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Final Set Of Historic East Tennessee Collection

Final Set Of Historic East Tennessee Collection

With The Knoxville Sessions (1929-1930), Bear Family Records completes the map of commercial recordings that took place in East Tennessee during the years 1927-1930.

This four cd set, together with hardcover book, follows on from the recordings made in Bristol (1927-1928), regarded as “the Big Bang of Country Music” as these sessions launched the careers of Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family on Victor Records, and Johnson City (1928-1929) which focused on Columbia Records’ similar search for country music musicians.

The Knoxville Sessions, 1929-1930: Knox County Stomp
(Bear Family BCD 16097)

Unlike the legendary Bristol recordings and, to a lesser extent, the Johnson City sessions, the Knoxville recordings made for Brunswick-Vocalion remain virtually unknown outside of the city in which they took place, yet have a greater musical diversity than the other two locations.

Whereas the recordings made in the former locations consisted almost exclusively of old-time country and gospel music, the Knoxville sessions captured a more varied collection of Appalachian voices and sounds. Although there were many strains of “hillbilly music” (from stringband instrumentals to fiddle and banjo tunes, from Jimmie Rodgers style yodels to white gospel) there were also several other genres – including dance music, blues, black stringbands and black gospel – unrepresented in the previous collections.

African-American musicians are prominent in the collection, a situation that relates back to post Civil War days when many blacks relocated in Knoxville and their music mixed with that of the whites, each contributing to the other’s stylistic approaches and repertoires, writes Appalachia historian Ted Olson in the opening chapter of the set’s accompanying book. Yet, almost contradicting this coming together of cultures, Knoxville in the early decades of the 1900’s was an extremely puritanical city with racism reigning, low alcohol content in beer and many pleasures forbidden on a Sunday.

Nevertheless Knoxville was recognized for its thriving music scene and among the people who helped build the interest was local businessman Cas Walker who, 1929, launched “Farm And Home Hour”, a variety show on WROL-Am radio, which in its long-running existence presented a who’s who of musical talent in the region. The show first gave exposure to such diverse artists as Roy Acuff and Howard Armstrong and, in the 1950s, with expansion to television, the public were introduced to Dolly Parton and the Everly Brothers. More post WW2 talent were introduced on another show: “The Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round” was aired on WNOX and emcee Lowell Blanchard helped launch the careers of such as Chet atkins, Archie Campbell and Don Gibson.

After Olson’s history of Knoxville, from pre-18th century to present day, and its musical contributors, Britain’s Tony Russell – one of the foremost authorities on vintage country music recordings – provides an equally informative chapter on the background to the city’s recording sessions. Such field expeditions were nothing new to the record labels who wanted to stock their catalogues with “old time” and “race” material, with the first taking polace in June 1923 when Okeh Records sent a team to Alabama to record Fiddlin’ John Carson.

The Knoxville sessions came about when Jack Kapp, newly appointed head of the Vocalion record division of Brunswick-Balke-Collender, sent his team to the city after studying a survey revealing Southern and Midwestern demand for “hillbilly” and “race” recordings. His plan was then to separate the recordings in individual genres and distributed through regional jobbers, with the Sterchi Bros furniture company in Knoxville (an association that stretched back to 1924) being one of the most important outlets. Working on the phonograph and radio side of the company was Gustav Nennstiel, who first started to recommend musicians for recording, then opened his own record store – Gus’s Phonograph & Radio Shop – in December 19276.

The Vocalion-Sterchi connection was also a contributing factor was choosing Knoxville for the two recording sessions that took place at the St. James Hotel, the first August 27 – September 1, 1929 and the second, March 28 – April 8, 1930. Unlike the Bristol and Johnson City recordings, which attracted musicians from widespread areas, most of those who recorded during the Knoxville sessions were more locally based: around eighteen of the twenty one acts were from East Tennessee and at least a dozen came from Knoxville itself.

Completing the background to the sessions, there’s biographical information on Richard Voynow and Bill Brown, both involved in the recordings, and the latter also occasionally taking part in them, and blind singer/guitarist George Reneau, the first Knoxville musician to put his music on record, forty eight sides for Vocalion, five years before the St. James Hotel sessions.

The first to record were the Tennessee Ramblers, a trio comprising William “Fiddlin’ Bill” Sievers, his son Mack and daughter Willie, exponents of old time music who were occasionally joined by a cousin, Walter Raymond McKinney. Comprising a set of old time and Hawaiian style music, the group was subsequently approached with a deal from Columbia Records but, due to contractual obligations with Brunswick, were unable to follow up. Another group with much recording and performing experience followed: Southern Moonlight Entertainers, headed up by fiddler George Rainey with several family members in the lineup, recorded eight numbers in quick succession, testifying to the group’s professionalism. Another family group, performing old time and gospel group were Ridgel’s Fountain Citians and two sides each from Riuth Pippin & Thelma Davenport (not released) and the Wise String Orchestra completed the first day’s session.

