In Southern Appalachia, Searching for the ‘Big Bang’ of Country Music


While the rest of America was roaring to jazz during the ’20s, in a small corner of the South, where back roads snake through early-morning mist and porches are used for melody-making as much as sitting in rocking chairs, another form of music was quietly taking root. In the heart of southern Appalachia, at the convergence of northeast Tennessee and southwest Virginia, a set of early recording sessions, conducted by a New York City record producer over two epoch-making weeks in the summer of 1927, would catapult the careers of the Carter Family from Virginia, the “first family of country music,” and the Mississippi singer and songwriter Jimmie Rodgers, who would become known as “the father of country music.”

The tapes would become an inflection point in the history of what we now refer to as country music. And though musicologists may take issue with the assigning of its origin to any one time or place, the famous Bristol Sessions of 1927 were influential enough to be widely referred to as the “big bang” of country music, a topic that the documentarian Ken Burns is taking a broad look at in an upcoming series on PBS.

In April, I headed east of Nashville to the place where those early sessions were recorded, and where the music they gave birth to are celebrated: the Tri-Cities of Kingsport, Johnson City and Bristol, which is a two-state town straddling the border of Tennessee and Virginia. In 1998, Congress named Bristol the “Birthplace of Country Music.” Sixteen years later, the Virginia side built the 24,000-square-foot Birthplace of Country Music Museum, a sleek Smithsonian Institution affiliate and part of the nonprofit Birthplace of Country Music organization, which, during the third week of September, hosts the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion, one of the largest assemblages of country music, Americana, roots and bluegrass in the United States.

While the Birthplace of Country Music and other museums in the area tell the narrative of this quintessentially American musical form, it’s the musical venues, ad hoc pickin’ parties and barn dances that are its soundtrack. I was hoping to sample all of them.

My goal was to meet Rick Dollar, former executive director of the Appalachian Cultural Music Association and a longtime torch bearer of issues surrounding the region’s musical history. Mr. Dollar had recently hosted Ken Burns’s documentary crew, who had been traveling through the area.

“Appalachian-style music has enhanced or motivated every style of music that you can think of — from blues to rock to country. And it all just keeps growing and changing every day,” said Mr. Dollar, who was, until recently, the executive director of the Mountain Music Museum, a small gallery that told the story of southern Appalachian music for more than 20 years before it closed this summer. Roy Acuff’s fiddle (which was found on Goodwill’s website by a volunteer) and first pressings of the Carter Family classic “Keep On The Sunny Side” were among the exhibits, all of which will go to the Birthplace of Country Music Museum or be returned to their owners.

We went on to discuss the period of the late 1920s and its influence on the region’s music. Mr. Dollar emphasized that the Bristol Sessions weren’t the only recordings made in the area. “What a lot of people don’t understand is that in 1927 and just after, there were sessions all around here, and they went on for two to three years.”

Johnson City, indeed, had its own set of sessions in 1928 and 1929, as did Knoxville, Tenn., the latter capturing a diverse gathering of African-American blues and gospel singers and musicians. The assumption that the songs that came from the Appalachian Mountains all passed through the hands of Scottish and Irish immigrants leaves out other groups in what was certainly a complicated tapestry of people who arrived in the mountains over the years. Leslie Riddle, an African-American musician and friend of A.P. Carter, would famously wander with him through the mountains looking for songs to record for Ralph Peer.

“Over the years, word of mouth has gotten around about the Down Home,” said Mr. Snodderly, a working singer, songwriter and musician who also teaches music at E.T.S.U. “In 1976, we opened up a place where people would have to listen to music or at least behave.”

That evening, no one talked over a nearly spectral folk duo from Nova Scotia, two women who switched from fiddle, banjo, guitar and mandolin while harmonizing to deliciously grim original songs, still somehow managing to incorporate foot percussion.

As I drove back to my Airbnb late that night, I thought about the people I had met so far, some more incidentally than others, but many who have lived shoulder to the mountains for generations. Ask five people what they think Appalachia is, and it’s possible to get five answers, because Appalachia is, according to some cultural anthropologists, a cognitive region — as much a state of mind, as it is a specific place.

They spilled out of that larger venue when Johnny Cash came to perform his final concert here on July 5, 2003, a few months before his death.

While it was still light, I drove to the nearby Mount Vernon Methodist Church, a small, steepled sanctuary with a gabled roof. Clinch Mountain rises above the church, which also overlooks an extraordinarily green valley: hill and hollow. I found the headstones of A. P. and Sara Carter and remembered their 1928 song, “Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone?”

Perhaps you’ll plant a flower
On my poor unworthy grave
Come and sit along beside me
When the roses nod and wave …

I was certainly in the middle of nowhere, but it still felt like a place that beckons people to return — one way or another. Appalachia, it appears, is a place defined as much by music, faith and family as it is by county and state line, and from where I stood that felt abundant.


Colleen Creamer, a writer based in Nashville, is a frequent contributor to the Travel section.




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