Early Country Superstars: Fiddlin’ John Carson and Gid Tanner

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This is the second excerpt from my new book, Country Music: A Very Short Introduction. I hope you enjoy it.

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In the early days of country music, radio and recording executives relied on local talent to fill the airwaves and to cut successful discs. In many instances, it was the local store owners who gave the best tips to producers looking for performers who would appeal to their listeners. It took a while for the college-educated recording executives to recognize the commercial viability of these backwoods stars.

When Georgia-born Fiddlin’ John Carson made his first recordings, he already had decades of experience as a local entertainer. John held a steady job, working in many different cotton mills that were located in the Atlanta area, but his real occupation was fiddle player, storyteller, and singer-raconteur. He began performing on the streets, selling song sheets of his original compositions, sometime around 1915. He played for local club meetings, barn dances, and house parties, and competed in the many fiddle contests that were held throughout the region, winning many titles through the early ‘20s. In the days before electrical amplification, John’s strong voice and powerful fiddle could cut through the noise of a good-sized crowd.

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John first appeared on local station WSB in September 1922, one of the nation’s first commercial radio stations. Like many stations, its management came up with a catchy slogan based on its call letters, claiming that “WSB” meant “Welcome South, Brother.” Radio, as we shall see, played a key role in the dissemination of country music—as important, if not more important, one than the nascent recording industry. His local fame brought him to the attention of Polk Brockman, a furniture dealer and local distributor for OKeh records, who urged the label to record him.

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Carson’s first recording, “Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane,” was a late nineteenth-century popular sentimental song with lyrics that offered a nostalgic vision of country life. On the flip side, John recorded a popular comic fiddle instrumental, “The Old Hen Cackled and the Rooster’s Going to Crow,” which was undoubtedly one of his “trick” numbers that he used to win many fiddle contests. On it, he imitated the sound of a cackling hen, who was then answered by her eager mate.

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Producer Ralph Peer thought little of the recording, until orders poured in for additional discs. Recognizing a potential hitmaker, Peer had Carson come to New York to cut more solos. It was said that his next recording, “You Never Miss Your Mother Until She’s Gone” sold a million copies, although sales figures are notoriously difficult to verify in this period. This may have been the first country hit to focus on the mother as a symbol of the humble woman devoted to her family, who tried to guide her wayward son away from a life of sin. John would make many more recordings, often accompanied by his laconic partner, “Moonshine Kate” (his daughter Rosa Lee Carson). Kate provided a perfect foil to John’s exuberant vocals, providing simple harmony parts, and accompanying him on either the banjo or guitar. When string bands became popular, OKeh convinced Carson to put together a larger group, called the Virginia Reelers. The band had great difficulty following John’s flexible sense of rhythm.

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Recognizing a good thing, the major label Columbia went to Atlanta to find its own fiddling star and discovered another talented old timer: James Gideon “Gid” Tanner, a local chicken farmer and entertainer. Tanner was Carson’s number-one rival on the fiddle contest circuit, and the two alternated taking top honors. Tanner went to New York to record for the label in early 1924, accompanied by a younger, blind guitarist named Riley Puckett. Puckett was an established entertainer in the greater Atlanta area, who made his mark both at fiddlers’ meets and on WSB; the local press dubbed him the “Bald Mountain Caruso.” Not surprisingly, Columbia had them cover Carson’s first hit, “Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane,” at this first session. Tanner sang in a comically high falsetto voice, and his fiddle playing was in the rough, often loose rhythmic style typical of his generation of Georgia fiddlers.

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In 1926, Columbia urged Tanner to form a band. He invited the younger Georgia fiddler Clayton McMichen to join with him and Puckett, along with banjoist Fate Norris (who can just barely be heard on their recordings) to form the original Skillet Lickers. Influenced by the jazz and pop music of the ‘20s, McMichen was intent on giving the group a more modern sound. Unlike in other string bands, the banjo was always kept discreetly in the background, perhaps reflecting McMichen’s feeling that the instrument was old-fashioned and not suited to his more modern, hard-driving music. Among their popular recordings were traditional dance numbers like “Soldier’s Joy” and ragtime-era hits like “Bully of the Town.” Their series of comic records, titled “A Corn Licker Still in Georgia,” gave the band a chance to play portions of their most popular numbers, alternating with a somewhat stilted, scripted routine.

Want to read more? Check out Country Music: A Very Short Introduction on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Country-Music-Short-Introduction-Introductions-ebook/dp/B07XVQ6V8H/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=Country+Music%3A+A+Very+Short&qid=1573067965&sr=8-1

or buy directly from OUP: https://global.oup.com/academic/product/country-music-a-very-short-introduction-9780190902841?q=Country%20Music:%20A%20Very%20Short&cc=us&lang=en

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