By Charles Wolf
It was a hot night at the Grand Ole Opry in the summer of 1995. Out frontthe crowd in the Opry house was stocking up on Cokes and trying to explain to northern visitors what Goo Goos were. Backstage the talk was about whether or not the Houston Oilers were serious about moving to Nashville. Announcer Kyle Cantrell was checking over his schedule and getting ready to introduce the host for the 8:30 P.M. segment of the world’s longest running radio show. He smiled when he saw who was up next.
Accompanied by his back-up band of Joe Carroll and George McCormick, 81year-old Grandpa Jones came out of his dressing room. The backstage crowd in the hallway reverently parted to let him by, recognizing at once the familiar figure and costume: an old checkered shirt, red suspenders, pork pie hat, bristling white mustache, and big old leather boots that had been given to Grandpa in 1935 by singer Bradley Kincaid – boots that were already 50 years old by then. His banjo was strapped on, and he paused a minute to say to his boys, “Let’s see if we’re in tune,” and whams out a chord almost loud enough to be heard out on stage. There’s nothing timid about Grandpa’s music-he has for the past two weeks been suffering through the agonies of a root canal, but he is a trooper of the old school, and the show will go on. Someone asks, “Grandpa, they want to know if you’re gonna need the drums.” “No,” he snaps, “we’re trying to keep it country!”
Then the big red curtain is rising and Cantrell is saying, “And now let’s make welcome a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, everybody’s grandpa, Grandpa Jones!” The band breaks into his theme song, “Eight More Miles to Louisville” and the audience applauds in recognition. Newly energized, Grandpa struts on the stage and tears into a song called “Banjo Sam,” an old- time banjo song he had first recorded back in 1961 and has recently resurrected. After singing the first verse, he holds his big banjo up to the mike and plays a chorus with an energetic downstroke style called clawhammer. This is what the audience has been waiting for, and they applaud again; many recognize it as “Grandpa Jones style” banjo work, but it is really a old mountain style that predates the popular bluegrass style. Grandpa is one of the very few commercial artists who can still do it.
After the song, Grandpa decides to tell a couple of stories. Even before his long stint on Hee Haw, where he held forth in comedy duels with the likes of Junior Samples, Minnie Pearl and his old friend Stringbean, fans and friends alike knew that Grandpa was one of the funnier storytellers around. “I read in the paper the other day about a scientist at this university who had invented this contraption where you put an egg on it and it could tell you if the egg was gonna be a hen or a rooster. Well …. I don’t know. I think I’ve got a better method. You wait until the egg hatches and take the little chick and put it down in front of some feed. Then you watch. If he eats it, it’s a rooster; if she eats it, it’s a hen.” The audience eventually gets this, and someone on stage tells him, “Tell the one about the bald-headed shoe salesman.” Grandpa obliges, and launches into a yarn about a near-sighted old maid who goes into a shoe store. The baldheaded salesman bends over to try to fit her with a shoe, and she looks down to see only the top of his bald head. Mistaking it for her knee, she quickly pulls her dress over it to cover it up. “It took that poor salesman three or four days to recover,” says Grandpa, in the best ad lib of the night.
Then, after introducing a couple of other guests on his segment, he concludes by doing a fine old Jimmie Rodgers song, “My Little Old Home Down in New Orleans.” As he finishes and waves goodbye, a fan watching from the wings says, “You sometimes forget that Grandpa used to be one of the best Jimmie Rodgers singers around-that he did a whole album of yodel songs.” A friend nods. “You sometimes forget a lot of things Grandpa can do.”
And, indeed, Grandpa’s long career has taken him down some trails that typical country singers don’t follow. His days were not spent in the Tennessee mountains or the Arkansas cotton fields, but in the rolling hills of northwestern Kentucky, near the banks of the Ohio River. He was born Louis Marshall Jones in the hamlet of Niagra, Kentucky, the youngest of eight boys and two girls born into a family of tobacco planters. An early photo shows he and his sisters standing amidst huge leaves of tobacco. When the farm work was done, there was time for music in the family; his father played old fiddle tunes like “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” and his mother played the concertina and sang old songs like “Daisy Dean.”
