Clayton McMichen (#2)

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from JEMF Quarterly Vol. 11, Part 3 Autumn 1975 Number 39:

CLAYTON McMICHEN: HIS LIFE AND MUSIC 
By Norm Cohen 

In the fifteen or so years of intensive rekin- 
dled interest in old time hillbilly and blues music, 
dozens of elderly musicians who made recordings 
in their youth during the 1920s and 1930s have been 
traced down, visited, interviewed, recorded, and 
then, perhaps, forgotten again. 

Our appetite for such rediscoveries seems to be insatiable; yet what 
of the many ethical questions posed by such acti- 
vity? Sometimes, indeed, an old timer such as 
Clark Kessinger or Mississippi John Hurt is found 
who can slide back into the musical limelight grace - 
fully and happily, enjoying a second career as a 
popular and successful performer. 

Other times a performer is encountered whose musical skills 
have diminished considerably with the passage in 
time; nevertheless, in a confusion of historical 
values with esthetic ones, he is urged to take to 
the college /festival circuit, perhaps frustrating 
himself as much as he disappoints his audiences.

But more often we find a singer or musician who 
never was quite the success that he had wanted to 
be (indeed, most are not); to be sought out thirty 
or forty years later may suggest to him that at 
long last someone has recognized his long -hidden 
talents; that now, fortune will be his if only he 
manages himself a little more carefully and is not 
taken advantage of. 

Other times we find a performer whose musical career was a brief fling of his 
youth; perhaps an embarrassment to him now, and 
certainly nothing to rehash in dreary detail, picking 
out names and dates and facts from the cast-off 
detritus of an aging memory. 

Or, another possibility, the rediscovered artist turns out to be 
intensely hostile to the music business and his for- 
mer associates, never able to forget the fact that 
the success he sought eluded him, and hardly in 
a mood to sentimentalize over old scars and wounds 
that time had failed to heal. Clayton "Pappy" 
McMichen fell into this last category. McMichen was one of the major figures in 
hillbilly/country music in the 1920s and 1930s; 
fortunately, he was interviewed by several folk- 
lorists and country music historians in the twelve 
years before his death in 1970.' Nevertheless, 
whether because of the full and varied nature of 
his musical career or because of his reluctance 
to examine his memory carefully, we are still 
lacking many details such as key dates and per- 
sonnel, and how certain important developments 
came to pass. John Edwards of Australia was one 
of the first country music historians to make con- 
tact with McMichen, in December 1957; Guthrie 
Meade talked with him at about the same time. 
In July 1959, Fred Hoeptner and Bob Pinson 
visited Clayton at his home in Louisville, Kentucky, 
and taped a long interview, which has since been 
transcribed in Old Time Music. ' 

Clayton was born on 26 January 1900 in 
the tiny town of Allatoona, Georgia, northwest 
of Atlanta. His grandfather, who ran a store 
and the local post office, feuded with a Mr. 
Armstrong, who ran a country store. Once, 
Armstrong bought a Columbia cylinder machine, 
so Grandpa McMichen bought an Edison machine, 
which out-drew the customers and gave Grandpa 
all the towns business. Clayton recalls learning 
two songs from Edison cylinders as a boy: Ar- 
thur Collins' "All In Down and Out" (#9492, 
issued March 1907J and Ada Jones' "I Remem- 
ber You" [#10103, April 1909]. 

At the age of eleven, "Mac" learned to 
fiddle from his uncles and from his father, a 
trained musician who played fiddle tunes at 
neighborhood square dances and Viennese walt- 
zes at the uptown hotel society dances. In 1913 
his family moved to Atlanta, and Mac became 
an automobile mechanic. Meanwhile, he would 
hang around Mays Badgett's fiddle repair shop 
during the First World War years, where clas- 
sical violinists would drop in and give him les- 
sons in technique. He was fourteen when he 
entered his first fiddle contest and won third place, 
a prize of $50. 

It was not long after that Mac put together 
his first band. He was firing an engine on the 
Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railroad 
at the time, and used to play and sing with se- 
veral fellow Atlantans. They called their group 
"The Hometown Boys, " after a musical aggre- 
gation in the "Toonerville Trolley" cartoon strip. 
Lhe personnel at that time are not known for 
certain, but probably included himself and Char- 
les Whitten (fiddles), Mike Whitten and Boss Haw- 
kins (guitars), and Ezra (Ted) Hawkins (mandolin). 
Other possible early members were Riley Puckett 
(guitar) and Lowe Stokes (fiddle). 

