Friday, 15 May 2015

Lesser Known Artists From The Bristol Sessions

The 1927 recording sessions for Victor Records in Bristol, Tennessee are legendary as the single most important event in the history of Country Music, no less than Johnny Cash once referred to them as "The Big Bang Of Country Music". These sessions did indeed lead to the discovery of the two most important figures of Old Time Country Music; Jimmy Rodgers and The Carter Family. The small city of Bristol is a now major music shrine on a par with the Ryman Auditorium, Sun Studios or Motown Studios. Calling the sessions the beginning of Country Music is a complete oversimplification of course. By 1927 Fiddling John Carson, Eck Robertson, Harry McClintock, Uncle Dave Macon and Ernest Stoneman were already successful recording artists and Vernon Dalhart had already sold a jaw-dropping seven million copies of "The Prisoner's Song", still one of the biggest selling records of all time.


Accordingly when Victor Records scout Ralph Peer set up operations in Bristol, Tennessee, a small but important city in the area bordering Virginia and within easy driving range to West Virginia, North Carolina and Kentucky and sent out advertisements announcing auditions, he already assumed he would find some potential hits. One of the featured artists, Ernest Stoneman had already seen some recording success while the Carter Family had already auditioned once before only to have A.P.Carter walk out in a dispute after it was suggested that they should add a fiddle player. Jimmy Rodgers was part of a group called the Tenneva Ramblers who had a local reputation but had not recorded. As it happened the Ramblers broke up just before the sessions and Rodgers ended up recording solo. The Carters, Jimmy Rodgers and Stoneman would each score million selling hits and help establish country music as a serious business rather than a series of novelty hits. The fates of Jimmy Rodgers and the Carters are well known; with Rodgers dying of tuberculosis in 1933 and the Carters having an influential career into the 1940's (Maybelle carried on into the 70's after Sara and AP left) and beyond for Mother Maybelle. Ernest Stoneman is now less well known but he would actually have the longest career of all, recording well into the 1960's by which time he was known as Pop Stoneman and was backed by his beautiful daughters. He died in 1968. Henry Whitter was another well known country music veteran who had been recording successfully as early as 1923 with a number of hits including the original version of "Wreck Of The Old 97" and "Lost John". After the Bristol sessions he teamed up with blind fiddler BG Grayson for some successful singles including the classic "9 Pound Hammer" until Grayson was killed in a car wreck in 1930. After that Whitter would slow down and not record again. He died of complications from diabetes in 1941.

But what of the other artists who recorded at the Bristol Sessions? Here are some personal faves;


ALFRED KARNES ~ Not all of those artists were full-time musicians. Karnes was a singing Baptist preacher from Corbin, Kentucky who drove down to Bristol with his harp-guitar and some gospel songs. The harp-guitar was an odd and unwieldy hybrid instrument built on a large guitar body with a second set of strings which were unfretted and could give the illusion of two guitars.

Leigh Frieda Montgomery 1


The harp-guitar had a brief vogue in the early twentieth century along with all sorts of other stringed instruments of various shapes and sizes. It was too bulky to be truly popular however (it was so large that some shorter players had to use a stand to prop it on) and it was already archaic by the time Karnes showed up to record. Karnes played with a distinctive string snapping style which gave a percussive drive to his soaring, stentorian baritone. He recorded thirteen sides, all gospel, and all excellent, including the rousing "Bound For The Promised Land" (later covered by Hank Williams sr) and "To The Work" and the soaring ballad "Where We'll Never Grow Old". He also sang and played backup to Ernest Phipps on his Bristol recordings. More on Phipps in a bit


Karnes certainly had the talent and a distinctive enough sound to have made a real name for himself. However Karnes was simply not interested in a musical career, preferring to return to the pulpit where he would remain for the rest of his life. He died in 1958 just a few years too soon for the Folk revival of the early sixties which certainly have led to a rediscovery of his work as it did for others of his era.


B.F. SHELTON ~ When Karnes drove down to Bristol he brought with him Shelton, a singing banjo playing friend who worked as a barber in Corbin, Kentucky and had reportedly served time in a prison where Karnes had preached. B.F.(Frank) Shelton recorded a few songs including "Oh Molly Dear" a version of a popular song already recorded as "East Virginia Blues" as well as a version of another well known song "Pretty Polly" which was later covered by Clarence Ashley, The Stanley Brothers, The Byrds and The Sadies among others. Shelton played in a stark modal style quite different from the rapid fire failing of the likes of Uncle Dave Macon, an effect enhanced by his ghostly tenor. Shelton made some other recordings but preferred to stay in the area rather than become a full-time musician. He did some more recordings a few years later which were not released. Like Karnes he also died just prior to the Folk Revival in 1963.


