The Bristol Sessions have been referred to as the Big Bang of country music and although they had already been underway for a week, the recordings which took place in Bristol, Tennessee, 89 years ago today, are arguably the most significant of the 76 total sessions. While 19 different acts would be recorded between July 25th and August 5th, it was August 1st, 1927, that marked the first time the Victor Talking Machine company, under the direction of producer and music publisher Ralph Peer, would capture on record the trio that would become one of the most influential acts in all of country music: the Carter Family.
Led by songwriter A.P. Carter, with his wife, Sara (on autoharp), and Sara’s guitar-playing first cousin Maybelle Carter – who was married to A.P.’s brother, Ezra – the trio had been performing in schoolhouses and churches throughout their native Virginia as well as in eastern Tennessee, Kentucky and in North Carolina. When the Carters showed up in Bristol, Peer, who had corresponded with them earlier in the summer, was surprised by their appearance, saying of A.P. in a 1959 interview, “He’s dressed in overalls and the women are country women from way back there. They looked like hillbillies. But as soon as I heard Sara’s voice, that was it. I knew it was going to be wonderful.”
Taking place on the second floor of what had previously been a hat company, the Carter Family’s first Bristol session that Monday consisted of four songs, each of which yielded $50 for the group, in addition to half a cent for each copy sold. The very first to be recorded was “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow.” A tune with an uncertain history with regard to its origins, most versions of “Bury Me” basically follows the same storyline of a woman who has been cheated on and wants to be buried under a willow tree (a symbol of unrequited love) so that perhaps her lover will think of her – or perhaps be haunted by her lingering memory.
The song had been covered several times before the Carters recorded it, and has since become an old-time, bluegrass and folk standard, with hundreds, perhaps thousands of versions by a wide range of artists from Woody Guthrie to Natalie Merchant. In 2009, Rosanne Cash, whose stepmother June Carter Cash was the daughter of Mother Maybelle, chose it to close her LP The List, which was inspired by a list of essential country songs given to her by her father Johnny Cash when she was 18. Around that same time, Rosanne toured with her dad and the next generation of the Carter Family, which included Maybelle and her daughters June, Anita and Helen. In the above clip from her 2010 appearance on Austin City Limits, Rosanne prefaces her performance of this enduring tune by noting that she learned much of her guitar skill from Helen Carter. “She taught me, basically, the entire Carter Family lexicon,” she says. On this touching version of the tune, Cash is backed on guitar by her husband John Leventhal, imitating Mother Maybelle’s distinctive style of finger-picking. It’s a sweet, timeless tribute to not only Cash’s own extended family but to one of the most iconic families in country music history.
In 2015, a two-CD tribute album to the historic sessions, Orthophonic Joy, was released featuring Dolly Parton, Steve Martin, Ashley Monroe, Vince Gill and more. “Bury Me Beneath the Willow,” as it is sometimes called, was recorded for the project by Emmylou Harris, who also sang it with Parton and Linda Ronstadt on Dolly’s 1976 variety series.