The sessions produced by Ralph S. Peer over 12 days in July and August of 1927 in a makeshift Bristol, Tennessee, studio featuring Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, and others are often termed the Big Bang of Country Music. That label sounds good – but like most such labels, it’s an oversimplification that hides the more fascinating truth of the matter.
Whether you term it country, hillbilly, Appalachian mountain music, or any number of other names, the sound was already alive and thriving on front porches, in dancehalls, and on radio stations spread across the South. Peer’s Bristol sessions proved its commercial viability and launched the music – as well as Rodgers and the Carters – to a national audience.
Bristol’s Birthplace of Country Music Museum rightly celebrates those sessions and their historical import. And what better way than to revisit the songs with a two-CD set featuring modern country and bluegrass stars reinterpreting the originals.
Grammy Award-winning multi-instrumentalist Carl Jackson produced (along with Rusty Morrell), arranged, and played on most cuts. In short, he’s created minor masterpieces: the sound is lovely, the playing inspired.
Marty Stuart and his mandolin leads the band in rejuvenating J.P. Nester’s “Black Eyed Susie.” Keb Mo’ plays slide on Alfred Karnes’ “To The Work.” Sheryl Crow, Vince Gill, Dolly Parton, Steve Martin, Brad Paisley, and more all kick in a tune. Pickers include Rob Ickes adding Dobro and Weissenborn guitar. The lineup of talent is downright embarrassing.
Among the highlights, though, is Emmylou Harris’ recreation of the Carter Family’s “Bury Me Beneath The Willow.” Her vocals are ethereal, with Jackson picking Mother Maybelle’s Stromberg guitar behind her.
Unfortunately, the revisited songs are interspersed with lengthy narrative tracks telling the Bristol sessions story. While the history is certainly welcome, it would have better served as liner notes, even if that resulted in just a single CD of perfect music.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s December ’15 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.