It all started with mama. It seemed like she could make music on about anything with strings on it and some things that didn’t, like the french harp. There never was enough time for mama to play, what with raising six rambunctious sons. But often on Saturday night she would put her work aside and get together with her two brothers, Rome and Joe, to make music. Joe played banjo in the old clawhammer style, and Rome played the fiddle. In addition to the hoedown square dance tunes, Rome was known to have played some beautiful waltz music on the fiddle. He played waltzes like “Over the Waves,” and “Wednesday Night Waltz.” According to his many admirers, when Rome played the fiddle, every note was right where it was supposed to be. He did have one quirk that amused some and distracted others. Rome often grunted and moaned while he played, all the while puffing on his big pipe stuffed full with tobacco.
It seemed like all the music came from mama’s side of the family. Her husband, Russell Morris, could do little more than keep time with his foot. So it was mama who passed on her music to her sons. It wasn’t too long before their fingers started to make chords on the guitar. It was brother George who first got his hands around the neck of the guitar. He spotted an ad in a farm catalog advertising a free guitar to any boy who could sell enough seeds, so George worked hard and sold seeds, and before long the postman hauled a large box out of his trunk. The guitar was a Stella and not long after the guitar was unwrapped George was able to tune it like a Hawaiian guitar. By barring his finger across all the strings, he was able to play chords. The first tune he played was “Go Feather, Go Feather Your Nest.”
Even though mama passed away before she could teach George the rudiments of the guitar, there were always plenty of people around to get George well on his way toward playing the guitar. On Saturday evenings a group of local musicians always gathered at Lackey’s Hardware store in nearby Old Fort, North Carolina. Sitting on the front porch of the store could be found Walter Davis on guitar and french harp, and Clarance Greene on fiddle. These musicians would play the old hoedowns and waltz tunes. As people would pass by, some would gather around to listen and there was always a hat where a penny might be pitched.
It was Walter Davis, more than any of the other musicians, who really took a liking to young George Morris. The two could often be found playing together at church suppers and, of course, out front of Lackey’s Hardware store. Davis had been earning his living as a street musician for several years, playing with Clarence Greene, Gwen Foster, and occasionally Clarence Ashley. He recorded with Foster as the “Carolina Twins,” and with Foster and fiddler Greene as the “Carolina Tar Heels” and “The Blue Ridge Mountain Entertainers.” Their recordings for the American Recording Company included “Corrina,” and “Bring Me a Leaf From the Sea.” Davis played in a two finger style on the guitar, and it was this style that George also played. Davis had picked up this style of playing by standing spellbound in front of an old black street singer who often played in Johnson City, Tennessee. The guitarist was none other than Blind Lemon Jefferson, a now legendary figure in blues guitar history.
For quite some time George thought he was the only one in the family who cared anything about string music after mama died. But soon he discovered that his younger brother Zeke had been sneaking his guitar out from under the bed while George was at school or out working with his father in the fields. Worse yet, Zeke was getting good at it. George didn’t take too kindly to his younger brother messing with his guitar while he was away, and forbid Zeke to touch it. This, of course, only instilled in Zeke an even greater desire to learn the guitar. After Zeke had learned the guitar, the youngest brother, Wiley, learned in the same fashion, by sneaking Zeke’s guitar out of the case while Zeke was gone.
It wasn’t too many years before the two older brothers, George and Zeke, began performing together with their guitars. They had heard that there was prize money to be won at a fiddlers convention in nearby Marion, so they threw their guitars on their backs and caught a freight train down there. “That was the only way we had to travel back then,” Zeke remembers. “We didn’t have cars. And if we did, we had no money to buy gas. We’d hobo down there and win every time. We never did lose. We both played guitar. One of us would play lead and the other would chord it. We entered in the duet singing competition and won on the spirituals every time. We didn’t have a special song we played for all the contests. We’d just sing the first one that came to us. We’d make ’em up as we went along. As long as I’ve got the tune in my head, I can make up the words. I’ve been before a microphone many a time, forgot the words, and made it up and went right on. I’ve seen some people forget the words and their britches would almost shake off. But I’ve never had stage fright. The bigger the crowd, the better I can do.”
