But researchers at East Tennessee State University are beginning to believe Johnson City may have a claim to the oldest known bluegrass records.
Rich-R-Tone Records, an independent record label, was founded in Johnson City in 1946 – the same year “The Father of Bluegrass” Bill Monroe recorded the very first bluegrass 78 RPM record with his band The Blue Grass Boys for Columbia Records.
The label lays claim to the first records of The Stanley Brothers in the late 1940s, and other legendary bluegrass performers like Wilma Lee, Stoney Cooper and Buffalo Johnson.
While it may not be possible to determine whether or not Rich-R-Tone Records was the pioneering bluegrass label, Appalachian Studies professor Ted Olson said Rich-R-Tone it’s very possible that it was also the first independent bluegrass label, one that was started by something of a “mystery man.”
James Hobart Stanton was born in the coal fields and raised in Johnson City. Olson and other researchers are still trying to find out more about him, but from what they do know he lived on Indian Ridge Road for a while and worked as a jukebox operator.
“Stanton recorded all over the place, he was on the road selling records for jukebox playing,” Olson said. “He recorded everywhere, I think that’s worth mentioning that he truly covered Appalachia in his travels.”
That led him to travel a lot to get more recordings for jukeboxes, Olson said, but at some point he decided there was a need for local music, and Rich-R-Tone Records was born.
While Johnson City did have recording sessions throughout the years, many of those were recorded for major labels stopping through town for a few days for recording before heading out.
“That’s what is so unique is that it was a company that was based here,” Olson said.
Rich-R-Tone left Johnson City in 1953, but Olson is in search of any records that may have been recorded from 1946 to 1953 as well as records from another company Stanton started called “Folk Star Records” and any other information on Stanton himself.
“I think even though he lived here in our midst in JC I think people weren’t really aware how important the work he was doing was in terms of documenting our cultural heritage,” Olson said of Stanton. “He was working really hard to make a living he was promoting the importance of what he was doing from a historical standpoint.”
Anyone with information on Stanton, Rich-R-Tone Records or Folk Star Records, including possible 78 RPM records from either of the two labels, can contact Olson at 439-4379 or by emailing him at [email protected] Olson will be collecting the records for a box set through about July 1.
Email Jessica Fuller at [email protected] Follow Jessica on Twitter @fullerjf91. Like her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/jfullerJCP.