Music Historians Ted Olson and Tony Russell Dig Deep to Uncover the Stories Behind Knoxville’s St. James Sessions

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COVER_0505_knoxsessionscoverCourtesy Bear Family Records

The Knoxville Sessions, 1929-1930: Knox County Stomp from Bear Family Records isn’t just a CD collection of old-time music recorded at the St. James Hotel in 1929 and 1930. It also comes with a vital book of music history written by Ted Olson and Tony Russell, illustrated with dazzling photos collected by the Knox County Public Library’s Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound. This isn’t your typical box-set pamphlet—this is an oversized, hardback book that’s not only beautifully designed but also painstakingly researched, offering the history of an important (if previously little-known) chapter in American music. Olson is a professor in the Appalachian Studies program at East Tennessee State University while Londoner Russell is the author of Country Music Records 1921–1942 and Country Music Originals: The Legends and the Lost. Via an email interview, we asked them about their long-distance collaboration and what they discovered about Knoxville’s contribution to early recorded music.

The Knoxville Sessions is actually the third such box set you’ve worked on, including the Bristol and Johnson City sets. How did this trilogy of East Tennessee music originally get started?

Ted Olson

Ted Olson: The Knoxville Sessions box set from Bear Family Records is the inevitable fulfillment of some formative research into the long overlooked Brunswick/Vocalion recording sessions held in Knoxville in 1929 and 1930. In the early 1970s, music historian Charles K. Wolfe began publishing articles he had written on some of the Knoxville Sessions acts in Old-Time Music, a British periodical owned and edited by another pioneering country music scholar, Tony Russell. I suppose that a second catalyst for the set can be traced to October 2009 when, quite out of the blue, I sent an email to Richard Weize of Bear Family Records to see if he might be interested in my help in compiling the complete recordings from the legendary location recording sessions held by Victor Records in Bristol, Tenn., in 1927. Earlier that decade I had worked with Charles Wolfe on an edited collection of essays exploring the impacts of the Bristol Sessions, and that book brought renewed attention to Victor producer Ralph Peer’s 1927 field session in Bristol and his “discovery” of such immortal recording acts as the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. By 2009 I had concluded that too many people were writing about and talking about the 1927 Bristol Sessions without having heard many of the actual records, and it seemed like it was time for all of the Bristol Sessions recordings to be released and interpreted.

Richard Weize immediately gave the green light for a complete Bristol Sessions project, and he and I both agreed that we should include on a box set all of the recordings from Peer’s return trip to Bristol in 1928. As such, the project was too large for one person. But since Charles had passed away in 2006, there was only one person on Earth who knew the story of the 1928 Bristol Sessions, and that was Tony Russell. So Tony and I began collaborating on the complete Bristol Sessions box set, and its release in 2011 inspired a city-wide celebration in Bristol; that release was widely and well reviewed and garnered two Grammy Award nominations.

Where did your research take you next?

Ted Olson: With that project finished, Richard, Tony, and I acknowledged that there was much more to say about pre-Depression-era commercial music in Appalachia. For instance, just down the road from Bristol, there occurred other location recording sessions in Upper East Tennessee, and those sessions, held in Johnson City during 1928 and 1929 by the Columbia label, became the subject of a second box set from Bear Family Records. Tony and I collaborated on that set as well. Because little research had been conducted on the Johnson City Sessions, this project proved to be a more difficult research effort than the one documenting the Bristol Sessions, but the end result was in many respects more illuminating, as the Johnson City Sessions set unequivocally demonstrated that there was much more influential old-time country music from Appalachia than what had been recorded at the Bristol Sessions.

The Johnson City set, upon its release in the Fall of 2013, received enthusiastic responses from music aficionados around the world, and Richard, Tony, and I immediately embarked on what was clearly the logical next step in documenting pre-World War II music and culture in Appalachia: the even more obscure Knoxville Sessions from 1929-1930. To make this third box set possible, we collaborated with the Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound. That Knoxville-based organization was itself planning to publicly reissue some of the Knoxville recordings in another form, but TAMIS soon agreed it would be best to collaborate with Bear Family Records on a complete Knoxville Sessions release. Accordingly, Bear Family’s Knoxville Sessions set benefitted from invaluable research support from Brad Reeves, Eric Dawson, Jack Neely, and others (including the original musicians’ family members). 

What was the music industry like in that era, and how did these recording sessions fit in?

