Cleo Davis, The Original Bluegrass Boy

Rural Roots of Bluegrass

By Wayne Erbsen

On March 9, 1919, a doctor rode his horse-drawn buggy through the hills of northwest Georgia to the home of Ben and Effie Davis. He was summoned because Effie was about to have a baby. By the time the Doc had left, Effie and John were the proud parents of a healthy baby boy. As yet, they had no name for him. By and by, they gave him the name Cleo.

As young Cleo was growing up, he was surrounded by music. Mama played the pump organ and sang the old hymns along with her brothers and sisters, who practically filled up my church where they worshiped. His dad picked a five-string banjo in the old clawhammer style. Cleo remembers his father taking the banjo off the wall and holding it next to the fireplace or wood burning oven to warm the coon skin stretched over the banjo. This, his dad had told him, would tighten the head and give it the proper “thump.” Cleo couldn’t get near enough to that banjo. Sometimes on a Saturday night his uncle Jim Davis would come over to the house with a mouth harp and they were often joined by Efrid McDowell, Mama’s cousin. Efrid always brought a shiny black Stella guitar with him.

In the summer months, the men gathered on the porch to play. With the older folks looking on, the children would often join hands and dance in the light of an oil-burning lamp or the nuts that were set ablaze in the yard. When Cleo wasn’t dancing, he’d often wrestle the lard bucket away from his brothers Dale or Bob and beat rhythm on it like a drum.

After mama died, Cleo went to live with his uncle Marcus, who kept the boy entertained with a five string banjo. He and another uncle who played the fiddle made Cleo more determined than ever to learn to play string music. When he was about 10 years old he heard that there was going to be a music program at the school house just down the road from where he was living. He never heard of Gid Tanner and Riley Puckett, but he knew if they were coming all the way from Atlanta to play, they must be good. On the night of the concert, Cleo walked barefoot down to the schoolhouse. When he got there he found out the admission was 15 cents more than he had, which was nothing. Not to be turned away, he slipped around the side of the building where he could listen in through the window. Since it was summertime, the windows to the auditorium were open, so young Cleo could hear everything that went on in the hall. He remembers hearing them play “Down Yonder,” and “Back Up and Push,” which Gid Tanner and Riley Puckett had made famous on Columbia Records.

Inspired by what he had heard, Cleo walked home determined to make himself a guitar. He searched until he found an old oil can to which he attached a sawmill strip for a neck. After punching a hole in the top of the can, he stretched a single strand of screen wire over the top of the can and his one-string “guitar” was complete. “I sang and yodeled and strummed that guitar until my sister chased me out of the house. There wasn’t a barn, so I had to go out into the woods to play. I kept on singing and carrying on ’til I drove all the wild animals back into the river swamp.”

Then the resourceful Cleo Davis caught some rabbits and traded the skins to a peddler he met on the road for a harmonica. After growing weary of blowing on the harmonica, he swapped the harmonica and a Barlow pocket knife for an old beat-up Stella guitar. Even though the guitar had come unglued around the edges, had a warped neck, and no strings, Cleo marveled at his prize. He soon set to work and with the help of some shoe tacks managed to tack the top back on the guitar. He then took a worn out set of his uncle’s banjo strings and before long, his guitar was strung up and ready to play. His sister, however, took a dim view of this and Cleo soon found himself back in the woods, happily singing and playing to himself.

When Cleo got a little older, he started working as a farm hand in Collard Valley, near Rome,  Georgia. He’d plow cotton and corn and perform other farm duties for 35 cents a day plus room and board. After several months, he was able to save enough to order a guitar out of the Sears, and Roebuck catalog for the sum of $2.40. This guitar was to replace the old Stella, which broke after one of his brothers sat on it. Cleo’s new guitar, along with an instruction book and a pick, finally arrived. He learned how to tune it and could soon play G, C and D. The first tune he attempted was “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No More.”

Although phonograph records were rare and treasured commodities in the north Georgia mountains where Cleo was living, he did manage to get a copy of the Carter family’s 1928 release of Wildwood Flower. Like many a country guitar player, Cleo soon mastered the guitar part to Wildwood Flower, and he also learned guitar runs and songs from Blue Yodeler Jimmy Rodgers. He remembers plowing a mule while singing and yodeling his way through many of Rodgers’ songs. “It got so that the mule couldn’t work unless I was singing and yodeling. I did notice that the old mule would shake his head when I’d hit a high note. I thought at first he was just flipping off the horse flies, but I later realized he was trying to tell me I was giving him a headache.”

