In keeping with the standard version of history, the new Ken Burns Country Music documentary spotlights the 1927 Bristol Sessions, when Victor Records producer Ralph Peer discovered The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. But Johnson City, 25 miles away, is part of the larger story of field recording in early country music, and it's celebrating a 90th anniversary this month, says Ted Olson, a professor in the department of Appalachian Studies at East Tennessee State University.
"The records made in Oct 1929 in Johnson City were arguably some of the strongest old time records made in the 20s anywhere,” he said. “They were the fifth in line of different companies coming down to Appalachia. The Okeh label came first, then Gennett, Victor, Brunswick/Vocalion and then finally Columbia.”
This time it was Frank Walker producing, a New Yoker who had already discovered Bessie Smith and Blind Willie Johnson, among others for Columbia’s “race” division. In 1928 and again in 29, he put out an advertisement seeking old-time bands for what was known as the company's “hillbilly” line. Walker set up his recording machine in a lumber mill building and ran artists through their short sessions one after the other. Olson, who wrote liner notes for the 2013 Bear Family Records box set containing all these recordings, said, "The idea was the new technology was coming to town and if they hadn't already been discovered by Peer, this was their chance."
The sessions (the latter of which took place on the eve of the Depression-launching stock market crash) produced roots music staples such as "The Coo-Coo" by Clarence Ashley, a big influence on Doc Watson, bluegrass standard “Roll On Buddy” and "Tell It To Me" by a band with the peculiar name Grant Brothers & Their Music.
“Tell It To Me” was revived in 2004 by Old Crow Medicine Show. And numerous Johnson City Sessions tracks found their way onto Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, which sparked the folk revival in 1952. While no major artists emerged, Olson says the songs had a big impact over the years: "The emphasis of the Johnson City Sessions is really on the material, the repertoire, perhaps more so than on the individual musicians proper as with Bristol, where some superstars were kind of discovered by Victor and Peer."
On Saturday Oct. 19, a Johnson City anniversary celebration will feature leading folk and roots artists including Dom Flemons, Willie Watson and Amythyst Kiah. Besides the free outdoor music, Tim O'Brien will play a ticketed show on Friday night. And out just in time for the gala, a single-CD condensed anthology of the Bear Family box set called Tell It To Me: The Johnson City Sessions Revisited.