Archive for the ‘Clayton McMichen’ Category

Swamp Opera

August 1, 2014


edited from “78 Blues,” by John Minton:

His musical success notwithstanding, Gid Tanner never gave up the homeplace, contenting himself with traveling to fiddle on the streets of Atlanta when it was too wet to plow.  Despite his best efforts, Clayton McMichen could never pursue music as is sole profession, even after decades as a major recording artist and radio star.  He ended his own days as a welder.

If the phonograph record enabled the Skillet Lickers to visit an audience beyond the wildest imaginings of previous generations of southern fiddlers, the hillbilly record radically restricted that listenership.  As Mac discovered to his lasting chagrin, New York violinists waxed hot jazz for mass consumption; Georgia fiddlers canned corn for folks downhome.

At their best, Skillet Licker records precariously balanced the coarse (epitomized by Tanner) and the fine ( what Mac wanted), crafting timeless art from the common-as-dirt dilemmas of the prewar South.  The records are enduring portraits of their makers, especially of Clayton McMichen, who despite his aversion to corny fiddling, despite his affection for symphony orchestras, found himself relegated to the role of a miserable squatter, fiddling endlessly in a dismal swamp where even frogs were out of their element.

Years later, Mac dressed his feelings in that very idiom, dismissing his music as a ludicrous compromise of coarse and fine:

“I notice in my thirty-five years of show business that there’s 500 pairs of overalls sold to every one tuxedo suit.  That’s why I stick to swamp opera.”







Natchee the Indian and Clayton McMichen

May 11, 2014
Cowboy Copas Natchee the Indian

Cowboy Copas, Natchee the Indian, and an unidentified bassist


Natchee the Indian was born Lester Vernon Storer around 1913 in Peebles, Ohio. He was an old-time musician whose tricks included loosening the bowstrings and playing with the bow on back side of the fiddle and the strings against the fiddle strings. The trick fiddler was popular in West Virginia and southern Ohio in the early 1930s before being hired by Sunbrock to play against the top fiddlers including McMichen, Curly Fox and Clark Kessinger.

In the mid-1930’s Natchee and guitarist Lloyd “Cowboy” Copas traveled with promoter Larry Sunbrock, whose staged fiddle contests were fixed (most of the fiddlers were paid a flat fee by Sunbrock regardless whether they won or lost. Curly Fox was paid a fee of $250). There is some doubt that Natchee, who dressed as an indian, was even an Indian; he was rumored to be either Italian or Greek.

To add to the confusion, he worked on radio with “Indian Bill and Little Montana” (Bill and Evalina Stallard). He also worked around Dayton and Cincinnati with Emory Martin and with Jimmie Skinner. Aside from all rumors, people who saw Natchee remembered him for his showmanship. By the 1950s was found living in Chicago.

Juanita McMichen Lynch, Clayton’s daughter knew him. When I asked her about Natchee she handed me a photo of him (see last blog) and related how Natchee turned up broke and dirty at Bert Layne’s door. Dooley (Bert’s wife, who was her mother’s sister) let him in- he hadn’t eaten or bathed in days. After he showered and ate they turned him loose, never to see or hear from him again.

Times were hard in the 1930s. Sometimes performers had to play anywhere just to survive. Maybe we should just let Merle Travis tell the story of McMichen and Natchee, after all he was there in 1937, playing with the Georgia Wildcats.

According to Travis in his The Clayton McMichen Story 1982: “We played lots and lots of major theaters, the biggest halls in many towns. A man named Larry Sunbrock was doing the bookings. They called them “Fiddlin’ Contests” but they were nothing more than today’s country Music Spectaculars.

They had worlds of people who were famous on the radio. Records didn’t mean alot they couldn’t be played on the radio. Records were something you did now and then. We would go to one big city, say Cleveland- Larry Sunbrock would buy an hour each day on two different radio stations.

One hour was taken by Clayton McMichen and his Georgia Wildcats. The other was taken by Natchee The Indian and his band which was fronted by a young feller who called himself Cowboy Copas.

“We were all friends but you’d never know it by listening to our radio programs. We’d play our show and all week this is the way things would go. McMichen would say in his nasal Georgian accent: Howdy, howdy howdy. I hear there’s an Indian in town playing on another station that thinks he can beat me fiddlin’. If that indian Natchee beats me Sunday, I’ll eat my fiddle on the stage.”

“On the other show Cowboy Copas, doing the talking for Natchee the Indian (Natchee never talked on the radio) would say: I’m just a country boy from Oklahoma. This Indian Natchee is my friend. There’s a man named Clayton Mcmichen that says he can beat my Indian friend fiddlin’ but come down Sunday afternoon and we’ll send this braggin’ Georgian back down south were he belongs.”

“This was the way Larry Sunbrock wanted things to go. There’d be arguments, fist fights and hair pullin’ to show faith in their favorite fiddler. Pepole would line up for blocks, they wanted to get in and root for their fiddler to win. The way of judging was to hold a hand over each fiddler’s head and judge from the applause. McMichen got a nice response but when the hand went over Natchee the Indian they almost tore the house down- Natchee was the winner.

Clayton McMichen went to the microphone and delivered this classic speech: Ladies and gentlemen, all of you who applauded for me, much obliged.. and the rest of you can just go to hell.”

Clayton McMichen (#2)

May 8, 2013


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

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.  (more...)