Ted Olson: By the mid 1920s people of all walks of life across America were obsessed with sound recordings, and the commercial record industry was seeking every possible way to capitalize on the craze. Record companies sought to market releases offering many genres of music, and the main factor determining what and who would be recorded was, “will it sell?” One genre that boasted an especially devoted fanbase was what became known as country music (then it was referred to by several names, including “hillbilly music”). At first, the musicians working within the genre were recorded far from their homes in permanent studios in major cities, but soon producers from various companies—seeking to locate and record music wherever and whenever it could be found—increasingly ventured to the often remote places where exciting new music could be recorded. It became clear that to make compelling records featuring the songs, ballads, and tunes of rural white Americans, producers would need to go where musicians lived (including Appalachia) to set up temporary recording studios and attract nearby talent. This was a highly competitive process, and it was the reason for the arrival of three major record companies in East Tennessee. The first location recording session in the Appalachian region was the Okeh label’s foray to Asheville in 1925, and such recording activity continued until being curtailed by the decline in record sales brought by the Great Depression. The Knoxville Sessions were the last—but certainly not the least—of this era’s Appalachia-based location recording sessions.

How were these recordings originally distributed? Were these sorts of records ever played on the radio? 
Tony Russell

Tony Russell

Tony Russell: The recordings would have been sold in music stores or the music departments of furniture stores, which were where many people in this period purchased phonographs and phonograph records—in theory, anywhere in the U.S. where there was known interest or specific orders, but probably mostly in the South, the primary market for old-time country records. We know that some of the Knoxville releases were advertised in newspapers by stores as far away as Texas.

In Knoxville itself they would have been readily available in the record department of Sterchi’s furniture store and in some or all of half a dozen music stores on Gay Street, plus at least three other downtown locations.

That said, the scarcity of the Knoxville releases, compared with those made by Columbia in Johnson City and by Victor in Bristol, suggests that they were pressed in smaller quantities, or less widely distributed, or both. Many survive in only a handful of known copies. Some are known from only one or two examples.

Radio? There’s a myth that old-time country records were never played on radio in the ’20s and ’30s. In fact, many stations had record shows, and some small ones had little else. KWKH in Shreveport, La., one of the most widely heard and popular stations in the South, had numerous record shows, some certainly embracing old-time country music. I think it’s not unlikely that WNOX and other Knoxville stations may have played at least some of the Knoxville-sessions releases on air.

Is there any relationship between the individual sessions beyond their geography?

Tony Russell: Yes—and to a greater degree than was common at location recording sessions. Many of the Knoxville recordists knew each other and some are known to have collaborated in the recordings. Willie Sievers of the Tennessee Ramblers reportedly sang harmony on some songs by the Southern Moonlight Entertainers [the Rainey family], who recorded immediately after the Ramblers on the first day of the 1929 session. The black musicians Gace Haynes and Eugene Ballinger accompanied not only the blues-singer Leola Manning (whom Ballinger later married) but probably Odessa Cansler too, as well as recording in their own names. Singer-guitarist Hugh Cross recorded solo, as the lead singer with the Smoky Mountain Ramblers, and in other groupings. Fiddler Lowe Stokes from Chattanooga, who was probably summoned to the session by a Brunswick employee, recorded fiddle tunes in his own name, as one of the cast of a topical sketch, as an incidental speaker on other bands’ recordings, and possibly in other roles.

Were the Knoxville sessions much different from the Bristol and Johnson City sessions?

Ted Olson: The Knoxville sessions drew a more diverse group of musicians and thus yielded a broader range of recordings than the other East Tennessee location sessions. Whereas his two predecessors—Victor Records’ Ralph Peer at Bristol and Columbia Records’ Frank Walker at Johnson City—concentrated on recording “hillbilly” talent, Richard Voynow, the A&R (Artists and Repertoire) producer for the Brunswick-Vocalion labels, was interested in many types of music, and his sessions in Knoxville from 1929 and 1930 resulted in country, gospel, blues, and jazz recordings. Refuting widespread stereotyped notions of Appalachia’s musical heritage, Voynow’s work in Knoxville suggests that prewar Appalachia possessed a more varied society than generally acknowledged. Voynow was certainly cut from different cloth than Peer and Walker—the latter two men were arguably more business- than music-minded, whereas Voynow, a leading jazz musician before becoming a record producer, clearly was not bound by the ever-narrowing genre- and sales-driven restrictions imposed by the record industry.

The Knoxville sessions recordings are different in part because the sessions were held in urban Appalachia, but Voynow had the final say as far as what was and what wasn’t recorded, and he obviously didn’t have a narrow view of what he thought should be recorded. Although most of the recordings Voynow oversaw in Knoxville did not sell well as 78 rpm releases (the Depression, of course, had something to do with that), we today are the direct beneficiaries of his eclectic tastes in music.

Was this music part of longtime cultural traditions, or something the artists were advancing/creating on their own? 

