On 28 November 1925 a white-bearded man sat down before one of the Nashville radio station WSM’s modern carbon microphones to play some old-time fiddle tunes. Uncle Jimmy Thompson played on the air for an hour that night, and throughout the region listeners took notice.
In Nashville the response at the offices of National Life and Accident Insurance Company, which owned radio station WSM, was dramatic. It was not long before the station manager was besieged by pickers and fiddlers of every variety, all wanting their shot at the Saturday night airwaves.
By 1940 the Grand Ole Opry had found its national audience and was poised to become the legendary institution that it remains to this day.
This according to A good-natured riot: The birth of the Grand Ole Opry by Charles K. Wolfe (Nashville: Country Music Foundation, 1999). Above, Ernest Tubb at the Opry. Below, Roy Acuff offers his imitation of a train whistle.
Although the genre was yet to be named, the addition of Earl Scruggs (1924–2012) to Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys provided the crowning moment in the definition of bluegrass.
Scruggs astounded everyone. His extraordinary banjo style allowed him to roll out a rapid barrage of notes that nevertheless sounded out the melody as clearly as the fiddle.
What is now known as “Scruggs-style” banjo playing became the final critical component of Bill Monroe’s undeniably distinctive sound that would eventually be called bluegrass.
This according to Homegrown music: Discovering bluegrass by Stephanie P. Ledgin (Westport: Praeger, 2004).
Today is Scrugg’s 90th birthday! Above, Monroe, Lester Flatt, and Scruggs at the Grand Ole Opry in 1945; below, Scruggs and friends on David Letterman’s show in 2001.
During the first half of the 20th century a mania for yodeling seized America, catapulting its greatest practitioners to national celebrity. Though yodelers once numbered among America’s best-known vocalists, their names have faded from public memory with the exception of Jimmie Rodgers and a few movie cowboys.
While the Arkansas native Elton Britt was billed as “The World’s Highest Yodeler”—his stardom was such that he performed at the White House for Franklin Roosevelt, and then ran for president himself in 1960—neither he nor any other vocalist of the period approached the range of sounds coaxed from the human voice by two girls from a farm just outside Royalton, Minnesota.
Among the first female country singers to appear on stage without husbands or fathers, The DeZurik Sisters (Mary Jane and Caroline, with Lorraine later replacing Mary Jane) always appeared as a duet, amazing audiences with their rapid, high-pitched yodels that often spiraled into animal sounds. In fact, so convincing were their chicken yodels that the act was renamed The Cackle Sisters when they joined the Ralston Purina Company’s Checkerboard time radio program as regulars from 1937 to 1941.
This according to “The DeZurik Sisters: Two farm girls who yodeled their way to the Grand Ole Opry” by John Biguenet (Oxford American, summer 2005; reprinted in Da Capo best music writing 2006, pp. 92–99) Below, a rare video of Caroline and Lorraine.
Related article: Jimmie Rodgers and semiotics
The extraordinary popularity of Hank Williams’s songs in the late 1940s and early 1950s played a crucial role in transforming country music from a regional and class-bound genre to a staple of mass popular culture.
Yet Williams’s narratives exuded a fatalism and despair about personal relationships, resisted romantic optimism, and avoided the kinds of closure and transcendence historically associated with male subjectivity.
His refusal to embrace dominant cultural narratives gave an individual voice to collective fears and hopes about the body, romance, gender roles, and the family.
This according to “‘Everybody’s lonesome for somebody’: Age, the body and experience in the music of Hank Williams” by Richard D. Leppert and George Lipsitz (Popular music IX/3 [October 1990] pp. 259–274).
Today is Williams’s 90th birthday! Below, a live recording of his classic expression of male vulnerability.
“I was about six when I started smoking cedar bark and grapevine, and rolling up Bull Durham” writes Willie Nelson. “I was trading a dozen eggs for a pack of Camels.”
“Then I ran into beer and whiskey, pills, and then pot. By then I was twenty-five years old and my lungs were killing me….So then I said to myself, “Hey, you’re not getting high on cigarettes, and they killed half your family….”
“So I started quitting everything. No more cigarettes at all. I started running again and getting back in shape.”
“I took my cigarettes and threw them away. I rolled up twenty joints and put them in the cigarette package, and every time I wanted a cigarette, I smoked a hit or two off a joint instead. One joint would last all day and it worked for me.” (Roll me up and smoke me when I die: Musings from the road [New York: HarperCollins, 2012] p. 121).
Today is Nelson’s 80th birthday! Below, the book’s namesake.
When David Holt asked Doc Watson to write an autobiography, he declined. Holt then said “What if you just tell your stories? I can ask you questions and we can record it and you can tell your stories yourself.”
Watson agreed, and in 2002 they released Legacy, a three-CD set that comprises an oral memoir by the country music legend; it won the Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album the next year.
This according to “Doc Watson and David Holt” by Carol Mallet Rifkin (Acoustic guitar XXII/6:228 [December 2011; online only]).
Today would have been Doc Watson’s 90th birthday! Below, Watson and Holt perform together in 2007.
Maintained since 1996 by Charley Pennell, a cataloguer at the D.H. Hill Library at North Carolina State University, Bluegrass discography lists bluegrass singles, LPs, tapes, CDs, and videos by label, performer, and album. Resources for obtaining these publications are also listed.
Below, the legendary Flatt & Scruggs perform Foggy mountain breakdown.
Jimmie Rodgers’s recordings present nearly all of the yodel types used by hillbilly singers, including nonsense-syllable strands, breaking voice registers while singing words, and brief falsetto grace-note descents into his natural voice. His yodels contain influences from both African American (falsetto upward leap at the end of words) and European (word-breaking) traditions.
Home tropes evoke themes of home, family, regret, return, or nostalgia; subdominant tropes represent carefree cheerfulness; blues tropes conjure masculine braggadocio themes.
Rodgers applies grace notes according to the pathos of the lyrics, and his hummed or moaned yodels are toned down for mainstream appeal. He was a carrier of tradition—his yodels connect to ragtime and blues, as well as to nineteenth-century European yodels, song types, and decorative devices.
This according to “Jimmie Rodgers and the semiosis of the hillbilly yodel” by Timothy Wise (The musical quarterly XCIII/1 [spring 2010] pp. 6–44).
Below, the Yodeling Brakeman offers a semiotic exegesis on the letter T.
Related article: Romy Lowdermilk redux
In the mid-1990s a staff member at the American Folklife Center received a note asking if the Center would be interested in an old LP of a cowboy singer named Romaine Lowdermilk. Not having heard of the singer, she stopped by the office of the director, Alan Jabbour. “Romy Lowdermilk!” he exclaimed, “Who’s got a recording of Romy Lowdermilk?”
Jabbour knew the name only through prose accounts of the singer (1890–1970), who had written and published several popular cowboy songs (including Going back to Arizona, which Patsy Montana performed as Going back to old Montana). Lowdermilk had stated that he never made a commercial recording; this LP appeared to be a unique record of his singing. The owner generously supplied the disc in 1999 and the Center digitized it, assuming that it was a solitary specimen.
The discovery of an exact copy in 2006 led to a full unraveling of the story. Lowdermilk had recorded several songs in a recording studio in 1951; the studio then had copies pressed on demand for the singer’s clients at Rancho Mañana, the Arizona dude ranch where he worked.
This according to “Long-lost twins: The curious case of the Romaine Lowdermilk discs” by Stephen Winick (Folklife Center news XXXVI/3 [summer 2006] pp. 11–12). Below, Joanna Joseph and Bill Vernieu sing Lowdermilk’s Lee’s ferry-o.