Track 1: “Singers who had not visited Bristol during their entire lifetime arrived…”
Between July 25th and August 5th, 1927, regional talent arrived at the Victor Talking Machine Company’s Bristol location at 408 State Street. Ralph Peer’s ad had “worked like dynamite,” as he put it, stating, “The very next day I was deluged with long-distance telephone calls from the surrounding mountain region. Groups of singers who had not visited Bristol during their entire lifetime arrived by bus, horse, and buggy, train or on foot.”
During the first week in the studio, Peer welcomed the likes of Ernest V. Stoneman & His Dixie Mountaineers and the Johnson Brothers, two well-known groups Peer had specifically invited. Others who made the cut that first week included Ernest Phipps and His Holiness Quartet, Uncle Eck Dunford, and Blind Alfred Reed. Sacred songs were popular, and one of Ralph Peer’s favorite singers turned out to be a minister named Alfred G. Karnes who was the last to record that week. Stepping into the makeshift studio and accompanying himself on his new Gibson harp-guitar, Karnes recorded six songs that Friday afternoon of July 29th.
Many blues, bluegrass, and country music legends trace their roots to gospel music, as have any number of emerging artists. The Church Sisters’ repertoire is firmly footed in gospel music. Alfred G. Karnes’s intense voice on his recordings made an impression on fans, and here The Church Sisters echo the intensity and inspiration of Karnes’s original recording of “Where We’ll Never Grow Old,” a time-tested classic penned in 1914 by James C. Moore, a 26-year old Baptist preacher. The earliest recording of the song by Smith’s Sacred Singers reportedly sold more than 277,000 copies – an astonishing number in those early days.
Narrator: Eddie Stubbs; Script: Cindy Lovell; Background Score: “Where We’ll Never Grow Old” performed by Alfred G. Karnes
Track 2: Where We’ll Never Grow Old
Artist: The Church Sisters Written by: James C. Moore
Trad. Arrangements by: Carl Jackson
Published by: Colonel Rebel Music (ASCAP) admin by BMG
Lead Vocal: Savannah Church; Lead & Tenor Vocals: Sarah Church; Baritone Vocal: Carl Jackson; Bass: Kevin Grantt; Acoustic Guitars: Carl Jackson & Josh Pickett; Fiddles: Aubrey Haynie; Mandolin: Spencer Strickland
Track 3: “Love, loss, and the perils of the moonshine business…”
“Darling Cora” is another timeless classic passed down among Appalachian musicians, its composer unknown. This tune has been recorded as “Darling Corey” and “Little Lulie.” By the time B.F. Shelton recorded it in Bristol, it had already been recorded twice that year, but Shelton’s version would become the most influential for his two-finger style banjo work.
Its lyrics tell the story of love, loss, and the perils of the moonshine business. With prohibition lasting from 1920 to 1933, moonshine stills became a common source of income throughout Appalachia. But even after prohibition ended, high taxes on ‘white lightning’ ensured there would always be ‘two flavors’ of the original ‘mountain dew’ – legal and illegal. Moonshining was risky business, and songs about stills and revenue agents soon emerged from the hills.
Many great singers have recorded this old standard, and in the spirit of Ralph Peer’s original talent search, the young man who sings “Darling Cora” on this recording is Corbin Hayslett, the 20 year-old winner of the 2014 Orthophonic Joy talent search. Corbin hails from Amherst, Virginia. His musical influences include The Carter Family, The Stanley Brothers, as well as Dock Boggs, the latter who was known to “loosen up some” with moonshine before recording.
Corbin got his first banjo at the age of nine and said he spent the first four months mastering the second part of “Cripple Creek.” Both of his parents sing, and as he was learning to play the old-time music, he and his dad harmonized on the old Stanley Brothers songs with his dad singing Carter’s lead and Corbin singing Ralph’s tenor. Corbin first heard “Darling Cora” on a Mike Seeger album. In February of 2004, he met Seeger at a 4-H Camp near Appomattox, Virginia. The occasion was an old-time music workshop, and the boy with a new banjo quickly became steadfast friends with the music legend.
