Earl Johnson was a veteran recording artist by 1926 having already waxed records as a member of Fiddlin’ John Carson Virginia Reelers and as a member of the Dixie String Band. Earl formed his own band after winning first prize at Georgia Old-Time Fiddlers’ Convention in 1926, apparently tired of playing second fiddle in the shadow of Fiddlin’ John Carson. Earl Johnson and his Dixie Entertainers played the wild an exuberant style of music that typified the Atlanta string band sound.
They were more than just a clone of Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers, the Atlanta super-band that had struck pay dirt in the early “hillybilly” market. Johnson was regarded as one of the best fiddlers and a passable singer. After all Gid Tanner’s wife was very impressed of Earl Johnson’s fiddle playing. She assumed that Earl was a better fiddler because he read notes. After trying to teach her husband to read, she finally gave up- “thoroughly exasperated.”
Through Johnson’s connection with Okeh, the label that had discovered Fiddlin’ John Carson, The Dixie Entertainers began their recording career on Feb. 21, 1927. By now Ralph Peer was gone and had found greener pastures with the Victor label. Later that summer he would host the “big bang” of Country Music in Bristol and with The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers’ song copyrights securely under his belt would become Country’s most powerful recording mogul.
Earl Johnson was born Robert Earl Johnson on August 24, 1886 in Gwinnett County, Georgia. He learned violin techniques under the tutelage of his father and a correspondence course and formed his first group with his brothers Albert (banjo) and Ester (guitar). Before both of his brothers died in 1923, he played with the well known Fiddlin John Carson and later with his band the Virginia Reelers, and occasionally played with the popular Georgia Yellow Hammers (Phil Reeve, the Yellow Hammer’s manager, guitarist and singer, was born in 1896. A man of many talents he was also a piano tuner (like Johnson) and organized a brass band. In 1916 he was a known as a yodeler, and later became manager of Johnson’s group. Reeve had contacts with Victor records and later managed other Atlanta artists).
Johnson had a reputation that he could play both classical violin pieces and standard fiddle tunes. After trying classic violin he supported the traditional ways of playing the fiddle, according to Earl Johnson: “Back when I was younger I got the idea that violin music might be better than fiddle music so I gave it a good try. I studied several months under a well-known teacher and the longer I worked the more I realized that the fiddle furnished the superior type of music. The violinist doesn’t play his own music he translates somebody else’s ideas. And he concentrates so hard on getting his notes, his rests and all the other details the way the composer wrote them that he can put himself into the music. But a fiddler can cut loose, if he doesn’t like the tune he can improve on it.” (more…)