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The Bristol Sessions

The Bristol Sessions - Bristol, TN

Ralph Peer came to Bristol in search of large personalities who would make a strong impression on Victor’s new higher fidelity recordings, and discovered one of country music’s strongest in “Blue Yodeler” Jimmie Rodgers. Jimmie’s Mississippi-bred music and style set the pattern for the good time, Saturday night side of country, and for its lasting proximity to the highs, lows and fortitude of the blues—characteristics that such Mississippians as Elvis Presley, Conway Twitty, Bobbie Gentry and Tammy Wynette would bring to country in the years ahead.

Mississippi Country would be adding its own special, blues-tinged flavor and flamboyant style to the evolving sounds and look of country music for decades to come, through the contributions of a celebrated succession of charismatic native performers. The potential was already evident during the pioneering recording sessions conducted here in Bristol in the summer of 1927. Producer and talent scout Ralph Peer had come to Bristol to find and record performers from this area, particularly singers, whose personalities could shine through on Victor Records’ new electrically amplified “Orthophonic” recordings, when paired with songs that underscored who they were. On August 4th, Meridian, Mississippi’s “Singing Brakeman” and his cobbled-together string band arrived in town, hoping to record for Victor as The Jimmie Rodgers Entertainers. They had been working out of Asheville, North Carolina, and heard about the call for talent. When they auditioned for Peer, squabbling about billing, it was readily apparent to him that the band, whom he’d record as the Tenneva Ramblers, was playing hoedown fiddle music and that Jimmie Rodgers was doing something else, something new. He evidenced deep immersion in Mississippi blues, the blues man’s roaming ways and cheeky style, and contemporary, even jazzy songs, fused with distinctive yodels, observable love of performing and broad musical range. These would make Jimmie a model for what a modern country music star could be—and eventually see him dubbed the Father of Country Music.

At the Bristol sessions, Rodgers didn’t yet have his celebrated “Blue Yodels” differentiated into individual songs enough to record, as Peer pointed out, but the two sides he did record that day—“Sleep Baby Sleep” and “The Soldier’s Sweetheart”—spoke directly to the people he emerged from. A song recorded at his very next session, the Blue Yodel “T for Texas,” would be one of the best sellers of the era and make him a star. With a personality encompassing enough to include both an outlaw or hobo persona and the family man, too, and with his Mississippi accent and close-to-the-ground references never given up, even as he rose to a level of success as a performer and songwriter that brought him flashy Cadillacs and his “Blue Yodeler’s Paradise” mansion, Rodgers became an unelected representative of his people—country music’s audience. That would last beyond the short five years he had as a recording artist, before he succumbed to tuberculosis in May 1933.

His attributes, all so much a part of his Mississippi raising, along with his special talents and a model for how to carry yourself as a country star, would continue to be especially pronounced in the massively popular music and style of country music stars out of Mississippi—from Elvis Presley, Conway Twitty and Charley Pride, to Bobbie Gentry and Tammy Wynette, all following in a tradition that began here at Bristol, in the “Big Bang of Country Music.”

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