Street Sessions: A Different sort of X-Factor

23rd August 2015

Do you remember the ITV, terrestrial TV talent show, Popstars? I was prompted to recall the series, which was broadcast around 2001, by former hopeful, Myleene Klass’ toothy grin, plastered all over a recent lifestyle TV commercial. She was a member of the winning manufactured band, Hear’Say, alongside the likes of Kym Marsh, who is now best known for treading the, UK soap opera, Coronation Street cobbles. My memory wasn’t so much of the ex-band member’s current successes or even the Popstars show itself but a later UK music industry awards bash, the Brit Awards show. Hear’Say had done rather well for themselves to that point. Too well for some struggling musicians who had garnered a career the hard way. I remember Hear’Say bouncing up, on stage, to claim their instant Brit award and receiving a frosty reception from the largely professional crowd. Hear’Say had found a short-cut to stardom. Where were their scars? The years of deprivation? The fight against rejection? Music entrepreneur, self aggrandising entertainment mogul and carefully opinionated critic,  Simon Cowell has since taken up the TV talent spotting flame and received a constant stream of derision from ‘true music fans’ that reject the franchise. Suede frontman Brett Anderson, Madness singer Suggs and Bernard Sumner of New Order have all been quoted as believing that the show stifles opportunities for new artists while Elton John declared X Factor, “…boring, arse-paralysingly brain crippling.”

I wonder if the occupants of Johnson City, Tennessee, USA thought along similar lines as they read the newly plastered poster, in 1928, “Can You Sing or Play Old-Time Music?” it asked. While briskly continuing with “Musicians of Unusual Ability…Small Dance Combinations…Singers…Novelty Players, Etc. Are Invited.” Prospective talent was then given a time and a place on Johnson City’s East Main Street before the bold lettering rammed the potential home, “This is an actual try-out for the purpose of making Columbia Records.”

Why Johnson City? Because the same experiment had worked amazingly well, 25 miles away, at Bristol, the year before when Victor Records ended up not only discovering the legendary Carter Family but also the incredible Jimmie Rodgers. In addition, Johnson City was a major railroad hub. Like the draw of X Factor or American Idol, people shipped in from far and wide when they heard the news of the sessions. The City was gaining popularity. It was unofficially being tagged as ‘Little Chicago’ – even Al Capone loved to use it as a retreat, as did a host of local bootleggers, in those Prohibition times.

Two batches of sessions were eventually recorded in Johnson City, in 1928 and 1929 and, while no major stars where found, there were plenty of significant recordings such as those found on Harry Smith’s more contemporary Anthology Of American Folk Music: Clarence Ashley’s The Coo-Coo Bird and The Bentley Boys’ Down On Penny’s Farm. The latter a much covered song and one that directly inspired two Bob Dylan songs, Hard Times In New York Town from 1962 and 1965’s Maggie’s Farm.

Possibly why the Johnson City Sessions didn’t do better in terms of sales and impact was due to the onset of the Great Depression. In fact, the final day of the Sessions fell on October 24 1929, known as Black Thursday, a day when 11% of the entire US stock market disappeared in a single day.

Because of these global events, that would ultimately help spark world war, the often understated and rather idiosyncratic nature of these sessions have been lost, until now.

Performers that took part in the sessions included Ancil McVay (guitar) & Roland N. Johnson (vocal and fiddle) with daughter, Eula Johnson, on banjo-mandolin. Singing Ain’t Going To Lay My Armour Down, McVay eventually sold his gas station to a certain Harland D. “Colonel” Sanders who turned it into Sanders Court, added a motel and restaurant and began to offer fried chicken featuring a secret recipe, apparently part created by Eula Johnson.

Then there were the wonderfully monikered Moatsville String Ticklers, an eight-piece band, who, “…were just country boys – they didn’t know how much talent they had.” So poor that they had to carry their instruments around in pillow cases, the Ticklers, could smell the success. According to a band member, Brooks Ritter, “We almost made it.” Yet the band are regularly discussed on Internet forums and they were even name-checked in the New Yorker magazine of late.

Those that want to know more about this important period in music history should check out Bear Family’s The Johnson City Sessions: “Can You Sing Or Play Old Time Music?” ( box set, featuring four CDs of gems and a truly magnificent hard back tome that crams a wealth of musical treasure with its 136 pages.

I must admit that X Factor and all of the other talent shows on TV set my teeth on edge. Yet, even I realise that there has always been a place for them. I can’t remember the same furore occurring when similar TV talent shows, Opportunity Knocks or New Faces (old 70s-vintage UK TV talent shows), were going strong, for example. Maybe our issue is more with Simon Cowell’s manipulative techniques and his committee of self-serving egotists. Do we object more to personality rather than the innocence of budding talent? As the Johnson Sessions prove, talent will out, no-matter what route it chooses to follow.