Last edited July 20, 2018
This blog is dedicated to covering country music’s history, so why the heck is it called “swamp opera” of all things?
Well … meet Clayton McMichen. Despite him smiling up there with his hat and fiddle, McMichen didn’t care much for the “country” image.
Born in Allatoona, Georgia on Jan. 26, 1900, McMichen developed his fiddle playing skills from his father and uncle. In 1913, he moved to Atlanta, Georgia with his family where he worked as an automobile mechanic. There, McMichen entered and won several fiddle competitions.
In 1922, McMichen formed his first band, The Hometown Boys. They were among the first musicians to play on Atlanta’s radio station, WSB. Their mix of fiddle standards and dixieland jazz didn’t capture any attention however.
Despite the existence of the Hometown Boys, McMichen is really tied to two bands – the Skillet Lickers and the Georgia Wildcats. For the sake of a consistent timeline, the Skillet Lickers will be discussed first.
The Skillet Lickers (Photo credit: Movie and Music Greats)
The Skillet Lickers were around for five years and were among country music’s earliest successes. The band was comprised of the following members:
- Clayton McMichen – fiddle
- Gid Tanner – fiddle
- Riley Puckett – guitar, lead vocals
- Fate Norris – banjo
Tanner was known more as the group’s leader until later on when the focus shifted to Puckett, with the group even going by Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers for awhile. McMichen ultimately assumed leadership though given his solid musical skills and ambition.
They recorded over 100 tunes, including ones such as “Soldier’s Joy,” “Sal’s Gone To The Cider Mill” and “Rock That Cradle Lucy.” Author Kurt Wolff describes their music as “on the whole loose and raucous, like something you might have heard at a Saturday night dance party where the bootleg hooch was flowing and the dancing fast and furious.” In other words, they were hillbillies.
They first recorded for Columbia Records in Atlanta in 1926 after being put together by Frank Walker. After the success of Fiddlin’ John Carson, Walker was looking for more rural music to put into the market. Country musicians during this time were mostly shunned for their image alone, with the Skillet Lickers being characterized as “a bunch of backwoods moonshiners” according to Nolan Porterfield. You know what they say about assumptions though, because the Skillet Lickers were also skilled at mixing pop standards with fiddle tunes and breakdowns. It should also be noted that despite his love for the fiddle, McMichen never cared for string band music.
In 1927, the Skillet Lickers recorded the first installments of a fourteen-part skit titled “A Corn Licker Still In Georgia,” a comedy and music routine.
As you might guess, McMichen’s discomfort with the style led to him disbanding the group in 1931. As a solo artist, McMichen scored a hit with “Sweet Bunch Of Roses” which sold over 100,000 records. Under the name Bob Nichols, he recorded crooner ballads to significantly less success, with his only hit from that coming from “My Carolina Home.”
McMichen was however very close with Jimmie Rodgers, with Rodgers recording McMichen’s tune, “Peach Picking Time In Georgia.” Back in the days when “hillbilly” singers didn’t use managers or agents, they just managed themselves. The following picture is a letter written by Rodgers to McMichen asking him to join him for a recording session:
With the Skillet Lickers disbanded, McMichen wasted no time organizing a new band, the Georgia Wildcats. Unlike his former band, the Georgia Wildcats were more eclectic in sound, blending old timey pop with (later on) dixieland jazz. The band was comprised of McMichen, Slim Bryant (guitar), Carl Cotner (fiddle) and a little known artist by the name of Merle Travis (guitar). Recording for Decca Records from 1935-38, Bryant would later depart. They were featured daily on the radio station, WAVE based out of Louisville, Kentucky. Despite this, the band was unable to attain any true success due to their more progressive style (at the time). Among their most famous songs, check out “Yum Yum Blues” and “When The Bloom Is On The Sage.” Note that this version of “Yum Yum Blues” is not of the highest quality. You can however hear the jazz influence evident in the fiddle playing.
Can you hear it? This was western-swing before western-swing was a thing (let alone a popular thing).
During his time with The Georgia Wildcats, McMichen further supported himself by promoting fiddle contests. In 1932, he won the first of 18 national fiddle championships. He fully retired from music by 1955 to run a tavern, and even became frustrated during the folk revival of the ’60s when people revered the old Skillet Lickers.
Despite his low profile, he agreed to perform at the Bean Blossom festival in 1964 and at the Newport Folk Festival in 1966. While many people recognized him from the Skillet Lickers, he promptly closed the door on the past when he brought along an accompanist who plugged in a huge electric guitar before performing. He died January 4, 1970 in Battletown, Kentucky due to emphysema.
It was that frustration that truly dominated his switch from old-timey music with the Skillet Lickers to the more experimental music of the Georgia Wildcats. McMichen felt caged in by traditional music standards. He, according to author Charles Wolfe, “continued his long, lonely battle to take country music uptown, to open the music up to experimentation, to technical expertise, and to professional musicianship. The trouble was, the music didn’t want to go uptown just yet.”
Truthfully, the Skillet Lickers weren’t quite as backwards as McMichen might have had us believe. I said at one point that Gid Tanner was the group’s leader. That changed with “Soldier’s Joy.” The song was recorded on “Black Tuesday,” otherwise known as the date of the stock-market crash that ushered in the Great Depression. It was a traditional tune seen as their best work … even though many of the common lyrics were replaced with others (chicken in the bread pan, picking out dough is an example … sadly enough there were no mentions of devils or Georgia). They were even vocal against Prohibition, with McMichen writing a song titled “Prohibition Has Done Me Wrong,” a song recorded by Jimmie Rodgers that was ultimately unreleased.
As for the title in the headline? Well, McMichen simply preferred to call hillbilly music “swamp opera,” perhaps due to his progressive vision for the genre. The reason this blog is named “Swamp Opera” is because we’re talking about events long after they’ve occurred. We’re all stuck in the post-hillbilly world McMichen envisioned long ago, so it’s really just a taste of irony. Per McMichen, “I notice in my thirty-five years of show business that there’s 500 pairs of overalls sold to every one tuxedo suit. That’s why I stick to swamp opera.”
Lastly, in 1988, Merle Travis and Mac Wiseman released a double LP called The Clayton McMichen Story in honor of his life. Good luck finding it. On a side-note (and thanks to Robert of Robert’s Country Opinion Blog for the information), Gid Tanner’s great-grandson, Levi Lowrey is an active performer. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because he’s written songs for the Zac Brown Band including “Colder Weather” and “The Wind.”
This post was written thanks to the following sources:
- 78 Blues: Folksongs and Phonographs In The American South by John Minton
- AllMusic’s biography of Clayton McMichen (retrieved here <https://www.allmusic.com/artist/clayton-mcmichen-mn0000118839/biography>)
- Clayton McMichen: The Traditional Years by Charles Wolfe (retrieved from Old Time Party at <https://oldtimeparty.wordpress.com/2012/11/10/clayton-mcmichen/>)
- Country: The Music and The Musicians by The Country Music Foundation (excerpts were taken from Nolan Porterfield’s contribution, Hey, Hey, Tell ‘Em ‘Bout Us: Jimmie Rodgers Visits The Carter Family)
- Discovering Country Music by Don Cusic (pg. 33)
- Will The Circle Be Unbroken: Country Music In America by the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum (edited by Paul Kingsbury and Alanna Nash)