Maybelle’s right thumb and forefinger going on simultaneously, it was much better that my notes were shot out like cannon balls without any ringing sustain to muddy it up. In her hands, I was a melodic rhythm machine.

That idea of using your thumb and one finger reminds me of the clawhammer banjo style. Is it similar?

Hey, I’m a guitar! You’re going to make me talk about banjos? I’m just kidding. You know, Maybelle did play banjo in that clawhammer style, so that may have given her some notion of using her thumb. But really the styles are very different, because in thumb-lead guitar, the thumb is the one playing the melody. The motion of the right hand is totally different, too.

Did she always play using that thumb-lead style? Or did she use any other styles?

No, although it was her main style and the one that influenced younger players the most. Maybelle also developed into a really fine flatpicker, using the kind of pick that most guitar players favor nowadays and which used to be called a “straight pick.” With a flatpick she was able to play more on my treble strings, a predecessor to the way later bluegrass guitarists play their lead solos. She really liked to do this on blues songs like the “Coal Miner’s Blues,” but she also used this approach on songs like “You Are My Flower.” Boy, she made me sound amazing on that one. As for other styles, she didn’t do much of what people call fingerpicking, since that wasn’t a strong enough sound for her. And Maybelle did play slide guitar, but she didn’t use me for that.

Cover of The Carter Family songbook Album of Smoky Mountain Ballads -- picture of the Carters on the front showing Maybelle and Sara with guitars and A. P. without an instrument
This Carter Family songbook was published by Ralph Peer via his Southern Music Publishing Company in the late 1930s. Again, Maybelle is pictured with her Gibson L-5. Image reproduced with permission from peermusic; songbook in the collection of the Center for Popular Music, Middle Tennessee State University

What happened to you after the original Carter Family disbanded in 1944?

Maybelle continued playing me with the Carter Sisters, who were really her daughters, and in all of her music-making up to the time she died in 1978. She hung on to me until the end, even when money was tight and she could have sold me. We had a special bond, and I never sounded the same when somebody else tried me out – not even Chet Atkins. Maybelle played me on her solo records in the 1960s and 1970s, when she went on tour with the New Lost City Ramblers, and when she did “Keep on the Sunny Side” on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken? album.

What about “Wildwood Flower” from the Circle album?

No! Even though that was probably her most famous guitar song, with the Dirt Band she wanted to play it on autoharp just because she’d never recorded it that way.

Maybelle's Gibson L-5 guitar
A formal portrait of Maybelle Carter’s Gibson L-5 guitar. Courtesy of the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum

Finally, what are you up to today?

Today I’m proudly on display at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in downtown Nashville, alongside Sara’s autoharp, Bill Monroe’s mandolin, Earl Scruggs’s banjo, and Barbara Mandrell’s pedal steel. Back in 2004 I was almost sold off by my owner who had loaned me to the museum, but Maybelle’s family really wanted me to remain. I’m so glad they figured out a way to buy and keep me there in such illustrious company. I just wish I could get played more these days, but then again it’s OK. Nobody will ever play me the way Maybelle did.

Guest blogger Gregory Reish is the Director of the Center for Popular Music at Middle Tennessee State University. He is a scholar, teacher, and performing musician with expertise in a wide range of American vernacular styles.


Hattie Stoneman: Raising Her Children in Music

The enormous influence of women in country music is evident in every era, most certainly in the early days of country music. Sometimes women’s contributions are overshadowed in the historical record, and the story of the Stoneman family is no different. Without the support and encouragement of Hattie Stoneman, her husband may have never recorded in 1924 and never been instrumental in shaping the dynamic of hillbilly recordings forever afterward. The incredible Hattie Stoneman made an impact on early country music – and she did this all while bearing 23 children, facing sadness and grief due to several miscarriages, stillbirths, and children passing, and finding ways to keep her family going through hardship and poverty.

For most people, the first person they likely think about when they hear the word Stoneman is Ernest “Pop” Stoneman, leader of a host of musicians made up of family and friends, who recorded at the 1927 Bristol Sessions, and then patriarch to his family group who later performed and recorded together, played on the radio, and even had their own musical TV show. But there were two parts to this successful musical equation, and the other one was “Mom”: Hattie Stoneman, wife to “Pop” and mother to their children, all but two of whom played music themselves. As Roni, one of Hattie’s daughters, said: “The first thing you heard was music; you were raised in it. I probably heard her playing music when I was in her body. You’re just a part of music after that.”

Today is Hattie Stoneman’s birthday – she was born on September 28, 1900 in Pipers Gap, Virginia. Hattie came to music through her own family: her mother was descended from pioneer fiddler Green Leonard, and her father Bill Frost was one of the finest fiddle players in Virginia at the time. Frost often played at “frolics,” local gatherings of music and dancing (sometimes participants kept a bit of alcohol in the springhouse water to keep cold, adding to the frolicking). He showed Hattie how to play the fiddle and the banjo, and she became a fine musician herself, often accompanying her father on the banjo. Frost also passed on his love of jokes and humor to Hattie, and her children remember her making them laugh even when they were in deep trouble.

