Down Yonder

By  |  March 3, 2016
“Person with Guitar (Green),” by John Baldessari. Courtesy of the artist “Person with Guitar (Green),” by John Baldessari. Courtesy of the artist

Gordon Tanner was seventeen when he found himself thrust before a microphone, fiddle in hand, at a makeshift Bluebird recording studio in San Antonio’s Texas Hotel. He was a long way from North Georgia. His father Gid—chicken farmer, contest fiddler, and cofounder of the original Skillet Lickers band in 1926—stood beside him, along with the blind guitarist and singer Riley Puckett, a prolific recording artist and bona fide hillbilly star. The rest of the band’s original lineup had changed by 1934, leaving Gordon to take the lead instrumental role previously occupied by Skillet Lickers fiddlers Clayton McMichen, Bert Layne, and the one-handed Lowe Stokes, who played with a prosthetic bow holder after his right hand was shot off during a fight.

Frank Walker, the cigar-chomping A&R man at Columbia Records who signed Bessie Smith (and later, at MGM, Hank Williams), is largely credited with assembling the Skillet Lickers. Based upon his success with Smith, Walker had been put in charge of Columbia’s new “Old Familiar Tunes” catalog in 1925, a collection of what we would now describe as country music. He built Columbia’s catalog swiftly and steadily, going head-to-head with Ralph Peer’s work at Okeh and Victor Records. In 1923, Peer had scored the first real commercial success in country music with his recordings of Atlanta’s Fiddlin’ John Carson, so naturally Walker set his sights on Gid Tanner, Carson’s rival at the Georgia Old-Time Fiddlers’ Convention.

Tanner came to New York several times in 1924 to record for Columbia, bringing his friend Riley Puckett along with him. Within a couple of years, Puckett became one of Walker’s biggest country stars, the “King of the Hillbillies,” whose mellifluous baritone and powerful delivery proved a successful vehicle for the parlor and novelty songs still popular in the mid-1920s. (“We don’t need Jimmie Rodgers,” Walker reportedly quipped, upon hearing Peer’s recordings from the Bristol sessions. “We’ve got Riley Puckett.”)

Walker liked the musical combination of Puckett and Tanner, and saw an opportunity to bring together two of Atlanta’s best-known musicians to create a hit machine for his record company. Of course, he understood that Gid’s popularity was based largely on cut-up showmanship rather than musical prowess, on his ability to perform comedic tricks onstage and imitate a wide variety of voices. To add some fiddle chops to the group, Walker snagged Clayton McMichen, a younger, hipper, and jazzier virtuoso who had been building his own fan base as leader of the Hometown Boys on Atlanta’s WSB radio.

Walker’s instincts paid off. From their recording debut in 1926 to their departure from Columbia in 1931, the Skillet Lickers were one of the most commercially successful string bands in the nation. Their sound was like no other—a wildly careening juggernaut, insanely contrapuntal, and, although their repertoire was largely made up of dance tunes, not particularly danceable.

In the Skillet Lickers’ arrangements, two, sometimes three, fiddles pretended to play together, but diverse abilities and stylistic chasms kept them apart just enough to dilate the melody, replacing its clear line with a dissonant, snaking heterophony worthy of Tibetan oboe music. Puckett, meanwhile, took advantage of his proximity to the microphone as lead singer to assert his powerful and eccentric bass-string runs on guitar, deliberately letting his phrasing fall out of sync with that of the fiddles. As each musician vied for attention, it was a thrilling contest of wills, an electrifying and precarious frenzy. Even today, the joy and excitement of listening to those classic Columbia sides lie in the music’s inherent instability, the feeling that the whole enterprise might come crashing down at any moment. 

By the time Gordon Tanner joined the group, it was the dark days of the Depression, and the raucous bands that had been so popular over the previous decade—none more than the Skillet Lickers—were losing their appeal in the face of country crooners, cowboy singers, and sweet brother duets. But this music was Gordon’s family legacy. The Bluebird session was as much a beginning for him as it was a swan song for hillbilly music’s first supergroup.