Cleo and that mule parted company when he moved in with another uncle in Cedartown, Georgia, near where he was born. “I had a cousin there named Georgia McDowell who did a better job than I did on her Kalamazoo guitar. In the evening we would sit on the porch, strum guitars, and sing My Old Pal of Yesterday. That’s where I learned to harmonize. It wasn’t long before I could sing most any part. We’d just switch the harmony around and play guitars right on. My uncle played the 5-string banjo and the harmonica, so we were in pretty fair demand to play for parties. I still didn’t know any more than G, C, and D, so if we couldn’t play a song in G, we didn’t play it.”

The year was 1938 and Cleo found himself again on the move, looking for work. This time he crossed over into Alabama and landed a job as a farm hand for an old gentleman named Hans Graves, who was a tenant farmer. By the time he had laid that one-horse-crop by, he had made up his mind that there must be more to life than plowing a mule. He collected his $18 wages for a month’s work, and told his buddies he was going to look for something better. Dressed in his Sunday clothes, he caught a ride on a truck headed for Atlanta. There he met a cousin who invited him to stay with him while he looked for a job. As luck would have it, the next day, he was hired to work an ice truck for the sum of $1 a day, which was more money than he’d ever seen in his life.

“One night in late August, 1938, a friend, who was a policeman named Ed Daniels, came running over to the house waving a copy of the Atlanta Journal in his hand. He spread open the paper and pointed to a small ad wanting someone who could play guitar and sing old-time songs. I tried to convince Ed that I barely knew how to hold the thing, and that I didn’t even know an entire old-time song, but he wouldn’t listen. He and my cousin fairly insisted that I check out the ad and promised a little violence if I didn’t. Since I didn’t even own a guitar at that time, my cousin went down to the hock shop and bought me one for about $2.40. So again dressed in my Sunday best, I picked up that guitar and a copy of that newspaper clipping and went across Atlanta to check out the ad. My cousin went with me to make sure I didn’t lose my nerve.

“We got to the location in the ad and found it to be a small trailer sitting next to a service station. When we approached the trailer we heard country music coming out of that thing. I was a little hesitant to knock on the door, so I waited until the music stopped. Two or three guys came pouring out, and the man inside told them if he’d decided, he’d give them a call. We were then invited in, and I trailed in last. Introductions were passed around, but I never did get his name. He said, “Well, who plays the guitar?” I eventually pulled it out from behind me where I had it hid and said “I do, Sir.” He asked “Well, what can you play?” “Oh, maybe a verse or two of This World is Not My Home, or What Would You Give in Exchange for Your Soul, not knowing at that moment who I was talking to. My mind then flashed back and I remembered how I had learned those two songs. Several years before I had picked up the Grand Ole Opry over radio WSM. There I heard people like Arthur Smith and the Dixieliners, Clayton McMichen, and the Delmore Brothers. I thought the Delmore Brothers were out of this world. A little later, some other brother acts came on the scene such as the Callahan Brothers and the Shelton Brothers. Then I heard two brothers who had exactly what I thought I’d been looking for — the Monroe Brothers. I had no idea where they were located and had never seen them, but I had picked up one of their records of This World is Not My Home, and What Would You Give in Exchange For Your Soul? and that’s how I learned those songs. I was awakened out of my thoughts when the man standing before me asked ‘You can sing What Would You Give in Exchange For Your Soul? I said, “Yes, Sir, I think I can sing that.” So we proceeded to tune up together, but I soon found out that my $2.40 guitar would not tune up to that beautiful mandolin he had. So he tuned down to my guitar, and we hit out. We had done about a verse and a chorus to What Would You Give in Exchange For Your Soul when I recognized the voice. I didn’t recognize the name, but I recognized the voice. This had to be one of the Monroe Brothers. I got so scared that I lost my voice and had to quit playing. He asked me what was the matter and I told him I had forgot the song. So we talked for a moment and I tried to calm down. I think he knew what had really happened to me. I had realized that I was standing there singing with Bill Monroe and I was shocked beyond reason. So I finally recovered and he said ‘Let’s try This World Is Not My Home,’ so we tried that. I was beginning to get brave and sang nearly two verses until I got scared to death and lost my voice again. He had to laugh a little about that and kidded me and said ‘You’ll get over that.’ We did a better job of it the next time. His wife, whose name is Carolyn, was sitting at the end of the trailer listening. He said, ‘Carolyn, what do you think?’ She said that I sounded more like Charlie than any man she ever heard not to be Charlie Monroe. I seen a grin come over Bill’s face and he said ‘Let’s try that number again.’ I think we did it still a little better that time and he turned around and told Carolyn that ‘I think I found what I’ve been looking for.’ I figured he couldn’t have been looking for very much to have found it in me. To my amazement, I found out that he was satisfied with our sound and that he and Charlie had split up in Raleigh, North Carolina, some time before and that Bill had stopped in Little Rock, Arkansas, and formed a group there called ‘The Kentuckians.’ He stayed there a few months and either they didn’t go over too well, or he was unhappy with their sound. So he headed back to Atlanta, Georgia, where he and Charlie had worked a guest spot a few years before. Bill asked me if I could come back to the trailer the next morning about 8:30. I told him I would, not knowing what was in store for me. So I caught a street car and was right back there the next morning. We drank some coffee, and Bill asked me if I knew of any music shops downtown where we could go look at some instruments. I told him I did, so we went downtown and looked at the guitars hanging in pawnshop windows. We finally found a big orchestra type guitar that Bill strummed approvingly. He handed it to me and asked me how I like it. I’d never played a guitar that cost more than $2.40, so this $37.50 guitar was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. I nodded furiously. Bill told the man we’d take it and at that moment, I hit the door hard and fast. This old country boy only had about a dollar in my pocket and there was no way I could buy that guitar. Bill paid the man and walked out with that guitar.

