Compiled by Jack Neely for the Knoxville History Project
The Big Ears Festival is full of surprises. So is Knoxville’s musical history. Here are just a few.
In the 1880s, Knoxville held an annual springtime Music Festival, which was devoted to classical music and opera, most of it performed at Staub’s Opera House on Gay Street, and outdoors at Chilhowee Park. That might seem surprising enough, especially considering the fact that it drew some of the great international singers and musicians of the era. However, in 1883, a concert at Staub’s Opera House was subject of a prank by some older men with fiddles who, impatient with opera, staged a fiddling contest for the still-seated audience. It got some attention, and may have been the world’s first country-music concert.
In 1929, the Anderson County family band known as the Tennessee Ramblers, who often performed in Knoxville, featured Willie Sievers, perhaps country music’s first female lead guitarist. She offered a bit of an extra surprise in that she had learned blues styles from Howard Armstrong and worked them into her playing. Female country-music guitarists soon became popular.
Around 1930, Knoxville teenager Clell Summey began playing around with an unusual instrument from the West Coast, a guitar with a steel resonator to make it sound much louder. The Dopyera Brothers of Los Angeles had invented the Dobro for the Hawaiian music market, but sales were disappointing. Summey liked liked the Dobro, though, and got to be good at it, often playing with guitarist Jess Easterday at Doc Stevens’ corner drugstore on Broadway at Edgewood.
Roy Acuff was a young fiddler who’d been part of a country trio called the Three Rolling Stones. He heard Easterday and Summey’s unusual, almost otherworldly sound, and offered to be their front man. As the Tennessee Crackerjacks, and later as the Crazy Tennesseans, they became popular in Knoxville, both for live performances and on radio stations WNOX and WROL. Acuff heard an offbeat gospel tune called “The Great Speckled Bird,” and they tried it with a prominent Dobro part. In 1936 recorded it for the American label in Chicago. A few months later, they were offered a guest spot on the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, and Clell Summey played the Dobro for a national audience. It was the first time the instrument was ever heard on the Opry, and likely the first time hundreds of thousands of Americans had heard its unusual sound. Summey later quit and moved back to Knoxville. When Acuff formed his next band, the Smoky Mountain Boys, he hired another Knoxville Dobroist, Pete Kirby, also known as Brother Oswald.
In the early 1940s, another local teenage guitarist began creating a new sound unfamiliar to anyone who heard it. He had found a Django Reinhart record at WNOX studios, and began working new jazz styles into his technique. For the rest of his life, Chet Atkins played like no one else.
The Everly family had lived in Iowa for years, where they were a family singing act, with traditional and gospel tunes. In 1953, they moved to Knoxville to perform on WROL. Here the two brothers, Phil and Don, attended West High and began performing together, without their parents, employing an unusually close harmony and using new R&B styles they picked up at Dugout Doug’s record store on Cumberland Avenue, especially the guitar style of Bo Diddley. One of their first recordings, “Bye Bye Love,” was one of the biggest hits of 1957. Many more followed. They became major influences on several groups of the 1960s, including the Beach Boys, Simon and Garfunkel, and especially the Beatles. Paul McCartney recently remarked that he and John Lennon deliberately imitated the Everly Brothers in their early years.
In the summer of 1954, about the same time the Everlys were discovering rock’n’roll at Dugout Doug’s, another record-store owner, Sam Morrison, whose shop was on Market Square, began promoting a disk called “That’s All Right, Mama,” by a previously unknown singer from Memphis. Because of the diverse traffic on Market Square, a scout from RCA believed Morrison’s store attracted a microcosm of America. The phenomenal sales of his first record at Morrison’s shop got the attention of RCA, and was a step toward Elvis’s international fame. It was also a testament to Knoxville consumers’ interest in unusual new music.
Born in Georgia, Ida Cox was one of the great jazz and blues singers of the 1920s and ’30s. She had disappeared so completely that some assumed she had died. However, in 1960 music promoters discovered that she’d been living with her daughter in East Knoxville, singing only in the choir of the Patton Street Church of God. Lured back to New York to make one more recording, she made a full album called Blues for Rampart Street, with the famous Coleman Hawkins Quintet. It has become a classic.
Roy Acuff’s Crazy Tennesseans, around 1938, featuring, at far left, pioneer Dobroist Clell Summey. The others, from left to right, are guitarist Jess Easterday, guitarist and vocalist Imogene “Tiny” Sarrett, fiddler Roy Acuff, and bassist Red Jones. The band helped make country music a national phenomenon, and at the same time popularized a new instrument called the Dobro.
From the John Edwards Memorial Foundation Collection (2001) in the Eugene Earle Collection #20376, Southern Folklife Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit organization devoted to the promotion of and education about the history of Knoxville, presents this column each week to raise awareness of the themes, personalities, and stories of our unique city.
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