After radio got started, the Jones family bought a crystal set and listened to the National Barn Dance out of Chicago; on nights when everyone wanted to listen it once, one of his brothers got the idea of laying the little crystal headphones in a Number 3 washtub so it could amplify the sound. By the time he graduated from the eighth grade, Marshall (as he was called, then) was serious about his singing and wanted nothing more than a guitar so he could sound like Jimmie Rodgers on those Victrola records his brothers kept bringing home. Finally one of his brothers, Aubrey, came home from work one day and told Marshall to look in the cab of his truck “I expected to find a sack of candy,” recalls Grandpa, “But there on the seat lay an old guitar. It was warped a little; but it looked like gold to me. I don’t even think it had a brand name on it. Aubrey had brought it at a secondhand place called Cheap John’s for 75 cents!
By the time Marshall was in high school, his family had moved up to Akron, Ohio; here he continued to work on his singing and his guitar playing, but began to hear more pop music and show tunes. One of his first performances in public was singing “Old Man River,” the famed anthem from Show Boat, for a high school assembly. Then, in March 1929, singer Wendall Hall came to town. Hall was a quasi-hillbilly singer who had had a big hit with “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No More.” During a week-long talent contest, he auditioned over 450 contestants, with the winner appearing on his radio show and winning five ten-dollar gold pieces, Marshall practiced his yodel, entered, sang two Jimmie Rodgers songs, and won. His years behind the mike had started.
His first years as a pro were spent in the unlikely places of Cleveland and Boston. He got his first solo show at WJW Akron where he was billed as “The Young Singer of Old Songs.” His specialties in those days were “Eleven Cent Cotton and Forty Cent Meat,” “Twenty-One Years” and “That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine.” By 1931 he had met ‘and teamed up with harmonica player Joe Troyan, who would later win fame as Bashful Harmonica Joe. “He was living in Cleveland then,” Grandpa recalls, “He was Slavic, and his mother was one of the best cooks I ever met. Trouble was, I never got to talk to her directly, She didn’t speak English, Joe had to interpret ‘for me,” Soon the pair joined a local radio band featured on the popular Lum and Abner show-The Pine Ridge String Band, The show had been started in 1931, and the antics at the Jo ‘Em Down Store in Pine Ridge, Arkansas, was a national sensation. “Though they dressed up in mustache .and goatee, in real lif’ Lum and Abner were nice-looking young men,” Grandpa recalls, “In the off season they went on tour, and we provided the music for that.”
In 1935 Grandpa met the one man who was to have the most influence on his career: Bradley Kincaid. A genuine product of the Kentucky hills, Bradley had won fame on the WLS National Barn Dance, and in 1935, with the death of Jimmie Rodgers, he was easily the most popular singer in the country. One night Bradley shared a bill with Marshall and Joe at a benefit and stayed around afterwards to talk to them. “How would you boys like to join me in West Virginia,” he asked, “and then go on up to New England and play on the east coast for a while?” “We were bumfuzzled,” says Grandpa, “We managed to tell him we needed to ask our folks. ” They did, and when Bradley’s wire came, they were ready to go.
For the next two years Grandpa and Joe worked out of WBZ Boston with Bradley, learning that New Englanders had as much a taste for the old-time songs and ballads as Southerners, The trio would do their morning radio show arid then travel to small towns throughout New England for personals; Grandpa was surprised to find that “reserved” New Englanders were warm and hospitable.-often they invited the musicians home to have supper with them, Bradley not only taught Marshall a lot of old songs-and a respect for old songs–but a lot about Stage presence and showmanship. And he was the one who turned Marshall Jones into Grandpa Jones, “I was just 22 when it happened,” Grandpa recalls. “We were always having to drive back in late from a show and having to do that early morning radio spot on WBZ. We were sleepy and it was hard to hide it. One morning on the air Bradley said, ‘Get up to the microphone. You’re just like an old grandpa.’ And the way I talked made me sound older than I was, and pretty soon people were writing in saying, ‘How old is that fellow? He sounds about 80.’ So we decided to play this up. There was an old vaudeville comedian named Ben Swor in Boston then, and he took me down to the store that had wigs, and fixed me up with make-up and a false mustache. I’ve been Grandpa ever since-though I don’t have the false mustache anymore.”