Pop met Hattie when he was just a boy, and she was just a baby – as Pop said, “I heard her give her first cry when she was born.” Their first meeting is related in the story about Pop’s father Elisha Stoneman, a preacher, coming to the Frost house to pray with the family during a difficult birth. He brought along little Ernest, and once the baby was born, Elisha brought her out to where Ernest was waiting for him, putting the baby in his arms and telling him to pray for her to have a long life. Little did he know at the time that it would be a long life together.

Several years later, they met again at a memorial service in a church cemetery – when he saw her again this time, he decided right then and there that he was going to marry that “golden-haired girl.” Music was a central part of their lives – and later their family – and family legend tells us that not only did Pop love Hattie, but he also loved the musical talent she had gained from her father. After a long courtship – and after Pop won out over several suitors – they wed on November 10, 1918.

Hattie on her wedding day. Photograph courtesy of Roni Stoneman

After their marriage, Hattie often played fiddle in performances with Pop and other musicians. And in 1927 and 1928, she was with him for the Bristol Sessions recordings. At both sessions, she played fiddle and sang on several sides with Pop’s Dixie Mountaineers and The Stoneman Family, along with several sides by Uncle Eck Dunford. Hattie was also featured specifically on the 1927 recording of “What Will I Do, For My Money’s All Gone” (again with Dunford). And “The Spanish Merchant’s Daughter,” recorded at the 1928 Bristol Sessions by The Stoneman Family, was featured on the influential 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music, compiled by Harry Smith.

Stoneman’s configuration of musicians was known by different names, including The Stoneman Family, the Blue Ridge Corn Shuckers, and Ernest V. Stoneman & His Dixie Mountaineers. Hattie is seen here in the back row with her fiddle. From the John Edwards Memorial Foundation Records, #20001, Southern Folklife Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

The Stonemans saw musical success before and immediately after the Bristol Sessions, but the Depression was on the horizon, and they would soon feel the hardship that came to so many during that period. Before the stock market crash of 1929, Ernest and Hattie were living well in Galax, Virginia – they had bought some land in 1927, and he built them a fine home with modern conveniences. Hattie was very much a southern belle, taking care over her appearance and keeping a neat and tidy house. However, by the early 1930s, hard times were firmly upon them – they were facing the illness of their young daughter Nita (she would die soon after at the age of six) and the loss of their house, and Ernest was having to travel far and wide to look for work, leaving Hattie home alone to cope with her family’s needs.

When they lost their house, Hattie moved with their children into her parents’ three-room house for a while, but soon Ernest sent for them to come to Alexandria, Virginia, where he had found work. However, things continued to be hard, with Pop losing his job and Hattie and the children moving back to southwest Virginia for a while. This routine marked much of this period – Ernest finding work, the family moving into a host of different houses, many of which were falling apart and cold, and Hattie sometimes taking the children home to Galax for periods of time. At least back in rural southwest Virginia they could grow some food in the garden, and the vegetables and fruits were often canned up and used to fill the hungry mouths of her children when they were back in northern Virginia and Maryland with Pop.

Indeed, daughter Roni tells stories about how her mother fought hard to keep her family going during the Depression. Once, on a cold winter night when they were living up near Washington, DC, Hattie went out to the local railyard to look for stray coal to fuel their fire at home. Back then, railroad cops – known as railroad bulls – patrolled the tracks and railyards to keep “hobos” out, and a couple of them came across Hattie in her search for coal. Even though it was late at night and she was a woman on her own, she stood up to them, telling them that they could kill her and bury her in the ground if they wanted, but she was taking some coal to bring warmth to her children. The men admired her gumption and saw her real need, and they helped her gather up the coal she needed.

Son Oscar James (known as Jimmy) was born when the family lived up north, one of only a few of the Stoneman children born in a hospital rather than at home. When the nurse brought the baby into Hattie’s room soon after the birth, Hattie exclaimed that “he wasn’t her baby; he didn’t have the Stoneman nose.” The nurse, of course, assumed hysteria, but around the same time a laundry worker in the basement of the hospital heard a baby crying and found Hattie’s baby in a pile of clothes! Jimmy was named after Oscar Anderson, the captain who commanded the fire station across the street from where the Stonemans lived. Even though it was hard to move past her Appalachian independence and pride, Hattie had accepted his help when the family was really struggling — Anderson and his men were kind and helped them out over the years, bringing them food and Christmas presents when they saw the need. As Roni says: “Mommy showed us how to take the hard times and how to be strong in the sad times. She kept us all together.”

Despite all the hardships they faced during the Depression, and how this affected Pop’s musical aspirations, the family still found pleasure in music, and Hattie still played her banjo and her fiddle occasionally with Pop. Later, when things got better and the family developed a music career as The Stoneman Family on radio and television, and in live performances and recordings, she often took a back seat to Pop and her children.