One of the most mysterious figures in African American music, Will Bennett, was one of musicians/bands who recorded the following day (August 28), though only he – and two others (guitarist Haskell Wolfenbarger and religious singer Leola Manning) - actually saw their recordings released. Bennett’s Railroad Bill, also recorded by several white acts, was based on a true story of a murderous black railroad robber.

Ballard Cross recorded six songs over two sessions, the first being devoted to novelties and, among the second, a couple of what became well known titles (Lorrianna and Wabash Cannonball). Among others recording on August 31 The string band Cal Davenport & His Gang was another local act, in fact heard regularly on WNOX, while the black Senior Chapel Quartette and the white Euclid Quartette devoted session time to record sacred material. Popular dance attraction Maynaird Baird & His Southern Serenaders were, according to a flyer, “a gang of musical clowns that play 30 instruments hot and sweet ...”

Cal West was probably the most seasoned entertainer to record in Knoxville in 1929, known for delighting tent show and theatre audiences alike with comedy and songs, while his session was given over to a couple of yodelling blues. He, along with the much recorded Elmer Bird & His Happy Feet were the final acts to record on the first of the Knoxville sessions, although Bird’s was subsequently rejected possibly because he recorded for another label, Gennett, two months earlier.

Probably the most well known country musician to record during the second Knoxville sessions was banjoist Uncle Dave Macon, already well known having made his recording debut in New York, in 1924, sponsored by Sterchi Bros, and subsequently became one of the first stars of the Grand Ole Opry. His Knoxville recordings – which included his first with son Dorris - were a sort of a homecoming though it remains a mystery why they were never released. Another legend in the annals of old time music was champion fiddle player Uncle Jimmy Thompson and his recordings gives an idea what old time fiddling sounded like almost a century ago.

Francis Craig based in Nashville, headed up one of the best known bands in the mid-South although his greatest success was to come when Near You, a “B” side recorded for Bullet in 1947, topped the pop charts for 17 consecutive weeks.  An equally entertaining dance band was Maynard Baird & His Southern Serenaders who were heard nightly on WNOX as well being under contract “to furnish the dine and dance tunes at the new Andrew Johnson Hotel” reported Billboard magazine.

Among the stringbands, the Smoky Mountain Ramblers was a made-up name as singer Hugh Cross was under contract to Columbia, his singing making an impression with another outfit, the Perry County Music Makers, one of the acts that had travelled furthest for the recordings, some 220 miles from Pine View in Tennessee. Adept at name changes, the aforementioned Cross also reappeared as Heavy Martin, presumably named after the guitar he played! African American Howard Armstrong’s mother encouraged her son to sing hymns but he was more interested in secular stringband music and, as part of a long career which also took in blues, was a member of the Tennessee Chocolate Drops trio for the April 3 session. But black singer Leola Manning, returning for her second Knoxville session, did sing gospel, sometimes infusing her powerful messages with the blues, while the Etowah Quartet provided outstanding four part gospel harmonies.

In total some 99 recordings were preserved from the two Knoxville sessions, the full listing appearing below. Among the curiosities is a six part cast (Lowe Stokes, Homer Miller, Walt McKinney, Heavy Martin, Roger Williams and Bill Brown) in a four part playlet about The Great Hatfield – McCoy Feud and Colonel J. G. Sterchi, whose company contributed to the recordings, with a speech “To My Friends and Patrons”.

As with previous Bear Family releases – and especially such historical ones – the set’s 156 page, hardcover book provides far greater information than can be found in any country music encyclopaedia. In fact most of the artists and musicians featured probably wouldn’t be found in any encyclopaedia and only a few, with a great deal of searching, in specialist sources. In addition to the opening chapters setting the scene for the Knoxville sessions, there’s full biographies and photographs for all the acts recorded (even those whose work never appeared, for various reasons), together with song lyrics and discography. The book is profusely illustrated throughout, not only with the acts’ photographs, but also with newspaper reprints, advertisements and record labels.

Ted Olson and Tony Russell well deserve hearty congratulations for undertaking such a massive talk, and achieving such a worthy result, as does Richard Weize for once again presenting a set, the likes of which would only ever come from Bear Family Records. One wonders how much less rich the heritage of country music will be now that Weize departed from the label he founded.

Other historical Tennessee collections from Bear Family Records:
VARIOUS ARTISTS: The Johnson City Sessions (1928-1929) (4 CD box set with 136 page hardcover book) (BCD 160823)
VARIOUS ARTISTS: The Bristol Sessions (5 CD box set with 120 page hasrdcover book) (BCD 16094)
ORIGINAL CARTER FAMILY: In The Shadow Of Clinch Mountain (12 CD box set with 220 page hardcover book) (BCD15865)
THE DIXON BROTHERS: A Blessing To People (4 CD box set with 164 page hardcover book) (BCD16817)
JIMMIE RODGERS: The Singing Brakeman (6 CD box set with 60 page book) (BCD15540)
UNCLE DAVE MACON: Keep My Skillet Good And Greasy (9 CD/1 DVD box set with 176 page hardcover book) (BCD15978)

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