In 1933, two brothers from nearby Weaverville, North Carolina, J.E. and Wade Mainer, were putting together a string band to go on the road. Wade played banjo in x two finger style and his brother J.E. played the fiddle. They needed a guitarist to round out their band, and had heard of a young guitar played in Old Fort by the name of George Morris. One day they came looking for George. They first located George’s younger brother, Wiley, who was only a small boy at the time. He directed the Mainers to his father’s house where George lived. Arriving to find George gone, Wiley suggested that his brother Zeke could play just as good as George, so they auditioned Zeke on the front porch of the house. Liking what they heard, they hired Zeke on the spot, and together they moved to Charlotte, North Carolina where they played as J.E. Mainer and his Crazy Mountaineers. The band was sponsored by the Crazy Water Crystal Company, but soon found itself heading back to Asheville, and then once again back to Charlotte. Once settled in Charlotte, the band consisted of J.E., Wade, Zeke, and Daddy John Love. Love was a blues singer and yodeler in the style of Jimmy Rodgers. Soon after the group started working in Charlotte, they were contacted by RCA Victor to make records. In early 1934 they traveled to Atlanta where they cut “Maple on the Hill,” and “Take Me in a Lifeboat.” Zeke recalls that RCA told him that “Maple on the Hill” outsold anything up to that time, even above Jimmy Rodgers. “Of course you had to sell a million records before you made any money at all. They paid a half cent on every record sold, and it takes a lot of records to mount some money, but I did draw some pretty big checks off of that thing.”
While traveling with the Mainers, Zeke recalled that his weekly salary for a seven day week was twenty six dollars. “I told J.E. and Wade that I can’t work for those wages. They couldn’t understand why I couldn’t, because I was single and all. I told them yes, I was single, but I was doing a lot of courtin’ and I had to have money. I said ‘Let’s hit old man Fincher up for a percentage basis.’ He was our boss. We were on a straight salary and they were collecting all the money at our show dates. Mr. Fincher’s boy, Hubert, was our MC. He went out with us on our shows and sold tickets. I said, ‘Let’s tell him to forget the salary and we’ll advertise for him for free and we’ll collect the money at the show dates.’ So we got together and put it to him and that’s what we done. We told him it was either that or we was going to quit. So that’s what we done and then we really started making the money, plenty of it for those days, and that was at 15 and 25 cents a head. We’d have to put on two or three shows a night just to get ’em all in. ‘
After working with J.E. and Wade Mainer for about three years, Zeke decided that his brother Wiley was good enough to join him. In 1937, Zeke and Wade left J.E. and came to Old Fort, where they picked up Wiley. In the meantime, J.E. had joined up with brother George Morris and formed a group with Leonard Stokes calling themselves “Handsome and Sambo.” Zeke, Wiley and Wade then started a radio program on WWNC in Asheville, North Carolina. They broadcast a fifteen minute show every day from 3:15 until 3:30. The band consisted of Wiley and Zeke on guitars and Wade on banjo.
It wasn’t long before Zeke started playing the mandolin on the program. He had begun playing the mandolin some years before and now decided it would give more variety to have another instrument. Zeke remembers that his first mandolin was a little flatback instrument, similar to a Martin. He later got an old 1906 Gibson A-1 mandolin that he still plays today. In learning the mandolin, Zeke had to develop his own style of playing, because mandolin players back in the mountains were very few indeed. The early mandolins were often referred to as “tator bugs,” and had round backs. These instruments were extremely awkward to hold and doubtless the shape of the instrument had a lot to do with its lack of popularity. Zeke remembers that he started out playing breakdowns on the mandolin, like you would on the fiddle. “I played “Sally Goodin,” “Red Wing,” the old tunes. I probably did more with intros to my singing than anything else. Of course, I’d take a break now and then to give us a chance to swallow a time or two and maybe get some fresh air in our lungs. When I’m singing, I more or less stay in the background with it, and maybe hit a note or two at the end of each chorus.”
