The beauty of country music is that it is possible to go back to a definite beginning. Although much of the music existed, in the folk songs brought over from Britain, Ireland and Europe, including earlier recordings, it was the arrival of Ralph Peer in Bristol, Tennessee in 1927 that give it the kickstart it needed.
Ralph Peer was on a two-month tour of the Southern states, looking for blues, gospel and folk songs that he could record and sell. The mountains around Bristol were full of songs, and many of the folk singers made their way into Bristol to record for Ralph Peer. Some were rejected. Some were not.
The people relevant to our story are three people from Poor Valley, Virginia, in the shadow of Clinch Mountain: Alvin Carter, his wife Sara Carter, and Sara's cousin, Maybelle Carter, who had married Alvin's brother.
Alvin went by the name AP (for Alvin Pleasant) and he had long been interested in the folk songs he'd heard around Clinch Mountain. He met his wife Sara when he was working as a travelling salesman, and she moved to live with him in Poor Valley. Not long after, they were joined by Sara's cousin, Maybelle, who is, of course, June Carter's mother.
AP was a collector of songs, and they would perform them as The Carter Family. Although AP was perhaps the creative mind behind the trio, the actual musical talent came from Sara and Maybelle, and Maybelle in particular was a formidable guitar player.
When Ralph Peer rolled into town, offering money for recordings, The Carter Family rumbled along the soggy dirt roads into Bristol, at that time a tricky journey, and Maybelle eight months pregnant. They recorded four songs on the third floor of a building on State Street (no longer there), and didn't think much more about it, other than they had been paid and AP was excited about the prospects. It was only when Maybelle was in Bristol, shopping, and she heard their song playing out of a shop did they realise that their first recording had been released, Poor Orphan Child and Wandering Boy.
The Carter Family wasn't the only performing troupe during that twelve days in 1927. Seventy-six songs performed by nineteen artists were recorded, but the sessions produced two superstars: Jimmie Rodgers, and The Carter Family.
The Carter Family remained living in Poor Valley, although things took a bump when Sara met someone else and moved to California. AP took to running a grocery store, but Maybelle carried on performing, her daughters providing the "family experience", although June was primarily a comic turn.
Sara and AP are both buried in the graveyard of Mt Vernon Church in Poor Valley, although sadly they are on different rows. Together, they provided so much, but in death they had to be apart.
Bristol itself straddles the state line. In the book, James and Bruce enjoy a drink on the Tennessee of the main street (the differing licensing laws means that the Tennessee side of State Street stays open later than the Virginia side). It is also the end point for Hank Williams, as it was the last place where he was known to be alive, when his driver stopped for a sandwich at a spot that is now part of the car park opposite the Birthplace of Country Museum.
The legendary Clinch Mountain, home of bluegrass, brooding over Poor Valley
It's been renovated to appear how it did back then, although you can't replicate the dirt
The birthplace and the store are now part of the Carter Family Fold
The Carter Family Fold
Most of the houses around the Fold are Carter Family homes
AP Carter's birthplace, relocated from where it was decaying in a field
The grocery store run by AP Carter once Sara had left him
Musical evenings are held to celebrate The Carter Family legacy
Along AP Carter Highway in Poor Valley
Mt Vernon Church, the resting place for many Carters
AP Carter's grave in the MT Vernon churchyard
Sara Carter's grave in the Mt Vernon churchyard, with AP's behind, on separate rows
Sara Carter's grave in the Mt Vernon churchyard
Looking back down the pass The Carter Family took, towards Clinch Mountain, en route to Bristol
A mural celebrating the 1927 Bristol Sessions
Americana charm in Bristol - contrary to rumour, Hank Williams did not eat here during his final drive
It was in here that James and Bruce had a drink together in the book
It was down this pass that The Carter Family set off for Bristol in 1927, and AP Carter's birthplace is just behind that first ridge on the left
The famous Bristol sign, close to where the Sessions were held
It was around here that Maybelle Carter was standing when she heard their recording being played for the first time
Birthplace of Country Music Museum, but it was about where the picture was taken from that Hank Williams was last known to be alive
James and Bruce enjoyed some Appalachian folk in this spot