“Bill then asked me if I knew of any good men’s shops. I told him there was a couple of nice ones just down the street. We went into one and Bill told the man to fix me up with a new suit of clothes. Bill said to ‘Fix him up from the floor up.’ So the man brought out shoes, pants, shirt, tie and socks and I tried ’em on. Bill told the salesman he wasn’t finished yet. ‘Do you have any John B. Stetsons?” So the man brought me out a John B. Stetson (hat) with a wide brim and when I got through dressing, James Cagney or George Raft had nothing on me, so long as I kept that Stetson pulled down over my eyes. Then Bill told the man to fix him up in the same style. So Bill paid the man and we walked out of there looking nearly alike, except that Bill outweighed me by about 40 pounds. When we got back to his trailer I started to carry the guitar inside, but he told me to take it home with me. I still didn’t know what the score was, and I didn’t dare ask. Bill Monroe is a man you don’t get a lot out of and sometimes it’s better not to ask. He didn’t talk a lot, but when he did talk, he made it count. I thought to myself that I’d play the guitar for a couple of days, and then Bill would come and pick it up, so I took it home with me.

“The next day I got a call from Bill and he wanted to know if he could come out. I said ‘Sure,’ so he came out and told me then what he had in mind. He wanted to come out to my house where there was plenty of room, and no one to run off, and rehearse. So we rehearsed every afternoon for about two and a half hours ’til way up about Christmas time, when we knocked off for the holidays. He said that he wanted to teach me all the songs that he knew, all the guitar chords that he knew, and all the runs that he knew. Since Bill knew all the guitar chords and runs that his brother Charlie had played, it wasn’t very long until Bill had me sounding just like Charlie Monroe. I truly think that at that moment what Bill was looking for was not a group, but the Monroe Brothers’ sound. I’m not even sure Bill realized this fact. But whether he knew it or not, Bill was trying to follow the Monroe Brothers’ style. Since he was back in the territory that the Monroe Brothers had worked and made their name so famous, it was natural for Bill to want to continue with a sound he knew would sell. And we did sound very much like the Monroe Brothers with our extreme high harmony and smooth sound.

“I remember that when Bill was helping me with my guitar playing, I always used a flatpick; a Nick Lucas pick. I was never able to use a thumbpick and fingerpicks like some fellers did. I would get those things tangled in the strings like a bull caught in a barbed wire fence. And I never did use a capo when I was with Monroe, not even in the key of A. I had long fingers, so I could make the long A chord. With my fingers being so long, I could make all my runs without using a capo. In fact, I can’t recall seeing any capos in the early days.

“Charlie Monroe used to have a run that he’d do in the key of G, and Bill taught me how to make it. As the weeks went by, it seemed like Bill and I kept picking up speed until we were playing faster and faster. But we were as good on the slow numbers as we were on the fast ones. I found out quick that you don’t make mistakes when playing with Bill, so we practiced never making mistakes. In order to stay up with Bill, I used the old Charlie Monroe G run until it got to a point where I could no longer make it and keep up with Bill Monroe. So I had to find something I could do and keep up with the fast pace that we had set. So with the help of Bill, I modified the old Charlie Monroe G run. I made it into what is now known as the ‘famous Lester Flatt G run.’ I not only could make it in G, but also in the keys of C, D, and even in A.

“When the Christmas holidays were over, we went down to WSB in Atlanta for an audition. The Crossroads Follies was very popular over WSB at that time, but after we auditioned, the manager told us that they only used groups, not duets. He told Bill to go out and pick up a few other guys and that he’d make a place for him on the Crossroads Follies. Bill chose a few choice words and told the manager that that wasn’t what he had in mind and we walked out. We then went down to WGST Radio in Atlanta and got an audition with them. They told us they liked us very much but that they couldn’t use us because they already had a fine duet team working with them at that time by the name of the Blue Sky Boys, which was Bill and Earl Bolick. Bill was rather disgusted, so we went back home. He then asked me if I could be gone for a few days and I told him that I could. He told me to pack a few things and tell my people I’d be gone for two or three days, and to be at his trailer in the morning.