Corbin’s banjo playing on this old moonshine song conjures up B.F. Shelton’s early version, and even without a sip of “local liquid folk art,” as some folks call moonshine today, his vocals are plenty loosened up, too.
Narrator: Eddie Stubbs; Script: Cindy Lovell; Background Score: “Darling Cora” performed by B.F. Shelton
Track 4: Darling Cora
Artist: Corbin Hayslett Trad. Arrangements by: Corbin Hayslett
Published by: Colonel Rebel Music (ASCAP) admin by BMG
Lead Vocal: Corbin Hayslett; Harmony Vocals: Carl Jackson & Val Storey; Banjo: Corbin Hayslett; Bass: Dennis Crouch
Track 5: “Ramblers riding the longest train I ever saw…”
Doc Walsh recorded the first commercial version of “In The Pines” in 1926. It’s an Appalachian standard that dates back at least to the 1870s with more than 150 known variations and several titles. The Tenneva Ramblers were the first to record the song under an alternate title, “The Longest Train I Ever Saw,” at the Bristol Sessions. A haunting tale of loss and loneliness, the mournful story resonated with a wide audience.
The Tenneva Ramblers took their name from their geographic region, and folks will recognize it as a combination of Tennessee and Virginia. But what anyone outside of the area may not realize is that in the early 20th century a movement was underway to carve a new state out of Eastern Tennessee, Western Virginia, and the Cumberland region of Kentucky and call it Tenneva. Bristol, Tennessee’s Mayor L.H. Gammon supported the consolidation of the two Bristol cities to become the new state’s capital. A 1922 article in a Pennsylvania newspaper speculated about the exclusion of Kentucky in the proposed new name, saying, “There is more euphony and less jaw exercise to ‘Tenneva’ than there would be to ‘Tennevaky,’ so if were left to us we’d say call it ‘Tenneva.’” Local citizens supported the initiative, and although it never garnered enough support to achieve statehood, the name ‘Tenneva’ has remained in use down through the years in various businesses and organizations.
Brad Paisley is no stranger to this old tune. Although he does not hail from the Tenneva region, his West Virginia heritage includes a close familiarity with this lonesome old classic. Here’s Brad Paisley now, along with Carl Jackson, with a fine interpretation of “The Longest Train I Ever Saw” or as it’s better known, “In The Pines.”
Narrator: Eddie Stubbs; Script: Cindy Lovell; Background Score: “The Longest Train I Ever Saw” performed by the Tenneva Ramblers
Track 6: In The Pines
Artist: Brad Paisley & Carl Jackson Trad. Arrangements by: Carl Jackson
Published by: Colonel Rebel Music (ASCAP) admin by BMG
Lead Vocal: Brad Paisley; Lead & Harmony Vocals: Carl Jackson; Acoustic Guitars: Brad Paisley & Carl Jackson
Track 7: “Twenty-one good years at the throttle…”
Songs are often written to document history or comment on important events of the day. On the morning of May 24th, 1927 just moments before noon, two Virginian Railway trains crashed head-on in Ingleside, West Virginia claiming two lives and injuring more than twenty. The Bluefield Daily Telegraph reported hundreds of onlookers at the scene, and armed guards employed by the Railway tried unsuccessfully to prevent photographs of the tragedy.
The eastbound 103 carried 90 loads of coal and was powered by an electric locomotive. The Virginian No. 3, a westbound passenger train pulled by a steam locomotive, had orders to take a siding in Inglewood and wait for the freight train to pass. For reasons we’ll never know, it did not stop. Minutes later when the two collided on a curve west of the first tunnel, the coal train’s force lifted the steam locomotive straight up in the air, giving the appearance that the passenger train had climbed right up the freight train’s nose when the two came to rest. Human flesh is no defense for boiling water and scalding steam. Number Three’s engineer Elmore George Aldrich, called “Dad” by the crew, and his fireman Frank O’Neal were scalded to death on the spot.
