It must make for some uncomfortable moments when visitors to the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol, Virginia, ask about all the “hillbilly” records released by the major labels in the roughly six years before the Big Bang sessions that gave us Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. Most people understand (at least when they think about it) that the recordings that came out of Bristol in 1927 weren’t the first country records.
But then what was the first country record? Was it Vernon Dalhart in 1925 doing “The Prisoner’s Song” and “Wreck of the Old 97”? Or was it Dalhart’s inspiration, Henry Whitter’s version of “The Wreck on the Southern Old 97,” in late 1923? Or maybe it was earlier in 1923, when Fiddlin’ John Carson recorded “The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane”? Ken Burns’ documentary Country Music seems to think it was Fiddlin’ John—it skates right over Eck Robertson’s “Sallie Gooden” and Robertson and Henry Gilliland’s “Arkansas Traveler,” made in 1922. A lot of people say that was the first country record.
Then there’s Tony Russell’s admirable Country Music Records: A Discography, 1921-1942. The earliest item in his survey is the Vaughan Quartet’s “Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray.”
Where does that leave the fiddle records of North Carolinian Don Richardson? He recorded in 1916, and some people think he deserves prominence in the discussion. What about 1890s recordings of “Turkey in the Straw”? Do they belong in the mix?
Before the Big Bang does not answer these questions, which we feel are a trap, a bottomless pit. The well from which later “country” musicians would draw water runs wide and deep.