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BLUEGRASS BLUESMANA MEMOIR
By Josh Graves
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESSCopyright © 2012 Fred Bartenstein
All right reserved.
Chapter One1927–1942, A Tennessee Childhood
Josh Graves's birthplace of Tellico Plains, in southeastern Tennessee, is close to North Carolina and Georgia and not too far from Alabama or South Carolina, all hotbeds of the driving string-band styles that formed the roots of bluegrass music. Graves came from a rough-and-ready background, one he often cited in later life. In just one example, his father, "built like a rock," moved the family to Maryville in a wagon. That was in the lean years, when looking for edible road kill became a daily practice. Hard times aside, Graves's love of the mountains starts, ends, and remains a constant theme of his autobiography.
The young man gravitated early to the sounds of the blues, sitting at the feet of and learning directly from African American and white musicians in his community despite the segregation practices of the time. Even before Graves started life as a professional musician at fifteen, he was already deeply immersed in the traditional styles he heard and played, not only in family and community settings, but also on radio and on recordings.
Graves sets the stage for his personal and musical evolution in this chapter, which includes his assessment of a passel of country guitarists influenced by the Hawaiian style. One youthful encounter, with the influential Cliff Carlisle, proved a turning point and became a model for his own decades of encouraging younger musicians.
I was born September 27, 1927, in Tellico Plains, in Tennessee. Nothing there but mountains, and that's what I love.
The doctor that brought me into the world was named Dr. Rogers. He could drink more whiskey than you can carry in a truck. I was born at home; there wasn't no such thing as a hospital. All the kids were. A midwife would be there, and then the old doctor would come later and see if everything was all right. I remember when my baby brother was born, in three days my mama was out hanging out her washing. You don't see that now. Tough people, you know ...
My grandmother Graves was a full-blooded Cherokee. She lived to be 103 years old. Every morning and every night she'd turn that jug up and have her shot of moonshine. She had an old sweet-gum toothbrush and hated me worse than a snake. And I did her. She came from Murphy, North Carolina, across ol' Hanging Dog Mountain from Tellico Plains, Tennessee.
My dad, Troy Graves, worked for Babcock Lumber Company in Tellico. Daddy stood five feet six inches, and he weighed near 175 pounds. Built like a rock. I never sassed him or talked back to him. I wasn't afraid of him, but I knew what he'd do. He moved us in order to work for Alcoa in Maryville. We moved in a wagon. Took three days. I was only two or three years old.
My mother, Sara Elizabeth Thomas, was part Cherokee. Mother played an old pump organ. I had three brothers and two sisters. They were Harlan Richard, Buddy Wayne, Harold Ray, Geneva, and Jewel. Coming up in the '30s with six kids, man, it wasn't much fun. Mama would send us down to the road every morning to see if any game had been run over and killed during the night. Burlap for curtains, kerosene lamps ... and after that, the Depression hit!
My dad was a hardworking man, and he worked every day and raised us. Dad always farmed, even though he worked a job full-time. We wasn't sharecroppers, but he'd make a crop himself and work the aluminum company. When he had a few hours, he'd work for somebody else—picking strawberries or anything to make a dollar. That dollar was hard to come by all through the '30s when I was coming up. He'd always make sure that we had plenty to eat; that's why he worked so hard. And my mother, she stayed right in there and helped any way she could. They canned vegetables and stuff, and we always had a bunch of hogs and a cow. We lived good— actually better than we would now—because there's so many things that take every dollar that you've got. It wasn't uptown, but about all you could expect in them mountains.
There was a lot of unemployment in those days. But when Franklin Roosevelt came in, he had the WPA1 jobs, and then he came up with the CCC camps. And that put a lot of people to work. They built roads and bridges. I remember them telling me, in '29 when the banks went bust, that my uncle had $300 in the bank there at Tellico Plains. He lost it all and never would put no money in a bank again ... never would fool with a bank. I don't know how much money he had when he died. He had it hid.
Up there it's not exactly farming country. You don't have the space like down here in middle Tennessee or Kentucky. They raised a little burley, and that is hard work. I've done that. You have to watch it year-round, from the time you plant it 'til you cut it and get it ready to go to market. And you're just allotted so much for that burley. There is a difference in the burley and the regular tobacco; they make chewing tobacco and cigars out of the burley—it's more of a black leaf.
We had an old battery radio, and we got to listen to two programs a day. Mama had her soap opera she'd listen to, and then cut it off to save that battery. I can remember charging the battery on an old Maytag washing machine. We would listen to Lum and Abner and Amos and Andy. When Joe Louis was fighting, on a Saturday night, Daddy would take the radio and set it down on the front porch. People who didn't have a radio would gather there and listen to the fights. Of course, you didn't have to use much battery because Joe didn't fool around—they was knocked out by the time they got in there.
