Rummaging around Johnson's Depot for archived stories, one of the most surprising revelations to surface was the City's old-time music heritage. Along with several other Appalachian towns, notably Bristol and Asheville, Johnson City was a haven for early recording artists including the legendary Jimmie Rodgers and Blind Lemon Jefferson.
For well over a century, the Northeast Tennessee region has truly been blessed with a profusion of high-quality old-time musicians. The mere mention of “old-time music” conjures up images of a string band, casually dressed in characteristic mountain attire, playing distinctive deep-south non-amplified toe-tapping dance music on their well-worn and sometimes hand-me-down instruments. This simple phrase evokes such language as “Appalachian style,” “authentic,” “acoustical,” “old fashioned,” “grass roots,” “hillbilly,” “pre-bluegrass”and “rural American.”
In tandem with the railroad glory years in Johnson City, several local musicians became quite famous in a genre that is now recognized as the origin of country music. The story of "Fiddlin" Charlie Bowman and his family is fascinating as these gifted musicians merged railroad songs and simulated train sounds into their repertoire and appeared on some of the earliest country music recordings in the U.S.
Charlie was known as “the champion fiddler of East Tennessee,” so named for winning more than two-dozen fiddle contests. His future credentials would include being a 2001 inductee into the North American Fiddler’s Hall of Fame. He was a major recording artist, vaudeville performer, songwriter, and a member of several musical groups, including Al Hopkins and His Buckle Busters (the Hill Billies). Charlie had a talent for generating atypical sounds from his fiddle, ranging from a couple of hound dogs chasing a red fox through the Tennessee hills to a barnyard selection with cacklings from a gobbler and a bantam hen. He could play fifteen standard and several not-so-conventional instruments: brooms, saws, washtubs, thick balloons, a homemade one-string bass, and even an underfeed furnace. In 2006, a major discovery was made of the "Lost Suitcase Collection," a previously unknown cache of photos, tour memorabilia, and news stories on Charlie and the Bowman family of touring musicians.
Fiddle music and railroads played a major role
in Charlie Bowman’s family; both his father, Samuel Bowman, and
grandfather, James Bowman, were old-time fiddlers. His father
worked as a section hand on the East Tennessee, Virginia, and Georgia
Railroad just after the Civil War. Once while serving as a brakeman, he
almost lost his life while switching cars. As a young man, Charlie regularly
assisted his father with odd jobs on the railroad, affording him the opportunity
to become acquainted with several area railroad families. His knowledge
of and appreciation for this unique and important profession is evidenced
in six songs he wrote and performed.
Where were the old-time music venues in Johnson City? Would you believe Fountain Square, home of the current Blue Plum Arts and Music Festival, held a weekly open air music fest? In the 1920s, an outdoor event frequently occurred on Saturday nights along the east side of Fountain Square (opposite the railroad tracks). After the merchants closed and locked their stores on Saturday nights, the locals would begin filtering in from miles around to play their music, drawing huge crowds of appreciative spectators. Fitting the mold of modern day jam sessions, these musicians spanned the talent range from the most experienced celebrities such as the Bowman family to the least skilled aspirants, all equally welcomed to participate. Other venues included the Deluxe (later Tennessee Theatre), the Johnson City Municipal Building Auditorium, and of course the Appalachian Fair. Street musicians performed daily including the legendary blues guitarist, Blind Lemon Jefferson, who lived for a period of time in Johnson City playing music for tips on street corners in the early 1920s. In a 1978 interview, North Carolina musician Walter Davis credited the blues influence and guitar ability of Davis and Clarence Greene (performer of Johnson City Blues) to watching Blind Lemon Jefferson perform on the streets of Johnson City.
On October 13, 1928, the Brading-Marshall Lumber Company’s business office at 334 East Main Street became the scene of a myriad of local musicians, each auditioning for a potential record contract with Columbia Records. A slender middle-aged man, with a straggly beard, listened intently as each individual or group played music, in hopes of being invited back that same week for a recording session in their rented temporary makeshift studio.
Frank B. Walker, head of Columbia Records’
“hillbilly” recordings’ division, was known by Johnson
Citians simply as “Uncle Fuzz”. He acquired his unusual nickname
from having always grown a beard before making such audition trips, perhaps
believing that he could better relate with the people he was recording.
Walker had learned from Ralph Peer of Okeh Records (later switching to
Victor Records) that the best way to capture the true inherent nature
of these musicians was to record them in their natural environments. Historians
would later tag his pioneering efforts as the “Johnson City Sessions.”
Walker returned in October 1929 for another round of outstanding recordings for Columbia. Stars of these sessions included Charlie Bowman, Clarence Greene, the Roane County Ramblers and Clarence "Tom" Ashley. Meanwhile over at 207 West Pine Street, Virgil O'Dell hand crafted bluegrass fiddles in his shop, which still exists today (see photos below of a hand-crafted O'Dell fiddle).
Masters were processed and records were pressed at Palda Records in Philadelphia, another independent producer. Payment to artists was minimal. Most were glad simply to be on records, and a few even paid Stanton for the privilege. Several addresses for Rich-R’-Tone appeared in contemporary trade journals: Rich-R’-Tone Record Co., 113 W. Main Street, Johnson City, Tennessee (January 1949); Rich-R’-Tone and Acme Record Record Co., Inc., Campbellsville, Ky., (August 1952); Rich-R’-Tone Record Co., 407 W. Main St., Morristown, Tenn., (December 1953).
Johnson City appears on record labels
through part of 1950, the year when the operation was moved briefly to
Campbellsville. Labels of 1950-1951 could indicate either city, and suggest
a degree of financial instability. The move to Morristown may have occurred
after record production stopped in 1952 or 1953. Final dates aren’t
clear—Rich-R’-Tone expired gradually, but the label has been
revived and is active today in Nashville.
*A train song if you listen carefully.