“When I got there, Bill had his 1938 Hudson Terraplane loaded up and ready to go. So we got in and headed out, although I had no idea where we were going. After we got out on the open road, I asked Bill where we were going. He said we were headed for Asheville, North Carolina. I thought “Where in the world is Asheville, North Carolina?” This country boy had never been anywhere, so Asheville could have been in Europe, as far as I was concerned. He said it’s up in the Blue Ridge mountains, but I didn’t know where that was at either. I had heard of the Blue Ridge mountains, but I sure didn’t know where they were. We rolled on to Greenville, South Carolina, where we spent the night. In the morning we checked with WFBC radio in Greenville, but the Delmore Brothers had just started at that station, so they didn’t need another duet. We rolled on to Asheville, where the Delmores had just left. In Asheville, we auditioned at a small station named WWNC. They asked us if we could come back and take over a 15-minute program called ‘Mountain Music Time,’ which was broadcast at 1:30 in the afternoon. Bill answered that we could, so we piled into Bill’s Hudson and headed back to Greenville to pick up the trailer. At last we had found a home base from which to start building our reputation.

“On the way back to Asheville, with Bill’s trailer in tow behind, I had a need to know what Bill was going to call us. I really didn’t know his intentions about a band, because Bill doesn’t talk much. Bill said ‘Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys.’ I questioned ‘Blue Grass Boys,’ being from the hills of Georgia, and not knowing anything about bluegrass. So I asked him about it, and he said, ‘I’m from Kentucky, you know, where the bluegrass grows, and it’s just got a good ring to it. I like that.’ We used to get a lot of kidding about that name in the early days. You could hear all sorts of little remarks when we’d play schoolhouses like ‘Bill Monroe and the Glue Brass Boys.’ As the years pass by, of course, I’m real proud that I was an original member of the Blue Grass Boys.

“When we got to Asheville, Bill parked his trailer next to an old service station and I got a room across the street for a dollar and a half a week, plus a meal ticket to the Asheville lunch room and boy, we were set! I thought Asheville was the coldest place on the face of the earth. It froze your thoughts before you could think’em. We walked up to the radio station each day and played our 15-minute program, I believe the announcer referred to us as Bill Monroe and Cleo Davis, although quite often our mail was addressed to the Monroe Brothers. Apparently, that’s who many people thought they were listening to. Of course, we did sound very much like the Monroe Brothers, and featured many of the songs that Bill and Charlie had made popular. I think that Bill was trying to stay close to the Monroe Brothers’ style. He was back in the area where the Monroe Brothers had once worked, so he was trying to stay with that sound to regain his popularity over the airwaves as he was building his own group.

“As the days went by Bill and I spent a lot of time rehearsing. We had to get each note exactly right before it went on the air. It was almost as if ‘you don’t make a mistake on one of Bill Monroe’s shows, especially on the road.’ That’s bending the truth a little, but that’s about how Bill was, and probably still is. You must be nearly perfect. We weren’t, but we thought we were.”

As Bill Monroe and Cleo Davis kept rehearsing, they continuously added new songs to their repertoire. “We picked up numbers that other people were using. We learned the Delmore Brothers’ old tunes like Southern Moon, The Nashville Blues, Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar, and When It’s Time For the Whippoorwills to Sing. We also learned some of the Callahan Brothers’ songs. They were very popular and had a beautiful sound. They sang the blues type of songs, the tearjerkers. The Callahans were especially known for their duet yodeling. The Monroe Brothers also featured the duet yodel, but we turned the blue yodel, with the duet yodel, into our theme song on the air. That’s what we always came on the air with and what we’d use to sign off. As we went off the air it sounded like two foghorns moving out into a deep fog.”

It wasn’t long after Bill Monroe and Cleo Davis started their radio program over WWNC in Asheville, North Carolina, that Bill started advertising over the air for other musicians to join their band. As the hopeful musicians would show up for an audition, Bill and Cleo usually auditioned them together, with guitar and mandolin. Among the first musicians to show up for an audition was fiddling Art Wooten, from nearby Marion, North Carolina. In addition to his fiddle, Wooten brought with him a contraption he called a “one-man band.” Cleo remembers that “it was like half an organ, with Art sitting with his knees under the thing. He also had a 5 string banjo and a guitar built into it. He picked it with one foot and chorded it with the other while at the same time playing the fiddle. He also had a harmonica rack around his neck and played the fiddle and the harmonica at the same time. We used that act on stage with the Blue Grass Boys many times.”

Although Art Wooten had, a smooth fiddle style and was known to have played some beautiful harmony on the fiddle, his style was not quite what Bill Monroe was looking for. But Monroe took his mandolin and worked with Wooten until he had the fiddler playing in the style that he wanted.