Ted Olson: Location recording sessions—whether the Bristol sessions, the Johnson City sessions, or the ones Voynow held in Knoxville in 1929 and 1930—were inherently commercial enterprises, and record companies’ primary rationale for subsidizing temporary location sessions was to draw in and capitalize upon talent in far-flung places. To varying degrees, the music recorded in Bristol, Johnson City, and Knoxville (and at other recording sessions conducted elsewhere in Appalachia during this era) was music consciously crafted to appeal to mainstream audiences. That said, traditional music formed the backdrop for many of the recordings at Bristol, Johnson City, and Knoxville. Ralph Peer in Bristol was particularly successful in making records that sounded “modern,” though traditional music was at the core of the copyrightable “new” material he sought from his artists. Frank Walker maintained an open-tent approach to recording, and much of what he recorded in Johnson City was infused by traditional material and styles; the Johnson City Sessions recordings were thus consistently raw and edgy. The recordings made by Voynow in Knoxville ran the gamut, capturing musicians with sophisticated, urbane styles as well as musicians whose musical expressions held close to tradition. 

What sort of artists were most of these musicians at the Knoxville Sessions—were they popular performers or mostly unknowns?

Tony Russell: Some were very well known, like Uncle Dave Macon and fiddler Uncle Jimmy Thompson, who were known to the radio audience from the Grand Ole Opry (and in Macon’s case for vaudeville appearances and recordings), the blind duo McFarland & Gardner (radio, records), and Francis Craig’s dance orchestra from Nashville.

Maynard Baird’s dance orchestra was the go-to band for high-toned functions across the region, as attested by his huge scrapbooks, from which we’ve drawn many illustrations. They were famous enough to be invited to out-of-state hotel residencies, radio slots, etc.

Several acts were at least semi-professional entertainers with considerable local reputations. The Tennessee Ramblers [the Sievers family] toured several states around the time of their recordings, and were often on local radio. In the ’30s and possibly ’40s they were regulars on the WNOX Mid-day Merry-Go-Round, together with the Rainey family [Southern Moonlight Entertainers]. Hugh Cross and the Smoky Mountain Ramblers also broadcast on Knoxville stations, as did Cal Davenport and Ridgel’s Fountain Citians.

Cross, of all the Knoxville recordists, had the most significant later career, becoming nationally known on country music radio in the ’30s and ’40s, making numerous recordings, and writing songs for artists like Roy Acuff.

By contrast, some performers seem to have been less committed to a showbusiness career—or, if they had one, we know nothing about it. E.g., “The Appalachia Vagabond,” singer-banjoist Hays Shepherd from southwestern VA; singer-guitarist Bess Pennington, from the same area, who had a spell on a small radio station in Bristol but is thought to have given it up for marriage and children; and probably—though we know little about them—the white Euclid Quartette and Etowah Quartet and the black Senior Chapel Quartette.

How much was known about the Knoxville musicians before you undertook this project?

Tony Russell: Research by the late Charles K. Wolfe in the early ’70s led to his groundbreaking 1974 article on the Knoxville sessions for my English-published magazine Old Time Music. Wolfe also wrote articles on the Tennessee Ramblers and the Perry County Music Makers (from Central Tennessee), who recorded during the Knoxville sessions.

Ted and I built upon this basis in two main ways: Ted through interviews with descendants of the Knoxville recordists, many of them found by TAMIS, and myself (several thousand miles away in London) by spending hundreds of hours on online genealogical and public-records sites, gathering information on people we knew to have recorded in Knoxville, and then trying to track them through ancient radio logs, newspaper archives, and the files of trade publications like Billboard, Radio Digest, Talking Machine World, etc.

When we started work on the Knoxville set in 2013, a few of the Knoxville recordists were well known—Macon, Mac & Bob, Hugh Cross—while others were familiar chiefly to collectors of 78s and to the owners of LP/CD reissues of those 78s: artists like the Tennessee Ramblers, Ridgel’s Fountain Citians, Perry Co. Music Makers, etc., whose records, on the rare occasions they turn up, can fetch hundreds of dollars.

But artists whose records didn’t happen to appeal to most collectors were practically holes in the air, biographically speaking, and these were some of our more interesting challenges.

The project complete, we can say with some confidence that we have written the first biographical accounts of the Wise String Orchestra, Will Bennett, Haskell Wolfenbarger, the University of Tennessee Trio, Maynard Baird & His Orchestra, Cal West, the Smoky Mountain Ramblers, the Gibbs Brothers & Claude Davis, Louis Bird, and Bess Pennington. We have also expanded what was known about Leola Manning, Odessa Cansler, Gace Haynes, Eugene Ballinger, the Southern Moonlight Entertainers, and numerous other performers.

And I found evidence that Uncle Jimmy Thompson, a venerable figure in country music history and in the story of the Grand Ole Opry, falsified his age to enhance his celebrity.