In 1937 Grandpa was out on his own, working radio in West Virginia and then Cincinnati. Along the way Cousin Emmy, the flamboyant banjo picking comedienne, had taught him how to play the old-time clawhammer banjo-though he still thought his main instrument was the guitar. At WLW Cincinnati he joined forces with young Merle Travis and The Delmore Brothers (Alton and Rabon) to create one of country music’s best-known gospel groups, The Brown’s Ferry Four. (In later years Grandpa would use this group as the prototype for the Hee Haw Gospel Quartet.) Singing songs like “I’ll Meet You in the Morning” and “I’ll Fly Away.” The BFF existed, with several personnel changes, throughout the 1940’s. It was at Cincinnati, that Grandpa finally got into the record business. In the fall of 1943, he and his buddy Merle Travis went into a makeshift studio in Dayton and recorded two sides for a new label that would be called King. Not sure how their bosses at WLW would like them recording, they released this first record under the pseudonym The Sheppard Brothers. This first release was not all that successful, but a few months later Grandpa began issuing discs under his own name, and soon had a hit with “It’s Raining Here This Morning” in 1944.
A stint in the army, where he served as an MP led a string band in occupied Germany called The Munich Mountaineers, interrupted Grandpa’s recording career, but by 1946 he was back in the King studios. King flew him to Hollywood, where he joined Merle Travis in the studio and cut his next big hit, “Eight More Miles to Louisville.” “I wrote that off of an old Delmore Brothers song, ‘Fifteen Miles to Birmingham,'” Grandpa remembers. And though Merle wasn’t listed on the original label (he was Signed to Capitol then), in the middle of his great guitar solo, Grandpa shouts, “Play it, Merle!” In 1947 he went into Nashville studios and cut the two songs that were destined to be his biggest sellers: “Mountain Dew” and “Old Rattler.” Both were based on old folk songs. “Mountain Dew” he had learned from his friends Lula Belle and Scotty, who had in turn based it on an older version by mountain singer Bascom Lamar Lunsford; Grandpa added the verse about “my old aunt June/bought some brand dew perfume.” “Old Rattler was a song Grandpa had sung back in Wheeling, and was based on an old folk song named “Calling the Dog.” The idea is even older; one of Davy Crockett’s famous hunting dogs was called Rattler.
On the original recording of “Rattler,” the back-up band consisted of Grandpa’s old friend Cowboy Copas on guitar and doing the barking, and a very special bass player named Ramona. She had been born Ramona Riggins, and had grown up in Southern Indiana. During the 1930’s she had become one of the first full-time woman performers in country music, as she had worked with Sunshine Sue over WHAS in Louisville. She had met Grandpa while both worked at WLW, and the pair had married on October 14, 1946. It began a partnership that would last up until the present; she would play fiddle, mandolin, bass, and sing on many of Grandpa’s later records, and would in the 1970’s carve out a career of her own. They would also start a second generation of Jones music with the children Mark, Eloise, Alisa and Marsha.
During the 1950’s Grandpa spread his time between the Opry and stints at Arlington and Richmond, Virginia, and in Washington, D.C., where he worked on Connie B. Gay’s TV show. By 1959 he had settled in permanently at the Opry, and began a series of albums for companies like RCA, Decca, Monument and CMH. In 1969 he became a charter member of one of country’s most successful TV shows, Hee Haw. And when he was named to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1978, his election was one of the most popular in memory. During all this time, he has consistently been one of the music’s strongest champions of old-time country, and with Ramona has worked tirelessly to keep alive the traditions of Bradley Kincaid, Cousin Emmy, Sunshine Sue and The Delmore Brothers. And in the mid-1990’s, after almost 60 years of work, that flame is still burning bright.
Charles K. Wolfe (1943-2006) was a professor of English at Middle Tennessee State University. He was the author of the award-winning A Good-Natured Riot: The Birth of the Grand Ole Opry and many other books on Southern music.
Used by permission of Mary Dean Wolfe.