These days country music is big business. The genre’s mainstream artists hold the last bastion of record sales, and big stars like Luke Bryan are filling stadiums. And while it’s no secret the hits are being churned out in Nashville, country’s commercial roots actually started east of Music City in the Tennessee-Virginia border town of Bristol.
A new compilation album, Orthophonic Joy: The 1927 Bristol Sessions Revisited, pays tribute to the early recordings that first brought country to a mass audience. The star-filled two-disc set, which was released last month, features the likes of Dolly Parton, Vince Gill, Brad Paisley, Keb’ Mo’, and Emmylou Harris reinventing some of the genre’s early classics.
“It’s important to let people know how it all started,” said Grammy-winning producer, musician, and songwriter Carl Jackson, who oversaw the project. “We’re honoring the history of country music and the artists from that time.”
Back in 1927, Ralph Peer, a record producer working for the Victor Talking Machine Company, traveled through Appalachia in search of authentic sounds. He set up a makeshift recording studio in a hat factory on State Street, Bristol’s main drag, and put out advertisements for musicians. Through 12 days that summer the sessions yielded 76 songs, including the first recordings by bluegrass pioneer Jimmie Rodgers and the legendary Carter Family, who lived nearby in southwest Virginia. Now known as the “Big Bang of Country Music,” the recordings would give songs like “In the Pines” and “Pretty Polly,” which had previously only been passed down through generations on porches, a commercial debut. Johnny Cash called the sessions “the single most important event in the history of country music.”
A couple years ago Jackson was asked by songwriter Rusty Morrell to help recreate the sessions with modern artists. He was easily the right man for the job, being one of country’s most-respected, multi-faceted industry players and having previously helmed a Grammy-winning compilation by the Louvin Brothers. Jackson went through all 76 songs on the sessions’ original box set, picked his favorite tunes, and opened his Rolodex.
“I started calling some friends to see if they’d like to be involved,” Jackson said. “Luckily they stepped to the plate.”
Gill was set on doing a Jimmie Rodgers tune, so he sang “The Soldier’s Sweetheart,” and Sheryl Crow took lead vocals on “The Wandering Boy.” Jackson trades verses with Brad Paisley on the classic “In the Pines,” and Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers offered a version of “Sweet Heaven When I Die.”
When Jackson approached Parton about contributing to the album she expressed affinity for the traditional ballad “When They Ring Those Golden Bells.”
“She immediately said, ‘That’s it. I’ve been singing that song since I was a little girl,’” said Jackson. “There were some natural pairings that happened.”
While established artists dominate the compilation, the producers also went looking for new talent, tapping southwest Virginia-based, banjo-playing upstart Corbin Hayslett through a video contest to sing “Darling Cora.”
In total, the set features 18 new versions of songs from the sessions, and the tracks are bridged through historical narration by the iconic voice of the Grand Ole Opry’s Eddie Stubbs. Proceeds from the album benefit the Smithsonian Institution-affiliated Birthplace of Country Music Museum, a relatively new landmark in Bristol that’s dedicated to preserving the city’s important foundation in country music. It’s part of a larger movement that includes the Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion, an annual fall festival that’s also intent on reviving country’s authentic past.
“We don’t need to forget that,” added Jackson. “If you listen to the radio, it seems we’ve forgotten that a little too much. Hopefully this (album) will prod a little interest in some younger artists.”