- The Washington Times - Monday, July 22, 2002

BRISTOL, Tenn. —Except for a concrete marker planted next to the sidewalk, there are few reminders along State Street of what happened 75 years ago.
It was somewhere between the parking lot and the vacant drugstore, old folks say, where talent scout Ralph Peer set up his makeshift recording studio and gave the world its first taste of the "hillbilly" music that would later be known as country.
They were called the Bristol Sessions, and to this day die-hard enthusiasts celebrate this hilly region along the Virginia-Tennessee state line as the country's forgotten heartland, where the music remains unplugged and pure.
"Don't get me wrong; some of the stuff on the radio is good. It's just not country," banjo picker and local radio host Tim White says. "It's pop. Some of it is rock 'n' roll."
Mr. White and many others around Bristol still play mountain music the old way, huddling around a single microphone at casual spots such as Bare's Bar-B-Q, Shelly's Chicken House and the Star Barber Shop. It's honest music, they say, the gritty soul of the mountains pulled back and bare without the din of drum sets or electric guitars.
Bristol and the surrounding region will celebrate its old-time tradition from Thursday to Aug. 3 with a concert series that starts downtown, where Peer arrived in 1927 and set off what Tennessee historian Charles Wolfe calls the "Big Bang" of country music.
"They were doing something that was so different at the time," Mr. Wolfe says.
Unlike classically trained musicians, the mountain singers who played in school cafeterias and church halls on Saturdays had created a completely different sound. They didn't hold pitch the way it was written. Instead, when it felt right, they slipped between notes like a slide on a guitar.
Peer, a free-lance talent scout from Kansas City, first heard the music in Atlanta in the 1920s, when he stumbled across "Fiddlin'" John Carson.
Carson, a former carnival busker from the mountains of northern Georgia, would cradle his fiddle in his elbow and sing hardscrabble tunes such as "The Old Hen Cackled and the Rooster is Going to Crow."
"He'd never heard anything like it," Mr. Wolfe says of Peer. "He thought it was absolutely ridiculous."
Peer never would have recorded Carson if not for a local businessman who offered to pay for 500 copies upfront.
Surprisingly, Carson's records were big sellers, Mr. Wolfe says. The first 500 copies sold out. Then he sold another 500. Soon, Peer realized it was going to be one of the most successful records in the company catalog.
"He was much more of a businessman than a lover of music," Mr. Wolfe says. "He knew where the money was."
Peer packed two cars and headed south again with two recording engineers. This time he stopped in Bristol, a bustling manufacturing community wedged between mountain ranges where he had heard there was some talent.
Peer fixed his microphone in an old hat warehouse and placed an ad in the local paper. During the next two weeks he brought in 22 acts, recording their music on slabs of wax with a makeshift pulley system that kept the machinery from changing speed during power surges.
There were country yodelers and gospel singers and pickers of all kinds, each of them receiving $50 per contract and $1 for the rights to each song, Mr. Wolfe says.
Peer's biggest find, though, was a family of tobacco farmers from Hiltons, Va.
A.P., Maybelle and Sara Carter recorded "Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow," "Little Log Cabin by the Sea" and "Poor Orphan Child" with a sound and harmony that was unheard of at the time.
Peer also found Jimmie Rogers, a brakeman from Meridian, Miss., who sang "Sleep Baby, Sleep" and "The Soldier's Sweetheart."
"It's good for younger people to know this kind of music," says Janette Carter, the youngest daughter of Sara and A.P. "There was a time when music told a story; it wasn't just some beat."
Janette Carter, 78, still plays the autoharp and runs an auditorium built from railroad ties and school bus seats near the family farm 30 miles away in Hiltons. She has concerts every Saturday in part to fulfill a final request A.P. Carter made on his deathbed in 1960.
"He called me over and said, 'Janette, I want you to continue the music the way we'd done it,'" Miss Carter says.
Mr. White says he plans to build a giant fiddle along Interstate 81, sort of like Appalachia's own Statue of Liberty. But until then, he will be satisfied with running his radio show and picking porch, quietly keeping the music dignified and true.
On the Net: Birthplace of Country Music Alliance Web site: https://www.birthplaceofcountrymusic.org

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