Clayton McMichen

November 10, 2012


Clayton McMichen: The Traditional Years, by Charles Wolfe

Between the two of them, Arthur Smith (who died in 1973) and Clayton McMichen (1900-1970) pretty much determined the direction of modern southern folk fiddling styles. A lot of the music of today’s fiddling contests, a lot of the bluegrass fiddling styles, and even notions of back-up fiddling can be traced back to these two men. Both reached their peaks of popularity in the 1930’s, and both lived to see themselves become “living legends” – – whatever that phrase means.

Smith, in his quiet, serious way, was bemused by all the hoopla; McMichen, in his fierce individualism, was on occasion outraged by it. Though the tunes and the styles of these two men are apparent at almost every serious southern fiddling meet today, little of their work has been available on LP. Generations of people know of them only indirectly, through the work of other fiddlers. To partially remedy that, we are proud to pre­sent the first reissue devoted solely to the fiddle music of Clayton McMichen.

McMichen’s career has generally been divided into two major parts: the music he made in the 1920’s and early 1930’s, when he was prob­ably the most frequently recorded old-time fiddler, and when he work­ed on countless records with traditional musicians like Riley Puckett and the skillet Lickers; and the music of the mid-and -late 1930’s, when Mac fronted his own band, the Georgia Wildcats, and moved out of traditional mountain style music into the newer, jazz-influenced west­ern-swing style. There is much rewarding music in each of these two eras of Mac’s career, but generally the music of the 1920’s appeals to a different audience than does the music of the 1930’s. For this reason, we have decided to concentrate on the “traditional” side of Mac’s music in this LP. A later album is projected to document the 1930’s music.

Clayton McMichen was born in Allatonna, Georgia, northwest of Atlanta, on January 26, 1900; as a boy Mac learned to fiddle from his father and his uncles, some of whom were formally trained and on occasion played Viennese waltzes as a chaser for their hoedowns. Young McMichen won his first fiddle contest in 1914, the year World War broke out; he was to continue winning contests throughout his life, and in one incredible spell from 1925-1932 he won the National Old-Time Fiddling Championship for eight years in a row. During World War I Mac moved to Atlanta and started working as an automobile mechanic, and then for a time as a railroad fireman.

He met a number of other young local musicians who were interested in old time tunes as well as modern styles; Atlanta in the early 1920’s was a bustling city as interested in the new-fangled jazz styles as old time music. Mac met up with people like Mike and Charles Whitten, Ezra Ted Hawkins (man­dolin player), singer Riley Puckett, and fiddler Lowe Stokes. Stokes was to be a special influence on Mac; they roomed together in Atlanta, and Stokes passed onto Mac some of the fiddle style he had learned from the legendary fiddler from north Georgia, Joe Lee. Lee taught Stokes a form of long bow style, and showed him how to keep his strings run down to standard or lower pitch to give him a mellower tone and allow him to engage in fancy fingering. Stokes passed on much of this to Mac, and Mac eventually developed it into his own “superstyle.” It was a style characterized by adapting the finely-noted, high-precision long bow style to the drive and rhythm of the older southeastern mount­ain fiddling patterns.

By 1922 Mac had formed his first band, The Hometown Boys, and they were among the first acts to perform on Atlanta station WSB. The group made its first records in 1925, but they weren’t successful; they were fiddle standards played with a touch of dixieland jazz, and a bit odd for the day. Mac played in fiddling contests in Atlanta, and at one time helped start a new Fiddlers’ Association devoted to counteracting the predominance of John Carson and Gid Tanner in Georgia fiddling.

But a few years later, Mac joined forces with Gid Tanner to form the Skillet Lickers, the most famous old-time band of the 1920’s. Mac and Lowe Stokes did much of the lead fiddling on the nearly one hundred sides the Skillet Lickers made between 1926-1931. Mac also recorded with his own group, McMichen’s Melody Men, a series of more modern, sentimental numbers, but these seldom sold as well as the hell-for-leather breakdowns of the Skillet Lickers. (The one exception was the Melody Men’s “Sweet Bunch of Daisies.”) In fact, in the late 1920’s Mac was recording with as many as nine or ten “splinter groups” in addition to The Skillet Lickers.

McMichen felt confined by the more traditional music; he wanted to break out, experiment, push his music in the direction of pop. He finally broke with the Skillet Lickers in 1931, and joined forces with a young hot guitarist named Slim Bryant to form the Georgia Wildcats. He also worked with Jimmie Rodgers during this time, and Rodgers re­corded Mac’s “Peach Picking Time in Georgia” as one of his big hits. Mac began playing more and more around the Cincinnati area, and at times led a full-fledged dixieland band. Throughout the 1940’s he play­ed for WAVE in Louisville, and retired in 1955 to run a tavern. He was rediscovered by fans of the folk music revival in the 1960’s, and made several concert appearances before fans who remembered him primarily as a Skillet Licker. But even then Mac would not be confined to the old forms: on one occasion he brought along an accompanist who promptly plugged in a big electric guitar!

Some of the records on this LP were among the most popular old time sides ever recorded; others (such as those from the Depression years of 1930-31) sold so few copies that for all practical purposes they were never released to the public. However, they represent some of Mac’s finest music, and deserve wider exposure. In general, we have tried to present a cross-section of Mac’s music here: the traditional pieces (and make no mistake: in spite of his reservations about tradition­al music, Mac was one of its finest performers); the sweet, sentimental pieces; and the swing-styled pieces.