However, in 1947, she stepped back in the spotlight for a talent contest at Constitution Hall. Roni relates how her older brothers didn’t want to play with their father and the rest of the family because they viewed his music as “old-fashioned,” and so they entered the contest on their own. When Pop told Hattie that her sons thought he was outdated and wouldn’t play with him, she pulled out her fiddle and said she’d play with him and that they’d “take that prize from those boys.” She was mad as a hornet and so she fiddled hard and strong, and they won the contest, giving them six months of local TV time, which ultimately led to a host of other opportunities. This story mirrors the tale told of Hattie pushing Pop to go record for the first time back in 1924 and really underlines how influential Hattie was in the Stonemans’ musical success.

Hattie fiddling with the family band. Photograph courtesy of Roni Stoneman

There are many more stories of Hattie as mother and performer, and her surviving children, Roni and Donna, look back on those early hard times as rich in love and family, and they view the later musical success as being as much about their mother as their father. And so today, on Hattie’s birthday, let’s celebrate her talent and the contributions to the success of this wonderful musical family made by “The Girl from Galax.”*

René Rodgers is the Curator of Exhibits & Publications at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. A huge thank you to Roni Stoneman for sharing stories of her mother with me, and to Tom Connor for his help facilitating the interview and images for this blog post. 

*”The Girl from Galax,” an instrumental piece written by daughter Donna Stoneman, is a tribute to her mother.

Jimmie Rodgers: Reflections on the Musical Genius of The Singing Brakeman

Today marks what would have been the 120th birthday of America’s Blue Yodeler, the Father of Country Music – Jimmie Rodgers.

Take a second out of your busy day today and listen to just one song from Jimmie Rodgers. Any song. I promise you’ll be happy you did. That’s what I’m doing right now, listening to “I’m Free from the Chain Gang Now,” a sentimental heartbreaker of a tune, a song so powerfully delivered that in the past it has moved me to tears.

We have several Jimmie Rodgers records in the museum’s collection. As can be seen here, his songs were recorded and distributed on a variety of labels. © Birthplace of Country Music; Records are the gift of Betty Lou Dean and Roger Allen Dean, and Jim and Joyce Prohaska

It’s hard to not become immersed in the scenes Jimmie paints through his ease of delivery and phrasing, his smooth yet edgy and warbled vocals, the sincerity of a person who truly believes in what he’s singing. But what amazes me more than anything about Jimmie’s music is how relevant and fresh it still seems today. I guess many would call his music timeless, which it certainly is – but more than that, his music has a depth that has seldom been captured on record. Jimmie’s music hits you right in the gut. It has the ability to make you laugh out loud and then make you cry; it makes you yearn for the past and look forward to the future. His music is music for the heart and soul. It’s alive. Every time I put a needle to one of his records or when the sound of his signature blue yodel cuts through my car radio speakers, I can’t help but think Jimmie is giving me a wink and a nod.

As you may already know, Jimmie Rodgers is one of the most celebrated country musicians of all, and deservedly so. Possibly no other country artist has been so heavily imitated or influential. He was much more than a hillbilly artist that could yodel (though his yodel was top of the line). Jimmie was an innovator, and a walking musical juxtaposition in the most beautiful of ways. When I think of Jimmie I think of the complex and often conflicting images he portrayed through his music – the rambler, the sentimental crooner, the caring son, and the rounder, just to name a few. Many speculate that had he lived longer, and as his appeal and development as a musician continually grew, he would have been one of the most celebrated American musicians without the constraints of genre.

Publicity shots of Jimmie Rodgers, including one where he is in “cowboy” persona. From the John Edwards Memorial Foundation Records, #20001, Southern Folklife Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Many of us in Bristol and central Appalachia are familiar with Jimmie’s story and his music. One of the reasons our organization, including the radio station, museum, and festival, exists is in large part due to the impact Jimmie had on the world. Of course, he had his first big break here in Bristol recording two sides: “Sleep Baby Sleep” and “The Soldier’s Sweetheart.” That record, just an average seller, was recorded on August 4, 1927, part of what would eventually become known as the celebrated Bristol Sessions.

Let’s be honest: those two sides didn’t exactly turn the world upside down upon their release. But the music that would soon follow sure did. Lucky for us Victor Talking Machine Company executive Ralph Peer had insight and vision, and he followed a hunch that Jimmie had a lot more to offer, inviting him for a follow-up session just a few months later at the Victor studio in Camden, New Jersey. Jimmie would hit his stride at the next session, which would yield a massive seller – “Away Out on the Mountain” and “Blue Yodel No. 1 (T for Texas)” – and from this point, he didn’t slow down. He even appeared in a movie short called The Singing Brakeman, released in 1929 for Columbia Pictures; this short is the only known video footage of Jimmie singing and features three of his well-known tunes: “Waiting for a Train,” “Daddy and Home,” and “Blue Yodel No 1.” His distinctive sound continued to develop up to his final recording session just a few days before his death from tuberculosis on May 26, 1933 at the age of 35.

