Appalachia and the Birth of Country Music
The mention of Appalachia conjures banjos in most folks minds - perhaps
not always with the most positive connotation, due to a certain film
from the 1970s with a theme ("Dueling/Feudin' Banjos") authored by
North Carolina's own Arthur Smith. Country music and its sub-genres of
old time and bluegrass music are as much a part of mountain life as
Bristol, Tennessee is known as the "Birthplace of Country music" due to
a recording session that took place there in 1927. Guided by Ernest
Stoneman, Ralph Peer set up there to record the "hillbilly music" that
was beginning to show signs of popularity among the music buying
public. Among the musicians he recorded were Stoneman (from Galax,
VA), the Carter Family (from Hiltons, Va) and Jimmy Rodgers (the
tubercular Mississippi native known as the father of country music, who
was residing in Asheville, NC at the time). The success of these
records, in large part, created the country music industry.
This leads us to the question of what is country music? The roots of
country music certainly existed before the Bristol sessions.
Immigrants to America, especially from the British Isles, brought with
them the fiddle tunes and folk ballads of their homelands. These were
the roots of the old time music and the dark, tragic songs that made
mountain music famous. Although this music was popular before and
during the Civil War, fiddle contests and conventions in the early
1900s were so important to southern culture that they made men such as
Fiddlin' John Carson and Uncle Jimmy Thompson famous. Old time
performers, such as Uncle Dave Macon, Gid Tanner and Charlie Poole
continued this tradition, bringing in the banjo, guitar and other
instruments to fill out the sound.
The difference between old-time and country music is the influence of
other genres of music on the anglo-celtic traditions - the melting
pot. Early on, the German and Czech influence could be heard in tunes
such as "Under the Double Eagle". The south has never been as racially
segregated as our northern neighbors would like to imagine and
influences of blues, jazz and popular music like show tunes were being
played by rural southern musicians as far back as American music is
What made the Bristol Sessions the "birth" of country music, as opposed
to old-time or mountain music is that influence of blues, jazz, etc.
While the Carter Family's music is influenced by the same blues that
would later lead Bill Monroe to create the dynamic form of music known
as bluegrass, Jimmy Rodgers' music is full of blues and jazz
influences. Indeed, on several of his later recording he was backed by
a dixie-land jazz band that included Louis Armstrong's mentor, King
So, the Bristol Sessions were where country music was "born" and Jimmy
Rodgers was the father (and I guess the Carters were the family and Pop
Stoneman was the grandfather), but was Jimmy Rodgers the first? Did he
come out of nowhere?
The answer is no. Jimmy Rodgers had a mentor, a musical hero who did
not come from the Appalachians at all. He did, however, work
frequently in Asheville, where he is believed to have crossed paths
with (perhaps even worked with) Rodgers. His name was Emmett Miller.
Most folks have never heard of Emmett Miller, which is one of the great
tragedies of American Music history. Miller was, most likely,
purposely forgotten because he performed in black face. Today, black
face performance is scorned, but in Miller's era it was considered a
legitimate art form. He performed country music, blues and jazz to
white audiences as he traveled throughout the south in medicine shows.
Perhaps his true legacy was in introducing the music of black musicians
to white audiences in the only format acceptable at the time.
Regardless, he was one of the most influential singers and musicians of
his time and he was also a truly funny comic. At times, his comic
partner was an actual black man, Scatman Cruthers - legendary singer,
musician and comedian.
You know Emmett Miller's songs: "Lovesick Blues" (made famous by Hank
Williams who sang it note for note in Miller's style), "Right or Wrong"
(a big hit for Bob Wills and recently George Straight), "Anytime" (one
of Eddy Arnold's biggest hits) and "I Ain't Got Nobody" (performed by
musicians as diverse as Fats Waller, Bob Wills, Bing Crosby, Louie
Prima, David Lee Roth and Lou Bega). His version of WC Handy's "Saint
Louis Blues" became the standard that many would emulate.
The fact that you have never hear of him becomes more remarkable when
you consider that this incredible singer was backed by a band that
included (the father of jazz guitar) Eddie Lang, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy
Dorsey and Gene Krupa!
This man from Macon Georgia, backed by one of the hottest jazz bands of
his time (called the Georgia Crackers), performed songs that would
inspire countless country bands for generations to come. This was
southern music, American music... country music. Miller's melding of
cultures and genres sowed the seeds of rockabilly and rock n roll
(Elvis wasn't the first "white singer who sounded black" as Sam
Phillips labeled him). This week, the Appalachian Visitor Center
salutes the true great-grandfather of country music, Emmett Miller.
for further reading and song samples.