The first sign of its decline had come in 1931, when Clayton McMichen left the group to form the Georgia Wildcats, a more swing-oriented group that included, for a time, a young Merle Travis. After the 1934 recording session in San Antonio, the Skillet Lickers’ commercial viability as a professional old-time string band continued to wane. Even so, Gid and Gordon kept the group going, through the lean years of the war and the postwar rise of honky-tonk, bluegrass, and, eventually, the Nashville Sound.

Gordon was an excellent fiddler, and he accompanied his father at small-time gigs around northeast Georgia, the two of them usually picking up musicians from a loose network of acquaintances along the way. (For years, the region was littered with dozens of former Skillet Lickers.) They played on the steps of the Gwinnett County courthouse, for area dances and church gatherings, and hosted regular jam sessions in the Chicken House—a real chicken house turned musical man cave—at their family’s homestead in Dacula.

After Gid died in 1960, Gordon continued these traditions, bringing his son Phil and grandson Russ into the family music-making. Banjoist Uncle John Patterson and guitarist Smokey Joe Miller, who had played with Riley Puckett and understood that idiosyncratic style as well as anyone, became regular Skillet Lickers. Soon, a young professor from the university over in Athens started showing up with his banjo and tape machine.

 

It was a warm evening in May 2015 when I turned off Georgia 316, the bustling and soulless four-lane highway that runs by warehouses and the Gwinnett County Airport as it cuts a dreary concrete path between Atlanta and Athens. I was headed toward Gid Tanner’s old place in Dacula for the Skillet Lickers’ annual Spring Cookout: part church supper, part festival concert, and part family backyard party.

When I arrived, I found Russ Tanner in cargo shorts, flipping burgers and pushing hot dogs around a propane grill. As the current fiddler and occasional mandolinist of the Skillet Lickers, Russ is the most accomplished musician of the group. He and his father, Phil, lead the band in its present formation; Russ’s grown boy, Josh, who would have been the fifth-generation Tanner to join up, doesn’t play music, though he’s got a talent for promotion and helped to organize and publicize the cookout. Russ introduced me to their Dobro player, Fleet Stanley, nephew of Roba Stanley, one of the first women to record country music. Then Russ told me about the time he got to play great-grandpap’s fiddle at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. Like Gordon before him, Russ knows that the history of country music is the story of his family.

Art Rosenbaum, who’d driven over from Athens, ambled up silently as Russ and I talked over the grill. A smallish man with wisps of gray hair tucked under a tight-fitting baseball cap, Art is a living legend of traditional Georgia culture. An extraordinary banjo player and singer and a prolific documenter of the old-time and folk music of the region, he came to Georgia from the University of Iowa in 1976 to teach painting at UGA and he’s known the Tanner family ever since. Like many of his generation, Art came to old-time music by way of the urban folk revival, then spent the next half-century collecting ballads, spirituals, fiddle music, and blues directly from their homegrown sources. In 2007, a retrospective of his collecting career, Art of Field Recording, was issued by Atlanta-based Dust-to-Digital. The following year it won the Grammy for Best Historical Album.

A Jew from upstate New York who grew up in Indiana, Rosenbaum has always been right at home among the Tanners, their extended family, and their conservative Christian community, where music is what brings people together—the shared love for the traditions, the common ground. He’s a rare outsider who has made himself an insider, wholly and sincerely. For Art, the music and the people are inseparable.

He told me about his discovery, upon arriving in Georgia forty years before, that Gordon Tanner had kept his father’s legendary band alive. Art shared stories of their jam sessions, of the Skillet Lickers recordings he produced. “Their sound changed,” he explained. “They still do some of the old numbers that Gid and Riley liked to do, but they picked up lots of bluegrass and other modern sounds along the way.” During a recent show, he asked the man sitting next to him what he thought of the performance. “Pretty good, but they don’t sound like the Skillet Lickers,” the neighbor replied. “What do you mean?” Art exclaimed. “They are the Skillet Lickers!”