As was the custom in those days, musicians did not usually stay long on any one radio station. The programs were used to advertise local dates in school houses and theaters in the winter, and county fairs in the summer. After “playing out” one area, it was necessary to switch stations and find new audiences to play for. In the later part of 1937 the Morris Brothers and Wade Mainer moved to 5,000 watt station WPTF in Raleigh, North Carolina. Sponsored by the Zebulon Supply Company, they played every morning from 7:15 to 7:30. Following them on the air was another brother act that was starting to raise quite a stir in the Carolinas-Bill and Charlie, the Monroe Brothers. Working closely together every morning, the Morris and the Monroe Brothers became good friends. Zeke fondly remembers that back in those days “I had a ’37 Ford V8 and Charlie had a ’37 Hudson Terraplane. We’d always take off and see who could outrun the other. The cops weren’t bad back then. We always respected each other as musicians, you know. We got along perfect because they done their thing and we done ours. We never would try to copy another musician’s music.”
As it is with most bands, the Morris Brothers and Wade Mainer didn’t stay together very long, and Wade left. Around this time Homer Sherill joined on fiddle. Homer had been playing with Bill and Earl Bolick, the Blue Sky Boys, over radio WGST in Atlanta. With the addition of the new member, the band changed their name to the Smiling Rangers. April, 1938, they were ready to move on, and their next stop was radio WBTM in Danville, Virginia. Joining the Smiling Rangers was Joel Martin, who played banjo in a three-finger style. Together they played a program called the Farm Bulletin Program. With the addition of Joel Martin, the band had the basic instrumentation that would later go by the name of bluegrass-banjo, guitar, mandolin and fiddle. According to Zeke, Martin was a fine banjo player and one of several who deserves credit for helping to develop three-finger style banjo playing. Zeke remembers that Mack Crow, who was billed as “The King of the 5-string Banjo” was the first banjo player he ever heard. Crow was originally from Hickory, North Carolina, but spent most of his life in nearby Marion. Zeke also praises both Hoke Jenkins and Snuffy Jenkins as unheralded pioneers of the banjo. Hoke later worked with the Morris Brothers and later went on to record with Jim and Jesse.
When the Smiling Rangers made their move to Danville, Virginia, Zeke recalls that they were practically broke. “I was the only one with a little money in my pocket. I did have a new car, which I owed for. When we went to Danville, we didn’t have a place to stay, so we found a rooming house and the lady said she thought I had an honest face by looking at me and by talking to me. So she let us stay without paying a cent. You know that that lady and her daughter fixed meals for us and it didn’t cost us to eat for several days. I went out and booked a school at Schoolfield, Virginia;– a suburb of Danville. I managed to borrow another six dollars from that lady to get the advertising out. We put up posters and announced it on the station and when we went out there to play we had packed house crammed full and running over. That got us started and gave us a little bit of money, so I paid the lady back. I tried to give her some extra off the money we made, but she wouldn’t take it. I told her she saved our lives, and she said she was only glad to do it. So that got us started and from there we swept that country.”
By the end of 1938, Zeke became disenchanted with the music business. He quit the band and moved to Gastonia, North Carolina, where he worked in a cotton mill. Wiley kept the band together by hiring a musician named Wellon from Danville to sing tenor. It didn’t take Zeke very long to decide that the music business, for all its faults, was still better than the long hours and short pay he was making in the cotton mill. So Zeke wanted to get back in the band, but met resistance from the band members who didn’t want to divide the already meager earnings another way. Wiley and Zeke then decided to form their own band, with just the two of them. They came back to Asheville and started a program on WWNC radio sponsored by JFG Coffee. They called themselves Wiley and Zeke, the Morris Brothers.
