The Knoxville Sessions

The Knoxville Sessions

Hotel St. James – Room with Bath – $1.50
St. James Hotel from Wall Ave.
The Knoxville Sessions of 1929-30 (also known as the St. James Sessions) are a rare window onto a fertile time and place in the history of American popular music. The 1920s saw the dawn of music on the radio, and improvements to recording technology that saw the introduction of mass-market recordings of popular music. And the Roaring ‘20s was accompanied by a surprisingly worldly stew of folk music, blues, show tunes, jazz, Hawaiian, and vaudeville novelties that all played a part in the evolution of what we now know as popular music.

Knoxville’s interest in music was already deep by this time. Before the Civil War, Knoxville had been a center for the otherworldly style of singing known as Sacred Harp. After the war, it was home to one of the South’s first orchestral groups, and by the early 1870s, the city had a European-style “Opera House.” In the 1880s and ’90s, Knoxville hosted major classical-music and opera festivals that drew some of the great talents from New York and Boston. But Knoxville was still in the middle of the South, where most new American forms of music were in various stages of gestation: blues, ragtime, jazz, old-time. By the turn of the century, young men playing new styles of guitar or fiddle were making a living in the streets.

Come to Make Records – Musicians from several towns arrive for try-outs
An audition notice from March 27, 1930
There were no real recording studios in Tennessee at the time—in the 1920s, Nashville had no reputation as a recording center, and most country-music recordings were still made in New York. So when one of the nation’s most famous record companies, the Brunswick/Vocalion label set up a temporary studio in the St. James Hotel in downtown Knoxville, hundreds of musicians came, from miles around, to take a turn behind the microphone. Leading the expedition to the St. James was musical director Richard Voynow best known for his associations with jazz: he was a former pianist with the legendary Bix Beiderbecke and was also a songwriter who had worked with Hoagy Carmichael.

Knoxville and the greater region responded with enthusiasm.

Today Knoxville’s best-known for its role in the early development of country music, especially for spawning some of country’s earliest national stars, like Roy Acuff. During the St. James sessions, though, Acuff was a young man on the north side of town, still learning to play the fiddle—and better known hereabouts as a ballplayer.

Some who showed up at the St. James were backwoods groups who were obscure and remained so. A few were already well-known, like Nashvillian Uncle Dave Macon, who was already famous on a relatively new radio show on WSM called the Grand Ole Opry, came to Knoxville this one time to record, making a trip that would have seemed backwards a decade later.

Some were country groups who went on to bigger and better things, like Mac and Bob, who would be stars of the WLS Barn Dance in Chicago, and the original Tennessee Ramblers, featuring Willie Sievers, one of country music’s first female guitarists. Ballard Cross, a member of the famous Georgia band the Skillet Lickers, played his original version of “Wabash Cannonball,” a song Acuff would make a national standard.

It’s not surprising that the St. James sessions were a remarkable collection of country musicians of the period. These sessions differ from the earlier ones in Bristol and Johnson City, though, in that they include a much wider variety of music than what we now know as country.

In fact, many of the St. James recordings that have gotten attention in the CD era are not country acts at all. In the 1990s, a compilation called Jazz the World Forgot included Maynard Baird’s trendy dance number, “Postage Stomp,” a relic of the early big-band era. The local man’s 10-piece brass band cut four sides at the St. James, the only extant recordings of a band that toured the North as a popular dance band in the late ‘20s and often played on live radio.

The so-called Tennessee Trio, a.k.a. Tennessee Chocolate Drops, a.k.a. Martin, Bogan and Armstrong—who would have to wait more than 30 years to become international stars—made their first recordings at the St. James. The recordings of bluesy jazz singer Leola Manning, who apparently never recorded anywhere except at the St. James sessions, have made it onto several CD compilations as far away as Austria.

After Brunswick pulled up stakes at the St. James, they didn’t do much with the records. The Great Depression hit and the record industry was changing rapidly; there would be no more field recordings in the area.

Now, after a years-long search that reached as far away as Australia, the recordings of the St. James Sessions have been collected for release as a box set produced by the prestigious Bear Family Records. The Knoxville Stomp is a celebration of this resurfacing of a fascinating part of Knoxville’s cultural history.

— Jack Neely

Additional reading:

The St. James Sessions
Collected research from Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound, Jack Neely/Metropulse, Bill Landry/WBIR, and Charles Wolfe | Lynnpoint.com

History at 78 rpm: The St. James Sessions May Finally Get Their Due
Article by Matthew Everett | Metropulse.com

311-313 Wall Avenue – The St. James Hotel
Article on Knoxville Lost and Found Blog | knoxvillelostandfound.blogspot.com