In 1927, Texas fiddlers Eck Robertson and Henry Gilliland recorded a record for the Victor Talking Machine Company. This was the first “country” record made and it ended up being very important, only the company dubbed the genre “hillbilly” music. Side one was Sally Gooden and side two was Arkansas Traveller and it sold enough copies to make the budding recording industry sit up and take notice.
By 1927, the industry had developed a more refined system for recording music, the original system was known as “acoustic” and the new system was “electronic”. Being proud of their efforts, they even included “Electrically Recorded” on many of their records around this time. Country and hillbilly records were selling so well that careers were made for Eck Robertson, Ernest Stoneman, Uncle Dave Macon and several others in the genre. Hillbilly music was honest, easy to understand and the public was hungry for more. The Victor company knew that they had a goldmine on their hands with this new genre and sent talent scouts out to sign up new acts and make new records (translate that as: and make more money for Victor!). One of these talent scouts was a man named Ralph Peer.
Ralph Peer is not a household name by any means, but two of the things he accomplished in life were certainly important enough to make him one. Peer was one of the first, if not the first agent to pay royalties to recording artists, and he was the first to record Jimmy Rodgers and The Carter Family. So confident was Peer in his efforts at discovering new talent that his arrangement with Victor stipulated only a $1 per year salary! Instead of a real salary, Peer chose to own copyrights to recordings he made and be paid through royalties on those recordings. It was basically a no-risk opportunity for Victor.
The recording industry had recently become a viable business because new electronic recording practices proved to increase the sound quality of records in a very noticeable way over the traditional recording methods. This new electronic recording process was also a lot more portable than earlier methods and this allowed the studio to come to the artists and so bands that were not financially able to travel to big cities like New York to record were suddenly “discovered” by the industry and so by the public.
While on his search for new artists, Ralph Peer asked the advice of his friend Ernest Stoneman and was told to visit the town of Bristol, Virginia which straddled Virginia and Tennessee to look for talent. Stoneman suggested there were many artists in the area and the town was a crossroads of sorts and would be easy for folks to get to. Peer took his advice and then put a notice in local newspapers saying he would be in Bristol for ten days recording musical acts.
The response was not overwhelming though until Ernest Stoneman started talking about the $50 per side plus royalties he was making for recording with Peer. Once word got out that real money was to be made, bands started coming in and Peer was able to record between July 25-August 5, 1927 , 76 songs by 19 different bands.
Of the bands that recorded in the Bristol Sessions, two became most famous, Jimmy Rodgers and The Carter Family. There was a third band that recorded there that I would like to mention also- The Shelor Family.
The reason we might know that third band these days is because of a fellow named Sammy Shelor, of Meadows of Dan, VA. Sammy is a descendant of Joe Blackard who recorded four sides for Peer on August 3, 1927 as part of the bands The Shelor Family and also Dad Blackard’s Moonshiners. These bands were made up of Joe Blackard, his daughter Clarice, Jesse Shelor and Pyrhus Shelor. The Shelor Family, as the band became known, left Bristol after their sessions and made their way back to Meadows of Dan. They were contacted again several months later to return to the recording studio to do more but they had to decline. Joe Blackard had become ill with cancer and could not make the trip. The family continued playing music in their homes and community, as they always had, not as professional musicians, but as neighbors and friends.
Sammy Shelor had other musical relatives since Joe Blackard (who was also a banjo player) and he has made a big and well-respected name for himself nationally as a banjo player. Sam has headed the Lonesome River Band for many years, has won numerous “Banjo Player of the Year” and “Banjo Performer of the Year” as well as the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass. He has remained faithful to and a resident of Meadows of Dan where his musical and family roots run deep. I imagine Joe Blackard would be proud to know that.
To learn more and to hear actual recordings made at The Bristol Sessions, check out (be sure to get the CD that goes along with it too!):