While the Morris brothers were working at WWNC, an old friend dropped by to see them. It was Bill Monroe. Monroe explained that he and Charlie had just broken up and Bill was getting together his own band. Bill wanted help in getting a program started over WWNC so the Morris Brothers put him in touch with Israel McIntosh, the station manager. With this help from the Morris Brothers, Bill Monroe first formed the Blue Grass Boys in Asheville in 1938. Joining Monroe was Cleo Davis and Tommy Millard, who played black faced comedian. The stay in Asheville was short lived, however, when Bill became dissatisfied with his band. Wiley recalls the members couldn’t sing high enough lead vocals for Monroe to harmonize to, so Monroe went to South Carolina, where he formed a new band and began working at station WFBC.
In the later part of 1939 the Morris Brothers received a post card from Bill Monroe saying he was going to do an audition at the Grand Ole Opry the following Saturday night and for them to tune in. He requested that they drop him a post card telling him how he sounded.
It wasn’t long before the Morris Brothers themselves had the chance to join the Grand Ole Opry. Wiley had taken an audition record to Nashville when he heard that the Delmore Brothers were leaving and that WSM was looking for another brother act. Wiley made contact with Jack Stapp who played the record for Judge George D. Hay. Hay and Stapp were to take the record to the board of directors who decided which acts would play on the Opry. Within a week the Morris Brothers received a telegram asking them to appear backstage at the Grand Ole Opry the following Saturday night. Zeke, however, firmly stated that he wasn’t going. He said that he didn’t want to go to Nashville, that he was doing all right where he was. Wiley tried to convince him to go, but there was no changing Zeke’s mind. Unable to get the Morris Brothers, the Opry hired the Wilburn brothers instead. Zeke later admitted his mistake, but the Wilburn Brothers were there to stay, and there wasn’t room for another brother act.
Meanwhile, the Morris Brothers continued playing to standing room only crowds who paid their 15 and 25 cents to watch them perform in school houses and theaters throughout the Carolinas. Their group at times included brother George Morris and banjo player Hoke Jenkins. Zeke recalls that, “We really had an outfit back then. Wiley, George and myself could really do those spirituals. We often sang spirituals such as “Get on Board Little Children,” and “Walking in Jerusalem Just Like John.” We used to tear ’em all to pieces. Of course, we were brothers, and had an advantage over most other groups. We always knew exactly what the other one was going to do. Back then, there were no amplifiers, but our voices were so strong that they could hear us way in the back of the auditorium. We usually tuned our instruments high to make our voices come out better. We couldn’t sing soft like a lot of people. Later on we found that we could tone it down. I believe that when you get older, you can’t sing as loud as you could when you’re younger, although you may actually be able to harmonize better.”
In addition to their singing, the Morris Brothers featured a blackface act. Zeke recalls that, “George was a big heavy set guy, so he played the man’s part. Because I was smaller, I always got stuck with the part of the black mama. Hoke Jenkins, our banjo player, played the little child. We’d often have it that George would pretend to aggravate the child and I would come out and chase George off the stage with a broom. Of course, we’d rehearse all the time, and kept adding new stuff to our program because many of the same people came to see us time after time. But we always had a good wholesome program and it was a good show too. It was for the entire family, something that any and everybody could enjoy. We never would allow anything dirty or vulgar in our program. We respected people. In fact, we learned a lot about spiritual singing from colored people themselves. I used to sing and play at the black people’s church over at Old Fort, North Carolina. Back in those days, we didn’t know what integration was, because we was raised up around black people. We worked together, played together, and often ate at each other’s houses. That’s the way it was back in those days. I’ve seen many a time when black people would come to the white church. So I went to the black church to learn their spiritual singing. They really could do that. Later on, people quit that and you couldn’t mix like that, because there would be trouble. But back in those days, there was no trouble between the blacks and whites.”
