|Fantastic fiddlin' fanatic|
|Wednesday, May 23, 2012|
Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two-part article on Uncle Jimmy Thompson. Part two will be published in the Friday, May 25 edition of The Wilson Post.
Whether he was the first performer to play on “The Grand Ole Opry” may be up for debate, but masterful, marathon fiddle player Uncle Jimmy Thompson definitely gets credit for putting the world famous Nashville radio show on the map.
The fiddler, who is buried in a cemetery near the Laguardo Church of Christ off of Highway 109, played for a solid hour the night of Nov. 28, 1925, and probably would have played all evening had not WSM station manager George D. Hay called it a day.
Asked by Hay if he was tired, Thompson replied, “Why, shucks, a man don’t get warmed up in an hour. I won an eight-day fiddling contest down at Dallas, and here’s my blue ribbon to prove it.”
Thompson's music spans three centuries, and his legacy continues. While the “Opry” thrives in its 85th year, the fiddler, who helped popularize the Saturday night radio show, would relish the idea that a bluegrass festival, part of Granville’s Heritage Days on Saturday, has been named in his honor. And, while he could never have imagined it, Thompson’s sawing on his fiddle may be heard around the globe via the Internet.
The colorful character boasted that he could “fiddle the bugs off a tater vine.” The white-bearded musician, who went through a lively series of calisthenics every morning, enjoyed his tobacco, his liquor and his chewing gum. His habit was to chew an entire package of gum at a time and then was known to save it by placing it into a Vaseline jar he would put in his vest pocket. “You can’t wear that gum out,” he’d say.
Regarding Old Betsy, his fiddle, he reportedly kept rattlesnake rattles in it and kept a piece of red flannel in his fiddle case.
“He would spread the flannel over Old Betsy’s breast every night. He’d put her to bed, as he called it," according to his daughter-in-law, the late Katharine Thompson.
“Uncle Jimmy was evidently a super-great fiddle player, but he had a good time. He liked to live it up and was a happy-go-lucky-person,” said Lebanon’s Jerry Franklin, whose mother was the niece of Thompson’s second wife, Ella Exum Thompson.
“He fiddled, fiddled, fiddled. He was good. Aunt Ella would perform with him. She buck danced. My mother hid some of the stories from us other than he could sure play the fiddle. She said it sounded as sweet as the birds singing and that he could play for hours and hours.
“I’ve been told the ‘Opry’ old-timers gave him a lot of credit for starting ‘The Grand Old Opry.’ Whether he played on it first or not, I don’t know,” said Franklin, who has been to the house where Thompson was born. (The structure is being preserved by Granville Museum board member Stan Webster.)
“Jackie Cowden (CEO of Custom Packaging) has given the well and the barn-type garage to the Granville Museum, and we’re going to be putting them in Granville as part of the Sutton Homestead in Thompson’s memory sometime this fall,” said Wilson County Bank & Trust CEO Randall Clemons, who has spearheaded the preservation and restoration of the peaceful village about 40 miles east of Lebanon.
Meanwhile the state historical marker, planted on the side of Hwy. 109 in Laguardo to commemorate Thompson's final resting place, appears to have disappeared.
Jesse Donald “Uncle Jimmy” Thompson was born in the Smith County community of Enigma, not far from the Putnam and Jackson County lines, to father Green Berry Thompson and mother Frances. He had three brothers, a sister and four half-siblings.
When he was about 12 years old, Thompson and his family migrated to Texas, where he took up the fiddle and probably learned a myriad of tunes from veterans returning from the Civil War. By age 17, he could let fly on a fiddle well as any man. In the 1880s, he returned to his native Smith County and married Mahalia Elizabeth Montgomery, and their union produced daughter Sallie and sons Jesse and Willie.
The family moved to Texas in 1902, and in Dallas in 1907 Thompson garnered acclaim after winning an eight-day fiddle contest that had nearly 90 contestants. He brought the family back to Tennessee where his wife died of cancer in 1908 at age 54. She was laid to rest in the family cemetery where Thompson’s father and mother were buried about 400 feet behind the old home place in Enigma.
On Jan. 6, 1910, Thompson married Luella Exum, a DeKalb County native who was living in Wilson County. From all accounts, Luella could match Jimmy step for step in his shenanigans musical and otherwise. They soon bought a farmhouse in Laguardo, where the fiddler earned a reputation for joke telling and jug sharing.
In 1922 Thompson bought a Ford truck and modified it into a state-of-the-art RV with a little house on back that held a cot, water bucket, dipper, wash pan and a small wood stove. Thompson would fiddle off the back of the truck while “Aunt Ella” buck danced in a long white dress on a special red rug.
