A Corn Licker Still in Georgia

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by Richard Matteson (http://richardmattesonsblog.blogspot.com)

The famous “Corn Licker Still in Georgia” series of fourteen skits (fourteen sides; seven 78s) originally recorded between 1927 and 1930 consisted of rural humor and social commentary at its best mixed with great fiddling by Clayton McMichen, Bert Layne, Lowe Stokes, and Gid Tanner, the popular crooning of Riley Puckett, and the banjo of Fate Norris and sometimes Gid Tanner. According Clayton from Clayton McMichen Talking: “The Corn Licker Still was Bert Layne and my idea. We had a brother-in-law down there in Georgia that did actually make liquor.”

According to Mac, Wilber C. “Bill” Brown, an A&R man with Columbia Records, took the idea and wrote our scripts for the band members. Another contributor was recording engineer, part-time vocalist Dan Hornsby, who appeared as Tom Sly. Frank Walker, head of the division, also had a hand in the scripts.

Corn Licker Still in Georgia became the Skillet Lickers biggest selling series, reportedly selling over a million units. Not only were the skits funny with great music but they were crafted on personal experience. Clayton McMichen and Bert Layne were two of the Skillet Lickers who actually made money from running moonshine. It must have been doubly funny to them.

According to Juanita McMichen Lynch (Clayton’s daughter) it was a family operation; her uncles would make it and Clayton would help with the supplies and sell it. Bert Layne told Stephen Davis in an interview, “Me and Mac would go out there (to the still) and buy it, you know. We’d give him $4 for a gallon and we’d take it to Cartersville and sell it for $8.” On one trip Clayton was forced to carry two one-gallon jugs to Cartersville under his sister’s large overcoat. One jug went to a restaurant and another to the 5-and-10 cent store!

According to Juanita, “Clayton used to even sell moonshine to the policemen. But they always had to worry about revenuers.” Bert Layne said one day their car, which was loaded with moonshine, slipped off the road and was stuck in the mud. A revenue officer happened by and Clayton, fearing the consequences of getting caught, lifted the car right out of the mud- by himself. Later Clayton remarked, “My boot tracks was in that clay for six months afterwards!”

Here is an example of the dialogue found on the skits:

As the routine opens, Riley Puckett is leading a few of the Skillet Lickers in an old lament called “Rye Whiskey.” A sharp knock at the cabin door brings the music to an abrupt halt. ” Hear, hear! We can’t have all that fuss around here,” protests fiddler Clayton McMichen. “If we’re going to make this liquor, why, let’s make it and get through with it. You go up there on the hill and bring that thumper keg down here and bring that rye paste with you.”

After the still has been assembled, the distilling begun, a customer satisfied, and a few fiddle tunes played, the inevitable happens. “All right, you boys, stick ‘em up, there, we got you covered!” a revenue officer barks. “Who’s running this place?”

“I’m running it myself,” McMichen answers in a slow, sly drawl. “What kind of a run you got started?” “We got about five hundred gallons done run off.”

“I’m sorry,” says the officer, “we’ll have to bust you up and take you down to Gainesville.”

But the wily McMichen is ready for him. “Well, looks like there’s some way to get out of this,” he says, offering the officer a taste.

Though he refuses at first, the revenuer is finally obliged to comment, “Well, that is pretty good liquor, I’ll admit that! What’s all these instruments doing around here?”

“All right boys, come on play him a little tune,” McMichen exhorts. “Whoop it on up. It’s either play or go to jail.” After more product demonstrations and a rousing rendition of “Pass Around the Bottle,” the officer is won over.

“Tell you what I’m going to do, Mac,” he proposes, “I’m going to let you off this time if you’ll give me about ten of those cans. Can you do that?”

“I’ll give you a hundred if you want,” McMichen replies happily.

“I want you to keep quiet from here on,” the officer warns. “Good luck to you boys!” Of course, the narrow escape calls for a celebration and the band strikes up the old fiddle tune “Katie Hill.”
The next time they come in contact with the law, the moonshiners aren’t so lucky, and for a while they find themselves on the chain gang. Nevertheless, a public letter-writing campaign gets the popular string band paroled.

“Now you boys go home,” the warden tells them, “and remember, don’t make any more corn liquor.”

“We’re through for good,” McMichen promises. Back home in the mountains, however, the musical moonshiners distill some potent economic theory. “We got about five, six hundred bushels of corn out yonder in the crib that’s going to ruin if we don’t do something with it, ” McMichen observes.

“I don’t think there’s no use to try to farm no-how as long as Prohibition’s in effect,” banjoist Fate Norris comments.

“What’s the use to try and sell corn for two dollars a bushel in the ear when you can get $20 for a can?” asks Riley Puckett.

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