What was the first thing you did when you began your research into the Knoxville Sessions?

Tony Russell: The basis of something as specific as a reissue of a recording session is to establish when the sessions were held, who was there, and what music was recorded. Some of this was known to discographers like me already. Our data was refined by access to Brunswick’s (unfortunately incomplete) original recording ledgers and sheets, and by examining reports on the sessions in the Knoxville papers.

It was seen at the outset that it would be highly desirable to locate all the recordings made in Knoxville, rare though many of them are. To do this we engaged the help of record-collectors all over the world, first locating copies, then trying to find the copies in best condition. Though, regrettably, the recordings that we know were made but not issued have all remained undiscoverable (including, tragically, a tranche of intriguing songs by Uncle Dave Macon), we did locate a probably unique copy of a recording custom-made for Col. J. G. Sterchi, the head of the Sterchi’s store chain and “patron” of the Knoxville sessions, in which he addresses his “friends and patrons.”

What new, unexpected pieces of information did you discover? Any surprises?

Ted Olson: Before work on Bear Family Records’ Knoxville Sessions set was begun in earnest, some parts of the Knoxville sessions narrative had been explored, such as Charles Wolfe’s early-1970s articles on the Tennessee Ramblers and The Perry County Music Makers, Terry Zwigoff’s interviews with Howard Armstrong, and Jack Neely’s writing about Leola Manning. But many individual stories related to the Knoxville Sessions had never before been told. In essence, the Knoxville Sessions constituted an overlooked event from the early years of recorded sound. Bear Family’s commitment to release the complete Knoxville sessions meant that a full-scale research effort had to be undertaken in a timely manner, and the Knoxville Sessions book that Tony and I wrote reflects that we received information from many quarters—from the previously published sources mentioned earlier, of course, but crucially from previously untapped sources such as family and community members and local archives.

A deep debt of gratitude is owed to TAMIS’s Brad Reeves and Eric Dawson for their many contributions to the research effort as well as to the record collectors around the world who allowed Bear Family to use copies of their rare 78s for incorporation into the set. Regarding surprises unearthed during the research effort: because the Knoxville Sessions were largely undocumented, the surprises were numerous—too numerous to summarize, really. Every page of the Knoxville Sessions book included in the Bear Family set—as well as every recording included over four CDs—reveals surprises. The one overarching surprise I personally took away from working on this set was: the Knoxville sessions recordings were as wonderful in their own way as the recordings from Bristol and Johnson City. Regarding the Knoxville sessions, I began to wonder why had those recordings and those musicians (with just a few exceptions) been so widely overlooked?

Did any of the musicians in particular appeal to you on a personal level—either for their music or their personal story?

Ted Olson: All the Knoxville sessions recordings have their charms, but I find myself especially mesmerized by the title track, “Knox County Stomp,” by The Tennessee Chocolate Drops/The Tennessee Trio (Howard Armstrong, Roland Armstrong, and Carl Martin). It’s as unique as string-band music gets, with a remarkably full, exuberant sound emanating from a youthful trio that had never made a record before. As roots music fans learned in subsequent decades, Howard Armstrong and Carl Martin were larger-than-life talents, but this three-minute performance constitutes the earliest documentation of their bold fusion of white and black styles and sensibilities—a musical approach that these three young men had crafted on the streets of downtown Knoxville, now resonating brilliantly through the years because of one brief recording session in Knoxville’s St. James Hotel in 1930.

Tony Russell: I have a special fondness for Willie Sievers Sharp, probably the first seriously talented female guitarist in recorded country music. Also for Leola Manning, not yet well known but surely due to be recognized as one of the leading African-American singers of her day, whether in blues or gospel music. Also for the ethereal sound of the zither as played by Nonnie Presson of the Perry County Music Makers—its only recorded appearance in old-time country music. Also for the high lonesome sound of Hays Shepherd, “The Appalachia Vagabond,” in the mountain banjo song “Hard For To Love.” (I could go on.)

Do you have any more such music projects in the works?

Ted Olson: Tony and I are definitely considering pursuing other location recording session reissues. Having worked on the three Bear Family Records sets that together comprehensively document the three East Tennessee location recording sessions, we know how such projects should be undertaken, and we recognize the necessity of proceeding cautiously yet painstakingly in recovering “vanished worlds” (to paraphrase music journalist Ed Ward’s words of praise for the Johnson City Sessions set). That said, other forgotten musicians and recordings deserve to be heard, to be brought back from obscurity.

Editor Coury Turczyn guided Knoxville's alt weekly, Metro Pulse, through two eras, first as managing editor (and later executive editor) from 1992 to 2000, then as editor-in-chief from 2007 to 2014. He's also worked as a Web editor at CNET, the erstwhile G4 cable network, and HGTV.

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