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.