Another hopeful musician showed up at radio station WWNC by the name of Tommy Millard, from Canton, North Carolina. Tommy was a blackface comedian and Cleo fondly remembers him being extremely good at playing the role of the blackface rube comedian. “He would always break me up with his act when he’d go out on stage. As a matter of fact, I couldn’t even play straight with him, ’cause I’d get so tickled. Bill would have to take my part and play straight with him while I stood off in the wings and laughed. He didn’t sing or play an instrument, though he did have two big tablespoons that he’d play back to back. He would beat those spoons on his knees, between his hands, on his shoulders, under his arms, and up and down his legs. He was real ,good at it. I also believe he had a couple of bones in his suitcase that he’d use from time to time on our shows.”

In addition to using their 15-minute radio show to advertise for other musicians, Bill Monroe used the program to advertise shows they were playing in the area. People would write in to the radio station to arrange for the Blue Grass Boys to play a show, and it was Bill’s wife, Carolyn, who took care of most of the correspondence at that time. Bill made sure the handbills were printed to promote the shows in little school houses around Asheville. Many times Cleo Davis and Carolyn would make the rounds of the school houses, making arrangements for the shows. After the handbills were printed, they’d go back and distribute them and maybe play that night, or possibly the next night.

Cleo remembers that “we charged 15 and 25 cents admission and would often play to 50 or 70 people. One of our earliest shows was held at the Franklin County courthouse. We played right in the court room. Those kind of shows were sponsored by the PTA or some church. Sometimes, we’d have to play two shows. We generally played an hour and a half program. At that courthouse, I remember we opened with a fast fiddle tune, like Fire on the Mountain, had two or three fast duets like Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms, maybe an old blues number, a duet yodel, and a skit of 10 or 15 minutes. We had a skit that was very popular called The Pickpocket Game. I always came up short on that deal.”

“I recall one show we played at the city auditorium in Knoxville, Tennessee. I had to wear a dress, so I rolled my trousers up to my knees and put on a long dress, so I looked like a young girl. Bill was supposed to be my sister and had ‘herself'”a hot date (Art Wooten). I got jealous and was on the stage fussing real big about how ‘she’ was able to get a date, and I wasn’t. Tommy Millard was supposed to come out on stage to quiet me down. He had a True Story magazine that he was going to show me to quiet me down, but I wouldn’t pipe down, so he hauls off and wops me upside the head with it. That old floor had just been oiled and was slippery, so I slipped and both feet went straight up in the air. The audience went wild, thinking it was part of the act, but I can assure you, it wasn’t!

“The very first school house I played was at the Cashe Valley School auditorium, near Brevard, North Carolina. We started with Katy Hill, and then hit ’em with Foggy Mountain Top with a fast duet yodel and then some of the old blues numbers similar to the Callahans. We came back with the Delmore Brothers’ Southern Moon and then did one of our skits. For a gospel song we did What Would You Give in Exchange for Your Soul. That always brought the house down. That night we were going to do this gospel number When the World’s on Fire. We sang a verse and a chorus and Bill played the chorus on the mandolin. When he finished, I could not for the life of me think of the first words of the next verse. It just simply wouldn’t come to me. Bill quickly picked it up and played it through again. By this time I’d turned every color of the rainbow and he saw that I was scared to death. He looked over at me and grinned and I came up with something, some verse. Possibly the people didn’t even notice what was going on. That song was the last number before Tommy did a comedy skit. I was off in the wings and I told Bill I didn’t think I could go back out there and face those people again. At that point, Bill made one of the greatest moves that he ever made for me. He assured me that I had to go back out there. He said that not because of him, but because of me. He said you must go back out. He said if I’d let that stop me, I’d never be able to go back out again. He said I had to go back out there to prove to myself I could do it. He assured me that I could do the job and said I was going to do just fine. He said I just got scared and that it wouldn’t happen again. So I went back out there like a veteran and I never did forget my lines from that time on.”

In spite of the fact that the Blue Grass Boys were quite busy playing small schools around western North Carolina, Monroe was not happy with the set up. He was searching for a sound, and would not be satisfied until he found it. He knew he wanted a bass in the band, and he wanted to move to a more powerful radio station. After three months in Asheville, the opportunity came. The Delmore Brothers had left station WFBC in Greenville, South Carolina. So Monroe made contact, and the Blue Grass Boys were immediately hired to fill the spot vacated by the Delmores. Shortly after the move to Greenville, Tommy Millard departed and was replaced by a young man named Amos Garren. Garren was a talented bass player who also sang and did comedy.

