Revisiting The Bristol Sessions
Bear Family Records
It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost a century since the renowned recording sessions arranged by Ralph Peer in Bristol. The music captured those few weeks in late summer 1927 helped to catapult Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family to national prominence. As Ted Olson emphasizes in his extensive album notes, the impact of those two acts on popular music have eclipsed the significance of the diversity and range of both the Bristol sessions and other aural harvests of similar scope organized in Johnson City, Knoxville and in other southern locales.
The Bear Family label has previously released box sets containing the complete recordings from Bristol, Johnson City and Knoxville, but the focus of We Shall All Be Reunited is to serve as a single-disc anthology of the roster of regional performers whose music was captured in Bristol, both in 1927 and a subsequent lesser-known Peer session in 1928. The sheer variety of the 26 tracks included here certainly give weight to the argument that the Bristol sessions’ significance exceeds that of its two renowned stars.
As you explore this time capsule, you’ll hear the precursors of familiar songs like “East Virginia Blues,” “Girl I Left Behind Me,” “In the Pines,” “Rough and Rocky,” and other still vibrant songs. A close examination of the personnel reveals ancestors of Sammy Shelor and Jesse McReynolds, and brilliant African-American performers such as harmonica player El Watson (who spontaneously joined the next recording duo and received the one-man billing of the “Tennessee Wildcats” for a quietly significant racially integrated performance) and the dazzling pairing of Stephen Tarter and Harry Gay.
What may leave the most lasting impression is the knowledge that, while Rodgers and the Carters are represented here, they don’t stand out any more than some of the other musical highlights on this collection. There’s the crisp banjo and vocal solo by B.F. Shelton, the rollicking Smyth County Ramblers, the polished a cappella gospel of the Alcoa Quartet, the lovely harmonies of the Palmer Sisters, and the driving fiddle/banjo frenzy of J.P. Nester paired with Norman Edmonds. Listeners and readers also can gain insight into the subtle manipulations of Peer in guiding the players’ material, emphasizing vocals over instrumentals, looking out for potentially popular gospel and original material, and even repackaging a 20-piece church choir and branding them the Tennessee Mountaineers.
Alfred G. Karnes’ closing track serves as the title track of the compilation, but also, as Olson states, it functions as a statement of unity for the performers immortalized at the Bristol sessions. A patient exploration of the music contained in We Shall All Be Reunited will bring a renewed respect for the wide-ranging talent contained herein.
REVIEWED BY Henry Koretzky