A.P., Sara and Maybelle Carter traveled in a primitive automobile over treacherous mountain roads to reach a recording session in Bristol, Tenn., in August 1927.
The group later called "The Carter Family" overcame flat tires and mechanical problems to make it to Bristol from their rural home in southwest Virginia's Appalachian Mountains. The young Maybelle, Sara's cousin and A.P.'s sister-in law, was eight months pregnant. Later, the shy young mountain girl would gain fame as "Mother Maybelle," the queen of country music.
Nowadays, the trip is much easier, as recounted in an article in Sunday's New York Times Travel section. Bristol, and the neighboring East Tennessee tri-city towns of Johnson City and Kingsport, have built museums, music venues and tourist attractions to mark the 1927 sessions, known as "the big bang of country music," although country hits had been recorded previously in Atlanta and elsewhere.
The birth of country music route extends into Bristol, Va., just across the state line from its Tennessee twin city, and farther into the Virginia Mountains, where the "Carter Fold" presents musical performances at the Carter home. Now crowds flock to the isolated mountain valleys where the music was born.
RCA Victor scout Ralph Peer, who had captured Fiddlin' John Carson in Atlanta four years before, recorded several mountain artists during the 1927 Bristol sessions. But the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers made the foundational recordings of country music, setting a course for popular song as well.
Rodgers, formerly a railroad brakeman in Mississsippi, ventured beyond the primitive string-based sound with the bluesy, jazzy "T for Texas," or "Blue Yodel." The record about love gone wrong and rambling across the country reflected an urban sensibility that would make Rodgers the first big crssover country star.
Sometimes discounted as a musician in comparison with black blues pioneers like Robert Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson, Rodgers in his brief career cut short by tuberculosis towers over country and popular music.
He's not a guitar virtuoso like Johnson, but his chord progressions influenced later bluegrass and country guitarists. While his yodels now sound old-fashioned, he wrote memorable lyrics that tell stories of cinematic documentary authenticity. He also was a jazz pioneer, recording with Louis Armstrong and other black musicians, and expressing the dislocations of American urbanization in songs like "Miss the Mississippi and You." The theme of country people finding alienation after moving to the city would be common in country music, and American literature.
But to me the Carter Family recordings are truly miraculous, unworldly music that brings something new into the world. AP Carter, who had gatheerd most of the group's songs at rural gatherings, often giving himself songwriting credit, was a conventional singer at best. His braying, nearly off-key voice, overwhelm some of the songs. But his strong voice chimes with Sara's on the memorable "Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone."
But his wife, Sara, was a rare, mesmerizing talent. Her mountain pronunciations, otherworldly high notes, and haunting vocal shadings, display the virtuosity of a natural genius. She was a uncommon singer who understood her gift without need of instruction. A groundbreaking artist, she brought to American music a wildness, a sense of adventure, an experimental newness. Like Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday, she changed the course of American music.
And she was not the only native genius on the recordings. Maybelle Carter's guitar playing, partially learned from a black man named Lesley Riddle, set the templet for all future guitar gods. Maybelle's combination of rhythm and lead playing still echoes in Nashville recordings. She's up there with Louis Armstrong and Johnson as early 20th century musical innovators.
Peer himself had misgivings when the bedraggled Carters rolled in from the Virginia hollers.
"They wander in," Peer told Lillian Borgeson during a series of interviews in 1959. "He's dressed in overalls and the women are country women from way back there. They looked like hillbillies. But as soon as I heard Sara's voice, that was it. I knew it was going to be wonderful."[