In 1927, Victor Records, under the direction of producer Ralph Peer, headed to Bristol, Tennessee to record local musicians. Peer had been on similar journeys before, and he would be since, but those Bristol Sessions were pivotal, the epicenter of modern country music establishing the sound and style of the genre. Legendary as they are, they’ve never been collected in a single place prior to Bear Family's remarkable 2011 box set The Bristol Sessions 1927-1928, a five-disc set that collects all of Victor's Bristol recordings of those two years. Among the artists Peer and Victor captured during their session were Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, an event of such historical significance it tends to overshadow the wealth of other recordings. By its very scope, Bear Family illustrates that there was much, much more to the Bristol Sessions than these two artists, no matter how legendary they wound up to be. Peer recorded almost any artist that crossed his path on the Tennessee/Virginia border, and a couple of these appeared far more often than the Carters or Rodgers. Ernest Stoneman and his family and Ernest Phipps fronted more sessions than their more famous peers, the former solicited by Peer before he headed down to Bristol, to ensure that there was something to capture once he was there. Peer recorded quite a bit in 1927, then headed down to the town again in 1928 to see if he could draw more gems from the mine. He did: he recorded several acts he'd already captured in 1927, but there was enough new material from the old artists and the new to add to the legacy.
And the legacy is certainly rich; so rich that it acquired a legacy even without a set like Bear Family's The Bristol Sessions to urge it along. Bear Family's box doesn’t challenge the conventional notions, it sets it in stone, the first heavy proof of the depth and scope of Ralph Peer’s musical anthropology. Commonly acknowledged as the ground zero of modern country music, The Bristol Sessions doesn’t dispel the notion that these Victor recordings were monumental. Much of what came to be known as country music is here, from the sound to the sensibility, and if they don’t sound modern the way that Hank Williams records from three decades later do, they nevertheless point the way to the modern era, creating a bridge from old-timey folk to modern country. As such, The Bristol Sessions certainly carries a lingering scent of musty academia; its historical importance surely outweighs its entertainment value. Yet, that doesn’t matter: this is music that justifies its weight, and in this Bear Family set, The Bristol Sessions are finally given a presentation that is worthy of its importance and explains its significance, as well.