Country Music’s “Big Bang” Reloaded

New CD and Film Honor Legendary Bristol Sessions

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Country Music’s “Big Bang” Reloaded

That sort of interstate cooperation is rare, according to Virginia Tourism Corporation Vice President Chris Canfield. “The power of music brings people together,” he said, “and this musical project brought two competing states together, and that’s pretty amazing when you think about it.” According to music historian and Ralph Peer biographer Barry Mazor (Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music, Chicago Review Press), such promotion reflects the spirit of the original project. Although country music existed before Peer came to Bristol, Mazor says, those 1927 sessions marked the birth of the modern country music industry, forever changing how it’s marketed and sold. As Mazor put it, Bristol’s Big Bang “was that very moment that country music was taken off the porch into pop music. The significance of Bristol was modernization and the establishment of a market. This is the country music that stuck.”

In pre-production for Orthophonic Joy, Jackson combed through the 76 songs on the Bristol sessions, culling favorites, rearranging them, and matching them with singers. A former pre-teen banjo prodigy who went on to national fame with Glen Campbell in the 1970s, Jackson seems to know everybody in bluegrass, country, and beyond, allowing him to work with the most appropriate musicians.

“When Dolly Parton agreed to do the record, I immediately thought I wanted ‘The Storms Are on the Ocean,’” says Jackson, who produced Parton’s most recent album, 2014’s Blue Smoke. “When we met, she loved it, but she said, ‘Are there any other songs you want to play me?’ I said, ‘Sure, I have a few others in mind.’ When I played her ‘When They Ring Them Golden Bells,’ she said, ‘That’s it. I’ve sung that song my whole life, sung it since I was a little girl.’”

Family connections were strong on the original Bristol sessions, and there’s a multi-generational thread running through Orthophonic Joy as well. At 89, Jesse McReynolds is the oldest musician on the project, but the bluegrass legend remains one of traditional music’s most innovative players. Partnered with his late brother Jim, Jesse created a completely unique style of cross-picked mandolin, and after Jim’s death Jesse went on to record solo projects like 2010’s Songs of The Grateful Dead

McReynolds was able to reach all the way back to the original 1927 sessions for Orthophonic Joy. His uncle, banjo picker William McReynolds, and his grandfather, fiddler Charlie McReynolds, recorded at the Bristol sessions as part of the Bull Mountain Moonshiners. For his version of the Moonshiners’ “Johnny Goodwin/The Girl I Left Behind,” McReynolds plays the same fiddle his grandfather played for Peer in 1927.  

“The Virginian” has a deep emotional connection for Jackson because it features Ashley and Shannon Campbell, daughter and son of his old friend and employer Glen Campbell, now in the final stages of Alzheimer’s.  “Ashley’s my goddaughter and they’re both such great, talented kids,” Jackson said. “I wanted them to be part of the record.”

While he honors vintage music and prefers pre-World War II Gibson banjos and Martin guitars, Jackson isn’t a slave to previous recording techniques, and that’s something he feels he has in common with Peer. “In 1927 they were using the best technology they had, the cutting edge,” says Jackson. “Today, we simply do that. I don’t do any major tricks like recording to tape and then transferring to digital files.” Instead, to attain the richest, warmest sound, he depends on a priceless set of monitors—his ears. After a lifetime of playing, recording, and producing bluegrass and acoustic country music, Jackson knows exactly what it should sound like and works with people who share his highly demanding aesthetic. “I record straight into Pro Tools in a very, very good studio with a very, very good engineer,” he said, “with very, very good mikes, using the best technology we have, but still relying on players that understand the original music, understand what it would have sounded like if they’d had the same technology back in 1927.”

And what it sounds like is state-of-the art, soulful American roots music.