Bristol's Music History

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Music has been made for hundreds of years in the southern mountain region. The influences which are felt in the music come from many traditions. The ballads of the early Scotch-Irish and settlers of the British Isles are evident, as are their instruments, such as the fiddle. The blues and work songs of laborers of African heritage are evident, along with their instruments such as the banjo. The mountain dulcimer and the autoharp have connections to the zithers of European ancestry, while the ukulele and the guitar were popular parlor instruments. The guitar's folk influences come primarily from the Southwest and Deep South.

In late July 1927, Ralph Sylvester Peer, a record producer and talent scout for the Victor Talking Machine Company of Camden, New Jersey, came to Bristol, Tennessee. His goal was to record musicians from the southern Appalachian region for commercial musical records. For a number of reasons, the world-wide influence of these recording sessions has been described as "the big bang of country music." During these sessions — the Bristol location which was suggested to Peer by pioneer country recording artist Ernest V. Stoneman — Jimmie Rodgers and the original Carter Family were first recorded, as well as Henry Whitter, Blind Alfred Reed, B.F. Shelton and many others over the course of ten days. "The Bristol Sessions," by virtue of the Rodgers and Carter discoveries, the business model initiated by Peer at Bristol wherein artists were paid on a percentage basis for record sales based on song publishing rights, and the national and international distribution of the Bristol recordings by the Victor Talking Machine Company — the largest record company in the world at the time — laid the groundwork for what subsequently became the "country music industry" and disseminated rural music globally for the first time. At the same time, musicologists agree that the recordings made at Bristol in 1927 are the purest cross-section of traditional American music ever recorded in one session — recordings naively made with no attempt to influence the music or the performers delivery in search of a "hit."

From the 1930s through the 1950s, live radio broadcasts in the region nurtured the music and the artists. These shows included WOPI's "Jamboree", "Farm and Fun Time" on WCYB, and the "Barrel of Fun" on WJHL. Flatt and Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, Jim and Jesse McReynolds, Mac Wiseman, Jimmy Martin and countless others, appeared on these programs, which led to the development of bluegrass and contemporary country music.