The Hometown Boys made their radio debut 
on Atlanta's Station WSB on 18 September 1922, 
six months after the station opened and just nine 
days after Fiddlin' John Carson became the first 
rural musician to make a radio broadcast. The 
following day's Atlanta Journal reported their 
success: 

"Introduced Monday as radio entertainers, 
the Hometown Boys' string band, presenting 
W. C. McMichen, first violin; Charles 
Whitten second violin; Miles Whitten, gui- 
tar; Ted Hawkins, mandolin, and Boss Haw- 
kins, guitar, qualified as a combination of 
talent that appealed hugely to auditors both 
in and out of Atlanta.

The members of this informal organiza- 
tion have played together for years and 
even though unaccustomed to the wireless 
game, they made a tremendously impres- 
sive showing. Their numbers included 
"Dapper Dan," "Tuk [sic] Me to Sleep, " 
"Ring's Waltz, " "The Sunshine of Your 
Smile, " and "Alabama Jubilee. " They will 
return to WSB before long and will have a 
brand-new assortment of melodies. " 

The Hometown Boys returned just two days 
later. And on the following Thursday, they brought 
Riley Puckett with them. The Atlanta Journal 
of 29 September wrote, 

"... Shortly after the 10:45 o'clock trans- 
continental concert opened, Dr. Sidney 
Walker, of Dublin, Ga. , telephones to 
say he wanted the Home Town String Band 
to sing or play "Kentucky Home. " He had 
just enjoyed "Little Old Log Cabin in the 
Lane, " sung by Riley Puckett, tenor and 
guitarist, accompanied by W. C. McMichen, 
violinist; Ross [sic] Hawkins, guitarist, 
and Ted Hawkins, mandolinist. Dr. Walker 
soon heard the number he wanted. . . 

On the Home -Town Boys' fine program were 
the "Old Cabin" song, a wonderful yodeling 
solo, by Riley Puckett; "Ring Waltz, " 
"Sweet Bunch of Daisies," "St. Louis 
Blues, " "Wabash Blues, " and other hits. 
Already favorites at WSB, the Home-Town 
outfit scored a knockout by introducing 
Mr. Puckett, as one of their stars Thurs- 
day night. . . "

The Journal continued to report on the succes- 
ses of the Home Town Boys over WSB's nightly 
broadcasts. Other titles mentioned that they 
played on the 9 December show included "St Louis 
Blues," "Three O'Clock, " "Lonesome Mama," 
and "Dixie. " The selections offered on these early 
radio programs indicate that McMichen's band 
was not primarily interested in what we now call 
old-time music, but leaned heavily toward popular 
numbers of the day. This desire of Mac's to play 
contemporary music and not old-fashioned swamp 
opera nagged at his heels for decades, and was 
one of the roots of his continued dissatisfaction 
with hillbilly music and his role in the young indus- 
try. 

Another clue to Mac's early discontent emer- 
ged during the 1921 Atlanta' fiddlers' contest. Sin- 
ce about 1913, Georgia's principal city had staged 
a fiddlers' contest in the city auditorium that drew 
huge crowds and attracted considerable publicity. 
Evidently the city's fashionable set considered it 
quite chic to attend, although whether this was done 
in a mood of "slumming" or not is difficult to dis- 
cern from contemporary accounts. Practically 
since the beginning, the contests were dominated 
by the incomparable showmen and performers, 
Fiddlin' John Carson and Gid Tanner. Carson won 
practically every year, and Tanner won in the years 
when Carson didn't. They were neither of them 
distinguished hoedown fiddlers, but both were ex- 
cellent showmen and amused and delighted crowds 
at each performance. On 29 September, the At- 
lanta Journal reported: 

"On the eve of the opening of the 1921 old- 
time fiddlers' convention at the auditorium 
it is announced that a rival organization 
was formed on Wednesday night which pur- 
ports to be the "real thing," and says the 
existing bunch of fiddlers will not be recog- 
nized by them as the "old-time fiddlers" 
of Georgia. 

The new organization, numbering 20 mem- 
bers and headed by 'Bud' Silvey will not 
recognize the existing organization, ac- 
cording to a statement made by J. J. Owen, 
a member of the new body. "John Carson 
and 'Gid' Tanner can't hold a light to 'Bud' 
Silvey and "Mac" McMichen, " Mr. Owen 
stated Thursday morning. "Our crowd 
represents the real 'Old timey' fiddlers and 
we are going to put on a convention of our own 
in the near future which will outshine any- 
thing the other crowd can do. " 

McMichen was Secretary of this new organi- 
zation. We cannot determine what were the real 
reasons for the formation of this splinter group. 
To deny that Carson and Tanner were old-timey 
fiddlers, and that Mac was, does not square with 
the evidence. Perhaps the younger fiddlers thought 
the main body of fiddlers too old-fashioned for their 
taste, or— more likely--they realized that the 
regular conventions were practically sewn up in 
advance with Carson and Tanner almost guaranteed 
winners. Another complaint voiced in some of the 
press releases was that under the old convention 
rules, participants only get about $2.50 a day; 
the splinter group promised to share proiits equally 
among all members, though vowing to pay burial 
expenses and provide free funeral music for any 
member of their organization who should die. 
Whether anything ever came of this move to form a 
separate organization and hold rival conventions 
is not known to me. The regular organization, 
however, continued to hold annual conventions each 
autumn in Atlanta for many years. 