But instead of giving you a recycled history lesson of the greatness that is Jimmie Rodgers, I thought it would be much more interesting and fitting to mark this day by talking to musicians who love his music like I do. And so in celebration of Jimmie on his 120th birthday, I asked some of today’s greatest country and roots musicians to reflect on his music, to talk a little about how Jimmie Rodgers influenced them and how he might be found in the music they create today. A huge thanks to all those musicians for taking the time to share their thoughts on the genius of Jimmie Rodgers:

Tim O’Brien 

“Jimmie Rodgers just had the juice. He guided Ralph Peer to a real sweet spot in southern music. He played the part of the rake and ramblin’ boy and may not have needed to act that much to do so. Listen to most of the other Bristol Sessions singers and you’ll hear that swagger break through the pops and crackles. Jimmie Rodgers knew he was cool, and every recording gave him a way to show everyone.”

John Lilly 

“I was initially struck by Jimmie Rodgers’s yodeling, which I still find to be amazing. As I explore his recordings, however, I am captivated with the immense variety of accompanists he recorded with and the range of musical emotions he was able to express. He sounded great whatever the setting, from a full orchestra to just his own voice and guitar.”

Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton 

“The music of Jimmie Rodgers has gone across culture since it was introduced to the world. There are musicians all the way in India that have copied Jimmie Rodgers’s sound note-for-note. While record companies marketed him towards white and hillbilly audiences, his records often found their way into black homes. The irony that a person who was rumored to have gotten the ‘blues’ in his blue yodel from listening to Tommy Johnson as he entertained white patrons at hotel parties in Mississippi and have it repackaged and purchased by people in the black community is of a particular queerness that can only exist in America. With the conversation being had at the present time about white people playing blues and other forms of black music, I wonder if we would be having this conversation if they sounded as good as Jimmie. His respect and take on music from outside of his culture should be an inspiration.”

This Oscar Schmidt guitar, on display in the museum’s permanent exhibit, was owned, played, and signed (in the upper left corner, faintly legible now and not easily seen in this photograph) by Jimmie Rodgers. © Birthplace of Country Music; on loan from the collection of Joseph R. Gregory

Alice Gerrard 

“It seems as though Jimmie and his songs have been part of my musical life as long as I can remember. That bluesy voice, that yodel, and those songs…. I never much liked the Swiss type of yodeling but Jimmie’s made sense to me and was so much more accessible. Plus it had so much feeling in it.”

Roy Book Binder 

“First heard Jimmie Rodgers back in the ‘60s… I was really getting into old-time country blues…and was a fan of Emmett Miller. Jimmie Rodgers was a white guy who played and sang some blues, he was a yodeler, a singer of sentimental ballads…you name it, and he could make it his own! I admired that, he was hard to categorize! I do believe in some ways Jimmie Rodgers had an impact on my approach to building a pretty eclectic repertoire.”

David Peterson 

“Jimmie Rodgers made his way into my music most directly through Bill Monroe and his interpretation of those songs. Of course, a serious study of Rodgers himself has followed over the years. Anyone studying modern 20th-century western music will realize just what an influence Rodgers was on almost every form of popular music, including rock n roll.”

Marty Stuart 

“I think Jimmie Rodgers exists. Perhaps he’s a reclusive ghost who lives somewhere beyond the edge of the universe. Of course, proof that the Father of Country Music walked among us can be found in his Victor recordings made in the early days of the 20th century. His guitar hangs in a vault in Meridian, Mississippi. I once sat in a chair he made. I’ve held his striped railroader’s hat. I have one of his brakeman’s lanterns, and the briefcase that contained his songs and was laid inside his casket on the funeral train from New York City back to Mississippi. As his marker in Meridian reads: ‘His is the music of America.’  Although the average American doesn’t know his name, Jimmie Rodgers is an integral part of our atmosphere. He is synonymous with country music.”

Kris holding a Jimmie Rodgers picture disc, the first disc of this type known in country music. This disc appeared at the end of Jimmie’s career – only a few hundred copies were made, and it was released after his death – and bears his recordings of two songs: “Cowhand’s Last Ride” and “Blue Yodel No. 12.” © Birthplace of Country Music

And so this brings us full circle – if you’re taking the time to read this, I urge you to spend just a few more minutes today and seek out Jimmie’s music. Listening to a Jimmie Rodgers record is much more powerful than anything I can possibly write. Seriously. Put on a song of his you’ve never heard. He has a surprisingly vast catalog for having a recording career of only five and a half years. Listen to “Gambling Polka Dot Blues” or “Prairie Lullaby” or “Blue Yodel No. 9” or “I’m Sorry We Met” or “Never No Mo” or…really any of his songs.

Take it from someone who has listened to his catalogue back and forth on repeat for years – there’s always something new to discover. And if you listen close enough, you’ll soon find the Singing Brakeman can still be heard in the voices and sounds of musicians across the country, and for that matter across the world.

Happy Birthday, Jimmie.

Kris Truelsen is the Producer at Radio Bristol. Tune in to the station today to hear Jimmie Rodgers on the hour all day long.

