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.”