The Old-Time Herald Volume 14, Number 3

Feature
The 1927 Bristol Sessions and Ralph Peer:
A Myth and a Legend Losing Luster in the Cold Light of Recent Scholarship
By Ted Olson, Illustration by Phil Blank

 

The so-called 1927 Bristol sessions—the recording sessions conducted in Bristol, Tennessee/Virginia, during July-August 1927 by A&R (Artists & Repertoire) producer Ralph Peer and his employer, the Victor Talking Machine Company—garnered relatively little attention until the 1970s. At that point, a few scholars (notably, music historians Charles K. Wolfe, Bill C. Malone, Tony Russell, and Nolan Porterfield) and some serious music fans began to view this long-ago event in a small Appalachian city as one of the most important recording sessions of all time. As evidence of the distinctiveness of those sessions, these scholars pointed to Peer’s “discovery” in Bristol, while recording amateur and semi-professional musicians from Appalachia during the summer of 1927, of future country music superstars the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. Also, observed these scholars, at the 1927 Bristol sessions (Peer would hold additional sessions in Bristol the next year, so one needs to specify the year) Peer introduced an influential music business model that involved song publishing and artist management contracts. According to the emerging narrative, the modern country music industry was thus a direct outgrowth of the 1927 Bristol sessions. Sealing the fate of the sessions were two now oft-quoted phrases that emerged during the 1980s. In the mid-1980s Bristol’s political leaders began referring to their city as the “birthplace” of country music. And in 1988 Porterfield referred to the 1927 Bristol sessions as a “big bang of Country Music evolution.” Eventually people began repeating the two phrases as sobriquets—“the Birthplace of Country Music” and “the Big Bang of Country Music”—and those separate yet related notions, repeated incessantly, soon took on the gravitas of myth and legend.


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