I'll tell you how I got the nickname "Buck." I was just little, living back there on the farm at home. I had this little pinto pony. He'd run loose all summer ... he was wilder than a guinea. I loved to ride a horse back then. My mother told me, "Now, I don't want you fooling around that horse. He'll hurt you." I said, "No, ma'am. I won't."
It was the fall of the year. I never will forget. I crawled out the window one Sunday morning, and I was going to ride that horse. I woke up thinking about that. And I went down there and got the bridle on him. I was so little I couldn't jump on him, so I pulled him up to a stump. And just as I got on that stump, she hit me with a hickory—a whisk, a limb. And boy, she cut me a good one with that for disobeying her.
There was an old man across the creek, just sitting over there. He hollered, "Buck Jones!" That was an old cowboy character, and I went by that all through that country there, and was never nothing but Buck Graves. And my little grandson, they nicknamed him Buck, too.
My daddy whipped me three times in my life. I won every lick he ever hit me. I stole a watermelon, I got involved with a little ol' girl, and I forget what the other one was. I remember every lick he hit me. And it hurt him worse than it did me. I was the one he protected.
When he died he left me $4,000, which I just turned around and gave to my mama. Back when I was a kid, I thought he didn't like me. My uncle, my mother's brother, heard this for a long time. He said, "I'm going to tell you something. That old man loved you better than anybody in the whole bunch." He said, "He didn't want them hard times for you. He was trying to protect you." And it took me all that time to realize what he was trying to do.
In school they called me Burkett. Years later, we was on this tour of Japan with Flatt and Scruggs, and we went to Okinawa. We were up there in this officers' club. And I'm up there just gigging, and somebody hollered, "Hey, Burkett!" Flatt looked around at me and said, "Somebody knows you." I said, "It's got to be somebody from home." This kid was from my hometown where I was raised, and I knew his father but I'd never met him. He was in the Army over there. When they say "Burkett," you know somebody knows you from somewhere. There ain't but five people that I know with that first name.
The place where I grew up, Maryville, Tennessee, is a little college town. I remember in the old days you'd steer away from a college town to do a show. In that little town, if you was a musician they called you lazy. You was a sissy, you know ... you wouldn't work. I've done as much hard work as anybody, and now we go in and work a lot of colleges.
I put what musical ideas I had with what I learned from different people. I'm asked, "Did you do this yourself?" And I say, "No. Uh-uh. I'd be lying if I said I did."
I do a thing on the stage about my Uncle Jim up in East Tennessee. He was an old banjo picker, the old frail banjo ... I call it "clawhammer." I'd go on the weekends and listen to him. He'd play for me. I'd sit right at his feet and watch every note he hit on the banjo.
My mother's people all lived close by, and I'd go down there on the weekend and they had banjos and fiddles and guitars laying on the bed. They'd say, "Don't you touch that guitar," afraid I was going to tear it up. I was just a little ol' kid and I wanted the feel of it, you know. And that turned me against them. After I growed up and started in the business, I wouldn't have nothing to do with them. A kid can be dangerous to an instrument ... I know that. But I love an instrument better than anything in the world. Can you imagine me tearing up an instrument?
I had another uncle, John Thomas, that played Hawaiian-type guitar on a Rickenbacker, and he was fine. He didn't do it for a living, you know. They had a little radio program on Saturdays. He and his sons had a group called the Coconut Grove Boys ... can you imagine that in East Tennessee? Uncle John helped me a lot, learning solid picking ... clear notes.
And then I remember one old guy, Buck Roper. He was a black man. We never was sharecroppers, but my daddy worked for other folks. We'd rent a place, and this old man lived on that farm way back in the sticks. He lived across the creek from us, and I'd watch him every evening when he came in, and it'd be almost dark. We'd work in the fields as long as we could, and he'd go in and fix him a little supper and light the coal oil lamp ... kerosene they call it now.
He'd light that thing and he'd get his banjo and he'd go out and set on the steps. Didn't have no porch, just a little ol' cabin, and he played bottleneck on the banjo. I'd sit there, and it fascinated me, the notes that he would hit, and how he'd curl them around. I was so little, I'd be scared to go home by myself in the dark. I'd hear my mama holler, and I didn't want to leave. I'd just sit there and listen and never say a word. Not long ago, I did a thing for the University of Houston on the blues, which is my first love, and I mentioned Buck Roper in that because he was a big inspiration to me.
Back there in them mountains when I was coming up, they'd have little parties at people's houses. Before I really started what you'd call playing, my dad would throw a party, maybe once a month, and he'd hire these two black guys. One's name was Roosevelt Brown, and the other was Wash something. I sat at their feet and stayed right with them when they was playing. One had an old taterbug mandolin, I called it—big-bodied thing— and one had an old Silvertone Gene Autry guitar, I guess it was, but they could play!
