This time of year always makes me think of the event that launched the Carter Family. It was eighty-three years ago this coming week when one fortuitous decision changed their lives.
It started when Ralph Peer, a producer and talent scout for the Victor Talking Machine Company arrived in the city of Bristol, a town in two states with a shared main thoroughfare – Virginia on one side of the road and Tennessee on the other. Peer came equipped with recording equipment and a big desire to find the next big thing in a genre of music – called alternately “Old Time” or “Hillbilly” – that was just recently finding commercial interest.
Peer arrived in late July and had done some advance PR work and advertising with the local paper to lure would-be candidates – most of whom lived in the countryside – into the city. With his two engineers, Peer began setting up lightweight (relatively speaking) state of the art gear in vacant space in an old hat factory.
In two weeks time he recorded nineteen different acts – among them the “Singing Brakeman” Jimmie Rodgers and a trio from Maces Spring, Virginia — the Carter Family.
In these two acts, not only did Peer find the hit makers he sought, but he’d spark a cultural change that many refer to now as “the Big Bang of Country Music.”
Peer was in a hurry. He did only two takes of each of the songs the Carters came prepared to play. The record shows that on the evening of Monday, August 1 between 6:30 – 9:30 PM the trio recorded “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow Tree,” “Little Log Cabin By the Sea,” “The Poor Orphan Child,” and “The Storms Are on the Ocean.”
The next day, August 2, between 9:00 and 10:45 AM, Sara and Maybelle recorded “Single Girl, Married Girl” and “The Wandering Boy. “ A.P. never arrived at the session so the women just carried on without him. According to the late music historian Charles Wolfe, A.P. had gone in search of a tire for the car so that they could make the trip back home.
The three musicians left Bristol and went back to their lives in Maces Spring. A.P. alone held out hope that something would come of these sessions but no word came from Peer. Then one day in November, Maybelle and her husband Eck happened to pass a store in Bristol. A phonograph was playing music out onto the street and a crowd had formed to listen. It was a new 78 rpm record from Victor Talking Machine. One side was “The Poor Orphan Child” and the other was “The Wandering Boy.”
The Carters were on their way to becoming recording stars.