Rene Rodgers shares Bristol Sessions stories.

By JOHN KIENER

Associate Editor

jkiener@heraldandtribune.com

“The purpose of my speech is to talk about the people you don’t often hear about,” began Rene Rodgers, head curator at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. Her presentation, titled “Voices That Carry: History and Personal Stories from the 1927 Bristol Sessions,” was the topic of the History Happy Hour in Jonesborough on Thursday, Oct. 18.  Rodgers’ detailing of what has become known as the “Big Bang” of  country music took place on the second floor of the International Storytelling Center before an audience of 60 people.

The museum, located in downtown Bristol, Virginia, officially explains its legacy in these words: “In the summer of 1927, just two months after Charles Lindberg made his flight across the Atlantic in the Spirit of St. Louis, and during the season that Babe Ruth was blasting out 60 home runs for the Yankees, record producer Ralph Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company was making music in Bristol, Tennessee/Virginia.  Between July 25 and Aug. 5 of that year, Peer conducted recording sessions using the new Western Electric microphone during which 19 performers (or groups of performers) recorded 76 songs.”

While country music fans recognize Ernest “Pop” Stoneman, the members of the Carter Family, featuring A.P., Sara, and Maybelle, and Jimmy Rodgers, not many can relate to contributions made to the Sessions by Wesley ‘Bane” Boyles and the West Virginia Coon Hunters, Uncle Eck Dunford, Alfred Karnes, Ernest Phipps, Hattie Stoneman, and Georgia Warren.  These are the names of individuals who also brought “Hillbilly” music from the region to audiences worldwide.

A slide gives a face to Alfred Karnes, an early performer.

Speaker Rodgers, who has written or edited posts about many of these individuals on the Birthplace of Country Music blog, artfully condensed their stories into an hour-long talk.  She also noted that recordings made before and after the 1927 Bristol Sessions in the record companies’ studios and further afield such as Asheville, North Carolina and Johnson City were also part of country music’s origins. 

She emphasized that the innovation of the electronic microphone was a major change in technology, bringing a “more authentic” sound to the music. 

In addition to phonographic records, radio would also play a major role in the dispersal of this “Hillbilly Sound” with stations like WSM in Nashville and a 50,000 watt station (XERA) on the Mexico / United States border.

Because of radio’s importance, Rodgers gave out a folder on the Birthplace of Country Music’s radio station, “Radio Bristol,” with a reference to scheduling on LISTENRADIOBRISTOL.ORG.  The low power FM station features three channels streaming different genres of country music, and one channel streaming video.  The museum’s literature states that the station has listeners throughout the nation and in more than 140 countries.

The greatest revelation in Rodgers’ presentation was the museum’s focus on genealogy.  The museum, an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, has recorded several oral histories of descendants of the original 19 Bristol Sessions performers. Many of these descendants came together at the museum for the 90th anniversary in July 2017. Get-togethers like this, along with a few other reunions, have given family members the opportunity to share stories, photographs, and other items that enhance the museum’s content.

When Georgia Massengill Warren of Bluff City was 12 years old, she was one of the performers at the 1927 Sessions, Rodgers said.  The last surviving member of the groups that made up the music contributors, she died Sunday, March 6, 2016 at the age of 100.  She sang with the Tennessee Mountaineers and the two songs they recorded can still be heard as part of the museum’s exhibits.  The songs are “Standing on the Promises” and “At the River” recorded on the last day of the Sessions, Aug. 5.

Georgia married Paul Warren, who taught math and geography at Bluff City Middle School for 30 years.  She had five sisters and grew up on the Massengill’s farm between Piney Flats and Bluff City near where Ridgewood Barbecue is now located.  In a 2014 newspaper interview in the Bristol Herald Courier, Warren said, “I did everything on the farm but plow with the big plow. We had 12 cows.  Sometimes I had to milk them all.”

Most of the performers at the 1927 Bristol Sessions like Warren did not become famous. The Tennessee Mountaineers, named as such by record producer Peer, had to wait at the Taylor Christian Hat Factory where the recordings were being made until the West Virginia Coon Hunters recorded their two songs, “Your Blue Eyes Run Me Crazy” and “Greasy String.”  The group was from Bluefield where a number of families had migrated because the town was central to the coal boom, especially due to its railway traffic.

While the personalities of all those who comprised the 1927 Bristol Sessions performers are interesting, Rodgers said “meeting Uncle Eck Dunford must have been quite an experience.”  She said he “was full of character and personality,” speaking a distinctive voice and dialect, possibly Scots-Irish, wearing an overcoat in all seasons and often donning pink earmuffs when it was cold.  He lived in a cabin he had built in Galax, Virginia.  Dunford was a photographer and worked as a shoe cobbler.

Uncle Eck was known for his jokes and stood out in Galax when he frequently quoted Shakespeare and Robert Burns, pointing to a man who took the time to read and educate himself.  He was a highly skilled fiddler, guitarist and storyteller and known for his musical connections with Ernest “Pop” Stoneman.  He married into the family when he married Callie Frost, a relative of Hattie Stoneman’s.  He sang and played at the 1927 Bristol Sessions with the Stonemans and others.  He had two recordings by himself, “The Whip-poor-will’s Song” and the familiar children’s tune “Skip-to Ma Lou, My Darling,” with the 1927 recording being its first commercial cutting.

Curator Rodgers pointed out Hattie Stoneman as an important figure in country music and said, “Women didn’t always get as much recognition as men.” She said Hattie’s story illustrates “the huge influence of women in country music.” She was instrumental in “the support and encouragement” of her husband Ernest, who may have never recorded music without her.  She did all this while bearing 23 children.  After their marriage, Hattie played the fiddle with “Pop.”  At the Bristol recordings, Hattie was part of the Dixie Mountaineers and recorded “What Will I Do, For My Money’s All Gone” with Uncle Eck Dunford.

Alfred Karnes, born in Virginia and later residing in Corbin, Kentucky, was known as a harp guitar player, though there is much debate about whether he played this unusual instrument on the Bristol Sessions recordings.  A Baptist preacher with a wonderfully resonant voice, he recorded six religious songs at the Sessions, including “I’m Bound For the Promised Land,” “To The Work” and “Where We’ll Never Grow Old.”

Ernest Phipps, also from Corbin, was a singing preacher who had also worked as a coal miner.  He recorded at the 1927 Bristol Sessions and returned in 1928 when Ralph Peer returned to Bristol to record again.  Although his records, all religious in subject matter, were released by Victor, he did not record again after the 1927 and 1928 Bristol Sessions. His songs include “Old Ship of Zion,” “I Want to Go Where Jesus Is,” and “If the Light Has Gone Out Of Your Soul.”  He continued to live in Corbin where he preached for the rest of his life.