When Victor Records field engineer and A&R man Ralph Peer arrived in Bristol, TN, in the summer of 1927, he had a mission to record every rural Southern musician he could find. By the time he left Bristol, Peer had recorded 76 songs by 19 different acts and had set the cornerstones for the future of country music, a genre that had yet to be recognized or defined. The Bristol Sessions, the so-called Big Bang of country music, yielded the first recordings from both the Carter Family
and Jimmie Rodgers
, as well as historic recordings by names less familiar, but no less important, including some restyled and rewritten traditional rave-ups by a previous Peer discovery, harmonica and autoharp player Ernest V. Stoneman. Stoneman had turned up on Peer's doorstep some three years earlier, and Peer, impressed by the musician's ability to generate original material, had steered him to Victor, and Stoneman's first release, a two-sided original epic narrative called "The Titanic," was an immediate and huge hit, selling thousands of copies in 1925. It was, alas, to be Stoneman's first and last trip to the charts, making him, as well as arguably country music's first true songwriter, also one of the genre's first one-hit wonders. This delightfully conceived two-disc set covers Stoneman's early recording career between 1925 and 1934 (with sides attributed to his various groups the Blue Ridge Corn Shuckers, Frank Jenkins' Pilot Mountaineers
, the Sweet Brothers
, the Ernest V. Stoneman Trio, and others) with the Gennett, Paramount, Edison, Victor, and AR imprints, and what emerges is a revelatory look at how Stoneman turned an assortment of gospel hymns, hillbilly raps, and square dance reels into an often wry, ironic, and completely original view of the world turning through its mysterious affairs. "The Titanic" is here, as well as reconfigured fiddle romps like "Old Joe Clark," the poignant "All I've Got's Gone" (in early and late versions), odd, ornate narratives like "The Fate of Talmadge Osbourne," and eerily modern-sounding pieces like "Nine Pound Hammer," all of which show, given the times, an uncommonly sharp musical sense. It's comforting, somehow, to think that Stoneman, who started out recording to wax cylinder, now has a defining collection available on CD in the 21st century. Some voices don't get lost. Thank God for that.