Finally, Monroe had the sound he was looking for. He had a tightly knit group that was willing to put in the long hours of practice it took to weld itself into a cohesive unit. But musicians cannot live on music alone, and money was indeed scarce in those lean times. As Cleo put it, “We were about to starve to death. Those were bad times and we were not making much money. Sometimes, we’d take in $25 or $30 a night in the little shows and we’d play most every night. Bill paid me $15 a week, when we were working. When we weren’t working, he couldn’t pay me anything, though he did pay for my haircuts and my laundry. Back in those days, Bill was more like my older brother than my employer. I looked at him like a big brother, though he wasn’t that much older than me. But he’d beer around a lot more than I ever had.”

While in Greenville, South Carolina, Monroe, as usual, kept his trailer parked next to a service station. Needing a place to rehearse, the owner of the station, Gene Rampy, suggested they were free to use an old grease house in back of the station if they cleaned it up. So Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys pitched in and cleaned up that old grease house and even added a few seats. Their practice room was complete. Cleo Davis remembers that during the practice sessions they’d hold every afternoon, sometimes they’d draw bigger crowds than at some of their shows. “Out of that grease house came the now famous Mule Skinner Blues, Footprints in the Snow, and No Letter in the Mail. Songs that are now considered American standards like Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms and Foggy Mountain Top had their birth in bluegrass style in that old grease house. It really takes me back to think of the practice sessions we held there. We had so many good times, so many laughs in there. Bill started working on Footprints in the Snow, a song I’d heard my mother singing when I was a little boy. Bill started singing it, and I didn’t think he was singing it the way it was supposed to go. He changed it around to suit himself, and it worked. People really loved it. Also in the grease house Bill started working on Mule Skinner Blues. I thought he had written it. I’d never heard Jimmy Rodgers do it until later. So Bill worked it out with that yodel, and almost brought the house down with it. I remember how we worked up No Letter in the Mail. The writer of that song was Bill Carlisle. The Carlisle Brothers had recorded it pretty fast. I copied the words off the record and tried to remember the tune. I worked it out at my house with the guitar, with the help of Art Wooten on the fiddle. I slowed it way down, as it’s sung today. After I got so I could sing it pretty good, I sang it for Bill and we made a powerful duet out of it. Later on, it went over good on the Opry.”

The Blue Grass Boys stayed in Greenville, South Carolina, for about six months. Though the band maintained a busy schedule of rehearsals and performing, pickings were rather slim. But even though the band was not financially rewarded during its stay in Greenville, they could plainly see that this period was a valuable one for honing down their sound to polished perfection. It was in Greenville that Monroe established the basic sound that would soon carry the Blue Grass Boys to the Grand Ole Opry. While in Greenville, the first Blue Grass Boys quartet was formed.

Cleo Davis remembers how this happened. “People don’t realize it now, but I sometimes harmonized with Bill. In the early years I was very capable of harmonizing with him. I had a real high-pitched voice, so I would harmonize with him in many instances. It may seem strange to say, but Bill Monroe and I used to do He Will Set Your Fields on Fire as a duet. I would lead it and Bill would sing the tenor: And then Bill would pick up the bass lead, and I would follow him with the second part. On the tail end of the bass I would come in and Bill would jump up to the tenor. Later on, when the Blue Grass Boys came into being, I sang bass all the way through. My good friend Amos Garren did the lead, Bill sang tenor, and fiddling Art Wooten did the baritone. On Life’s Railway to Heaven, Bill would lead it and we all came in on the chorus. I always sang bass on the quartets, and lead on the trios.”

In addition to the trios, duets, and quartets, Monroe often sang solos. Cleo Davis remembers one of the first solos he heard Bill do was Blue Eyes: “We used it in a comedy skit. Tommy Millard came out in blackface while Bill was singing that song. Millard would. be crying as Bill was singing Blue Eyes so sad and lonesome. Millard would lean on Bill’s shoulder, almost going into convulsions. Not only did Bill sing Blue Eyes as a solo, but also numbers like Mule Skinner Blues, Footprints in the Snow, and Blue Yodel Number 9. Bill did them as specials and put them over with such style that he was continuously searching for new ones.”

When Monroe finally recorded with this version of the Blue Grass Boys for Victor on October 7, 1940, he chose Mule Skinner Blues” for his first recording. Much importance has been placed on the fact that Monroe himself played guitar on that first recording. Some writers have explained it by saying that Monroe played the guitar to give that special “bluegrass time” that only he could give. It is more probable that Monroe simply felt more comfortable playing the guitar rather than the mandolin when he went to the microphone to sing solos. After all, when playing with what must be considered the original Blue Grass Boys composed of Cleo Davis, Art Wooten and Amos Garren, Monroe nearly always accompanied himself on guitar when he sang solos. He would trade his mandolin for Cleo Davis’ guitar and sing solos like Mule Skinner Blues, Blue Eyes, or Footprints in the Snow. Later, apparently, Monroe grew more accustomed to singing solos while playing the mandolin, and never again recorded playing the guitar.

