by Eugene Chadbourne (www.cmt.com)
Sid Harkreader is mostly known as a sidekick to the old-time music legend Uncle Dave Macon. A latecomer to a music career, Macon chose Harkreader as his sidekick for his first road tour in the early ’20s. After a well-received jaunt through the South, the duo decided to try to lineup recording activities in New York City.
They got in on the first wave of hillbilly recordings being done, cutting more than a dozen sides for Vocalion in 1924. Both performers became associated with the beginning days of the Grand Old Opry and Harkreader was on-stage regularly at the Opry from the ’30s onward, both with Macon and in other combinations. Harkreader was one of the first historic country players to broadcast live over Nashville’s radio stations WDAD and WSM.
The number of musicians in Harkreader’s family was almost nil, a quiet contrast to the usual scenario with old-time players. Here was a great-great grandfather that had apparently been a fine violinist, and Harkreader’s father hoped that somehow this talent might be passed down to his offspring through the bloodline. His hunch turned out to be correct. The boy picked up most of his early musical knowledge from friends and neighbors at square dances and ice cream parties, taking great care not to get the sticky stuff on the fingerboard.
Once he had mastered the fiddle, he was delighted to realize he could make between ten dollars and 20 dollars per night playing at square dances, and this is how he began building his reputation. He first met Macon in 1923 in a barbershop. The afternoon evolved from haircutting to a musical cutting contest, the two players drawing a large crowd of amused bystanders.
Their playing combination was certainly one of the classic duos in country music, producing, among other sides, one of the great recordings of the standard “Soldier’s Joy,” an instrumental about morphine that dates back to at least the Civil War, which was no doubt used as a musical background for injections and amputations.
Following the first recording session with Macon, the fiddler was approached by a talent scout who offered him a cool grand to cut 24 sides for Paramount. He took along banjo player Grady Moore for the first set of sessions, returning the following year with Blythe Poteet because the former player was too sick to travel. Most of these tracks were reissued in the ’70s by County on their Early Nashville String Band series, and some material by Harkreader has also been released by the JEMF label, which also printed the delightful booklet Sid Harkreader’s Memoirs.
Harkreader was one of the white old-time musicians who openly acknowledged a heavy black influence in his playing. Perhaps it wasn’t in the best taste to acknowledge this musical debt by recording a tune entitled “Southern Whistling Coon,” but this track does demonstrate Harkreader’s enjoyable sideline as a skilled musical whistler and tends to show up in lists of great records involving whistling.