Ernest Stoneman’s First Hit: “The Titanic”

The unsinkable RMS Titanic sank in the cold Atlantic waters on April 15, 1912, claiming over 1,500 lives of its passengers and crew, and capturing the attention and imagination of the world from that moment forward. After years of searching, the wreckage of the Titanic was discovered on September 1, 1985; researchers continue to study the wreckage and ephemera that connects to the ship and its passengers, and the story of the Titanic still resonates today.

1912 engraving by Willy Stöwer: Der Untergang der Titanic. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons

To mark the date of that discovery, we wanted to explore the retelling of the Titanic’s story in song – as with many disasters of the day, the wreck of the Titanic gave rise a few years later to a song detailing this contemporary history, one that was part of people’s lives and memories. In early September 1924, Appalachian musician Ernest “Pop” Stoneman traveled to New York to make his first recordings with OKeh Records, part of a few days of recording that also included Fiddlin’ John Carson and several other musicians as OKeh continued to build their catalog of popular American music. Stoneman chose two songs for this session, one of which was “The Titanic.”

That first recording in 1924 was not released – Stoneman and the OKeh executives thought that it was too fast, so he agreed to travel back to New York to do another recording of the song. On January 8, 1925, he recorded it again, and it was released later that year. This version of “The Titanic” (OK 40288) was a success, which led to further trips to New York to cut new records. He then recorded the song again in 1926, this time under the title “The Sinking of the Titanic” for the Edison label (Ed 51823, 5200).

Stoneman’s lyrics to “The Titanic” tell the story well, including a bit of social commentary about the difference between rich and poor on the voyage:

It was on Monday morning just about one o’clock,
That the great Titanic begin to reel and rock.
Then the people began to cry, saying, “Lord I’m a-going to die.”
It was sad when that great ship went down.

It was sad when that great ship went down,
Husbands and wives, little children lost their lives.
It was sad when that great ship went down.

When they were building the Titanic, they said what they could do.
They were going to build a ship that no water could not go through,
But God with his mighty hand showed to the world it could not stand.
It was sad when that great ship went down.


When they left England, they were making for the shore.
The rich they declared they would not ride with the poor.
So they sent the poor below, they were the first that had to go.
It was sad when that great ship went down.


When the people on the ship were a long ways from home,
With friends all around them, didn’t know their time had come,
For death came riding by, sixteen hundred had to die.
It was sad when that great ship went down.


Stoneman wasn’t the only artist to record a song detailing the Titanic’s sad fate. Tony Russell’s Country Music Records: A Discography, 1921—1942 details the various recordings of the song:

“The Titanic,” Ernest Stoneman September 4, 1924 (unissued) and January 8, 1925

“The Sinking of the Titanic,” Vernon Dalhart, June 4, 1925

“The Sinking of the Titanic,” George Reneau, October 14, 1925

“The Sinking of the Titanic,” Ernest Stoneman, June 22, 1926

“The Sinking of the Titanic,” Richard “Rabbit” Brown, March 11, 1927

“Sinking of the Great Titanic,” Vernon Dalhart, May 23, 1928

Long after these early hits of hillbilly and blues records, the Titanic lives on in imaginations. Celine Dion’s “Love Theme from Titanic” (also called “My Heart Will Go On”) won a Grammy in 1999 for Record of the Year; the song was the theme song from James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster film Titanic, which won 11 Oscars. And visitors pour into the many exhibits that chronicle the Titanic‘s history and display its once-seabound artifacts, including the Titanic museum attraction just down the road in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.

And in 2013, Ernest Stoneman’s “The Titanic” was recognized with its own Grammy award when it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and recognized for its historical significance in recording history.

Jessica Turner is the Director of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.

Four Films Highlighting the Bristol Sessions to Watch Again and Again

Four recent and upcoming films brilliantly document the depth and reach of the 1927 Bristol Sessions. Each of these films deserves a space on your media shelves, and each of the filmmakers displays a love of the music and history running through these visual tributes.

The Winding Stream: The Carters, the Cashes, and the Course of Country Music, 2014

The Winding Stream was released in 2014 and has received numerous glowing reviews. Image courtesy of Beth Harrington; graphics by Brian Murphy

Released in 2014 and the oldest film on this list, the acclaimed 90–minute documentary The Winding Stream traces the careers of A. P. Carter, his wife Sara, and his sister-in-law Maybelle, heralded as three of the earliest stars of country music. The film documents how The Carter Family, from their earliest days as Victor recording artists to their international success via the phenomenon of Border Radio, made their mark on the history of American recorded music.

The Winding Stream illuminates the foundation-forming history of this multi-generational musical family. It achieves this through careful research and well-crafted storytelling and with filmmaking techniques that help the viewer feel connected to The Carter Family and to those telling their stories.

Beth Harrington, award-winning producer, director, and writer, tells these stories and others through narrator-less interviews and performances by celebrated roots music practitioners like Johnny and June Carter Cash, George Jones, Rosanne Cash, Sheryl Crow, Kris Kristofferson, and others. Harrington’s work often explores American history, music, and culture, and the decade she spent working on this film is evident in the depth of the history she documents. To read more about the film, check out this review from Variety magazine.