Alfred Reed, a blind singer, songwriter, and fiddler who lived within thirty miles of the accident, heard radio accounts and newspaper articles read to him by his wife. He wrote “The Wreck Of The Virginian” to honor the two lost lives and recorded the song in Bristol just two months after the accident, accompanying himself on the fiddle. Of the many songs written by Blind Alfred Reed, it has become one of the best known. However, shortly after Victor released it, the company yielded to requests from the Virginian Railway and pulled it from their catalog.
Reed continued to record for Victor through the end of 1929, including gospel and protest songs that cautioned against society’s ills. “How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?” is still his most famous song, recorded a month after the stock market crash on Black Tuesday – October 29th, 1929. Reed eked out a living as a busker in Princeton, West Virginia until a local ordinance in 1937 banned performances by blind street musicians. He died in 1956, of starvation, at least according to local legend.
Others would also write songs commemorating the Virginian accident, songs that were less forgiving to the 58-year old engineer who failed to sidetrack his train that fateful day. But Reed’s version endures, an acknowledgement, perhaps, that engineer “Dad” Aldrich had logged twenty-one good years at the throttle before that tragic May morning. Shannon and Ashley Campbell, offspring of country music legend Glen Campbell, honor Blind Alfred Reed, “Dad” Aldrich, and their own dad, whose musical DNA is evident in their rendition of “The Wreck Of The Virginian.”
Narrator: Eddie Stubbs; Script: Cindy Lovell; Background Score: “The Wreck Of The Virginian” performed by Blind Alfred Reed
Track 8: The Wreck Of The Virginian
Artist: Ashley & Shannon Campbell Written by: Alfred Reed
Published by: Peer International Corp. (ASCAP)
Lead Vocal: Ashley Campbell; Harmony Vocal: Shannon Campbell; Drums: Tony Creasman; Bass: Kevin Grantt; Piano: Catherine Marx; Acoustic Guitar: Carl Jackson; Fiddle: Aubrey Haynie; Banjo: Ashley Campbell
Track 9: “Prized and practical, brutal ballads…”
Among the scant provisions British immigrants brought to America were folk songs, an important part of their cultural identity and legacy. Possessions both prized and practical, these traditional songs reminded them of home and loved ones and required no precious space in suitcases or satchels. Many of these settlers made their homes in Appalachia where they sang the old songs, including the brutal ballad about Little Willie and Pretty Polly and a doomed romance.
Benjamin Frank “B.F.” Shelton, a 25-year old banjo-playing barber from eastern Kentucky knew the song. He may have been a descendant of the Sheltons of Anglo-Saxon England. They hailed from five English counties, and thousands made their way to America in search of a better life. Neither Frank, as his family called him, nor his parents and siblings had attended school. His father, who had worked as a farmer and coal miner, was illiterate. His mother could read and write, as could her children. They were also a musical family. Shelton played the harmonica, guitar, and banjo, and “Pretty Polly” was part of the family’s repertoire. He traveled to Bristol with Alfred G. Karnes where he recorded “Pretty Polly” and three additional songs on July 29th, 1927. Shelton did not achieve fame and fortune as a musician. He returned to Corbin, Kentucky where he lived with his extended family in a rented home that cost twelve dollars and fifty cents each month and continued working as a barber alongside his older brother.
The tragic “Pretty Polly” has become a staple of old time music, recorded by the likes of Dock Boggs, Judy Collins, Pete Seeger, and the Stanley Brothers. In fact, you don’t have to stretch much to compare B.F. Shelton’s haunting vocals to those of Ralph Stanley. Carl Jackson is no stranger to the story of Polly and Willy. He began playing the banjo at the tender age of eight, and “Pretty Polly” was among the early tunes he learned on the five-string.
