THE BIG BANG OF COUNTRY MUSIC
This past July marked the 80th anniversary of the momentous Bristol sessions, often referred to by various musical historians as "the big bang of country music". By 1927, all the major recording companies believed that the nation was eager to hear what would later be referred to as "country" music. But at the time no one had a standard term for the rural, homegrown, old time music of the south. It was described variously as "old time tunes", "Dixie songs", "Native American melodies", and "old Southern tunes".
From the beginning of the 20th century until 1921, the Victor Company (forerunner of RCA Victor) achieved tremendous sales by recording and selling records by the great singer Enrico Caruso. Other profitable ventures were the recordings of symphonies, operas, and sophisticated dance numbers. But by 1925, the revenue stream was just half of what it was in 1921. Anxious to get back on track, Victor saw money making opportunities in the flourishing, southern mountain music field. In 1926, they hired visionary talent scout, A & R honcho, recording supervisor Ralph Peer to oversee this new venture.
In July of 1927, Peer decided to set up shop and audition new acts in the town of Bristol, Tennessee. Bristol was chosen in large part because Victor had a large distributorship there as well as logistics. Roads and train track would be easily accessible to the Appalachian acts that would be racing to get there. Assisted by one of his earlier finds, Ernest V. "Pop" Stoneman, Peer decided to turn an abandoned hat factory into a makeshift recording studio. Peer placed an ad in the local papers inviting anyone and everyone to audition. When a newspaper editor wrote a story mentioning huge royalties that could be made by potential recording artists, that was all it took to get things rolling. Musical acts arrived by train, buggy, bus, car, or on foot.
Most of the acts that eventually came to audition for Peer would quickly return to their homes empty handed. Peer was looking for originality and if he didn't see it immediately, he sent the would be recording stars packing. In two weeks of dedicated and intensive work, Peer recorded some nineteen acts. Most of those acts are now just a historical footnote but two of Peer's discoveries would define and serve as the genesis of what Peer at first described as "hillbilly" music but later referred to as "country" music. Those two musical finds of course would later be known to the world as The Carter Family - often regarded as "the First Family of Country Music" and Jimmie Rodgers - "The Father of Country Music".
And while the 80th anniversary of the Bristol sessions is indeed cause for celebration, it is also cause for sadness - sadness at the music the Carters, Jimmie Rodgers, and Peer developed devolved. Now there have always been country music purists around to decry the infiltration of pop, rock, and other elements into "their" music. It is very probable that some hardcore traditionalist in Poor Valley raised his fist in anger and derided the Carters for "selling out" back in the day. The Nashville Sound era of the late 50's and early 60's made quite a few purists jittery as well. Producers tended to soften the hard honky tonk edge and twangy guitars prevalent at that time and add strings and background vocals. But while the Nashville Sound helped generate crossover appeal, singers such as Patsy Cline, Eddy Arnold, Jim Reeves, and Don Gibson just to name a few, never forgot their country roots. That era may have produced a scare but it wasn't the end of country music. The Bakersfield sound would emerge led by Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and Wynn Stewart to counter the softer Nashville sound. The next decade would see the Outlaw movement take hold. Artists such as Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson fought and received more artistic freedom and control from Nashville record label executives to make their kind of eclectic country music. But by the mid to late 1980's, country began to lose its soul. The old guard were considered...well...too old for corporate country radio to play anymore. Neo traditionalists like Randy Travis, Alan Jackson, and George Strait filled the void but yet one could tell the good old days were gone. Quality was sacrificed in favor of quantity. Bland record after bland record. Country music had always been known for its wry word play and self parody. But to see how bad things had become let us look at the lyrics of a 1974 song penned by Bobby Braddock for the patron saints of country music: George Jones and Tammy Wynette.
No we're not the jet set, we're the old Chevrolet set
There's no Riviera in Festus Missouri
And you won't find Onassis in Mullinville, Kansas
No we're not the jet set, we're the old Chevrolet set
But ain't we got love
Now contrast those lyrics with Alan Jackson's 1993 country song of the year - Chattahoochie.
Way down yonder on the Chattahoochie
It gets hotter than a Hoochie-koochie
We laid rubber on the Georgia asphalt
We got a little crazy but we never got caught
Need I say more. Where Braddock used clever word play and lyrics to appeal to his blue collar working class country audience, Jackson insults the intelligence of country fans everywhere. And if all this wasn't enough, along came Garth Brooks to change things once again. While Brooks dressed the part in his signature western wear with that gigantic belt buckle, he took country yet farther again from its roots. He introduced arena rock theatrics with himself swinging from a rope onstage to country audiences and they lapped it up time and time again. Those who didn't formed their own movement - the alternative country movement also known as the no depression movement. The name itself was taken from a song by who else, the Carter Family. Internet chatter kept building and building and before long a huge online community dedicated to the preservation of "roots" music developed. No Depression magazine became a bible for the movement "surveying the past, present, and future of American music". In its most recent issue, artists as diverse as classic country star Porter Wagoner, witty folkie Loudon Wainwright III, and North Carolina blues man John Dee Holeman who hasn't given up his day job of fixing lawn mowers were profiled. And that my friends is Americana music. That it is alive and well and embraces a wide variety of artists and audiences is reason to celebrate. Whether it's folk, jazz, blues, or old time country the various musicians are all rooted in the same fertile creative soil that gave rise to the Carters and Jimmie Rodgers.
Garth Brooks perhaps thinking so little of his fans believing that they would fall for anything, tried to reinvent himself as rock singer Chris Gaines in 1999. But a new wardrobe and a silly wig didn't work out. Brooks soon announced his retirement. He hasn't ruled out coming back at some point, either swinging from a rope or strolling out with the aid of a walker. God help us, as I have shown, there are plenty of alternatives.