John Bohn Fleet Stanley, left, plays a Drobo guitar, Larry Holcombe plays bass guitar, Phil Tanner plays guitar and Phil’s son Russ Tanner, right, plays fiddle as members of the Gwinnett County musical group, the Skillit Lickers
James Gideon Tanner — better known as Gid — was a farmer in Dacula and played the fiddle on the side.
By 1926, he and other musicians such as Clayton McMichen on fiddle and Riley Puckett on guitar, created a group called Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers, recording country and bluegrass music from 1924 to 1934. The men sold millions of records for their songs, like “Down Yonder” and “Pass Around the Bottle and We’ll All Take a Drink.”
The original group members eventually dispersed while Tanner’s son Gordon took the reins with a new round of performers until he passed away in 1982. Four generations later, thanks to the younger Tanners wanting to take over, The Skillet Lickers are still alive and well and performing on a regular basis.
“According to historians, they were one of the most famous string bands of that era,” said Phil Tanner, who is a third generation member of the group. “My dad (Gordon) continued the group on. He was 15 or 16 years old when (The Skillet Lickers) recorded their last recording session in San Antonio, Texas, and he was the lead fiddle player.”
Nowadays, Phil Tanner, his son Russ and friends Fleet Stanley, Larry Holcombe, Joel Aderhold and Brian Morgan still meet in The Chicken House — yes, that was once an actual chicken house — behind the Tanner house off of Auburn Avenue in Dacula to pick, string and sing old-time tunes from Gid Tanner’s time. The men tune their instruments under a tin roofed porch before “jamming.” Before they had this playing space, they practiced in the house.
“I think it got so crowded in the house, (we) had to do something,” Stanley said. “They had quit laying chickens and hens, so we started playing out here. When I’d come home (from living in Washington, D.C.), this is where we’d play.”
“Ran the chickens out and put a floor in,” Phil Tanner said with a laugh.
When the shack was converted in 1955, Phil Tanner and Stanley remember two oil drums that were cut in half with smoke stacks out the roof, which kept them warm during the winter months.
“If you sat too close to the drums, you were too hot and if you sat too far away, you were too cold,” Stanley said. “You’d rather be too hot so you could feel your fingers.”
Now almost 50 years later, the guys don’t really remember how they got in the group — or when, for that matter, Stanley and Phil Tanner knew each other from high school and had a band together. Holcombe would jam with the guys at The Chicken House for fun and never left. Russ Tanner, well, he’s just part of a family with music in his blood.
“Shoot. I guess I’ve always tagged along. I don’t know when it was an official start or not. Maybe in the ’80s,” Russ Tanner said while holding his hand-crafted fiddle. “I’ve just always been around it, so I guess I didn’t know any different.”
As times are changing, so is the music. The men believe that this old-time genre is being left behind. “We figure when the older generation is gone, there won’t be any demand for us,” Stanley said. “People don’t know the older style guitar and music.”
But a fifth-generation Tanner has begun to take an interest in the music. Phil Tanner’s 13-year-old granddaughter plays the fiddle for different events. “She already knows how to play ‘Down Yonder,'” Stanley said of the young musician.