After moving through the buffet line, a typical assortment of chips, slaw, baked beans, and broccoli salad laid out on folding tables near the top of the grassy hill, the modest-sized audience, about fifty people, spread out in folding camp chairs under the shade of oak and sycamore trees. The band started up with little fanfare and began to work through a few Skillet Lickers hoedown favorites like “Rocky Pallet” and “Down Yonder,” interspersed with classic country songs and a couple of bluegrass numbers. On fiddle, Russ guided the band confidently through the material on one of the outstanding instruments made by his father. Then Phil took the lead vocal and Russ showcased his fiddling on “Listen to the Mockingbird,” a holdover from nineteenth-century parlor music and a crowd favorite with its ornithological catalog of trills, glissandi, harmonics, and other fiddle effects.

Though Art has heard the Skillet Lickers countless times and knows their current sound and repertoire, he treated the show as anything but routine. He moved toward the front of the stage, set up his compact camping stool, and pulled a brick-sized portable digital recorder, stereo microphone, and headphones from the outside pockets of his banjo case. Checking levels, he spoke quietly into the microphone to register the date and location, then sat still, attention undivided, to capture the performance of an old-time string band entering its ninetieth consecutive year.

Phil and Russ eventually called on Art to grab his banjo and join them, which he was happy to do. Art played energetically in the old clawhammer style, the way Uncle John Patterson used to play with Gordon Tanner. Then Russ reminded Phil that they had another special musical guest, and Phil laughed at himself for having already forgotten the guest’s name. Grabbing my guitar, I climbed onstage, positioning myself between Art and Russ, and launched into “Way Downtown.”



A homemade sign on the door to the Chicken House reads EST. 1955. It’s not an open-air structure like many coops, but essentially a small rectangular house, with solid walls and a real roof. Russ refers to the place as his “garage,” where he spends much of his free time when he’s not on the road for his day job as a sales rep for a box divider company. He took me inside to show me his recording setup, anchored by a surprisingly large mixing board and an old computer. At the opposite end of the house there’s a self-serve snack bar with candy and a few other items; I grabbed a Skillet Lickers sticker for my guitar case and left two dollars in the fish bowl.

The Chicken House is covered with memorabilia, most of it dusty and under glass. In a large painting by Rosenbaum, Gordon and Phil play their fiddles, and in the background Art rendered a famous photograph of Gid Tanner and Fiddlin’ John Carson standing outside the Georgia Old-Time Fiddlers’ Convention at the old Atlanta Auditorium. The original framed photo hangs on a nearby wall along with most of the extant photos of Gid. Inside a glass case a Gibson oval-hole guitar lies across a publicity photo of Riley Puckett, although it’s not an instrument that he played. Framed 78s with labels from Columbia and Bluebird are hung on the wall in a somewhat haphazard arrangement. There’s an upright piano that looks like it hasn’t been touched in decades, topped with a fiddle, an oil lamp, and a couple cans of bug spray.

Back outside, Phil packed P.A. equipment into the back of his truck, and I offered to lend a hand. I’ve played with all kinds of old-time musicians and bands, but getting to play with the Skillet Lickers—a band I’ve loved and studied for years, a band whose origins are the mythic stuff of country music’s very inception—gave me a special sense of gratification, a palpable connection to history. Phil told me about Country Music Down Yonder, the theatrical presentation he and Russ put together. Dressed like 1920s mobsters, band members depict the various figures involved in the Skillet Lickers’ creation: Gid, Riley, Clayton, and even Frank Walker. Phil is proud of the show because it tells his story, the legacy handed down to him from his father and grandfather, and that, in turn, he’s passed on to his kids. “I’m not doing this because I’m an actor or historian,” he said. “I do it because this is who we are.”


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Greg Reish, a native of Atlanta, is a musician, musicologist, and the director of the Center for Popular Music at Middle Tennessee State University. His album with fiddler Matt Brown, Speed of the Plow, was released in October.