Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Carter Family: Bristol Sessions


On the left you see the original Carter Family in an early publicity photo. This would have been similar attire they would have worn to their first recording session in Bristol, maybe not the same but their Sunday best.
This is just a small point but illustrates the spin recording innovator Ralph Peer would put on the Carters and the Bristol Sessions.

First Recording at Bristol Sessions: Contrary to many accounts, A.P. Carter contacted Victor recording scout Ralph Peer through Cecil McLister, Bristol’s local Victor outlet representative, in March 1927 about making a record.

Peer was already in the planning stages to do recordings in late July- earlyAugust in Bristol with Ernest Stoneman and invited the Carters to come. [Charles Wolfe wrote: "Then, in March 1927, the local Victor Talking Machine Company's dealer in nearby Bristol, Tennessee, had put A.P. in touch with a curious visitor. His name was Ralph Peer, and he was planning to bring a portable recording studio into Bristol that summer; after talking to A.P., and later writing to him, it was agreed that A.P. and his "Carter string band" would come to the session and try some records."]

In the notes from the Country Music Hall of Fame Carter Family compilation [MCA MCAD 10088]: "Bristol was the first of three stops Peer and his unit would make on this swing through the South, the others being Charlotte, NC, and Savannah, Georgia. As organizer of the expedition, Peer had lined up some of the talent before embarking on the trip. He invited the Carter Family for an August 1 audition on the recommendation of the manager of a downtown Bristol store that sold phonograph records. This local merchant (Cecil McLister) knew the Carters from their visits to his store and it was he who told Peer how to contact them."

Ralph Peer had recorded Fiddlin’ John Carson in Atlanta for Okeh in 1923. He was the most experienced talent scout in the fledgling Country Music (then called hillbilly music) business. His only rival was Columbia's Frank Walker. After the Victor Talking Machine Company’s success with Vernon Dalhart's million selling "Wreck of the Old 97/Prisoner’s Song" they were very interested in recording Country songs.

Peer, who left Okeh in 1925, offered his services to Victor. "I had what they wanted." Peer recalled later. "They couldn't get into the hillbilly business and I knew how to do it."
Victor executive Nat Shilkret bought Peer the latest portable electrical recording system, produced by Western Electric, for his recording trips.

In early 1927 Peer did sessions in Atlanta, Memphis and New Orleans. Peer then wrote Ernest Stoneman and told him that he was coming to Galax to visit and he should find some acts worth recording. He would hold auditions and the Stonemans and the other approved acts would meet him in Bristol for the recording session.

Bristol, part of an early urban area known as Tri-Cities, was located on the border of Virginia and Tennessee. It was the largest urban area convenient for the Stoneman’s to enlist other area musicians to attend. There was also Victor distributor in Bristol named Cecil McLister and a railway.

Peer told a local newspaper when he arrived there on July 21 with his recording crew: "In no section of the South have the pre-war melodies and old mountaineer songs been better preserved than in the mountains of all Tennessee and Southwest Virginia, experts declare, and it was primarily for this reason that the Victor Company chose Bristol as its operating base."

Peer rented a studio space at an empty furniture store at 408 State Street [other accounts give 410 State street] formerly occupied by the Taylor-Christian Hat Company and then placed advertisements in local newspapers saying, "The Victor Company will have a recording machine in Bristol for ten days beginning Monday to record records," and inviting all comers to present themselves. These notices were also inserted in the advertisements for the local dealer of the Victrola company, the Clark-Jones-Sheeley Co. at 621 State Street.

According to Charles Wolfe, "Accompanied by his wife, Anita, and two engineers named Echbars and Lynch, Peer returned to Bristol July 21 with a carload of portable recording equipment. They began preparing the second and third floors for recording; they hung blankets on the wall, built a tower for the pulley that would drive the recording turntable and a platform for singers to stand on."

As the Bristol Sessions started on July 26, 1927 the first week was pretty much already booked up with established local stars such as the Stonemans, the Johnson Brothers, and the singer Blind Alfred Reed. A small ad appeared in the Sunday paper announcing that the Victor Company would have a recording machine in Bristol for ten days, but this hadn't generated much response.

