- Historic Sites
It’s the fastest-growing music in America. It’s a three-billion-dollar-plus industry. Cable stations devoted to it reach sixty-two million homes. And yet, says one passionate follower of country music past and present, its story is over.
November 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 7
When he listened to Carson’s material back in New York, Peer remembered, “it was so horrible I couldn’t possibly put a number on it [list it in Okeh’s catalog], so we just made the thousand records, put a label without a number on them, and sent them off to Brockman,” who’d ordered one thousand copies to sell in Atlanta. Peer didn’t reckon on a previously invisible market: Fiddlin’ John’s fellow woolhats, transplanted country folk at work in Atlanta’s factories. “A couple of days later,” said Peer, “Brockman got me on the phone and said, ‘This is a riot, I gotta get ten thousand copies down here right now.’ ” After hauling Fiddlin’ John to New York, Peer sat him down to make “another eight or ten selections, and we were off.” Several country musicians actually recorded before Fiddlin’ John, but with less success. Among them were Eck Robertson, a Texas fiddler, and a Virginia millworker named Henry C. Whitter. The latter popped up in Peer’s Manhattan office, “admitting,” said Peer, “that he was the world’s finest harmonica player.” Mostly to get rid of him, Peer recorded Whitter and shelved the disks. When Fiddlin’ John hit pay dirt, Peer invited Whitter back “and I discovered the dope could sing.”
In the eighteen months following Fiddlin’ John’s success, Okeh recorded the Jenkins Family, the Virginia Breakdowners, Chenoweth’s Cornfield Symphony Orchestra, the Hill Billies, and others. Columbia recorded guitarist-singer Riley Puckett and fiddler Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers. Vocalion Records cut seventy-three-year-old Uncle Am Stuart (who gave New York City its first country-music radio broadcast) and Uncle Dave Macon, “The Dixie Dewdrop,” shortly to become the star of WSM Nashville’s live “barn-dance” show; in 1927, two years after its first broadcast, the show christened itself “The Grand Ole Opry.”
In 1924 Victor Talking Machine—the nation’s biggest record company—released “The Wreck of the Old 97”/ “The Prisoner’s Song” by Vernon Dalhart, an erstwhile light-operatic tenor whom Peer called “imitation hillbilly.” The record scaled almost inconceivable sales heights for 1924, becoming country music’s first million-seller.
The new genre still lacked a name. Record companies restlessly tried out “Old Time Songs,” “Old Familiar Tunes,” “Mountain Ballads.” Gradually a single name emerged; mingling amusement and derision, it neatly encapsulated America’s feelings about the new genre: hillbilly. In December 1925 the audio journal Talking Machine World commented on the popularity of hillbilly songs, “which . . . may mark the initial move in the passing of jazz. Whether or not the popularity of such works continues, it is questionable that music lovers will accept the situation as an improvement.”
Hardly. In December of 1926 Variety ’s Abel Green addressed his big-city readers on the ethnology of the country-music fan. “The ‘hillbilly’ is a North Carolina or Tennessee and adjacent mountaineer type of illiterate white whose creed and allegiance are to the Bible, the chautauqua, and the phonograph. . . . The mountaineer is of ‘poor white trash’ genera. The great majority, probably 95 percent, can neither read nor write English. Theirs is a community all unto themselves. [Mr. Green’s own grammar didn’t set much of an example.] Illiterate and ignorant, with the intelligence of morons, the sing-song, nasal-twanging vocalizing of a Vernon Dalhart or a Carson Robison . . . intrigues their interest.”
To today’s ears much of the first country music sounds pretty rank, with its sawing fiddles and droning voices. The primitive recording gear doesn’t help; to listeners raised on hi-fi, the tinny strains might have been captured at the bottom of a well. There was no microphone; a singer simply stepped up to a recording horn and hollered as loud as he could. Yet even to the uninitiated some of the music sounds wonderful: Charlie Poole’s great string band the North Carolina Ramblers; Riley Puckett’s dancing guitar work; Frank Hutchison’s driving blues; the ringing banjo and vital, if bumptious, comedy of Uncle Dave Macon.
Few of the first hillbilly artists would have an impact after 1930. But in the summer of 1927 Ralph Peer, who’d jumped to Victor, found two who would at the famous “Bristol session,” day one for country-music creationists. The Carter Family—ardent song collector A.P., guitarist Maybelle, and Maybelle’s singing cousin Sara (A.P.’s wife)—heard about an open-call recording session in Bristol, Tennessee, and drove a borrowed Model A from their home in Maces Spring, Virginia. “As soon as I heard Sara’s voice,” said Peer, “that was it. I knew it was going to be wonderful.” The complicated A.P. chimed in only when he felt like it. “You didn’t do very much,” said Peer. “No, I just sorta bassed in every once in a while,” said A.P.
The Carters cut six songs in Bristol and three hundred more in the next decade, including “Wildwood Flower,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes,” and “Wabash Cannonball.” Their music was a slightly updated version of old mountain balladry; their contribution as folklorists is inestimable. Their impact on commercial country music has been less dramatic (though some historians disagree), strongest, in my opinion, among bluegrass and latter-day traditionalists.