A few years later another medium of enter- 
tainment opened up to the hillbilly musicians: 
phonograph records. In March 1924, The Colum- 
bia Phonograph Co. brought Atlantans Gid Tanner 
and Riley Puckett to New York to make their first 
recordings --and Columbia's first in the hillbilly 
field. On the 7th of the following July, through 
circumstances that have not been made known, 
Clayton McMichen and his Home Town Band cut 
their first recordings for the rival Okeh Phono- 
graph Corp. in Atlanta. The probable personnel 
at this time were Mac, fiddle; possibly Lowe 
Stokes, guitar; Bob Stevens, 5-string banjo; 
and Bob Stevens, Jr. , clarinet. ' The Stevenses 
were from Lindale, Georgia; these were young 
Stevens' only recordings; he was killed in an 
auto accident on 25 August, while Mac was driving. 
Mac's recording career lasted fourteen years 
more, involving OKeh, Columbia, Crown, RCA 
Victor, and Decca. (A full discography is not 
given here; it is being prepared for publication 
in Old Time Music in the near future. ) These 
first OKeh recordings did not do well; as Mac 
wrote John Edwards years later, "'Sweet Bunch 
of Daisies' ...was strictly a B rody. " As Mac 
recalled it, the first recordings by Tanner and 
Puckett for Columbia did not do very well either 
(nevertheless, they were brought back to New York 
for more recordings in September 1924 and re- 
corded in Atlanta in June and September /October 
1925). According to Mac, "Riley asked me to 
come over to Columbia and reorganize the band."" 
This new group, called on record labels "Gid 
Tanner and his Skillet Lickers, with Riley 
Puckett," made its first recordings in April 1926. 
Because Mac was under contract to OKeh, his name 
did not appear on the label. The personnel of 
the Skillet Lickers varied from time to time, but 
at the early sessions probably consisted of Tanner 
and McMichen, fiddles; Puckett, guitar /vocal; 
and Fate Norris, banjo. Mac strongly resented 
Gid getting all the credit for the fiddling: "Well, 
things went real good and I think they sold about 
750, 000 copies of that first record and from there 
on in we were a hit but here I was --the man doing 
all the work and didn't even have my name on 
the record. I finally raised so much Hell about 
it that Frank B. Walker (Columbia's A & R man) 
put my name on all the records but the damage 
had already been done and Gid was starting to 
be known as the greatest old time fiddler in the 
country. People were hearing me fiddle on the 
records and thinking it was Gid. I started my 
own band as a result and left Gid out of it. " 1" 
Mac's recollection of this sequence of events is 
probably accurate, although the estimated sales 
figure for the early Skillet Lickers' recordings is 
doubtless too large by a factor of ten or so. The 
name for the new band was evidently Mac's idea, 
inspired by one of the most popular aggregations 
at the Atlanta fiddle conventions years earlier, 
the Lick (the)Skillet Band. 

Between that first session in April 1926 
and the last, in October 1931, the Skillet Lickers 
recorded eighty-eight selections, eighty -two of 
which were released. And during that time, Mac 
organized and recorded with a succession of other 

In addition, Mac appeared on all the rural 
dramas, such as the Corn Licker Still series, 
and was uncredited accompanist (on fiddle) for 
several artists or groups: for Riley Puckett, 
Puckett and Hugh Cross, the McCartt Brothers and 
Patterson; and probably for blues singer Virginia 
Childs. 

1931 was the last year with Columbia for the 
Skillet Lickers, either as a group or as individuals. 
In August 1932, Mac accompanied Jimmie Rodgers 
on one session for RCA. A letter from Rodgers 
to McMichen giving details of the forthcoming ses- 
sion is reproduced here. That same month, his 
Georgia Wildcats recorded for Crown in New York. 13 
Between 1937 and 1939 the Georgia Wildcats re- 
corded several times for Decca. For most of these, 
the personnel consisted of Mac and Kenny Newton, 
fiddles; Slim Bryant, guitar; Raymond "Loppy" 
Bryant, bass; and Jerry Wallace, banjo. 