Narrator: Eddie Stubbs; Script: Cindy Lovell; Background Score: “Pretty Polly” performed by B.F. Shelton
Track 10: Pretty Polly
Artist: Carl Jackson Trad. Arrangements by: Carl Jackson
Published by: Colonel Rebel Music (ASCAP) admin by BMG
Lead Vocal: Carl Jackson; Drums: Tony Creasman; Bass: Kevin Grantt; Acoustic Guitar: Bryan Sutton; Fiddle: Aubrey Haynie; Mandolin: Adam Steffey; Dobro: Rob Ickes; Banjo: Carl Jackson
Track 11: “Tremendous heart punch and appeal…”
Since the beginning of time, mothers have been lamenting their wandering boys, bidding them ‘come home’ from faraway places. This next song by R.S. Hanna, written in 1894 as “Somebody’s Boy Is Homeless Tonight,” has been arranged and recorded under a number of different titles. It was popular in Appalachia, and the Carter Family recorded it as the last song of their session in Bristol. Released with “The Poor Orphan Child,” the record became a popular double-sided first release and launched the Carters on their historic career.
It can be argued that culture influences art just as art influences culture. The ‘wandering boy’ was a common theme in popular culture of that era.
“His Wandering Boy,” a newspaper article in the July 23rd, 1897 edition of Indiana’s Logansport Reporter declared:
“Henry Netherton, of Piper county, Ill., wants his wandering boy. The boy left home last Sunday, taking a roan pony. $100 reward is offered for information.”
In the Household Goods section of The Galveston Daily News on April 2nd, 1905 a clever ad proclaimed:
“Where Is My Wandering Boy Tonight?” We really don’t know, but sincerely hope he’s sleeping on one of IVEY’S good mattresses.”
A steed named “Wandering Boy” placed in an Oakland, California horse race in 1901. A 1922 silent movie titled “Where Is My Wandering Boy Tonight?” was described in the Franklin, Pennsylvania News-Herald as “a picture with tremendous heart punch and appeal that reaches both young and old.”
The notion of ‘somebody’s boy’ touches a nerve. An August 25th, 1917 story in the Vancouver Daily warned: “Without Parcels Boys Will Suffer.” It reported on Canadian women raising funds to provide for Canadian prisoners of war. Among the societies that donated to the cause was the “Somebody’s Boy Circle.” And a 1922 tale of caution in The Indiana Gazette titled “Somebody’s Boy” warned, “The easy money of moonshine has wrecked many a character and many a home,” going on to describe the fate of two brothers whose widowed mother succumbed to temptation. “The misguided mother took in easy money, but she also developed easy ways.”
A.P. Carter had been something of a wandering boy himself. In his boyhood he was perpetually restless. At the age of 19 he left Virginia for Richmond, Indiana and worked on the railroads. Shortly after arriving, he was stricken with typhoid fever and forced to return home to Virginia. On the returning train ride, wracked with fever, this wandering boy wrote his first song, “Clinch Mountain Home,” expressing an appropriate and eloquent sentiment. And whatever the reasons boys wander, mothers can always be counted on to sing them back home.
The influence of country music is evident in the career of acclaimed singer, songwriter, and guitarist Sheryl Crow. Known widely for pop and rock music, her contributions also include country, folk, and blues. Sheryl, the mother of two boys herself, pays tribute here to A.P. Carter and all the wandering boys who made their way to Bristol during those famous 1927 recording sessions.
Narrator: Eddie Stubbs; Script: Cindy Lovell; Background Score: “The Wandering Boy” performed by The Carter Family
Track 12: The Wandering Boy
Artist: Sheryl Crow Written by: R.S. Hanna
Trad. Arrangements by: Carl Jackson
Published by: Colonel Rebel Music (ASCAP) admin by BMG
Lead Vocal: Sheryl Crow; Harmony Vocals: Carl Jackson; Drums: Tony Creasman; Bass: Kevin Grantt; Piano: Catherine Marx; Acoustic Guitar: Carl Jackson; Fiddle: Aubrey Haynie; Mandolin: Adam Steffey; Dobro: Rob Ickes
Track 13: “Gotta catch that train…”
Considered a classic of the Blue Ridge Mountain region, “Train On The Island” was first recorded by J.P. Nester and Norman Edmonds in Bristol. It was their first song of the session, recorded August 1st in 1927. Nester’s plucky banjo conjures a train clipping along the tracks, and Edmonds’s fiddle punctuates like an impatient train whistle, the combination creating a sense of urgency. Hurry up! Gotta catch that train! Two other recordings from that day were not released and no longer exist, but they must have been just as good as the two that made the cut for Ralph Peer, because he invited Nester and Edmonds to return to Bristol the following year for another recording session.
