A Fiddler's Convention in Mountain City, Tennessee A Fiddler's Convention in Mountain City, Tennessee

Over 60 years have passed, but there are people in East Tennessee who still remember the fiddler's convention held at Mountain City during the second week of May in 1925. The floor of the high school auditorium almost collapsed in the press of the crowd and the courthouse and grade school auditorium were opened to accommodate the overflow. This convention was a watershed in the development of professional country music.

The best musicians in the area around Mountain City were invited. It was an area rich in music and the old timers who were there invaribly recall this convention as the best ever. Some of the performers were: Eva Ashley, daughter of Clarence "Tom" Ashley, danced at the convention. B.K. "Bertie" Jenkins, born in Sullivan County, Tennessee, lived at Blowing Rock, North Carolina and later headed the first country band to give a concert over WRVA, Richmond. Walt Bacon, born at Fall Branch, Tennessee, played with the Bowman Brothers.

Charlie Bowman, born at Gray Station, Washington County, Tennessee, met the Hopkins brothers and Tony Alderman at this convention and they were so impressed that they persuaded him to join The Hill Billies. Much of the subsequent reputation of this band is based upon Charlie's fiddling and he toured widely with the group. Charlie and his brothers, Argil, J.W. and Elbert were carpenters, painters and farmers but music came first in their lives. The brothers formed a vocal quartet, all played guitar and banjo and J.W. also played fiddle. Charlie's excellent "moonshiner and His Money" was recorded in 1929, J.W. played three-finger banjo. Charlie's daughters Jennie and Pauline also recorded.

Fiddlin' John Carson was the first rural musician to heard regularly on radio and his broadcasts over Atlanta's powerful WSB had made him known in the area. He was either the first or second rural white musician to have a successful recording released and if country music has a "father", John Carson has first claim to the title. Mr. Alderman helped organize the Hill Billies and recalls that N.C. Parsons, one of the top salesmen for the Buster Brown Shoe Company, was instrumental in sponsoring the Mountain City Convention.

Al Hopkins headed The Hill Billies, played the piano, led comedy routines, served as business manager, etc. His group was first among the high flying bands of the '20's. They toured through the eastern United States as vaudeville performers, made a serious attempt to copyright the name "Hill Billy", sold stock in "The Original Hill Billies" during the late '20's, played for President Coolidge and made a movie short for Warner Brother (Vitaphone) in New York in 1928. They followed Al Jolson's "Singing Fool" on the Warner Brothers lot.

Clarence "Tom" Ashley lived near Mountain City and had begun his entertainment career in medicine shows a decade earlier. He recorded with Byrd Moore and Clarence Greene as "The Hotshots" and with Doc Walsh and Garley Forster as the Carolina Tarheels and with a group he called the Blue Ridge Entertainers. Roy Acuff began his musical career with Ashley in a medine show during the 1920's. In the "folk" fad era of the 1960's, Ashley's career was briefly revived with a band that included Doc Watson, Clint Howard and Fred Price.

G.B. Grayson also lived near Mountain City and was one of the most influential fiddlers of the '20's. At another convention at Mountain City in 1927 Grayson met his recording partner Henry Whitter, but he appeared more frequently with Ashley. They toured the coal fields of West Virginia together and they were heard together at this convention. Grayson was killed in an accident on August 16, 1930.

Roe Greene appeared at the convention with Bertie Jenkins. He lived at Boone, North Carolina.

Sam Dykes lived at Telford, Tennessee and died in 1936 in a traffic accident. He was a comedian and his specialty was "The Preacher and the Bear" which he is said to have recorded at Bristol's WOPI studios, but again, the name of the group is not known. Dykes played both banjo and fiddle. "Fiddlin' Dud" Vance (Dudey Vance) was another recording pioneer then known over a wide area of the Southeast. He was winner of championship contests in Tennessee, Florida and Oklahoma. He operated a country music park and resort in East Tennessee.

Most of these musicians came to Mountain City to compete for $40 in prize money with the first place winner takiing a $20 gold piece. Three of the winners and their tunes are remembered: G.B. Grayson with "Cumberland Gap", "Fiddlin' Dud" Vance with "Twinkle Little Star" and Charlie Bowman with "Sally Ann".

The positive response to rural artists had surprised executives of the radio and recording industry and at Mountain City a third surprise was in store: these musicians learned that people who knew them only from their recordings and broadcasts were willing to lay down good money to see them in person.

This convention may have inspired other musicians to try their hand at recording and radio. Tony Alderman erected a small portable radio station at Mountain City and gave the first demonstration of radio transmitting that had been seen there. He recalls that G.B. Grayson lingered by the microphone longer than anyone else while Grayson's neighbors listened at the receiver a short distance away. Grayson was deeply interested in recording and Tony recalls being delighted to hear, two years later, that Grayson was recording. Within the same two years, Charlie Bowman, Fiddlin' Dud Vance and "Tom" Ashley found their way to recording studios.

Our many thanks to Joe Wilson for his research and contribution to this article."

"History of Johnson County 1986"
by Thomas W. Gentry