Producer and director Beth Harrington. Image courtesy of Beth Harrington; photo by Amy McMullen

The Winding Stream reminds us that The Carter Family story is one that captured America’s attention starting with the family’s first recordings, and one that continues to capture imaginations in country music history and scholarship to this day.

American Epic: The First Time America Heard Itself, 2017

American Epic: The First Time America Heard Itself has been selected for screening at numerous film festivals, winning awards at Calgary, Tryon, and Sydney. Credit: PBS

Writer and director Bernard MacMahon calls American Epic his love letter to America. With this PBS documentary series, he explores the history of recording technology and American innovation of the 1920s and also celebrates it through contemporary performances. This work – which painstakingly recreates the recording technology of the 1920s and then creates new recordings using this technology – is visually stunning, carefully documented, and a beautifully creative way of honoring early recordings. This is a series to enjoy (the visuals are stunning!) and to study.

Okeh Engineers Charles L. Hibbard and Peter P. Decker with a Western Electric amplifier and cutting lathe from American Epic: The Big Bang. Image courtesy of Maida Vale Music

With executive producers T Bone Burnette, Jack White, and Robert Redford, the film has some major brains and talent behind it. The film was produced and directed by Lo-Max Films, led by Allison McGourty, Duke Erikson, and MacMahon, who bring their filmmaking skills and knowledge of music history to a project that was over 10 years in the making. You can watch the trailer to American Epic here, and learn more about the research and recreation of the technology that went into the film here.

Born in Bristol: The Untold Story of the Birth of Country Music, 2017

Born in Bristol earned recognition at the 2016 Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, and the film premiered in Bristol with several screenings on August 3–6, 2017. Image courtesy of VML

Born in Bristol is a 53-minute documentary and drama profiling the 1927 Bristol Sessions; it also highlights the 2015 production of Orthophonic Joy: The 1927 Bristol Sessions Revisited, an album where contemporary country artists put their own spin on the songs of the Bristol Sessions. The film was produced by the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development, with support from the Virginia Tourism Corporation, and it features performances by and interviews with Dolly Parton, Vince Gill, Eric Church, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Marty Stuart, Sheryl Crow, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, and many more. Hearing the musicians speak about the impact these recordings have had on them, and the reverence they feel for the music of this region, underlines the legacy of the Bristol Sessions and the ways in which they still resonate today.

Filming began in 2014 by Plan A Films, and several locations in and around Historic Downtown Bristol were chosen to recreate the story of the legendary 1927 Bristol Sessions recordings. A number of local musicians, actors, and extras were cast in the film. The film earned shortlist honors at the 63rd Annual Cannes Lion International Festival of Creativity in Cannes, France in the category of Film Craft – Use of Licensed or Adapted Music. You can read more about the film here.

Country Music, to be released in 2019

This much anticipated new documentary series by award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns is scheduled to be released in 2019. The film’s team is stellar: Country Music will be directed and produced by Ken Burns; written and produced by Dayton Duncan; and produced by Julie Dunfey – Emmy Award-winning creators of several of PBS’s most-acclaimed and most-watched documentaries.

The Country Music crew, led by Julie Dunfey, visited Bristol during their research. They can be seen here setting up a shot of a phonograph playing a 78 record. © Birthplace of Country Music, photographer: Rene Rodgers

The filmmakers state that Country Music will “chronicle the history of a uniquely American art form, rising from the experiences of remarkable people in distinctive regions of our nation. From southern Appalachia’s songs of struggle, heartbreak and faith to the rollicking western swing of Texas, from California honky tonks to Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, we will follow the evolution of country music over the course of the twentieth century, as it eventually emerged to become America’s music. Country Music will be a sweeping, multi-episode series, exploring the questions “What is country music?” “Where did it come from?” while focusing on the biographies of the fascinating characters who created it – from The Carter family, Jimmie Rodgers, and Bob Wills, to Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Charley Pride, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Garth Brooks and many more – as well as the times in which they lived.”

In the search for valuable memories and experiences that make up this story, gathering firsthand interviews for the Country Music series has often been a race against time – you can read more about this work here.

Ken Burns. Photo credit: Florentine Films

Each of these films takes a reverent approach to visualizing country music history and exploring the early history of this genre and its many influences and (winding) paths. With considerable research and respect for the musicians and their craft, each takes a different approach to telling the complex story of country music.

So watch these films, and savor their stories and the history that made them – we guarantee you’ll want to listen to the music and learn more.

Kim Davis is Director of Marketing and Jessica Turner is the Director of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.


The Summer of 2017: The 90th Anniversary of the 1927 Bristol Sessions

In the summer of 1927, the movie The Jazz Singer was released and heralded as the first talkie (a film featuring dialogue between characters). Charles Lindbergh also flew the first transatlantic flight. It was an eventful and innovative time, as writer Bill Bryson marvels about in his book One Summer: America, 1927.*

It was also the summer that Ralph Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company came to Bristol and recorded the now-famous Bristol Sessions.

