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Instruments, styles varied in Bristol Sessions


Associate Editor

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Anyone who has ever listened to Country Music knows what a guitar is.  The definition is simple:  a flat-bodied stringed instrument with a long fretted neck and usually six strings played with a pick or with the fingers.

The definition written in the opening paragraph gave me the impression that the meeting of History Happy Hour in Jonesborough on Zoom presented by Rene Rodgers a couple months ago would be a pleasant recounting of information that I already knew. Once she began speaking, I soon realized how little I knew about the instrument and its history.

Beginning with Rodgers’ description of the material as “Hillbilly Rhythm & Old Time Melody for the 1927 Bristol Sessions” I learned that the guitar is an iconic instrument with an aristocratic history.

The original instrument was a Spanish guitar, a smaller “parlor” instrument with a sound suitable for refined concert and performances.  “The guitar,” Rodgers said, “was not originally a centerpiece of Hillbilly Music.” 

Two events occurred that influenced the status of the guitar into its use in Country Music today as the lead instrument: the sale of “cheap” guitars by Sears, Roebuck & Company and the emergence of Maybelle Carter and the Carter Family. 

The Sears catalog became known in the industry as “the Consumers’ Bible.” Novelists and story writers often portrayed the importance of the catalog in the emotional lives of rural folk. A guitar could be ordered from the company for as little as $12.

“Mother” Maybelle Carter (born Maybelle Addington; May 10, 1909 – Oct. 23, 1978) was an American country musician and originator of the ”Carter scratch.” She is best known as a member of the original Carter Family act in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s and also as a member of the Carter Sisters and Mother Maybelle.

Also known as the “thumb brush,” the “Carter lick,” or the “church lick,” the Carter scratch is named after Maybelle Carter’s distinctive style of guitar picking. The style bears similarity to the frailing style of banjo playing and is the rhythm Bill Monroe adapted for bluegrass music two decades later. This technique involved playing a melody on the instrument’s three bass strings while simultaneously strumming the three treble strings for rhythm. She used thumb and finger picks while playing. With this technique, along with her strong and driving accompaniment in the band’s instrumentation, Carter “helped to turn the guitar into a lead instrument.”  Her 1928 Gibson guitar is on display in the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Maybelle Carter began studying guitar at age 13 when she acquired an instrument. She is often cited as a pioneering musician, being both an early female guitarist with national exposure and with regard to her playing style and skill as a musician. Writers have identified at least three or four styles played by Maybelle Carter. She often tuned her guitar down, sometimes as many as five frets, but sometimes used a capo to increase the instrument’s range. 

Rodgers also talked about other members of the Carter Family: A.P. Carter (1891-1966) and Sara Carter (1898 -1979).  The family gained fame with their radio performances on a 50,000 watt Mexican station near the United States border. 

The early use of guitars in string bands, Rodgers said involved, “Some homemade instruments and guitars that did not have a huge sound.  Larger guitars were needed and used.” Maybelle Carter used a big body guitar in order to get a bigger and more authoritative sound. She is “one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century.”

The Birthplace of Country Music Museum has a Jimmy Rogers guitar and another guitar connected to Johnny and June Carter Cash. Another unique instrument on display is a harp guitar, representative of the Gibson harp guitar owned by Alfred  G.  Karnes (1889 – 1958). The harp guitar is a guitar-based stringed instrument with any number of additional unstopped strings that can accommodate individual plucking.” 

The word “harp” is used in reference to its harp-like unstopped open strings. A harp guitar must have at least one unfretted string lying off the main fretboard, typically played as an open string. Karnes, from Corbin, Kentucky, recorded six sides during the 1927 Sessions, though it is debated by scholars whether he used his harp guitar on these recordings.  He was a Baptist minister and former barber. 

Producer Ralph Peer on his 1927 trip to Bristol Sessions wanted original, copyrightable songs. Recordings began on Monday, July 25, 1927. “Skip to Ma Lou, My Darling” was played by Uncle Eck Dunford (1875-1953) from Ballard Branch, Virginia.  He often played with Ernest “Pop” Stoneman. Several years ago his Sears 1912 guitar on loan was displayed at the Bristol Museum. 

Stoneman (May 25, 1893 – June 14, 1968) from Galax, Virginia was an American musician ranked among the prominent recording artists of country music’s first commercial decade. In July and August 1927, Stoneman was a major part of the legendary Bristol sessions that led to the discovery of the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. 

By the date of the Sessions, he had recorded more than 80 songs, and between 1925 and 1929 Stoneman recorded more than 200 songs. His first recording – “The Titanic” – was released in 1925, and a later version called “The Sinking of the Titanic” was released in October 1926. Rodgers said “Stonerman was underrated as a guitarist.” On Feb. 12, 2008, Stoneman was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and in 2009 he and his wife Hattie Frost Stoneman were enshrined in the Gennett Record Walk of Fame.

African-American musicians Stephen Tarter (1886-1935) and Harry Gay (1904 – 1983) recorded at the 1928 Bristol Sessions, both playing the guitar. They were from Kingsport and Johnson City.

While he didn’t record at the 1927 Bristol Sessions, Dr. Rodgers included the story of Lesley “Esley” Riddle (June 13, 1905 – July 13, 1979) due to his work with and influence on the Carter Family, helping to shape country music. Riddle was born in Burnsville, North Carolina. He grew up with his paternal grandparents near Kingsport.  

While working as a young man at a cement plant, he tripped on an auger. The resulting injury entailed the amputation of his right leg at the knee. While he recovered, he took up the guitar, developing an innovative picking and slide technique. Soon, he was collaborating with other musicians from Sullivan and Scott counties, including Steve Tarter and Harry Gay.

The museum can be contacted at [email protected] Regular hours of the museum are from Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday, from 1 to 5 p.m. The museum is closed Mondays.