During the period that Zeke played with J.E. and Wade Mainer, they recorded over 60 sides for RCA Victor. Most of the songs were old love songs and ballads, and others were composed by members of the band. Zeke had been writing songs since he was a boy and it was his songs, in fact, that were to prove the most popular of any the band recorded. On January 26, 1938 the recording career of the Morris Brothers began. On that date Wiley and Zeke, along with fiddler Homer Sherrill traveled to Charlotte, North Carolina and recorded eight sides for RCA Victor under the supervision of Eli Oberstein. In September of 1938 Victor moved its portable equipment to the Andrew Jackson Hotel in Rock Hill, South Carolina. This time they recorded nine sides for Victor. Wiley vividly remembers how it happened. “They had two rooms rented for the recording. They used one of them as a studio and in the other they had the machinery to do the recording. They had one big machine in there which turned a bunch of stuff and there was a big cake of wax with a needle sticking in it. It cut the grooves right then. They let you hear the first song you recorded-and that was it. You didn’t get to hear no more til it came out as a record. I guess the reason was is that when you recorded, you put the sound in that cake of wax, and when they played it back it took the sound back out. Later on they changed all that. So if you made a mistake, it was a mistake, cause they couldn’t let you do it over. That cost them money. If you really messed up I guess they’d let you do it over, but they didn’t like that. I remember they had one mike which was right between me and Zeke. It stood in the middle of the room. We stood side by side, and both sang into the same side of that mike. It was a big mike. They had a red light down at the bottom to tell you when to play. They also had speakers so you could talk back and forth. They told us not to play longer than three minutes. I never will forget that big cake of wax. When that needle was cutting the grooves, it sounded like grinding an axe on a grindstone.
During the recording session in Rock Hill, South Carolina, the Morris Brothers recorded the song that was their all time hit-“Let Me Be Your Salty Dog.” The song was written by Zeke in 1935, but both brothers arranged it. Wiley explained that “I have a different definition of a salty dog than Zeke has. Back when we were kids down in Old Fort we would see a girl we liked and say “I’d like to be her salty dog.” There also used to be a drink you could get up in Michigan. All you had to do was say “Let me have a Salty Dog,” and they’d pour you one.” Zeke remembers that “I got the idea when we went to a little old honky tonk just outside of Canton which is in North Carolina. We went to play at a school out beyond Waynesville somewhere and we stopped at this place. They sold beer and had slot machines. At that time they were legal in North Carolina. We got in there after the show and got to drinking that beer and playing the slot machines with nickels, dimes and quarters. I think we hit three or four jackpots. Boy, here it would come! You know you had a pile of money when you had two handfuls of change. The name of that place was the “Salty Dog,” and that’s where I got the idea for the song. There’s actually more verses to it than me and Wiley sing, a lot more verses.” There is little doubt that “Salty Dog” is the most popular number the Morris Brothers ever recorded. According to Wiley, “It’s considered a standard. Everybody uses it in the bluegrass field, just about. We’re making more money off it now on copyright royalties than we ever did on our record, with other people using it. I reckon that song is known all over the world. When I get my statement every six months, it’s being played in every nation under the sun. That song is even popular in Japan! ‘Salty Dog’ aint one that’s gone up to high heaven and then fell completely down. It’s just one that’s considered a standard. It’s our biggest song ’cause it’s a good five string banjo number played bluegrass style.”
In early 1944 The Morris Brothers moved to Knoxville, Tennessee in search for new audiences to play for. Before long, however, Zeke got into a fight with one of the local musicians over a crap game, and decided to leave. He went to Asheville, North Carolina and picked up “Little” Red Rector, A.L. “Red” Smiley, and Fred Smith and took them to WJHL in Johnson City, Tennessee. In the meantime, Wiley stayed in Knoxville and did a radio program every Saturday morning on WIRL called the “Tennessee Valley Network.” Wiley explained that “I done all the singing, and Chet Atkins, John Galihar and Harry Nitus furnished the music. Chet could play the guitar as good then as he can now. We also played together on the Midday Merry-Go-Round. He sat back there while we were at the Merry-Go-Round and played that guitar for days on end. Chet would tell you today that the most important part of music is staying with it and practicing to get it down to perfection.”