After working out of Greenville, South Carolina, for about six months, Bill Monroe was growing restless. As Cleo Davis, explained it, “It was a struggle to get the group up and off the ground. It took a lot of patience and determination, and I think Bill was loaded with that. In the six months we were in Greenville, we had done about all we could do. Things just weren’t that good. We were making progress, but not as fast as Bill wanted.

“One day, Bill called me up to the house and asked me what I thought about going to the Grand Ole Opry. I foolishly said, ‘Do you think we’re good enough?’ He laughed and said we’re as good as the best over there, and right now, we’re better than most of the rest. I thought that if Bill Monroe thought we were good enough, we were good enough. I said, `Man. I’m for it.’ ‘Course the Grand Ole Opry is, in my estimation, the ultimate dream a country musician can have. He told me to go back and tell the other boys to get their toothbrushes ready; we’re going to Nashville.

“We arrived in Nashville and got an audition and it was with none other than the Solemn Old Judge, George D. Hay, and David Stone, who listened in. They put us in one of the studios and we really put on the dog. We started out with Foggy Mountain Top, then Bill and I did a duet tune with a duet yodel, fast as white lightning. W e came back with the Mule Skinner Blues and Fire on the Mountain, and I think that really sewed it up. The Solemn Old Judge, George Hay, and David Stone came walking in and asked Bill if he could be here to take over the first spot on the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday night. Bill said ‘Yes Sir.’ As we left the studio, Bill told us we had a job to do. We had to travel back to Greenville and get that trailer and be back in Nashville in time to open the curtain Saturday night.

“We were for it. You ought to have seen those country boys move. We moved across those mountains like they weren’t there. We were back in Nashville way ahead of time. We were wild and rough and ready. And I think that first Saturday night, we pulled off a few firsts. We were the first to ever walk out on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry dressed in white shirts with neckties on. I also think we were the first country music quartet to ever hit the Grand Ole Opry. When we hit the stage, such performers as Roy Acuff, Pee Wee King, Uncle Dave Macon, and Sam and Kirk McGee who were standing in the wings watching, the Blue Grass Boys when they pulled the curtain on us, could not believe when we took off so fast and furious. Those people couldn’t even think as fast as we played, I believe. In fact, there was absolutely nobody living who had ever played with the speed that we had. I believe we opened up with Foggy Mountain Top with that wild duet yodel that we had and came right back with Mule Skinner Blues, some fast tune like Fire on the Mountain or Katy Hill and Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms. Those people like to played us to death that night. I don’t think there was any other act that got to play more than one tune that night. To say the least, the show was really on the road. We had done exactly what we started out to do.”

After Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys joined the Grand Ole Opry, requests to play came flooding into the band. One tour took the band to Staunton, Virginia, Cleo Davis remembers that “We were in Staunton, Virginia, with a great fiddler friend of mine, Tommy Magness, who was fiddling with us at that time. He came up with a fiddle tune called the Orange Blossom Special. We were doing a two-day stand at the Twilight Theater and Tommy and me were rooming together. I had my guitar in the room, and he had his fiddle, and he played me the Orange Blossom Special, and man, I thought I’d never heard such a train tune. Train 45 wasn’t that good, and neither was the Lee Highway Blues. The Orange Blossom Special took it all, and Tommy knew the words. We went over the words and learned the song. And we went downstairs and got a portable recorder at a music shop, and tried to record it in the lobby. We couldn’t get a true sound in the lobby, so the man took us in the public restroom and locked the door. We set the recorder on the john, and me and Tommy Magness recorded the Orange Blossom Special. I sang tenor in the duet. While in the bathroom, we also recorded Peach Picking Time in Georgia and The Hills of Roane County. When we got back to Nashville, we called Bill over to listen to it. He liked it. Tommy had picked up an old record by the Rouse Brothers, who were good friends of Chubby Wise, an old Florida boy. Chubby and the Rouse Brothers wrote it, and Chubby gave it to the Rouse Brothers. They copyrighted it and recorded it, but Tommy Magness and me took it to Nashville. Bill, he let Tommy Magness and me do the Orange Blossom Special on the Grand Ole Opry the next Saturday night. The following Saturday night, me and Bill did it, and from then on, me and Bill did it.