Unfortunately, Nester refused to leave the hills of home, and little is known of him today. Edmonds, on the other hand, had learned to fiddle around the age of five from his father, who had learned from his father. “Uncle Norm,” as folks called him, was a regular at old-time fiddlers conventions. He played with his fiddle placed against his chest instead of under his chin in the old mountain style of his ancestors, and he remained a beloved figure and keeper of the songs up until his death in 1976. He handed down his musical legacy to his grandson Jimmy Edmonds, who began fiddling at the age of four, spending Sundays at his grandfather’s and listening to him perform on his radio show. Jimmy continues the family tradition as one of the Virginia Luthiers.
The Virginia Luthiers, along with Larry Cordle, know how to lift every note out of their instruments. Have a listen to their version of “Train On The Island” and just see if your tapping toes don’t try to hurry your feet along to some unseen train pulling out of the station.
Narrator: Eddie Stubbs; Script: Cindy Lovell; Background Score: “Train On The Island” performed by J.P. Nester and Norman Edmonds
Track 14: Train On The Island
Artist: Larry Cordle & The Virginia Luthiers Trad. Arrangements by: Carl Jackson & Larry Cordle Published by: Colonel Rebel Music (ASCAP) admin by BMG
Lead Vocal: Larry Cordle; Harmony Vocals: Carl Jackson; Bass: Gerald Anderson; Acoustic Guitar: Bryan Sutton; Acoustic Guitar Solo: Wayne Henderson; Fiddles: Jimmy Edmonds & Scott Freeman; Mandolin: Spencer Strickland
Track 15: “History saws and strums along with itself…”
A little known square-dance band from Wise, Virginia also made their mark in Bristol. Charles McReynolds was the fiddler. His son, Bill, played the banjo. Brothers Howard and Charlie Greear both played guitar, and Bill Deane provided vocals. When Deane learned of the Bristol recording sessions, he urged the band to make the trip, coaxing a ride to Bristol from a friend named Hughes. Worried because they didn’t have an official name for the group, Hughes suggested the Bull Mountain Moonshiners. They drove to Bristol on August first and recorded that afternoon under their new moniker.
The group recorded “Sweet Marie,” which Victor did not release. They did release “Johnny Goodwin,” commonly known as “The Girl I Left Behind,” an old regimental march with Irish and English origins. Charles McReynolds presented the engineers with a unique problem – he couldn’t play his fiddle without stomping. So Ralph Peer’s engineers placed a pillow under his foot to muffle the stomps.
Shortly after the Bristol sessions, Charles McReynolds gave up music altogether when his son, Bill, died of appendicitis. Music, however, remained the family’s legacy. A generation later, Charles’s grandsons – brothers Jim and Jesse McReynolds – embarked on one of the most respected careers in bluegrass music. Jim and Jesse and the Virginia Boys were stars of the Grand Ole Opry and traveled the globe sharing bluegrass with an enthusiastic fan base. They carried a top-notch band that in 1968 introduced a 14-year old banjo player from Louisville, Mississippi named Carl Jackson.
History has a way of repeating itself, or in this case, sawing and strumming along with itself. This recording of “The Girl I Left Behind” was produced by Carl Jackson, fiddled by Carl’s friend and mentor Jesse McReynolds – 85 years old at the time of this performance, and made all the sweeter by Jesse playing his granddaddy’s fiddle – the very same one used at the original Bristol Sessions in 1927.