Even though the Morris Brothers were no longer playing together, their record sales were substantial enough that in November of 1945 Victor records requested another session to record more sides. Wiley explained that, “When we made our last session of records for Victor, Zeke and I weren’t even playing together. I was with a band in Knoxville playing for the Cas Walker family of stores and Zeke was in Johnson City. But Victor wanted me and Zeke, the Morris Brothers to record. So I came by Johnson City and picked up Zeke and together we went to Charlotte to record. We hadn’t even played together for several years, but we know our stuff so well we didn’t need to practice. So we went to Charlotte, to the Charlotte Hotel. Eli Oberstein was the recording manager. He said, ‘Now boys, I want you to do this “Salty Dog” again. Now since you play the mandolin, Zeke, mandolin and guitar is all I want on it.’ He said ‘I also want the title shortened. I don’t want it “Let Me Be Your Salty Dog”.’ And Zeke said, `Well, how about changing it to “Salty Dog Blues”? And Eli said that was fine, so that’s what it was.”
“In addition to the “Salty Dog Blues,” they recorded three other songs that they had written: “Grave on the Green Hillside,” “Tragic Romance,” and “Somebody Loves You Darling.” Wiley explained that it was Zeke that wrote “Somebody Loves You Darling.” “I wrote, “Grave on a Green Hillside” and “Tragic Romance.”
“The story of how I wrote “Tragic Romance is this. Somewhere along the line somebody wrote this poem and sent it to me. I don’t know who it was, but naturally, anyone who would write a poem with good words would send it to me and I would use it if I could. So I got this poem, rearranged it, titled it, and had it copyrighted. But in the forties, there was a big uproar about it. Pee Wee King wanted to use it and Cowboy Copes had recorded it on King records but Louis Jones had put his name on it as the writer, although he had no proof that he owned the song. Well, Pee Wee King found out that I had an unpublished copyright there in my briefcase, from the Library of Congress in Washington. He paid my expenses up to Nashville. So there I was standing in the hall at WSM talking with Eddy Arnold and Pee Wee King when up comes the Baffles Brothers, and Grandpa Jones. Eddy called Grandpa over, because I didn’t know Grandpa at the time. He called him over there and says, ‘Grandpa, I want you to meet the boy who owns “Tragic Romance.”‘ and that guy turned every color under God’s heaven. Eddy said, ‘He owns the song, him and his brother, and I know them both.’ And I said ‘Yes, and I’ve turned this thing over to a lawyer.’ I asked him how much money he had made from King records off of the song, and he said, ‘nothing to speak of.’ And I said, ‘How come you gave your name as the writer of that song?’ Well he said, ‘I wrote it.’ I said, ‘You couldn’t have wrote it. When did you write it?’ He gave me the date and I asked him why didn’t he have it copyrighted, and he said, ‘I couldn’t, they wouldn’t copyright it.’ I said, ‘You know why, don’t you? There’s already one copyright there and they won’t copyright two.’ Then Pee Wee butted in and said ‘I’m not here to start an argument, I’m here to buy the rights from the Morris Brothers to use Copas’s picture on one side and the words on the other.’ That was my reason for my being there, but Zeke decided not to sign, so they couldn’t use it.” [Editor’s note: For Grandpa Jones’ version of the authorship of “Tragic Romance,” see “The Devil’s Box” Volume 14 – Number 1, March 1, 1980 -page 8.]
Wiley also remembered how he wrote “Grave Upon The Green Hillside.” “I believe the Carter Family had one called “Grave on the Green Hillside,” but mine was altogether different from theirs, but I did get the title from that record. Zeke admitted that he didn’t know the song until he walked into the studio to record the song in November of 1945. “I never sang the song before and didn’t even know the tune to it. I put that song on the music stand and sang along with Wiley one time. One time is all it took me in those days. So I sung it right off the paper right on the record there.”
