Orthophonic Joy: The 1927 Bristol Sessions Revisited
4 stars (out of 5)
By Aaron Keith Harris
Country music is obsessed about the past. The same technological changes that enabled it to be captured on record and broadcast on radio also helped hasten the urbanization of America, and country people used their music to help them make sense of the ways they chose to meet those changes—nostalgia as therapy.
Organized by Ralph Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company, the 1927 Bristol Sessions were the crucible in which a centuries-old Anglo-American folk music tradition that found expression in barn dances, church choirs, fiddle contests at market day, minstrel shows, tent revivals, and families picking on the front porch became a business that would enrich the lives of millions with music and enable gifted musicians to make a living making music rather than in the coal mines, the field, the fox hole, or the whorehouse—it’s amazing what freedom of expression and free markets can accomplish.
Many of the 76 tracks from 19 different acts recorded by Peer were commercially successful, and two superstar careers were launched: those of Jimmie Rodgers—one of the first modern American celebrities and the prototype for songsters like Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, and even, I would argue, Bob Dylan—and the Carter Family, who are perhaps responsible for collecting, preserving, and popularizing more pre-modern American music than anyone else. (See also the story of Lead Belly.)
Orthophonic Joy: The 1927 Bristol Sessions Revisited—a two-disc tribute to those sessions, made under the aegis of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol—should be the starting point for anyone who wants to learn about country music—especially those with little previous exposure to Southern music or culture outside of Luke Bryan, Carrie Underwood, or a television episode of Nashville.
Eddie Stubbs, whose resonant tones are familiar to Grand Ole Opry fans and WSM-AM 650 listeners everywhere—guides the listener through 18 contemporary takes on classic Bristol material, with ambient clips of the rough-and-ready original recordings to provide contrast to the modern, clean recordings and arrangements we’re more used to. The script, written by Cindy Lovell, concisely retells the story of the Bristol Sessions with telling biographical detail and historical context that even knowledgeable country fans will find enriching.
As a consummate Nashville professional on both sides of the studio glass, Carl Jackson is a perfect choice to produce this record. His choices arranging this well-known material, and manning the sound board, all pay off, and he even plays and sings on several cuts—including a bluesy duet on “In the Pines” with Brad Paisley and a wild run through “Pretty Polly” as lead singer and banjo picker.
Jackson expertly pairs artist to song throughout, including country music royalty (Dolly Parton on “When They Ring Those Golden Bells,” Emmylou Harris on “Bury Me Beneath the Willow,” Marty Stuart on “Black Eyed Susie,” and Vince Gill on “The Soldier’s Sweetheart”), A-listers from other genres (Steve Martin & the Steep Canyon Rangers on “Sweet Heaven When I Die,”
Sheryl Crow on “The Wandering Boy,” Keb’ Mo’ on “To the Work”), and bluegrass veterans (Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver on “I’m Redeemed” and Larry Cordle & Lonesome Standard Time on “Train on the Island”).
Ashley Monroe (“The Storms are on the Ocean”), the Shotgun Rubies (“I Am Resolved”), and the Church Sisters (“Where We’ll Never Grow Old”), and Ashley & Shannon (children of Glen) Campbell (“The Wreck of the Old Virginian”) add a touch of youth, as does Corbin Hayslett, who won a contest to be on this record with his thrilling take on “Darling Cora,” the standout track from this project.
And though the Bristol Sessions seem like ancient history, a couple of tracks show just how young country music still is. Eighty-five-year-old Jesse McReynolds—a hall-of-famer in both country and bluegrass music—scrapes out “Johnny Goodwin/The Girl I Left Behind” on the very same fiddle that his grandfather Charles McReynolds used when he recorded the same song with the Bull Mountain Moonshiners. And the Chuck Wagon Gang, a Southern Gospel quartet that’s been working continously since 1935—with a revolving roster of members, of course—lead a choir comprised of all the Orthophonic Joy artists on a valedictory “Shall We Gather at the River,” one of their biggest hits, which they recorded in 1949 based on the Bristol recording by the Tennessee Mountaineers (actually a church choir from Bluff City, Tenn. given that soubriquet by Peer).
Though the current state of popular country music is worse than ever, thanks to commercialism, there is more opportunity for today’s listener than ever before to experience the joy of good music—of every variety, especially country—than ever before, also thanks to commercialism. Think of this record as good whiskey cut with water—not quite the pure stuff, but plenty good enough to give you a thirst for the real thing.