BLIND ALFRED REED ~ Unlike Karnes and Shelton, Reed was a professional singer who had already built up a local reputation before Ralph Peer invited him down to Bristol. Reed was fiddler and singer from Princeton, West Virginia who sang a mixture of songs traditional gospel, topical and protest songs he wrote himself. Reed usually had a few back-up musicians and brought a guitarist named Arthur Wyrick to the sessions. Musically Reed's songs are pretty conventional string band fare and not especially noteworthy, unlike those of Karnes and Shelton, however Reed did have a strong voice and good songs. The songs at this session included "Walking In The Way With Jesus" and "Wreck Of The Virginian".


Reed would return to the local circuit and made further recordings including the better known protest songs "How Can A Man Stand Such Times And Live" (later covered by Ry Cooder) and "Why Do You Bob Your Hair Girls". This combination of conservative Christianity and political populism may seem strange now, but in the era of William Jennings Bryan, who was very popular in the region, such politics were quite common. Like many other rural artists Reed's recording career ended when the Great Depression hit and he was reduced to becoming a street corner preacher until banned by city bylaws around 1937. He died, reportedly of malnutrition, in abject poverty in 1956. Like Karnes, Reed also just missed the Folk revival that certainly would have helped him.


ERNEST PHIPPS ~ Another singing preacher from Corbin, Kentucky, but unlike Karnes, Phipps was more of a full time musician with a backing band. Phipps sang with a Hellfire and brimstone style and included backup singers along with his backing stringband, which (at least at these sessions) included Alfred Karnes. This partnership is a little odd since Phipps was a preacher in a Pentecostal Holiness Church while Karnes was a Baptist. While the rest of Phipps band on these sessions are unknown it's also possible BF Shelton played with him as well since he is known to have driven down with Alfred Karnes. Originally from Gray, Kentucky, Phipps was probably not too different from other white Southern Gospel groups of the era although they are praised for the power of his singing. His recordings are also notable since such music was rather under-recorded. His Bristol sessions included the rousing "I Want To Go Where Jesus Is". Phipps continued on with his career including more recordings until he died in 1963.


THE JOHNSON BROTHERS ~ An early example of the brother duos that would become a fixture in country music with names like The Carlisle Bros, Delmores, Monroes, Louvins, Stanleys, Lillys, and ultimately the Everly Brothers. Paul Johnson sang and played steel guitar while Paul backed him on guitar. Their songs are slow mournful ballads based on traditional sentimental Victorian themes like "A Passing Policeman" (based on an 1894 song) and "The Jealous Sweetheart". On the latter song they are accompanied by an unknown musician playing the bones, a simple percussion instrument used since ancient times, particularly with black musicians. It is assumed that this was El Watson, a black harmonica player who Charles Johnson would in turn back on his own single, a harmonica showcase called "Potlicker Blues" which was recorded the same day. The Johnsons, from nearby Happy Valley, were actually well known entertainers in the area having been regulars on the local vaudeville, minstrel and medicine show circuit and had already attended a recoding session in New York so they were known to Peer before the showed up in Bristol. However their singles were not notably successful("A Passing Policeman" was not even released at the time) and the Johnsons would drop out of sight with their ultimate fates unknown. El Watson is even more obscure. Although he is assumed to have been black, it is not even known for sure if he was. After Bristol Watson disappeared from the historical records entirely.


THE ALCOA QUARTET ~ While the rest of the musicians at Bristol played various types of rural music both religious and secular, the Alcoa Quartet were a slick professional singing group from Alcoa, Tennesse made up of the brothers J.E and J.H. Thomas and W.B. Hitch and John Wells, who were already well known as professional musicians who performed at state fairs and conventions as well as on the radio. Like some of the other Bristol performers they had already recorded as well. Their repertoire was mostly religious in nature like "I'm Redeemed" and is a good example of a vocal tradition that had been popular since Victorian times. They would go on to a long career performing on radio as well as later backing the young Roy Acuff among others, becoming an inspiration to future quartets like The Blackwood Brothers, The Jordinaires, The Oak Ridge Boys and The Statler Bros (who later covered "I'm Reedemed").


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