With their camper, they would hit the road and play at churches, fairs and other social occasions where they could pass the hat and make a decent living. In the fall of 1923, at age 75, he drove to Dallas and won another fiddle contest and a gold watch.
His grandson, the late Fred Thompson, told folks that he remembered how he would wipe the truck off with motor oil and let no one touch the truck body.
“He was afraid that the salt in your hand, the sweat, would rust it. ‘Don’t touch that, boy?’ he’d say, and he made ’em back up. He had a big, old walking cane,” Fred said.
In the mid-1920s, an old-time fiddling craze was sweeping the nation, even though fiddle contests had been going on for decades. It was then that Thompson made his historic radio debut.
Now before Thompson, George D. Hay and the ‘Opry’ came on the air on WSM in late 1925, hillbilly musicians such as Dr. Humphrey Bate, a country physician from Castalian Springs in Sumner County, Gladeville fiddler Sid Harkreader and banjo wizard Uncle Dave Macon had already performed on the radio station.
In October 1925, WSM owners employed Hay, who had been the host and announcer of Chicago’s WLS Radio show, “The National Barn Dance.” Hay brought that idea along with notions of his own to create a “WSM Barn Dance,” which he renamed “The Grand Ole Opry” in 1927.
There are various versions of how Thompson landed his radio gig, but the way his niece Eva Thompson Jones, a pianist and singer of the light classics, told it was that she suggested to Hay that her uncle play on the show. She invited Hay for an informal audition at her home on Nov. 27, and Hay asked Thompson to perform the next night.
“When Uncle Jimmy Thompson first sat down he announced over the air, ‘Tell the neighbors to send in their requests, and I’ll play ’em if it takes me all night,’” Hay recollected.
The first tune supposedly fiddled was “Tennessee Waggoner.” Before the hour was done, telegrams poured into WSM from every state.
He put “WSM radio on the map, doing something he had been doing since the Civil War, playing old fiddle tunes,” wrote the late Murfreesboro music historian Charles K. Wolfe in his book, A Good-Natured Riot: The Birth of the Grand Ole Opry.
“Uncle Jimmy plays and plays and plays, and he probably would have still been playing if they had not stopped him an hour into the performance,” said John Rumble, senior historian with the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. “They went on for several weeks. Every Saturday he played for an hour. So George D. Hay immediately saw from all the telegrams that this was a popular program.”
Soon, Hay booked banjo picker Uncle Dave Macon and African-American harmonica player DeFord Bailey. The trio became the first real stars of the program.
“Hay commissioned publicity photos, and this picture of Uncle Jimmy sitting there in the chair before an old-fashioned microphone and George D. Hay standing there looking at a script really became an iconic image, and Hay circulated those publicity photos throughout the South so that provided a visual component to Uncle Jimmy's legend and George D. Hay's legend and the image of the 'Grand Ole Opry,'” Rumble said.
Old-time fiddling contests peaked in 1926 backed by the enthusiasm of auto magnate Henry Ford. So when Ford dealerships held contests the second week of January in Tennessee, Kentucky and Indiana, Thompson entered and won in Lebanon, and next captured the regional contest held at Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, where Marshall Claiborne, a one-armed fiddler from Hartsville, finished second.
At the regional finals, the Champion of Dixie Contest, in Louisville, Ky., the plucky Thompson did not even place in the top three. “Some in the Thompson family have said that his enemies plied him with drink and when it came time to play, the legend was barely able to make the stage,” Rumble said. “But we do not know if that is true or not.”
Later that year in Atlanta, Thompson recorded two traditional tunes, “Billy Wilson” and “Karo” for Columbia Records, and in April 1930, he made a disc for Brunswick/Vocalion in Knoxville. Those songs included “Lynchburg” and “Uncle Jimmy's Favorite Fiddling Pieces” (a medley of “Flying Clouds” and “Leather Breeches”), plus some dialog with the recording supervisor.
So, while the fiddle genius only left behind about 12 minutes on record, music scholars note that his long bow style of playing united the best of both the Tennessee and Texas styles and that he was capable of tricky turns in extemporized passages.
Sources for this story include: a Eugene Chadbourne article online at allmusic.com, “Birth of the Grand Ole Opry” by Don Cummings; Thersa Franklin’s "The Life of Uncle Jimmy Thompson" scrapbook; and the late Thomas K. Wolfe’s three books: “The Grand Ole Opry, The Early Years, 1925-1935,” “A Good-Natured Riot: The Birth of the Grand Ole Opry” and “The Encyclopedia of Country Music: The Ultimate Guide to the Music.”