Peer needed more talent to fill out the rest of the sessions so he astutely invited the newspaper editor of the Bristol News Bulletin to come and watch a session. The editor was more than happy to oblige and he photographed Ernest Stoneman and fiddler Eck Dunford recording "Skip to Ma Lou."

The result was a major front-page story in that evening's Bristol News Bulletin. "The synchronizing is perfect," wrote the editor. "Ernest Stoneman playing the guitar, the young matron (Mrs. Stoneman) the violin, and a young mountaineer the banjo and mouth harp. Bodies swaying, feet beating a perfect rhythm, it is calculated to go over big when offered to the public."

The article also revealed that Stoneman got $100 a day for his services and that Stoneman, a carpenter form nearby Galax, had received $3600 in royalties the previous year [Today that would approximate $50,000 in royalties]. The average income per year in that area in 1927 was around $1,000.

"This worked like dynamite," said Peer. "The very next day I was deluged with long-distance calls from surrounding mountain region. Groups of singers who had not visited Bristol during their entire lifetime arrived by bus, horse and buggy, trains or on foot." In a matter of hours, Peer was swamped with potential recording stars, and soon he found himself having to add night sessions to accommodate the new talent. During his stay in Bristol, Peer would eventually record 76 performances by 19 different groups.

Whether A.P and Ezra Carter (Maybelle's husband) read the accounts of the ongoing Sessions in the paper, A.P. already had an appointment to audition on Aug. 1. Many members of the Carter clan didn’t understand A.P.’s desire to make records. "Send him to Marion (mental institution)," said Uncle Lish. "He’s completely gone this time. His family with starve no doubt."

A.P. borrowed his brother Eck’s car (in exchange for weeding Eck’s corn patch) and on Sunday July 31 they left Poor Valley to make their appointment to audition the next morning. After a harrowing trip over 26 miles of dirt roads with wife Sara, 8-year-old daughter Gladys, 7-month-old son Joe, and 8-month pregnant cousin Maybelle, A.P. pulled the Essex in Bristol.

One account goes: With a hearty country breakfast under their belts, they loaded into Ezra’a old Essex and headed for Bristol. Rains had swollen the Holsten River at a place where they were to ford it, and the Essex stopped right in the middle of the river and refused to go any further. Long dresses were hiked up over the ladies knees, and guitars and autoharps carried on their shoulders to the dry bank and they pushed, and tugged until they finally got the old car moving. Up the bank they discovered another problem- there was a flat on the right rear tire. A.P. being the flat tire fixer, got out the hand patch kit and quickly repaired the flat, pumped the tire up, and, with the instruments climbed aboard again. [Wolfe reports they had three flat tires and the weather was so hot that the patches had melted off as fast as they were put on.]

The Carters spent the night at their Aunt Fergie’s who lived in Bristol. When the Carters came to the audition the next morning on Monday August 1 Peer identified them as "Mr. and Mrs. Carter from Maces Springs." Peer recalled, "He was dressed in overalls, and the women are country woman from way back there- calico clothes on- the children are very poorly dressed. They look like hillbillies." [Peer manufactured this famous account to establish a "hillbilly image" for the Carter Family, a group he soon managed exclusively. The Carters dressed up for the occasion in their Sunday best and all existing photos show A.P. in a suit and tie.]

Although they had scheduled the audition in March Peer was surprised to see them. After they started played he was relieved, saying, "But as soon as I heard Sara's voice, that was it. I knew it was going to be wonderful."

The Carters were asked to come back and record after supper, from 6:30 to 9:30. On the recordings Maybelle played guitar and sang harmony, Sara played autoharp and sang alto lead and A.P. sang bass. "Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow," "Little Log Cabin by the Sea," "Poor Orphan Child," "The Storms Are on the Ocean," were recorded that evening and "Wandering Boy," and "Single Girl, Married Girl" the next morning. A.P didn’t sing on the Aug. 2 session because Peer told him "you’re not doing much" and mentioned that he kept moving away from the microphone.

A.P. never did much except sing bass and occasionally trade a lead part. He rarely fiddled and many times would sing only when he felt the spirit move him. In many ways the Carter Family was really the first female Country group. Because it was unusual for a Country group to have a female lead singer, this gave Peer pause, but he liked their music. At $50 a song the six sides the Carter Family made totaled $300, a large sum of money in those days (roughly equivalent to $4,200 today).

More on the Carters to come,


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