This year the Birthplace of Country Music marks the 90th anniversary of those sessions with several special events, including films, concerts, and special admission prices to the museum. Recently we held a symposium about the 1927 Bristol Sessions that included special events to honor family members of the artists who recorded for Ralph Peer back in 1927. The symposium reflected on the convergences of technology, talent, and business prowess that made possible one of the most significant recording sessions in commercial music history.

Symposium speakers Ralph Peer II and Liz Peer, author Barry Mazor, and American Epic producer Allison McGourty and director Bernard MacMahon. © Birthplace of Country Music, photographer: Billie Wheeler

We were honored to have as keynote speakers Ralph Peer II and his wife Liz Peer, whose family continues the Peer legacy of music publishing at peermusic. They were accompanied by their three children, Mary Megan Peer, Elizabeth Ann Peer, and Ralph Peer III. From the film American Epic, director Bernard MacMahon and producer Allison McGourty gave a talk and screened parts of their film, which documents a journey that painstakingly recreates the recording technology of the 1920s and then creates new recordings with this technology. This PBS film is a visually stunning, carefully documented, and beautifully creative way of honoring early recordings. The symposium also featured scholars and authors Barry Mazor and Ted Olson, whose research and writings highlight and explore in detail the important history surrounding the 1927 Bristol Sessions.

Symposium speakers Dr. Jessica Turner, Dr. Ted Olson, Barry Mazor, Ralph Peer II, Liz Peer, Allison McGourty, and Bernard MacMahon. © Birthplace of Country Music, photographer: Mark Logsdon

There are no photographs that document the Bristol Sessions. Only a handful of musical instruments remain that were recorded in the Sessions, and few artifacts exist that can be traced back to those recordings. Yet the Bristol Sessions continue to shape country music history through our musical lineages and in our imaginations. And the 1927 Bristol Sessions form the key content of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, to which we anchor our permanent exhibits and which we continue to dig into and explore.

Those recordings capture a musical moment that is arguably one of the most influential country music recording sessions in history. The Sessions launched the careers of The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. They illustrate the versatility of Ernest and Hattie Stoneman, whose long career in country music is reflected by the fact that the Stoneman Family has songs on every recording format there is, from wax cylinders to digital files.

They reflect traditional Appalachian music styles and sacred music as these styles were just beginning to be recorded, such as the holiness music recorded on the Bristol Sessions. And they capture the variety of music styles before early country music was more standardized – before bluegrass even existed – and are full of creativity, replete with entrepreneurialism, and filled with many voices.

Those voices carry on in many of the communities from which they came, and we were honored to be joined at the symposium by many family members of Bristol Sessions artists. Museum staff spent the morning doing oral history interviews with family members for our archives (and for future blog posts!), and we honored our guests with a special luncheon. Members of The Stoneman Family, The Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers Family, Blind Alfred Reed Family, Ernest Phipps Family, Alfred Karnes Family, and Georgia Warren Family (Warren was 12 years old when she sang with the Tennessee Mountaineers at the Sessions) were present, all of whom carry the legacy and memories of the many musicians who came to Bristol in 1927. It’s these connections – to our past, to our history, and to the family members who carry on this musical legacy – that made this symposium extraordinary, and make our jobs, where we delve into these connections every day, truly special.

Clockwise from top left: Donna and Roni Stoneman; Nancy Taylor, LeAnne Davis and Timothy Davis, family members of Georgia Warren of the Tennessee Mountaineers; Ernest Phipps’s granddaughter Teresa Phipps Patierno and daughter Amie Brittain; and Blind Alfred Reed’s family members Tina Hunter and Jane Kelly. © Birthplace of Country Music, photographer: Billie Wheeler
From top, left to right: Karnes family members speaking with Bernard MacMahon and Allison McGourty, with Liz Peer; Ted Olson and Dale Jett; an attendee speaking with Donna Stoneman; playwright Doug Pote speaking with Jimmie Rodgers family Austin Court, Karen Court, and James Cody Court; Ralph Peer III chats with an attendee. © Birthplace of Country Music, photographer: Billie Wheeler
Participants in the symposium. © Birthplace of Country Music, photographer: Billie Wheeler


Descendants of 1927 Bristol Sessions artists with the Peer Family and symposium participants. © Birthplace of Country Music, photographer: Billie Wheeler

* Interestingly, Bryson doesn’t mention the 1927 Bristol Sessions in his book, though he does focus some attention on early sound technology including developments in radio. Curator René Rodgers pointed out this omission in correspondence with Bryson, and he graciously acknowledged the need to visit Bristol to learn more. Perhaps he will do so. We’d love to see him here!

Jessica Turner is the Director of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.

Country Music Icons: Immortalized and Celebrated in Stamps

July 1 is National U.S. Postage Stamp Day, a day to celebrate these miniature works of art and their important role in correspondence and communication.

While letters and messages have been sent throughout history, the first ever pre-paid postage stamp was issued in the United Kingdom on May 6, 1840. This stamp bore the profile portrait of a young Queen Victoria and was known as a “Penny Black” due to its cost and the ink color used for the printing. The first stamps issued in America were a 5-cent Benjamin Franklin stamp and a 10-cent George Washington stamp, both produced in 1847.