An examination of the recorded output of all 
the various bands headed up by Clayton McMichen 
(which would exclude the Skillet Lickers) indicates 
a repertoire heavily biased in favor of current pop 
tunes, jazzy or uptown country numbers, and, to 
a lesser extent, turn-of -the -century favorites. 
Close to two thirds of the 80 or so titles that 
McMichen recorded for OKeh and Columbia with 
the groups enumerated above were pop tunes of 
comparatively recent (i. e. , less than twenty years 
old) vintage. By contrast, over 90% of the titles 
-sued over the name of the Skillet Lickers were 
older traditional songs, ballads, and fiddle tunes. 
The material cut by McMichen's Georgia Wildcats 
for Decca in the 1930s was even more heavily 
pop-oriented. A notable exception was Mac's final 
1939 session for Decca, at which time he cut an 
album of six old-time fiddle instrumental medleys. 
Apart from his work with the Skillet Lickers, Mac 
was featured on nearly 150 issued sides. Through- 
out his recording career, though his skills as an 
old-time heodown fiddler never waned, McMichen 
leaned toward jazz and contemporary country-pop 
music. As he told Hoeptner and Pinson, ". . .we 
played them Skillet-Licker records like that 'cause 
they paid us to play it like that. The fact of the 
matter, that wasn't what we were wantin' to do. . . . 
I didn't like playin' with Gid and Fate, because they 
just was about thirty years behind us, or forty, 
in the music business...  But in spite of Mac's 
evident desire to create a modern type of country 
jazz, he must have continued to have ambivalent 
feelings. He once replied to a letter from a radio 
listener asking why he played "them silly old tunes" 
with "I notice in my thirty-five years of show busi- 
ness that there's 500 pairs of overalls sold to every 
one tuxedo suit. That's why 1 stick to swamp 
opera. " 

In about 1931-1932 McMichen left the Atlanta 
area for good and settled temporarily in Louisville. 
Through the early 1930s, the Georgia Wildcats 
played regularly on several radio stations, includ- 
ing WAVE and W HAS, Louisville; WGY, Schen- 
ectady; KDKA, Pittsburg; WCKY, Covington, and 
WLW, Cincinnati. In 1939-40 he returned to 
Louisville for a ten-year stint with one sponsor, 
Howell's Furniture Co. , over WAVE, During that 
period his band, still called the Wildcats (or some- 
times the Dixie landers), gave up country music 
and became a dixieland jazz band. They played 
six days a week over the radio, at picnics and parks 
in theaters and in furniture stores, for more 
than ten years, until finally Mac retired from the 
music business in around 1955. At that time he 
owned and operated a beer and whiskey tavern in 
Louisville. 

In the 1960s, interest in old-time music on 
college campuses brought "Pappy" McMichen to 
the University of Illinois and to Newport to per- 
form, but he did not resume extensive activities. 
A serious auto accident in 1964 and, later in the 
1960s, continued bouts with emphysema, limited 
his activities. He died on 4 January 1970 at his 
home in Battletown, Kentucky, not far from Louis- 
ville. 

Pappy never really mellowed in his attitudes 
towards his associates of the 1920s. Though he 
bore my continued questioning in letter after letter 
with patience, finally, a few months before his 
death, he wrote, "It has been aroun 45 years 
since all this happened, and it would take a genius 
to remember all the questions you ask. . . I have 
given you about all the information I can think of, 
so if it is all the same to you, you will be doing 
me a favor to forget about it. In the first place, 
I never got credit for what I did Dn all those 
records I made for Columbia, so it brings back a 
mild case of hatred about the whole deal, as I 
got a whale of a screwing in the deal. So lets you 
and I forget about the whole thing. ... So now don't 
ask me any more questions about that bunch of 
nothing down there in Atlanta. They were all a 
bunch of stab -you-in-the -back no-goods, . . . and 
the more I can forget them, and the longer I 
can keep them forgotten, the better. Sorry to make 
it so blunt, but it is just exactly how I feel about 
it " 

If my brief summary has created an un- 
flattering portrait of Clayton McMichen, I should 
hasten to add that his role in the early develop- 
ment of country music was indeed great; not only 
was he an outstanding fiddler, (he won the Nation- 
al Old-Time Fiddling Championship consecutively 
for 8 years, 1926-1932) but he penned some sig- 
nificant compositions ("Peach Pickin' Time in 
Georgia" is the best-known), and was instrumen- 
tal in starting several musicians (for example, 
Merle Travis) on their careers. He was a for- 
ward-looking musician, who did not try to distin- 
guish between hillbilly, folk, or popular music. 
He wanted to put together the best of the several 
traditions. In the 1920s, his aim was to recreate 
jazz and popular music with a string band. He 
later admitted that Frank Walker had been right; 
those records would not sell anything in comparison 
to the wild, carefree down-home sound of the Skil- 
let Lickers. Nevertheless, he had shaken hillbilly 
music rudely by the shoulders and tried to point it 
in a different direction; a direction that it resisted 
for another decade or more, but eventually followed 
He deserves more credit than the industry gave 
him.
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