by Mark Humphrey (from notes to “Legends of Old Time Music,” Vestapol DVD)
Country music’s first notable guitarist was Sam Fleming McGee. He joined the Grand Ole Opry shortly after the program’s 1925 birth and lived to perform at the 1974 open- ing of Opryland. McGee’s lifelong proximity to the Nashville mainstream made him an exception to the ‘Rip Van Winkle syndrome’ which often characterized the repertoire of many old time musicians. Having never stopped performing, McGee never ceased to arrange new material (some as surprising as Nancy Sinatra’s These Boots Are Made for Walkin’) in his gregariously old timey way.
A fiddler’s son with sundry musical siblings and older relations, McGee was born in 1894 in Williamson County, Tennessee. McGee was surrounded by the sounds of fiddles and banjos from boyhood, and once said of his musical clan: “We had more music than anybody in the country. I was raised on string music.”
With a talented fiddler in his father, Uncle John McGee, and likewise his younger brother Kirk, Sam took up instru- ments with which he could ‘second’ them, the banjo and later the guitar. “I liked guitar so much better when I got one,” McGee re- called in an inter- view with Bob Krueger, “I quit play- ing the banjo…” Though McGee reckoned he was 11 when he first ac- quired a guitar from a white neighbor named Tom Hood, he also observed, “Black people were about the only people that played guitars then.” He heard black railroad workers perform blues and from them absorbed elements which characterized his often-bluesy fin- gerpicking.
Following his marriage in 1914, McGee worked as a black- smith and farm-er before a fateful 1925 encounter with “the funniest old man I ever seen in my life”– Uncle Dave Macon – put him in rural show business (he nonetheless continued farming). Impressed by McGee’s skill on guitar, Macon in- vited him to join in his tours of school houses and such events as fiddling contests. At one such contest McGee was praised in a local newspaper for having “produced unheard of music from the guitar…and injected a comedy relief into the pro- gram with an infectious smile which won his audience and held them to the close of the program.”
McGee’s stint with the flamboyant Macon is memorial- ized in an ebullient performance here on banjo of Missis- sippi Sawyer, a tune he knew long before meeting Uncle Dave: Uncle John McGee played it (along with about 300 other tunes) on fiddle. Despite his recollection here of a 20- year association with Macon, the Macon-McGee touring team actually dissolved around 1931, when McGee began perform- ing regularly with brother Kirk and the legendary Fidd-lin’ Arthur Smith in the Dixieliners. Mc-Gee was a strong pres- ence in country music of the 1930s-early 1940s, both on the Opry (as musician and comic) and on the tent show trail with Roy Acuff or Bill Monroe.
By the 1950s, such old timers as the McGee Brothers were being phased out of Opry broadcasts; Sam was increas- ingly involved with farming. It was the interest of urban folk enthusiasts which revitalized his career: Mike Seeger recorded a reunited Dixieliners for Folkways in 1957, which led Sam to the folk festival circuit for much of the remainder of his life. If the 78 collectors were eager to hear the first impor- tant recorded country fingerstyle guitarist (John Fahey cites McGee as an early hero) pick one of the instrumentals from his legendary 1926 Vocalion session such as Buck Dancer’s Choice, McGee was himself no less eager to disprove the ‘old dog/new tricks’ adage.
“Modern songs such as Wheels, Sam stylized by deliberately injecting archaisms,” writes Charles K. Wolfe (Tennessee Traditional Singers: Tom Ashley, Sam McGee, Bukka White, University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, 1981). “Wheels was normally played by modern guitarists with a sharp, electric pizzicato effect, but Sam played it with a smooth, open flowing sound, full of long, sinewy runs typical of his classic style. By putting the burden of tra- dition on form rather than content, Sam found an ideal way to survive commercially and yet maintain some artistic in- tegrity.” McGee died in 1975 subsequent to a farming acci- dent. He offered an epitaph of sorts in 1973 when he re- flected: “I’ve got plenty of good friends, some good land, got three good sons and good grandchildren; I guess maybe my music helped with some of that.”