Posted: Sunday, August 28, 2016 2:22 am
JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. – Neither the Carter Family nor Howard Armstrong will literally return from the dead anytime soon. Likewise Appalachia circa late 1920s. However, with the recent completion of Bear Family Records’ trio of boxed sets, each elevates in the public eye.
Windows opened to Appalachian times and people long gone by when Germany’s Bear Family zeroed in on the Bristol Sessions. Its complete recordings box set, “The Bristol Sessions: The Big Bang of Country Music 1927-1928,” in 2011 proved revelatory.
Maybelle Carter as best she could returned from the grave. Music arose from a forgotten heap. Culture rebranded as honorable.
East Tennessee State University professor Ted Olson shepherded the Bristol Sessions and subsequent complete recordings sets from the John-son City and Knoxville Sessions in a number of ways. He served as reissue producer, wrote liner notes and researched each of the three monumental collections.
“It was a labor of love,” said Olson over lunch last week at Yee-Haw Brewery. “Bear Family spared no expense.”
Olson, who was nominated for a Grammy Award for his work on last year’s Bear Family issue of Tennessee Ernie Ford recordings, had worked with late music historian Charles K. Wolfe on 2005’s book “The Bristol Sessions: Writings About the Big Bang of Country Music.” Sparks of in-terest arose.
Bear Family enlisted Olson in 1999 to begin work on its “Bristol Sessions” collection.
“This is something that I felt needed to be done,” Bear Family founder Richard Weize said of the set upon its release in 2011. “Johnny Cash said this is the single most important event in the history of country music, and he was right.”
Initial plans focused on the Bristol Sessions.
“Johnson City was my idea,” Olson said. “Richard Weize felt the Johnson City Sessions (set) was a bit of a gamble. But Richard said, ‘let’s give it a try.’ I believe it rescued the story of the Johnson City Sessions. Pieces of the story were around, but it wasn’t easy to rescue the story.”
The four-CD “The Johnson City Sessions 1928-1929: Can You Sing or Play Old-Time Music?” birthed in 2013. The four-CD “The Knoxville Sessions 1929-1930: Knox County Stomp” followed this summer.
As with the Bristol Sessions, every recording was made in East Tennes-see. Ergo, each set needed the other to complete the full story.
“As a consequence of these box sets, it does support pretty emphatically that East Tennessee had a far more integral part in the creation of country music,” Olson said. “There’s a case for Tennessee as the soundtrack of America.”
The Bristol Sessions, produced by Ralph Peer for the Victor Talking Machine Company, featured mostly amateur musicians from communities throughout East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. Jimmie Rodgers, who hailed from Mississippi, was an exception. As with the Johnson City and Knoxville sessions, the Bristol sessions had never been released in their existing entirety together in one collection until the advent of the Bear Family sets.
Revelatory? Sure, particularly given that the Bristol Sessions, as author Nolan Porterfield coined them, were “the big bang of country mu-sic.” Likewise relevant, much of the music contained on the three sets had only been issued on 78 rpm records decades prior. Some had never been available to the public. In at least one instance, a spoken word recording for the Knoxville Sessions, only one copy of the record is known to exist.
Paper and bow, please...