With the 90th anniversary of the Bristol sessions having occurred recently, it is more than fitting to pay homage to the recordings that gave birth to not only country music, but to recorded music itself. A visit to the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol in 2015 gave me my first real knowledge of the sessions as well as my own family and their involvement within these historic recordings.
My paternal grandmother, the late Irene Higgins Cooley, was born on June 25, 1919, in the Delhart community of Grayson County as one of 18 children. Many of them were musically inclined, playing instruments without the ability to read music. Granny played piano by ear. Her sisters, Emma and Annie, played at the first Fiddlers’ Convention in 1933 when they were 17 and 12 years old respectively. Their brother, Heath, born in 1917, was said to be one of the last living original old-time players according to the book Strings of Life by Kevin Dunleavy. Heath passed away in 2001. Emma, 93, passed away in 2009 while 91-year old Annie left us in 2013. She was the last survivor of all 18 siblings. My dad added that their mother, Frances Elizabeth Green Brewer Higgins, my great-grandmother, also played the accordion.
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However, it was Granny’s half-brother Kahle Brewer that became the most noted musician of the large group of siblings when he and his wife, Edna, became part of the 1927 Bristol sessions along with Ernest Stoneman and his Dixie Mountaineers. He and Edna were featured together with Stoneman’s group on a half-dozen gospel numbers recorded at Bristol on July 25, 1927, including “The Resurrection,” “I Am Resolved,” “No More Goodbyes,” “Are You Washed in the Blood,” “I Know My Name is There” and “Sweeping Through the Gates.” Kahle plays on two additional recordings that day, “Tell Mother I Will Meet Her” and “Dying Girl’s Farewell,” also with the Stoneman group.
Born in present-day Galax, Ernest “Pop” Stoneman is universally regarded as one of the first prominent recording artists of the country music genre. Overseeing the Bristol sessions, he helped discover such legendary pioneer country acts as the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers.
“We are related to the Stoneman family through great-grandmother Silvia Stoneman Higgins,” my dad told me.
It is astounding to think that they worked alongside my relatives on that fateful summer day nine decades ago. If I only knew that when talking to Aunt Edna before she passed away.
At any rate, Kahle raved about Stoneman’s banjo playing according to Donleavy’s book, but said his guitar playing left a little to be desired.
“On some guitar runs, he’d run out,” Kahle recalled. “But he was the boss.”
In Dunleavy’s book, Kahle gives credit to his wife for teaching him everything he knew about music. She was a piano and music teacher at Baywood Elementary School and was also my dad’s first-grade teacher. I can remember him taking me to visit her a few times before she died in 2000 at the age of 96.
“He was a sweet boy,” I remember her telling me in regards to my father.
This was also where my dad earned his nickname “Goose,” which all his fellow classmates call him to this day. As my grandfather’s name was Herbert Wiley Cooley, everyone in Galax referred to my dad as Herbert Gray. After a first-grade reader featured a story with the character of Gray Goose, the name has stuck ever since.
Edna and Kahle owned the property that served as the Higgins family home going back to Civil War days. My dad was raised on the property and says that Kahle bought the place from my grandparents in 1962.
“The place where Kahle and Edna lived was originally owned by his sister our Aunt Emma and her husband Wilmer Harrison,” my dad noted. “They raised their family there and traded it to Kahle for his home in Galax in the mid 60s.”
An interview with Kahle conducted in 1988, the year before he died. He was 84 years old at the time and his memory was failing him, but he vividly recalled the origins of a banjo made by his great uncle who was killed in the Civil War.
“He was a real musician,” Kahle said.
His grandfather, William Green, died in 1945. My dad can remember him, despite being three years old at the time of his death. Kahle’s grandmother, Julia Reese Green, played banjo and accordion with which she composed her own tune for which Kahle would become well known in bluegrass circles called “Aunt Julie Green’s Waltz.” Julia and William Green would be my maternal great-great-grandparents. Kahle made special note that his grandfather played the banjo claw hammer style. He also mentioned playing with an African-American musician named Mel Wise who was a little bit older than him. They lost touch in 1920 after the family moved.
So, I am pleased to say that my relatives are involved in the inaugural American recording sessions. Having always wanted to be a recording artist myself, I’m dismayed to say I inherited none of their talent. That does nothing to hinder my familial pride in this amazing personal connection to a major historical event.
A columnist, novelist and author of various other book genres, Zach Cooley lives in Wytheville with his wife, Emily, and daughter, Bella.