Various Artists

Virginia Roots: The 1929 Richmond Sessions


Various Artists

RCA Country Legends: The Bristol Sessions Vol. 1

(RCA/BMG Heritage)

In 1929, the record industry was hoping to make lightning strike twice. Two years earlier in Bristol, Tennessee, a session recorded by a Victor Records talent scout named Ralph Peer had brought the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers to national prominence. Peer had drawn in the musicians, most of whom had performed in public only at church functions and local dances, by planting a story about how much local singer Ernest Stoneman had made in royalties the year before: $3,600, three times the average U.S. annual income at the time. After Rodgers and the Carters had big hits with “Blue Yodel” and “Wildwood Flower” respectively, other record labels hurriedly dispatched scouts throughout the south.

The Okeh label booked time in a furniture store in Richmond to see what central Virginia had to offer (the Carters, like Dock Boggs and Ernest and Hattie Stoneman, lived just north of Bristol, in Virginia’s mountainous southwest). The cattle call attracted gospel musicians, fledgling jazzbos, grown men and women in grass skirts, and all manner of musical comedians. But Okeh’s search for a new pop sensation was interrupted by bad news from Wall Street–the sessions were held just a week before Black Thursday, when the stock market crashed, taking the music industry down with it.

Ron T. Curry, an amateur musicologist and a former member of Richmond cartoon-metal band Gwar, spent four years tracking down all the extant recordings from those sessions for Virginia Roots, which he and partner Dave Washburn released on their label, Outhouse. It wasn’t easy: while quite a few of the acts recorded in Richmond got their performances fixed on disc, none were pressed in any great quantity due to the economy’s nosedive. The Bristol sessions, by contrast, have been the subject of loving reissues for years–most recently last fall as part of the “RCA Country Legends” series. That’s largely due to the prominence of Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family in country music history. But it doesn’t hurt that those sessions have been championed not by someone whose old band shoots fake sperm at its audience but by the Birthplace of Country Music Alliance, a foundation that tirelessly promotes Bristol’s unique place in the history of country and western.

It’s impossible to know whether any of the artists recorded in Richmond might have proved as influential as those in Bristol had the nation not gone into the Depression. Still, the largely forgotten styles documented here are tantalizing. Bela Lam & His Greene County Singers were a less savvy Carter Family, devotees of a form of singing called “shape note” or “sacred harp,” which taught sight-reading of sheet music to church choirs by assigning diamonds, squares, and circles to pitches on the staff. It evolved into a sharp, eerie harmonic style spread throughout the south by traveling pedagogues. The Monarch Jazz Quartet of Norfolk, who also recorded gospel numbers under the name Monarch Jubilee Quartet, sang in a kind of slow, syncopated four-part harmony (imagine doo-wop performed by a quartet of Vicodin abusers) that more or less disappeared by the 1950s, though some of its influence persists in modern gospel music. And the Tubize Royal Hawaiian Orchestra were a group of employees at a Hopewell, Virginia, rayon plant who donned leis and grass skirts to perform their renditions of Polynesian music.

In 1929, Okeh was owned by the Columbia Phonograph Company and was primarily used as an independent distribution channel for “race” (made by blacks) and “hillbilly” (made by rural whites) records. The popularity of the latter had exploded since Bristol, which is probably why so many of the available sides from the Richmond sessions are Rodgers rip-offs like Wade Ward & the Buck Mountain Band’s “Yodeling Blues.” Though the musicians were all from the same area, the Richmond recordings are all over the map, while the Bristol sessions are mostly “old-timey” or “hillbilly” music. That’s due in part to Richmond’s relatively cosmopolitan position in Virginia at the time. Richmond was an important railroad and freight hub, a huge marketplace for tobacco and cotton, and, of course, the state capital. And manufacturing was growing in importance. (Case in point: the Royal Hawaiians of the rayon plant.)

Still, calling Richmond “sophisticated” is a bit of a stretch in the face of hokum songs like the Roanoke Jug Band’s “Homebrew Rag” (“Hello Ray, where’d you get that black eye?” “Boy, I fell out of a homebrew tree”), and icky double-entendre ditties like Otis and Tom Mote’s “Tight Like That” (“Well ma had a dog / Named him Ball / Give a little taste and he wants it all”). The Bristol Sessions are downright refined in comparison. Not only is there a dearth of cornballery, but they’ve been carefully remastered and sequenced by RCA; by contrast Curry has arranged his collection in seemingly random order, and some of the 78s he used as source material–the Monarch Quartet’s “Just Too Late,” for example–sound like they were recorded on cardboard.

Before Bristol, hillbilly music, which was only much later called country, had little resonance north of border states such as Maryland. But thanks to the commercial success of Rodgers and the Carters, there’s been abiding interest in (and releases aplenty of) the other music recorded by Peer during those ten days. These songs carry on a sort of regional musical conversation with one another, one that has loud echoes in modern country music. The lilting Scotch-Irish melodies, for example, of Uncle Eck Dunford & Hattie Stoneman’s “What Will I Do, for My Money’s All Gone” and the Carters’ “The Storms Are on the Ocean,” would be instantly recognizable to fans of Patty Loveless or even Toby Keith. The old-timey gospel of the Tennessee Mountaineers’ “At the River” adds harmonies picked up from itinerant preachers who had visited African-American churches as well as mountain kirks. And with its whiny fiddle, quick tempo, and high-lonesome vocals, the West Virginia Coon Hunters’ “Your Blue Eyes Run Me Crazy” prefigures bluegrass.

Virginia Roots has far fewer such prescient moments. “We too shall all have glory by and by,” sang Richmond’s Bela Lam & His Greene County Singers. But that wasn’t the case. In the sharp light of commercial success, Okeh’s Richmond sessions are a footnote. Of the 93 songs recorded that October, only 36 sides are known to exist; Curry himself could only find 32, all of which are included. They offer an alternate view of country music’s prehistory, of musical styles that would be overshadowed by the ones that made it into the marketplace. That Peer’s sessions are viewed as the dawn of country music might be less a vindication of their quality than a reminder that history is written by the RCA-Victors.