In July 1927, Victor Records engineer and talent scout Ralph Peer set up a makeshift studio in the building of a hat company, in the Tennessee-Virginia border city of Bristol. He hoped to find and sign new Southern singers and pickers for the label. The modern music business was just beginning: Radio was in its infancy; every record company was an indie. And as singer-guitarist Buddy Miller pointed out at the Allen Room in New York, during a January 17th performance of “Reflections on the Bristol Sessions” with jazz guitarist Bill Frisell and singer-fiddler Carrie Rodriguez – a celebration of Peer’s pivotal work that summer and again in Bristol in the fall of 1928 – the electronic microphone had only just been invented.
In comparison, Frisell, Miller and Rodriguez recreated seminal hymns, ballads and dance tunes from the Bristol recordings – the literal birth of the country music industry and the official, commercial debuts of its founding stars, Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family – with a modest but unmistakeable modernism, closer to the more recent traditions of Ry Cooder and Joe Pass in Frisell’s earthy precision and glistening tone and Robert Plant and Alison Krauss in Miller and Rodriguez’s drawling-grit and keening-alto vocal blend. It was impossible not to hear the time passed in this trio’s version of the lovesick standard “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow,” done for Peer by the Carters in 1927. It was also compelling and persuasive – a demonstration of the still-undiscovered life in these roots.
Lovesick Blues and Greasy Strings
“Reflections on the Bristol Sessions” – also performed on January 18th and part of Frisell’s 2013-14 “Roots of Americana” concert series at Jazz at Lincoln Center – was aptly titled. The set list wandered frequently from the original recordings: The opening song was “In the Pines,” best known via Leadbelly and Nirvana, cast as a near-psychedelic waltz, with the electric guitars and Miller and Rodriguez’s singing invoking the 1969 Fairport Convention. In her fiddle medley of “Wayfaring Stranger” and “Greasy String,” the latter cut for Peer in 1927 by the West Virginia Coon Hunters, Rodriguez took a spin into free improvising, with striking klezmer accents.
Frisell has pursued this kind of license – finding and testing the ties that jazz, rock and country, ancient and modern – for many years, on sublime albums such as last year’s Big Sur (Okeh) and 2008’s Disfarmer (Nonesuch). This show included a song from the latter, “Farmer,” with additional lyrics by Miller. In turn, Miller defended the night’s deviations from the Bristol script when he sang a number from one of his own albums, “Wide River to Cross,” noting that it had been covered by the Band’s Levon Helm – who was always as country as it gets.
Rodriguez was, at once, the evening’s most traditional and contemporary voice, carrying the alternating personalities in “Single Girl, Married Girl” – a kind of reality-show duet by Sara and Maybelle Carter in 1927 (the former was married to singer A.P. Carter; Maybelle was her single, teenage cousin) – with jubilant, twanging feminism and dutiful, plaintive resignation. In Rodger’s lullabye “Sleep Baby Sleep,” Rodriguez enunciated the title lyric with clean, sharp force – a power of love – that cut through the quiet of the room. Frisell didn’t do much around her. It was the right amount of little, however: drops of electric treble that he draped across her vocal like a silvery string of beads.
It wasn’t country music as Peer knew it, when he recorded Rodgers’ version of that tune in 1927. But you could hear their reflections in it, clear as spring water.