U.S. postage stamps are often used to commemorate important events and people in American history – the first American commemorative stamps were produced in 1893 to celebrate the discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus. Since then, there have been numerous commemorative stamps and stamp series, including ones to honor the people who made a mark on country music.

Jimmie Rodgers

The 13-cent Jimmie Rodgers commemorative stamp was issued on May 24, 1978, and its first-day city was Meridian, Mississippi, Rodgers’s birthplace – it was issued during the town’s annual Jimmie Rodgers Festival. The design of the stamp celebrates his nickname as the “Singing Brakeman,” a persona based on his railroad career and reflected in a character he played in a short film of the same name. The film, produced by Columbia Pictures and Victor Talking Machine Company in 1930, features Rodgers singing three of his songs at the “Railroad Eating House” after a long day on the rails. As with many stamps, the Jimmie Rodgers stamp was part of a series, the first issued in the U.S. Postal Service’s Performing Arts and Artists series.

Jimmie Rodgers Stamp © 1978 United States Postal Service. All Rights Reserved. Used with Permission. Third-party permissions courtesy of Karen Court at Jimmie Rodgers Properties I LP.

Legends of American Music Series: Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, The Carter Family, and Bob Wills

From 1993 to 1999, the U.S. Postal Service produced the Legends of American Music Series. This series covered a host of genres and contributions to American music, including rock-and-roll, jazz and blues, gospel, opera, folk, and popular music; songwriters, conductors, composers, big band leaders, and Hollywood and Broadway songwriters and composers; and, of course, country music icons. The country music stamps, all issued in 1993, featured Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, The Carter Family – A. P., Sara, and Maybelle, and Bob Wills. The stamps were presented at various dedication ceremonies, including one highlighting the Hank Williams stamp at the Grand Ole Opry, which was attended by his son. Williams Jr. noted that his family was thrilled about the stamp, adding that he had told his children that their grandfather now had his picture in the U.S. Post Office, and not on an FBI poster!

Artist Richard Waldrep designed the stamps, creating the artwork for them at 400% of the actual stamp size using gouache that had been thinned so it could be applied with an airbrush, creating a smoother surface showing no brush strokes; he then filled in the minor detailing with brush and colored pencil. The results are vibrant portraits of these artists, capturing their personalities and performance. Waldrep has created 38 stamps for the U.S. Postal Service, including several other commemorative series. He remembers in particular his work on the Centennial Olympic Games stamps of 1996 when he was asked to sign 30,000 sheets of the stamps – he says his signature has never been the same since!

Roy Acuff

Rather than artwork, the 37-cent Roy Acuff commemorative stamp bore a photographic likeness of the “King of Country Music.” As with the Legends of American Music stamps, the Roy Acuff stamp was printed using the gravure process, a type of printing where the image is engraved on a metal plate for use on the printing press – 52 million Acuff stamps were produced. The stamp was first issued in Nashville, Tennessee, and it was presented at a dedication ceremony during a live Roy Acuff tribute show broadcast from the Grand Ole Opry on September 13, 2003. By coincidence, Johnny Cash had passed away the day before, and the former Postmaster General Marvin Runyon promised he would do all that he could do to be sure Cash was also memorialized through a U.S. postage stamp in the future.

Roy Acuff Stamp © 2003 United States Postal Service. All Rights Reserved. Used with Permission.

Johnny Cash

The promise made at the Roy Acuff issue ceremony came to fruition in June 2013 when the U.S. Postal Service released a Forever stamp commemorating Johnny Cash, part of their Music Icons series that also included Lydia Mendoza and Ray Charles. The dedication ceremony was attended by son John Carter Cash, daughter Rosanne Cash, and musicians Larry Gatlin, Jamey Johnson, The Oak Ridge Boys, The Roys, Marty Stuart, and Randy Travis, amongst others. The image used on the stamp is a photograph by Frank Bez, taken during a photo session for Cash’s album Ring of Fire: The Best of Johnny Cash (1963). The level of detail and thought put into stamp design is often extraordinary – for instance, the square stamp pane surrounding the Johnny Cash stamps was designed to resemble a 45rpm record sleeve.

Music Icon Johnny Cash Stamp © 2013 United States Postal Service. All Rights Reserved. Used with Permission. Third-party permissions courtesy of Josh Matas at Sandbox Management.

Country Music Stamps and Beyond

Other stamps from the U.S. Postal Service and Canada have celebrated other country music icons. For instance, the U.S. Postal Service issued stamps focused on cowboys of the silver screen, two of which were also known as singers: Gene Autry, the “singing cowboy” and Roy Rogers, the “King of the Cowboys.” And Canada Post released a series focused on the contributions of Canadian country music stars with stamps of Shania Twain, k. d. lang, Tommy Hunter, Hank Snow, and Renée Martel.

René Rodgers is the Curator of Exhibits & Publications at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. Special thanks to Patricia Raynor at the National Postal Museum, Richard Waldrep, Karen Court, Josh Matas, and Andrea at the U.S. Postal Services Rights & Permissions Department for their help with this post.