In their long association with country music, the Morris Brothers certainly deserve credit for helping to establish the sound that would later be called bluegrass. “Of course, we didn’t call it bluegrass then,” remembers Zeke. “We referred to it as country music, although others snarled their noses at it and called it hillbilly music. Back then, the college people looked down on it but today, they eat it up. There’s something in it that everyone can be proud of. You don’t have to be ashamed of country music. I tell you this country music is for real. When you listen to it played by the right ones, you know it’s for real.”
Zeke insists that, “When we were coming up, there was no such a thing as bluegrass music. But we helped to build it into what it is today. If we hadn’t come along, I doubt very seriously if there would have been this particular type of music. A lot of people think bluegrass music’s got to have a fiddle. Well, we had good fiddlers like Tiny Dodson and Benny Sims. Benny later played fiddle with Flatt and Scruggs and recorded “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” with them. They also say that bluegrass has to have a banjo, and that it ain’t bluegrass without a banjo. Well, we had a banjo, several of them. Take Don Reno and Earl Scruggs. They both played with us. In fact, we gave them the first job they ever had. Don worked with us before Scruggs and then after. Don came to Asheville when he was but a boy and started playing with us. He was playing guitar then. We liked him so we hired him. That was in ‘forty one. We hired him to play guitar and then found out he played the banjo too. Don could really play that banjo. He played with three fingers, but it was his own style. He could play in any key and not use a capo or anything.”
Wiley remembers the night they met Earl Scruggs for the first time. “We were playing a high school in Chesney, South Carolina, and had a terrible big crowd that night. George and I were selling tickets and I left George to sell tickets while I went back to tune my guitar with Zeke’s mandolin. Then I heard somebody knock on the back door to the auditorium, where the stage entrance was. I opened it and standing there was Grady Wilkie and Earl Scruggs. Of course, I didn’t know either one of them at the time. They had both driven up to Chesney in an model A Ford coupe, and both were wearing blue shirts and overalls. Grady said ‘I got a guy out here, I wish you boys would listen to on the 5-string banjo.’ Well, we were needing one at the time because Hoke Jenkins had been called into the service, so I said, ‘Bring him in here. Let’s tune him up and hear how he sounds.’ So he came in and tuned his banjo to my guitar and he could play as good that night as he can now, if not better. He was just shaky and nervous then. He’s always been nervous and I’d have thought he’d have missed everything on the banjo, but he didn’t miss a string. So we hired him that night and paid him twenty dollars a week. We took him back to Spartanburg, South Carolina with us and he stayed with us for about eight months until he got his draft notice to report for his induction or examination. He left us and went back and got a deferment ’cause his daddy was dead, and he had to keep his mother up. The next thing I knew he was with Bill Monroe at the Grand Ole Opry playing his five-string. When he went with Bill, Lester Flatt was also in the band. Bill had Lester singing high lead for him and playing guitar, so he hired Earl and they stayed with him for I don’t know, two or three years. Then Lester and Earl pulled out and formed their own outfit, the Foggy Mountain Boys. They came to WCYB in Bristol, Virginia on the Farm and Fun Time. Sometime later, they picked up Benny Sims. I did a show at a horse arena in Lexington, Kentucky with Curley and Jack Shelton, Benny (Sims) and myself. We doubled-showed it with Flatt and Scruggs. It was that night that they asked Benny about working with them. He later got them to record “Salty Dog Blues.” Earl should have known it, but he didn’t, so Benny sang lead on the record that Flatt and Scruggs made. He played the fiddle too. That was for Mercury records. When it came out on Columbia it was Lester and Earl doing the singing with their group. It didn’t do any good for us when Benny sang it, but when Lester and Earl put it on Columbia, it sky rocketed.
