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Everybody's Tuned to the Radio: Introduction

Introduction

     When I first set foot in Nellie Storey’s home on the outskirts of Carrollton, Georgia, to interview her for a university oral history project in the fall of 2000, little did I anticipate where our initial meeting would lead. Eighty-four-year-old Nellie’s vivid and detailed recollections of life in Carroll County during the 1930s and 40s took hold of my imagination, transporting me back in time to a world of hillbilly music, barn dances, and live radio programs. But more than anything, it was the aging reel-to-reel tapes and fragile 70-rpm acetate discs she entrusted to my care that opened a window into the past.
      Inspired by Nellie and her late sister Rhoda’s rough and rowdy performances of hoe-down fiddle tunes and white hillbilly boogies, blues, and ballads, captured in their living room on a little Sears Silvertone tape recorder some fifty years ago, I undertook a search for more hidden musical treasures. Over the course of the next year and a half, encounters with many of Carroll County’s older musicians or their surviving family members led to the rediscovery of an all-but-forgotten musical legacy and the untold stories of the people who created it.
      Thanks to the kindness and cooperation of numerous individuals from the local community, many hours of unique sound recordings surfaced after being tucked away for decades in closets and cardboard boxes. Unpolished and a little rough around the edges at times, the authentic voices and music preserved on these one-of-a-kind, noncommercial recordings document the roots of the region’s country, bluegrass, and white gospel music. They also offer a glimpse of rural, southern culture at a time when making music with family and friends was as much a part of the fabric of everyday life as working, eating, and sleeping.

Oh here we come from Carrollton, way
down on the Georgia line
Eat cornbread for breakfast, sorghum all
the time
Oh we’re just old country crackers and I
hope you like us fine
We’ve lived ‘round Carrollton all our lives
and never made a dime

(Theme Song, Charles Cole and his Southern Kinfolks, 1947)

      West of Atlanta, near the Alabama state line, Carroll County had made a name for itself in the early decades of the twentieth century as a leading producer of what was once Georgia’s biggest cash crop—cotton. This overwhelmingly rural and agricultural milieu also cultivated a loose-knit community of pickers and singers bound together by ties of blood, marriage, or musical kinship. The network of like-minded musicians who took turns as guests on one another’s radio programs, backed each other up at public appearances, or simply got together for picking sessions in living rooms or on front porches were “like one big, happy family,” as the widow of one musician nostalgically recalled.
     Schooled in music the old-fashioned way, they had learned by watching, listening, and studying at the feet of parents, older siblings, or other relatives who played or sang in church, at community square dances, or just around the house. Radio and records linked them to the wider world of commercial “hillbilly” music that had been entertaining many Southerners since the 1920s. Gathering around a battery-powered radio on Saturday night with the rest of the family to listen to live country music and comedy skits on Nashville’s Grad Ole Opry proved to be a key formative experience in the creative lives of many West Georgia musicians.
      Still in school or employed full-time in the factory or field, playing music remained primarily a leisure-time activity for the talented young men and women moonlighting in groups like the Southern Kinfolks, Georgia Playboys, Radio Homefolks, the Variety Gant, and the Blue Bonnet Boys. At the height of their local popularity in the 1940s and 50s, however, they ruled the country music roost in West Georgia. Cradling guitars, fiddles, banjos, and mandolins, they performed their mix of traditional and popular favorites in a variety of settings, ranging from house parties and little country schoolhouses to the stages of local movie theaters. Beginning in January 1947, they could also be heard live over the airwaves of WLBB, the 250-watt, AM radio station broadcasting from the fourth floor of the People’s Bank Building, overlooking Carrollton’s town square.

“WLBB was a young station—everybody listened to it.” -Alton Stitcher, 2001

      According to local folklore, WLBB’s call letters stood for “We Love Butter Beans,” a fitting phrase for the little radio station that catered to rural and small-town listeners in Carroll, Heard, Haralson, and neighboring counties within range of its signal. Like many of the hundreds of small-town radio stations that sprouted up all over the United States in the boom after World War II, WLBB relied heavily on homegrown talent to fill up airtime.
      During an era when radio represented the principal source of entertainment for millions of Americans, WLBB’s live broadcasts of daily or weekly fifteen-minute programs by local entertainers fell on receptive ears. Listeners in towns like Bowdon, Bremen, Villa Rica, and Carrollton, as well as in more remote rural areas, flooded the station with thousands of penny postcards conveying song requests and personal messages to the home folks on the radio.
      While only a handful of the local musicians featured on WLBB recorded commercially or attained notable success in the entertainment industry, the large volume of fan mail they received in response to their programs mirrored their status as stars within the orbit of their own community. Although not paid for their services as radio entertainers, they profited from the exposure in other ways. For some, it was a convenient way to publicize their personal appearances in the area. In a time and place when “it was something to be on the radio,” in the words of former WLBB announcer Hiram Bray, the prestige associated with performing on-air boosted musicians’ self-esteem and status in the eyes of relatives, friends, co-workers, and the broader community.
     The live music programs that invited the greatest degree of community participation in WLBB during the station’s early years were of the religious variety. Beginning on Saturdays, immediately following the noon news and lasting until the station went off the air at sundown the next day, radio evangelists and gospel quartets, trios, and duos mirrored the moral values, as well as the musical tastes, of local listeners. Sacred music offerings on WLBB included highly-polished white gospel quartets like the Velvetones, family groups such as the Cooper Trio and the Holmes Family, and African-American combos like the Heavenly Gospels and the Harmonizing Seven.
     By tapping into West Georgia’s teeming musical life, WLBB played a significant role in preserving and promoting deeply rooted local traditions. From Sacred Harp singing to square dance fiddling, the station, under the management of Tom Vassy, provided an outlet for the continued expression of community-based folk music traditions at a time when national trends in radio programming favored replacing live music programs with the spinning of Top 40 hits. With his finger on the pulse of local preferences, WLBB’s first country music disc jockey, Bob Green, continued to feature local pickers and singers like Marshall and Pearl Hannah, Clyde Durrough, Alton Stitcher, and Uncle John Patterson on his programs until 1962, when ownership of the station changed hands and its country music programs began to lose much of their down-home flavor in an increasingly competitive local radio market.
      As a reflection of that by-gone era, this unique collection of banjo and fiddle tunes, cotton patch boogies and ballads, sanctified singing, and down-home radio chatter pays tribute to the pickers, singers, preachers, and radio personalities who helped shape, preserve, and promote rural music traditions in West Georgia.  Selected from hours of historic, previously unreleased recordings, it evokes the ambience of live music programs by local entertainers on a small-town radio station in the South during the years following World War II.

Compiler’s Note:

     Unfortunately, it has not proved possible to include recordings by all the local artists whose programs on WLBB were at one time a vital expression of West Georgia’s folk life. For instance, no early recordings of the Harmonizing Seven, the Golden Bells, the Heavenly Gospels, the Willing Workers, or any of the other African-American gospel groups who were such an unforgettable part of the station’s Sunday programming could be located. In addition, recordings by a number of white gospel groups and hillbilly bands, including the Community Singers, the Velvetones, the Variety Gang, the Sacred Harp Singers, and the Georgia Playboys were either unavailable or in such a poor condition as to prevent their inclusion. However, additional information, oral histories, photographs, and sound recordings related to many of these artists are archived at the Center for Public History on the campus of the State University of West Georgia in Carrollton.


James Michael Buck
September, 2002