Narrator: Eddie Stubbs; Script: Cindy Lovell; Background Score: “Johnny Goodwin” performed by the Bull Mountain Moonshiners
Track 16: Johnny Goodwin / The Girl I Left Behind
Artist: Jesse McReynolds & Carl Jackson Trad. Arrangements by: Jesse McReynolds & Carl Jackson Published by: Colonel Rebel Music (ASCAP) admin by BMG
(Instrumental with live conversation)
Fiddle: Jesse McReynolds; Acoustic Guitar: Carl Jackson
Track 17: “Introducing the Orthophonic Choir…”
Songwriters often find themselves overshadowed by the artists who record their songs or even the songs themselves once they are established as classics. Robert Lowry, who preferred to be known for his ministry rather than his composing, may not be a household name, but several of his songs have achieved legendary status. “Shall We Gather At The River” is one of those songs, an early standard of the American musical lexicon that endures more than a century and a half later. Lowry wrote the song in in 1864, and it quickly became a staple in hymnals.
On the final day of Ralph Peer’s historic recording session in Bristol, some 20 members of a church choir arrived from Bluff City, Tennessee to add their voices to what would ultimately become one of the most historic recording sessions in world history. The group included Roy Hobbs, brother-in-law of A.P. Carter. Peer dubbed the choir the Tennessee Mountaineers. The very last song recorded that afternoon before Ralph Peer and his crew packed up their equipment and headed back to New York was Robert Lowry’s “Shall We Gather At The River.”
Formed in 1936 in Texas, The Chuck Wagon Gang began singing the old favorites in their distinctive and straightforward manner accompanied by a single acoustic guitar. They recorded “Shall We Gather At The River” for Columbia Records back in 1949 and have been performing it on air and at live performances through three generations of singers. It is only fitting that we close this historic project with the third generation Chuck Wagon Gang singing “Shall We Gather At The River” accompanied by what Carl Jackson has dubbed the “Orthophonic Choir.” Every single person who has helped with this project – even yours truly, Eddie Stubbs – has joined the choir to accompany the Chuck Wagon Gang on the chorus.
Narrator: Eddie Stubbs; Script: Cindy Lovell; Background Score: “At The River” performed by the Tennessee Mountaineers
Track 18: Shall We Gather At The River
Artist: The Chuck Wagon Gang & The Orthophonic Choir Written by: Robert Lowery
Trad. Arrangements by: Carl Jackson Published by: Colonel Rebel Music (ASCAP) admin by BMG
Soprano Vocal: Julie Hudson; Alto Vocal: Shaye Smith; Tenor Vocal: Stan Hill; Bass Vocal: Jeremy Stephens; Background Vocals: The Orthophonic Choir Acoustic Guitar: Jeremy Stephens
Track 19: “The Birthplace Of Country Music…”
Mark Twain said, “Thousands of geniuses live and die undiscovered–either by themselves or by others.”
Not everyone who recorded at the Bristol sessions that summer became a star, and even Ralph Peer, a posthumous inductee into the Country Music Hall of Fame, remains something of an unsung hero with few people outside the music business recognizing his name. But Peer, his wife, two recording engineers, and 19 artists nonetheless made history that summer in 1927.
This project gathered grateful musicians to pay tribute to those early geniuses who formed the bedrock for this uniquely American musical genre – Country Music. And this project further consecrates the sacred soil upon which one of the most expansive early recording sessions in history took place – Bristol, Tennessee – twin city to Bristol, Virginia.
In 1998, the United States Congress formally proclaimed Bristol “The Birthplace of Country Music.” Of course, Country Music fans had been privy to that knowledge for seventy years.
It’s easy to picture folks packing up their instruments, murmuring ‘thank you,’ ‘goodbye,’ and ‘God bless you’ to one another as they headed back to families and homes and day jobs. And it’s also easy to conjure Ralph Peer humming a lingering tune as the crew dismantled the silent studio – tearing down the wooden platform, folding the old quilts they had hung to reduce echo, packing their recording equipment, and most important of all, carefully – very carefully – stowing those precious wax discs that contained the future of Country Music.
Narrator: Eddie Stubbs; Script: Cindy Lovell; Background Score: “I’m Redeemed” performed by Alcoa Quartet, “At The River” performed by Tennessee Mountaineers, and “Shall We Gather At The River” (Refrain) performed by The Chuck Wagon Gang & The Orthophonic Choir