By: Roughstock Staff
Although musicians had been recording fiddle tunes (known as Old Time Music at that time) in the southern Appalachians for several years, country music truly found its footing in the early 1920s. The first commercial recording of "country music" was "Sallie Gooden" by fiddlist A.C. (Eck) Robertson in 1922 for Victor Records. In 1923,Fiddlin' John Carson recorded "Little Log Cabin in the Lane" for Okeh Records. Columbia Records followed suit in 1924 with a series of releases, and Vernon Dalhart was the first country singer to have a nationwide hit in May of 1924 with "Wreck of the Old '97.” In 1925, The Skillet Lickers were formed, and "The Dying Cowboy" by Carl T.Sprague was the top country record.
The most significant date in the creation of country music was August 1, 1927, when, in Bristol, Tennessee, record executive Ralph Peer signed Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family to Victor Records. These two recording acts, Rodgers with his unique singing style and the Carters with their extensive recordings of old-time music, built the foundation for the genre.
James Charles Rodgers, the "Father of Country Music," was born in Meridian, Mississippi on September 8, 1897. An amateur entertainer for many years, he became a serious performer in 1925 after retiring from the railroad due to poor health. In 1926, Rodgers and Carrie, his wife of six years, moved to Asheville, North Carolina, and organized the Jimmie Rodgers' Entertainers, a hillbilly band comprising Jack Pierce (guitar), Jack Grant (mandolin/banjo), Claude Grant (banjo), and Rodgers himself (banjo).
In late July 1927, Rodgers' band mates learned that Ralph Peer, a representative of the Victor Talking Machine Company, would be in Bristol auditioning local musicians. Rodgers and the group auditioned and Peer, impressed with their sound, agreed to record them the next day. That night, as the band discussed how they would be billed on the record, an argument ensued; the band broke up, and Rodgers arrived at the recording session alone.
Rodgers chose a sentimental ballad, "The Soldier's Sweetheart," (Listen Here) and a lullaby, "Sleep, Baby, Sleep," (Listen Here) as his songs for the session. The record met with instant acclaim, and Victor asked Rodgers to record more cuts throughout 1927, including "Waitin' For A Train" (watch here) and "Blue Yodel # 1" (better known as "T for Texas") (Listen Here), which sold over a million records and established Rodgers as the premier singer of early country music. Rodgers, who died in 1933 at age 35, never appeared on any major radio show or played the Grand Ole Opry during his lifetime, but his induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1961 demonstrated his significant influence on the genre. His impact was not reduced to country, as he was also a major contributor to blues and folk music. Rodgers was elected to the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970 and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.
The Carters received richly-deserved honors as well. They were also elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame, in 1970, and the Grammy Hall of Fame, and earned the nickname "The First Family of Country Music," a tribute to their innovative sound and a profound work ethic that propelled them to the top of popular music for the better part of two decades. The original group consisted of Alvin Pleasant "A.P." Carter, his wife Sara Carter, and his sister-in-law Maybelle Carter. All three were born and raised in southwestern Virginia, where they were immersed in the tight harmonies of mountain gospel music. A.P. collected hundreds of British/Appalachian folk songs and arranged them for recording; his tireless travels in search of these songs not only saved them for future generations, but the music became synonymous with the Carter name.
Their first recording session was also for Peer, and it occurred shortly after Rodgers' set in July 1927; the Carter family completed six songs for Peer, including "Single Girl, Married Girl." (Listen Here) Soon, they would be one of the most prominent musical acts in the United States with other hits like "Keep On The Sunny Side" (Listen Here) and "Wildwood Flower" (watch here). At the time, the guitar was rarely used as a lead or solo instrument among white muisicians, but Maybelle's distinctive, "scratch style" picking (she played melody on the bass lines with her thumb while rhythmically strumming with her fingers) became a popular technique for musicians of the time. By the end of 1930, they had sold 300,000 records, but the Great Depression greatly affected their income; the Carters were unable to play concerts in cities across the U.S. due to increased recording costs and general economic hardships.
In spite of their achievements, however, the Carters never experienced the financial success of Jimmie Rodgers or The Singing Cowboy Gene Autry (who debuted in 1929), both of whom entertained audiences of network radio, Hollywood films and big-time vaudeville. During the 1930s cowboy songs, or "Western music,“ were popularized by films made in Hollywood, sending Autry into stardom (he would claim the top country record of the year on four occasions in the 1930s).
This fame and fortune eluded the Carters, and their personal struggles only complicated matters. Sara and A.P. divorced in 1936, but continued working together in the group, which now included Anita, June, and Helen (Maybelle's three daughters with A.P.'s brother, Ezra) and Janette and Joe (Sara and A.P.'s children). From 1936-39, the family recorded for Decca, followed by stints at Columbia and Victor. In the winter of 1938-39, the Carter Family traveled to Texas, where they had a twice-daily program on the radio station in Villa Acuña, Mexico, across the border from Del Rio, Texas. In the 1939-40 season, June Carter (middle daughter of Ezra and Maybelle) joined the group, which was now in San Antonio, where their programs were prerecorded and distributed to multiple border radio stations. In late 1942, the Carters moved their program to Charlotte, North Carolina. The last recording session by the original Carter Family took place on October 14, 1941; Sara married A.P.'s cousin in 1943, moved to California, and the group disbanded. Maybelle continued to perform with her daughters, Anita, June, and Helen, as "Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters" into the 1970s.
Although artists experienced a sharp decline in record sales during the Great Depression, these increasingly popular mediums continued to flourish. Radio broadcasting also became a popular source of entertainment, and "barn dance" shows featuring country music were started all over the South. The most important of these shows was the Grand Ole Opry, first broadcast in 1925 on the newly-formed WSM Radio. Early stars included Uncle Dave Macon, Roy Acuff, and African American harmonica player DeFord Bailey.