*** Published: July 25, 2009, in the Bristol Herald (Va.) Courier. ***
BRISTOL, Tenn. – Harmonies of the Stonemans and Carter family drifted across downtown on a gentle, summer breeze Friday, much like 82 years ago when musicians and a record producer came together to forge musical history.
Assembled at 410 State St. – on the spot where producer Ralph Peer and 19 different acts gathered in 1927 – local and state officials, musicians and other dignitaries celebrated those Bristol Sessions recordings by unveiling a new state historic marker.
It was the latest recognition of an event the Country Music Association calls "arguably the most significant" in country music history.
"I'm proud for Bristol to be getting its just dues," said Roni Stoneman, one of three daughters of Ernest "Pop" Stoneman who attended Friday's ceremony. In 1927, the Stoneman family patriarch helped to persuade Peer to record in the Twin City and he was the first to stand before Peer's microphone.
"It's hard, when we're so close to the music – we forget," Roni Stoneman said Friday. "But I speak and sing at universities in Chicago and New York that are learning about the music and the heritage in these hills."
Both before and after the unveiling ceremony, she joined her sisters, Donna and Patsy, to sing some tunes made famous by her family. The Stonemans were the first group to win the CMA's vocal group of the year award, in 1967, and Ernest Stoneman was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame last year.
A tall granite marker near the new sign – near the corner of State and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard – and a colorful mural on the side of a State Street building also harken to the sessions, which ran from July 25-Aug. 5.
The Birthplace of Country Music Alliance, a Bristol-based nonprofit organization, regularly conducts concerts and other events and is raising money to establish a cultural heritage center that will pay homage to the region's fertile musical roots.
Following the lead of state legislatures in Virginia and Tennessee, the U.S. Congress formally recognized Bristol as the birthplace of country music in 1998. In 2002, the Bristol Sessions recordings were among the first 50 selected for the Library of Congress' repository of historically significant recordings.
"We work in Nashville every day. But when people find out we're from Bristol and represent Bristol, there's almost an immediate reverence," state Rep. Jason Mumpower said during the ceremony. "For there is a recognition that Nashville would not be where it is and what it is, without what occurred here first."
Those 1927 recordings were the first commercially successful "hillbilly" music recordings and included the initial appearances of the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers – who were both later inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Descendants of the Carter Family also attended the event along with Georgia Warren, the sole surviving performer from the 1927 sessions.
Warren was a 12-year-old member of a Bluff City church choir when she and 19 other members climbed a dark stairway to sing in a makeshift recording studio, on the second-floor of the Taylor-Christian hat factory warehouse that was razed years ago.
"I remember Jimmie Rodgers had an argument with Ralph Peer about one of his songs. And he [Rodgers] left," Warren said. "But he came back and they recorded him."
Ted Olson, a professor at East Tennessee State University and co-author of a book about the Bristol Sessions, said the music has influenced generations.
"This was the place where southern, white music found great shape and form," Olson said. "Peer recorded a sound that started an industry."