Gid Tanner



James Gideon “Gid” Tanner was born at Thomas Bridge, near Monroe, Georgia on June 6, 1885 and spent most of his adult life in Gwinnett County, where he made a living as a chicken farmer. His older brother Arthur played banjo and later recorded some with Gid. When he was fourteen his uncle died leaving Gid his fiddle. He soon learned to play the fiddle and became known in local circles for his prowess with the instrument. Tanner would play in front of stores downtown when the ground was too wet to cultivate.

After he married and settled down he moved to Dacula, Georgia in Gwinnett County. His wife, Alice, liked the playing of Earl Johnson, who studied violin and could read music. At one point she tried to get her husband to read music so he could play like Earl but her efforts were not successful. Tanner remained an old-time stylist whose personality made up for his technical shortcomings.

As a young man he was a regular participant at the Georgia Old-Time Fiddlers’ Conventions, held annually in Atlanta between 1913 and 1935. His name was registered in the 1913 competition though there is no record of him winning a prize. Tanner was again present when the fiddlers of Georgia convened at the Atlanta City Auditorium in 1915. A reporter at that year’s convention called him “Gwinnett County’s Laughing Rufus,” and when Tanner appeared on stage he used several different voices to advantage in two or three songs he made up himself. It is said that he got frequent requests for encores that displayed his fiddling and was often asked to perform imitations of people.”

Soon the competition between Tanner and three time winner Fiddlin’ John Carson was played-up in the local Atlanta press. Tanner was known among musicians and convention audiences as the most outrageous clown of all the fiddlers. Here’s an account of Tanner from Gene Wiggins in his book, Fiddlin’ Gone Crazy: “Looking and sounding funny was his specialty.  A big, roan-haired, ruddy-faced oaf, he had a deep bass and a high falsetto. He could throw his head back so far that he looked decapitated. He could turn it around almost completely, like an owl. He could thrust out his lower lip so as to give the impression of some sort of strange fish.” 

Gid was a comedian noted for his stereotypical imitations and a singer with legendary range. Tanner allegedly knew the words and music to more than 2,000 songs. The favorite among his audiences was “I’m Satisfied,” which he sang in alternating falsetto and bass registers. When Tanner sang the song at the fiddlers’ conventions, newspapers reported that he “brought down the house” and would have to sing several encores “before the audience would let him go.” His performances stopped the show at the 1914 and 1916 conventions when the capacity crowd of 5,000 kept yelling for more Gid.

Tanner managed to win championship in 1928 more from crowd appeal and his fame as a recording star than the judges’ scorecards. Even though he was taken to task for his fiddling by fellow Skillet Licker McMichen, Gid remained the most popular Skillet Licker and his name is most often associated with the group.

Here’s story from Wiggin’s book that was told by Carson’s grandson and confirmed by Tanner himself. One time Tanner went with Fiddlin’ John Carson to play a show. They left early in the morning and brought along fishing and bait. Arriving early, they went fishing and had a few drinks. After a bit they became hungry and Clyde, Carson’s son, was sent to get a few cans of spaghetti. Gid opened a can of spaghetti and placed it beside his can of worms. He was watching his line and getting bites when he reached down for some spaghetti but grabbed the can of worms instead.
After dumping some worms in his mouth he ate them, still watching his line. John watched him in awe and stuttered, “H-How wa-was the spaghetti G-Gid?”
“Pretty good” replied Tanner, “a little gritty, seemed like.”

Gid Tanner’s Radio And Recording Career
When Atlanta’s WSB radio began broadcasting country music in 1922 Tanner performed on several broadcasts. He performed frequently with guitarist Riley Puckett.

After the success of Fiddlin’ John Carson with Okeh in 1923, Columbia sent a representative to Atlanta looking for other old-time (hillbilly) southern music performers. After hearing about Tanner they invited him to NYC on March 7, 1924 to record. Tanner brought Puckett with him to sing and play guitar. The eleven songs they waxed for Columbia sold well established them as a rising star at Columbia. They were invited back and in September 1924 cut more sides with Riley playing banjo this time.

In later years when Gid had false teeth, he would take them out so he would look funny. The story goes that a lady walked up to him and after looking at his mouth shouted, “You haven’t got any teeth!” Gid replied, “No ma’am, I was born that way.”

Gid’s Later Life
Although Gid stopped recording, he remained active and attended fiddle competitions. As late as 1955 when he was 70 years old, Gid won the Old-Time Fiddler’s Contest in Atlanta. At his death in 1960, just three weeks shy of his seventy-fifth birthday, Tanner left behind a living legacy of his work as a musician. His grandson Phil Tanner and Phil’s son, Russell, both fiddlers, are still actively performing in an old-time string band that retains the name Skillet Lickers. Four generations of Tanners have kept Georgia’s old-time music alive for more than a hundred years. Tanner was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 1988.


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