More than anything else, it was the war that made Wiley and Zeke turn away from music as a profession. Zeke explained that, “The war really ruined us as far as the music is concerned. You couldn’t get tires, you couldn’t get gas to travel, and the war took our best musicians. Hoke got called in the first draft, and then they got Wiley. I was lucky. I got to go to a defense job. When the war was over Wiley and I got into the auto repair business. We also quit ’cause of our families. We both raised big families and any time you go to raising a family, it takes money. Of course, we still play together some. Always have, and always will. I don’t say that we’re the best in the country to get along, but we do stick together. If one needs the other, he’s always there. Although we do disagree on some things, we don’t let that interfere. Not all brothers are like that. But me and Wiley’s always lived pretty close together all our lives. Of course, if any of us needs any help from the other, he knows where he can find it.”
Even though the Morris brothers hadn’t recorded together in many years, a young record company bent on presenting and preserving the old music approached them to record again in 1973. Wiley remembers that, “This little record company out of Somersville, Massachusetts, Rounder Records, came down here and wanted to make an album of me and Zeke and Homer Sherrill. They wanted it just as it was in the beginning, or just as close as we could get it. So Homer came up from his selling cars in Columbia, South Carolina. He came up with his wife and spent two weekends with me and my wife. We rehearsed and then went down to the Owen High School band room to record. They had a sound-proof room there, you see. We put sixteen numbers on it. That is the last record we’ve made, and the only album we ever made.”
In looking back over a career that has spanned over forty years, Wiley admits that, “We didn’t go out for the big time. We didn’t see it then because we had no manager. Most of these groups now have a front man that do all the publicity for them, and that counts. Elvis Presley would never have gotten where he did without Colonel Parker. He put him on the map. You have to have somebody to sell you. It’s hard to sell yourself. Where you sell yourself is out on the stage to the audience. But now, selling you to a television show or booking, you need a front man for that, and you’ve got to pay him a percentage or a flat salary. The type of stuff that me and Zeke does will draw a bigger crowd in New York state than it will in North Carolina. But I never knowed that. I never had time to take advantage of it, because I thought if you got out of North Carolina or Virginia that you were out of the world. Being an old country hooger, I never got to know the modern generation. People down here like what we do, but it’s nothing like it is up north. Down here we sign a few autographs, but not many. But up there, when we got off the stage after doing our thing, they’ll want to crowd back on you and ask you all kinds of questions about it. They want to know and they’re entitled to know, if they paid their money to see you. I never would shun nobody, never have. I guess if I would’ve made a million dollars at it I guess I would be the same as I am today, sitting here. I don’t believe I would have changed. I can’t tell that Earl Scruggs has changed and he’s worth over a million dollars. But that’s the way I look at it. I figure that life is life, people is people, and I’ve always liked people. So I’ve always worked for people in one capacity or the other. I’ve served people. They feed me. They pay me, and therefore I try to be in their good graces the best I can. Why shun them? Why big hat them? You’re no better than they are, just because you’re up there performing to them and they’re paying to see you. Actually, if you want to turn it around, they’re better than you are. They’re paying to see you and hear you. You got something they want to hear. Zeke will probably tell you the same thing. It’s the truth, I tell you, and if you tell the truth you ain’t got no flyback.”
BLUEGRASS UNLIMITED AUGUST 1980
For more information about bluegrass music, check out Wayne Erbsen’s popular 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. Includes profiles on the Bill Clifton, Bill Monroe, the Blue Sky Boys, Bradley Kincaid, the Callahan Brothers, Carolina Tar Heels, the Carter Family, Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers, the Coon Creek Girls, Earl Scruggs, Eck Robertson, Ernest V. “Pop” Stoneman, Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith, Fiddlin’ John Carson, G. B. Grayson & Henry Whitter, Jimmie Rodgers, Karl and Harty, the Lilly Brothers, Monroe Brothers, the Morris Brothers, Riley Puckett, Samantha Bumgarner, Vernon Dalhart, Snuffy Jenkins and Wade & J. E. Mainer. 6″ x 9″, 180 pages.