Now, my daddy drank. On the weekends you could look out for ol' Troy Graves because he was going to be there with that jug. He never bothered anybody. Back in those days, you know, the blacks and the whites just didn't mix. But he'd hire these two guys, and they'd play for an hour or so, and the old man would say, "Now, boys, I'll tell you, we're going down to the barn and take us a drink." Mama wouldn't let him bring it in the house. He'd get those guys and they'd have them a jug. He'd say, "I don't care if you drink it, just don't get too much."
Those black people helped me to learn the blues ... ol' Wash, Buck Roper, and guys like that. You've got to learn from somebody coming up. In East Tennessee, where I was raised, they'd have a bunch of black people, and they'd all join in singing while they was working out there in the fields or on a railroad. Man, it was a rhythm that would take an educated professor to figure out. It was in their soul ... it had to come out somewhere.
The blues is something you can't hardly explain, really. It's the way you feel. It's either about a death in a family or a broken love affair or something like that. Well, it's the same thing in country, but it just comes out a little different.
I was about nine when I got one of those Stellas. One of those sixty-lesson deals at a dollar each and you keep the guitar. The company moved out of town before the lessons were over, so I had me a guitar. I raised up that nut on there. I couldn't hold it. I've got little hands, and I could never make those notes like everybody else did, so I just took a table knife and put me a clothespin under the nut up there and played with a bar.
I'd meet my daddy in town on payday. He had his little place he always sat and drank beer, and I done his running around for him. Like he owed somebody over here, and he'd send me to pay him, and he'd give me fifty cents. That was a lot of money. I remember strings for my old guitar was forty-five cents a pack. It was Bell brand. So on Saturday, if I wanted a little money to go to the movies or something, I'd steal from myself and put back a dime or a nickel. But I knew I had to have those strings maybe once a month. I'd save for that, and I was lucky enough that I could do that with what little jobs I could pick up on the side and save. But you couldn't buy a Pearse string now for forty-five cents, I don't guess. Forty-five cents for a whole set of strings. Can you imagine?
I met Cliff Carlisle—he played the Dobro on some of Jimmie Rodgers's records. It sounded like an old metal National, but I liked what I was hearing. I remember he and his brother Bill Carlisle worked out of Knoxville, Tennessee, in '38, '39, somewhere in there. I was just a little feller, and they played my little home community. The Carlisle Brothers, Shannon Grayson on banjo, and Cliff's boy Tommy worked this little school there. I think admission was fifteen or twenty cents. It fascinated me so much to watch Cliff—and it's like some kid now, they see Kiss or something and go all to pieces. I really looked up to him when I was a kid.
It never shook me too much, this business, but I seen Cliff Carlisle standing out on a school porch—they took intermission to sell their records and what all, I guess—and he was standing talking to a bunch of guys. He called everybody "John." He seen me standing over there, and he come over and knelt down on one knee. I was just a little ol' kid. I'll never forget it. He said, "John, how you doing?" It scared me so bad I liked to wee-wee in my britches. The first thought that came in my mind, all I could think of, I said, "I've got a guitar like yours." I had the old Stella, you know, no resonator or nothing. He talked to me a long time. Now I've got time to stand and talk to any kid that comes up to me, because I always remember what Cliff did.
In those days I'd rather hear Cliff Carlisle sing than Jimmie Rodgers. They both had that old southern brogue, and he could yodel, too. Cliff played mostly with a flat pick. He could play some pretty stuff, and that's what fascinated me. Now Cliff, he'd get in a bind, he'd clown it up. He could be playing some of the prettiest stuff you've ever heard and all of a sudden just laugh right big and clown it up. I compare him to a pitcher that's been up in the big leagues and is coming back down; he throws junk to get by. Cliff, to me, was a great man, just not that great a musician.
That's his old guitar in there. They gave it to me. "Cliff...." I named that guitar "Cliff." In later years, when I came down here with Flatt and Scruggs, his brother Bill Carlisle was on the Opry. They brought Cliff back to the dressing room, and he remembered me, you know, he'd seen me around. I was going to get him to play, and he was so nervous he couldn't play. He said, "You scare me to death." I said, "Think what you done to me when I was about nine years old."
I run into Bill Carlisle every once in a while, and the other day he wanted to know if I still had my old guitar. I said, "Yeah, I just turned down a new Dodge van for it." He said, "Ol' Cliff would be proud." Bill is eighty-four years old. Cliff's been dead for many years now.
I had a grade-school teacher, Florence Kidd, who played piano. She had a brother, Henry Buchner. He was a fine fiddler, and he taught me a lot. We would get together with some other boys and play there at the school. After the Stella guitar—I kicked it in, you know—I wanted another one, and my daddy bought me an S. S. Stewart. Boy, I thought I was something. And I put the nut under the neck and played it like a Dobro. Then came a Strad-O-Lin mandolin. Along in there I got a metal-body National. I banged on all of them, but I'd always go back to Dobro picking.
Excerpted from BLUEGRASS BLUESMAN by Josh Graves Copyright © 2012 by Fred Bartenstein. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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