“I stayed at the Grand Ole Opry until late 1940 when I left the Blue Grass Boys and came to Lakeland, Florida, and took on a brand new show of my own over radio WLAK. I formed a group here and worked this station for about a year. At that point, the service separated me from the radio station. But while in the service, my music caught up with me. While in the reception center in Atlanta, Georgia, there was a big country music show being held that night. It just so happened that some long time friends of mine were appearing on the show. It was Hank Penny’s Radio Cowboys with James and Martha Carson with Leon Payne. I naturally got as close to the stage as I could get, along with the thousands of other men in khaki uniforms. And lo and behold, Hank Penny spotted me. He pulled me out of the crowd and pulled me backstage and insisted that I had to be on the show that night. Me, being a new recruit, I thought you couldn’t do anything without permission, so he got permission right quick from the colonel, and I appeared in the entire show that evening. They had a contest as part of the show, and, needless to say, there wasn’t much contest to it that night, ’cause I won. I sang an old song called What is a Home Without Love. Of course, I won the hearts of all of those GI’s by being in uniform, just like them.

“Before long, I found myself in Fort McClellan, Alabama, and my record caught up with me again. I was pulled out of ranks to play at the hospital for the patients. And wherever I went, it seemed like my record followed me. I went north, and was chosen to play the bass fiddle in a reed section, which I’d never done before, but it kept me from having to work. The post commandant where I was stationed was from Kentucky, and had heard about and loved bluegrass music. He walked into the band room one day and I was trying to play a fiddle, and I did have my mandolin with me. He listened to a little bit of it and asked me if I knew anything about bluegrass music. I, in turn, asked him if he knew anything about me. He said that ‘I can’t say that I do.’ I laughingly said to just look in my files. He said, ‘I will, but tell me anyway.’ So I proceeded to tell him my experiences playing with Bill Monroe, and from that day on, I had a job playing music. He recommended that I form a country music band to play for square dances. He was an old-time square dancer. So I did just that. By looking through the personnel files, I picked out some people who had even done radio work, and had their own shows. To say the least, we had a good group. We played shows throughout the service area where we worked.

“When I got out of the service, I went back to Florida, and back into radio. I formed my own group, and played on radio WLAK with a long time friend of mine, Floyd Lewis, for about 14 years. In my years in Florida, I went by the name of J.C. Davis, so our band was called the J.C. Davis/Floyd Lewis Show. We were widely received over the local station. Finally, some new owners bought the station, and it went to rock, and they naturally turned me out to pasture. So I disbanded, and became rather inactive, though I did work with a gospel group throughout central Florida for a couple of years and made several albums with them.

“In the first part of 1980, a man by the name of Jack Henderson out of Nashville, Tennessee, came down here and opened what he called the Sunshine Opry House. He bought property and built a thousand-seat auditorium on the style of WSM’s Grand Ole Opry. After six months, he was unhappy, and sold out. In the meantime, he asked me to come over and join him. Two weeks later I had my own show on Saturday night. It was very popular, no longer than it had run. When the Sunshine Opry House closed, some of us musicians formed a corporation and bought what is about 17 acres of land, and we’re building us an Opry house. In fact, we’ll be opening very soon. What we’re opening is a family theater and we feel we have some of the finest musicians here in central Florida, and I’ve traveled this country far and wide. So, I’m back playing music again. The new Opry house, called The Florida Opry House is located between Auburndale and Lakeland, Florida, on Highway 92, three miles east of Lakeland. It’s beautiful inside, I assure you, and the whole world’s invited.

“I am thankful to have been a part of the history of bluegrass music. I am also thankful, of all the things that my bluegrass followers have contributed to make bluegrass what it is today. We worked hard to make it what it is. We struggled to get it off the ground, and I’m proud of it.”

This article was originally published in Bluegrass Unlimited.


Rural Roots of BluegrassYou can read more about the history of bluegrass music in Wayne Erbsen’s book Rural Roots of Bluegrass. This book is richly illustrated with 107 vintage photos and includes history, lyrics to 94 songs, musical notation, chords, playing tips, and historical sources for each song.

Wayne Erbsen has been teaching banjo, fiddle, guitar, and mandolin since dinosaurs roamed the earth (really, about 50 years). Originally from California, he now makes his home in Asheville, North Carolina. He has written 30 songbooks and instruction books for banjo, fiddle, guitar, and mandolin.

3 thoughts on “Cleo Davis, The Original Bluegrass Boy

  1. Dear Mr. Erbsen,
    I just read this interview with Cleo Davis in The Bill Monroe Reader. What a fantastically interesting account of Bill’s early years post-Charlie!! Wow, that’s unique. Thank you for taking the time to talk to him and for doing such a great job of capturing his voice. One of the most vivid documents of the history of this music I’ve ever read. Really, thanks so much.
    Stephen Ellis

  2. Dear Mr. Erbsen,
    I wrote a song about Cleo Davis called “Pickin and Grinnin” you might enjoy hearing. It’s the first song on my website:

  3. Dear Mr. Erbsen,
    Did Cleo Davis write any songs during his career. I have come across some old songs by James Cleo Davis and a nice rejection letter from Jack Kerr from Badger Publishing & Production Co.

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