In the summer of 1929, representatives from a New York record label teamed up with the Knoxville-based furniture company Sterchi Bros. to build a recording studio inside the St. James Hotel, on Wall Avenue, overlooking Market Square. The record business was booming, and labels were scouring the rural South, desperate to keep up with nationwide demand for hillbilly acts, blues singers, and hot jazz combos.
Dozens of musicians came to the St. James that fall and the next spring. There were string bands, swing bands, old-time bands, gospel quartets, and hillbilly singers; they had names like the Cumberland Mountain Fret Pickers, Baker’s Whitley County Sacred Singers, the Perry Mountain Music Makers, and the Tennessee Farm Hands. Most of them were from East Tennessee, many from Knoxville. Some came from Middle Tennessee, Alabama, and Virginia.
Sessions like this were typically segregated, differentiated by marketing tags—either “old-time” or “hillbilly” or “race” sessions. But Knoxville before the Depression was a cosmopolitan outpost in the middle of Appalachia, and that was reflected in the St. James studio.
Many of the performers who came were professional musicians—or aspiring pros, anyway. Some of them headlined lavish ballroom dances and appeared at theaters, but others were more accustomed to busking on street corners or providing accompaniment at square dances. Few of them had significant experience in a recording studio. Nobody did back then—getting sounds onto shellac with enough fidelity that people would pay to listen to it was a brand-new blossoming technology.
The businessmen behind the Knoxville sessions didn’t get any hits. By the time they released any of the St. James records, the Depression had hit and the record industry had collapsed. But they had done something they weren’t even aware of—they had documented one of the last great location sessions of the era, and by some important standards one of the most remarkable.
There were 40 acts—groups and solo artists—at the St. James sessions. What they all had in common was enthusiasm—the records they made vary in quality as much as they do in style, but there’s a depth of feeling, a sense of possibility, that runs through the music they made then.
• Knoxville has a reputation as an incubator of modern country music, but the most popular musical act in town in the late 1920s was Maynard Baird’s jazz orchestra, the Southern Serenaders. But their slick, somewhat sentimental take on hot jazz didn’t appeal to record collectors in the 1950s and ’60s the way hillbilly bands and blues singers did; the crowd-pleasing dance band and its smooth leader have faded from popular memory.
• One of the most mysterious figures from the Knoxville recording sessions is Will Bennett, a blues singer from Georgia. Born in the late 1870s, Bennett had an eventful life, to say the least, according to Bennett family lore. When he was around 10 or 12 years old, Bennett, who was black, was attacked by a lynch mob and left for dead. Later, he traveled with a circus, ran bootleg whiskey, and served in the Spanish-American War.
• The most famous artist, by far, who went to the St. James Hotel to record was banjo maestro/comedian/early Grand Ole Opry star David Harrison Macon, aka Uncle Dave Macon, who was already nearly 60 when he showed up in Knoxville in the spring of 1930. But none of his recordings from Knoxville have survived—there’s speculation that technical difficulties or a dispute over money might have sabotaged his sessions.
• Gospel blues singer Leola Manning recorded some of the most distinctive songs of the Knoxville sessions in 1930, particularly “The Arcade Building Moan,” a dramatization of a then-recent downtown building fire, and “Satan Is Busy in Knoxville,” a vivid moral tale about sin and murder. The six songs Manning recorded then were the extent of her career as a professional singer; for the rest of her life, most of her singing was done in church. Members of her family only recently learned about the handful of records she made in her 20s.
• The Tennessee Chocolate Drops—a jazz-and-blues string trio familiar around Knoxville, featuring Howard Armstrong (fiddle), his brother, Roland (guitar), and Carl Martin (bass)—entered the St. James studio just a few days after Macon’s aborted session. They recorded “Knox County Stomp” and “Vine Street Rag.” Armstrong—a charismatic performer and talented visual artist—later gained renown as the subject of Louie Bluie, a documentary by Terry Zwigoff.
Stuart Adcock set the stage for the Knoxville sessions in 1921 when he founded WNAV, the first radio station in Knoxville, and started promoting local and regional talent live on the air. A few years later, he changed the call letters to WNOX and moved the station’s broadcast studio to the mezzanine level of the St. James Hotel. Then, in 1928, he sold the station to Sterchi Bros.
The company—at the time, one of the largest furniture retailers in the world—had a partnership with the Brunswick and Vocalion labels in Chicago. (Furniture companies liked to have records for sale, to convince customers to buy record players. Record companies liked to have 78s in furniture stores, where people bought the record players.) Radio and phonograph department manager Gustav (or Gustave) Nennstiel had sent several East Tennessee musicians—George Reneau, Charlie Oaks, and Uncle Dave Macon—to New York in the mid-1920s to record for Brunswick-Vocalion. (He had left the furniture company to open his own downtown record store by the time of the St. James Sessions.)
Brunswick sent Dick Voynow, a former member of Bix Beiderbecke’s Wolverines who had also helped launch the career of Hoagy Carmichael, to Knoxville to manage the 1929 and ’30 recordings. The two Knoxville sessions were part of a barnstorming location recording tour Voynow led through the South around that time.
When the Depression hit in late 1929, the bottom fell out of the booming music industry. Record players had already been big-ticket luxury items; by the time the St. James records were released, they were out of the financial reach of most Americans. Many people who already owned players couldn’t afford to buy new records after the crash.
Most of the recordings from the St. James recordings were commercially released, but in smaller print runs than might have been pressed a couple of years before. They disappeared from the market almost immediately, ending up in warehouses and basements or, more likely, destroyed.
Then, in the 1950s, just as LPs replaced 78s, a bunch of industrious—some might call them obsessive—young men, mostly white, mostly college-aged, started collecting those old records, particularly ones by obscure blues musicians but also by old-time groups and string bands. They traveled all over the South, visiting old record company offices and furniture stores. The most diligent of them went house to house, asking if the residents had any old records for sale. There were some startling discoveries—forgotten artists were rediscovered, and artists who were relatively unknown when they recorded, like Robert Johnson, became cult heroes among collectors and folk-music aficionados. (Joe Bussard, a legend among 78 collectors, will appear at the Knoxville Stomp Festival of Lost Music this weekend; so will Amanda Petrusich, a writer for Pitchfork and The New Yorker, who documented the world of collectors in the 2014 book Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78 rpm Records.)
Some of the records that were rediscovered were from the St. James sessions.
THE BOX SET
Richard Weize fell in love with American music as a teenager in Germany in the late 1950s and early ’60s, eventually amassing thousands of LPs, 78s, 45s, and CDs. He also founded, in 1975, Bear Family Records, a label specializing in deluxe reissues of country, early rock ’n’ roll, jazz, pop, folk, blues, and R&B. Two of the label’s biggest recent achievements have been box sets collecting the recordings from the 1927 location recordings in Bristol—where the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers launched their careers—and sessions in Johnson City the following year. Now Bear Family’s completing its survey of those East Tennessee recordings with The Knoxville Sessions: 1929-1930.
The company’s brand-new four-CD box set collects all of the existing sides from the St. James recording sessions—99 songs in all—presented in the order they were recorded, from the Tennessee Ramblers’ “Garbage Can Blues” to the four-part dramatized history narrative “The Great Hatfield-McCoy Feud.” The original 78s were collected from around the world, from private collections (including Bussard’s), the Country Music Foundation, and the University of North Carolina. There’s a 156-page hardbound book, with extensive text by country-music researchers Tony Russell and Ted Olson, a complete discography, and hundreds of photos.
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