By Charles Wolf
The first great Nashville session fiddler, Tommy Jackson has probably been heard on more country records than any other musician. Through out the 1950s and 1960s, he dominated .the field, appearing: on records by every major star of the era, from Hank Williams to Bill Monroe, from Ray Price to George Jones. He virtually invented the standard country fiddle back-up style, and in the early 1950s had a string of hit albums of his own that both reflected and stimulated the square dance craze.
Born in Birmingham, Alabama, on March 31, 1926, Jackson and his family moved to Nashville when he was barely one, and he grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry and Nashville radio. He remembered being especially impressed with two of the fiddlers on the· early Opry, George Wilkerson of The Fruit Jar Drinkers and Arthur Smith of The Dixieliners. Even though,there wasn’t much music in his immediate family, Tommy’s father, a barber, encouraged him, and Tommy became a child prodigy of sorts; when he was seven, he went into Nashville bars and sawed out fiddle tunes for nickels and dimes. By the time he was 12, he as going on tour with Johnny Wright and Kitty Wells. With a neighbor he formed a group called The Tennessee Mountaineers and soon began to play over Nashville station WSIX. By the time he was 17, he was playing regularly on the Opry with Curly Williams and his Georgia Peach Pickers, and later with Paul Howard. But on April 17, 1944, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps, and spent the rest of the war as a tail gunner on a B-29. He eventually won four bronze stars and an air medal for his service.
Discharged in April 1946, Tommy returned to Nashville and did road tours with Opry stars, including Whitey Ford. He didn’t like the road grind, though, and hooked up with Milton Estes, then starting a radio show on WSM. This job led to a similar one with Red Foley, who had just come to town as a replacement for Roy Acuff on the Opry. This band, The Cumberland Valley Boys, including Zeke Turner, steel player Jerry Bird, and Louis Innis, became the first Nashville “A-team,” and soon the four were doing all manner of studio work, for all manner of labels. Tommy’s first commercial record was a Sterling session for a young Hank Williams in 1947. Two two months later on another Williams session Jackson created the famous fiddle intro for I Saw the Light.
In 1948 he backed Williams on Lovesick Blues and later backed Red Foley on pieces like Satisfied Mind. In November of 1948, the band moved en masse to Cincinnati and struck out on it~ own as The Pleasant Valley Boys, They continued to session work–now for King as well as others – and recorded with Cowboy Cop-as, Hawshaw Hawkins, Gradpa Jones and The York Brothers, Itt was while he was in Cincinnati that Tommy made his first solo recordings. He was doing a back session for-Rex Allen the cowboy singe then under contract to Mercury. In charge of the Session was Murray Nash, then gaining fame as the producer for the first Flatt & Scruggs records, Allen’s father was a fiddler,.and he liked fiddling; he asked Tommy to make a couple of custom discs of “Black Mountain Rag” and “Fire on the’ Mountain.” Tommy obliged, and Nash liked the songs enough to release them as singles .
Sales were surprisingly strong, and between 1949 and 1953 Tommy cut 12 fiddle standards on the: Mercury label. In 1953 he signed a contract with the newly formed Dot record. company, of Gallatin, Tennessee, and continued to record successful singles. He first Dot release was ”Arkansas Traveler”/”Soldier’s Joy” one of the first Dot records to be issued on, both 45 and 78 format. But the real innovation came a few months later, when Don got the idea of combining 12 of Tommy’s singles onto an LP, and aiming it at the square dance audience. Square dancing was becoming a big middle-class social fad in the early 1950’s, and clubs were springing up everywhere. There was a need for canned square dance music that a local caller could use when calling a dance, and a need for fiddle tunes that went on longer’ than the customary , three-minute limit of the 45 or 78.’ Tommy’s LP’s filled this need, and they were lapped up. Popular Square Dance Music-Without Calls (1953) was quickly followed by Square Dance Tonight (1957) and Do Si Do, which offered detailed dance instructions on the back of the album. Before it was all over, Tommy had piled up 11 LP’s for Dot and around 30 singles.
Tommy’s square dance sakes made him the most heard, and most imitated, fiddler of his generation, “I always kept the tunes as simple as possible, ’cause I was selling a beat,”‘ he explained, He broke with that tradition after his first few records and added a full rhythm section: piano, bass, drums, guitar and mandolin, His favorite back-up man was Hank Garland, the legendary Nashville guitarist, who played some lead guitar and ,often even mandolin on Tommy’s sessions, Tommy’s clean, , driving, straightforward style won a lot of 1idmlrers, and some of the tunes he wrote or popularized like “Crazy Creek,” “Cherokee Shuffle,” “Acorn Hill” (named after a little town where his wife’s family came from) and “Bitter Creek Breakdown” are still standards among fiddlers today. A few of his records, such as his Decca version of Arthur Smith’s “Fiddler’s Dream,” sold’ over 40,000 copies in the 1960’s.
Meanwhile, he continued to make a name for himself in session and radio work. He, along with the rest of The Pleasant Valley Boys, had returned to Nashville after a year or so at WLW, He rejoined the network segment of the Opry, and for some 13 years he was to have a featured fiddle solo coast-to-coast radio: another key to his influence on other fiddlers. He broke with Red Foley shortly after Foley left Nashville to go to the Ozark Jubilee‘ about 1954. He soon found dates with everyone from Roy Acuff to Ernest Tubb, and recorded with most in between. Among his favorites was Faron Young, on whose recordings Tommy popularized a doublestop back-up technique.
In the 1970’s, the vocation Tommy invented became filled with so many other fiddlers that he had a hard time getting work. Health problems began to develop. There was an interesting experimental rock album Tommy did with his son Mychael, and a reunion album of Ray Price’s Cherokee Cowboys; but the experimental, free-form fiddle album he had always wanted to do never materialized. Tommy died on December 9, 1979, but only the sharp-eyed reader looking through the death notices in the Nashville papers would have learned about it.
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.