A photo of participants in the Mountain City, Tennessee Fiddler’s Convention of 1925
Richard Blaustein’s “Talking Fiddle” site includes recordings, photos, and history related to fiddlers Am Stuart, J.D. Harris, Charlie Bowman, John Dykes, G.B. Grayson, Jimmy McCarroll, Allen Sisson, the Tenneva Ramblers, the Allen Bros., Clarence Ashley, Ridgel’s Fountain Citians, Tennessee Ramblers, and Vance’s Tennessee Breakdowners.
Charlie Bowman by Richard Blaustein
Charles Thomas Bowman was born in Gray Station, Washington County, Tennessee on July 30, 1889. Playing old time music was a major form of home entertainment for country people throughout the United States and Canada in those days.
Like Clark Kessinger, little Charlie Bowman started out on banjo but soon switched to fiddle. His first fiddle cost $4.5O; fifty cents was a full days wages for a farmhand at that time.
All but one of the nine Bowman children played music; Charlie and his brothers would later record together as The Bowman Brothers. Charlie made his first recording in 1908 — on an Edison cylinder phonograph owned by a neighbor! The Bowman Brothers started playing at local dances and other events. They soon began to get paid for playing music; each of them got seventy-five cents,an impressive amount of money back then.
In 1920 Charlie entered a fiddle contest in nearby Johnson City. First place went to Clayton McMichen, a great North Georgia fiddler who later went on to record with Gid Tanner and Riley Puckett, among others. Charlie took second place, winning thirty dollars! He then entered and won so many fiddle contests in East Tennessee and the surrounding region that other fiddlers started to complain about him!
A revival of interest in old time fiddling was growing all across the United States by that time. In 1923 Victor Records offered Charlie Bowman a recording contract, which he turned down. Al Hopkins was so impressed when he heard Charlie play at a Johnson City fiddle contest that he invited Bowman to join the Original Hillbillies, who were already recording for Okeh. Bowman turned down his offer.
But in 1925, Hopkins and Bowman met again at a now historic fiddle contest in Mountain City in remote Johnson County, the easternmost county in the state.
Getting to Mountain City is still not an easy task today, and one can only imagine what it was like to travel there in old fashioned automobiles over narrow primitive roads back in 1925, Nonetheless a number of major figures in early country music managed to get there, including Fiddlin John Carson, who came up all the way from Atlanta, Georgia. East Tennessee fiddlers swept the contest. Dudley Vance from
Chinquapin Grove near Bluff City in Sullivan County took first prize; Charlie Bowman from Gray Station in Washington County took second place, and the very first Tennessee fiddler to make commercial recordings, Uncle Am Stuart from Morristown in Hamblen County, came in third.
Al Hopkins and the Origina Hillbillies were also there. Hopkins invited Bowman to join the Hillbillies again, and this time Bowman accepted. Country music was taking off, and The Hillbillies were very popular. Charlie and The Hillbillies cut several records for Vocalion in New York City, where they also played on local radio and made lucrative appearances at vaudeville theaters.At the height of their popularity, The Hillbillies played for President Calvin Coolidge and also appeared in a short film.
By 1928, though, Charlie Bowman went back home to East Tennessee. That same year Frank Walker of Columbia Records set up a makeshift studio in Johnson City
and advertised for local talent in area newspapers. Charlie and his brothers auditioned for Walker and recorded a number of classic old time songs and tunes for Columbia.
When Frank Walker returned to Johnson City in 1929, the Bowman Brothers made more records for Columbia; that same year Charlie and his daughters Pauline and Jennie traveled up to New York City and cut several records for Vocalion. Unlike many early old time performers, Charlie continued to work as a professional country entertainer through the Great Depression and the austerity years of World War II,
Charlie Bowman finally retired from show business in 1957, He died on May 8, 1962.