Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Clayton McMichen Mystery

Guest What?

I just saw what I believe was once Clayton McMichen's "speak easy" in the basement of the tavern he owned in Louisville in the 1940s or 1950s.

Who is Clayton McMichen? He was probably the best fiddler on the planet, and certainly was one of the best in Country music from 1920 to the 1940s. He was the star fiddler in the Skillet Lickers band. Ever heard of Merle Travis or Lester Flatt- they both played in McMichen's bands in Louisville.

So I heard McMichen owned and ran a bar in Louisville, it turns out it's four houses away from where I live on Spring Street! It was called the National Bar, now it's the Spring Street Bar and Grill. When I went and talked to the manager, she didn't know who McMichen was but knew the downstairs was a "Speak easy" an the upstairs is "where the girls were." She said there were paintings on the basement wall of jazz musicians.

I checked with Harry Bickle (who will also be at my art show), an old-time banjo player, who let me know the McMichen bar was on Spring St. called the National Tavern. So now I knew, I had moved to Louisville four houses from McMichen's Bar.

Today I went back and asked the manager to see the paintings. It was eerie- I was taken by the bartender around the back where she unlocked a small door. We climbed down the stairs into a musty cellar where was water seeping around the edges of the concrete block walls. There were the jazz paintings, painted on concrete walls, that McMichen obviously had commissioned.

This was were they jammed late at night. There's a painting of a sexy girl with big breasts dancing, there's a guy playing clarinet, there's a horn player, a horn and a martini glass with an olive. The paintings were well done by a good artist but they are in bad condition. One painting is completely obscured from water damage. These are large paintings covering about half of the basement.

Then the manager of 20 years said the place was haunted. So we left. And no...I didn't see McMichen's ghost. McMichen was more that just a hillbilly fiddler, he played swing and jazz tunes. He had a clarinet player in one of his first bands!

Here's a bit about the Skillet Lickers:

"Well folks, here we are again, the Skillet Lickers, red hot and rarin' to go," said Clayton McMichen, introducing the Skillet Lickers' "Soldier's Joy." "Gonna play you a little tune this morning, want you to grab that gal and shake a foot and moan."

The Skillet Lickers, who epitomized the rollicking good-time string bands of the 1920s, were formed in 1926 when Frank Walker, head of Columbia’s "Country Music" recordings, created a group from the top recording artists and musicians in the Atlanta region. Walker, who traveled to Atlanta regularly with his portable studio, waxed records featuring his first stars Gid Tanner and Riley Puckett there in 1924. After bringing Clayton McMichen and Riley Puckett to the studio for a session in April he decided to add other local talent, fiddler Gid Tanner, banjoist Fate Norris and fiddler Bert Layne, to create Country Music’s first supergroup. Several days later on April 17, 1926 Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers cut their classic first eight sides: "Hand Me Down My Walking Cane," "Bully Of The Town," "Pass Around the Bottle," "Alabama Jubilee," "Watermelon on the Vine," "Don’t You Hear Jerusalem Moan," "Ya Gotta Quit Kickin’ My Dog Around" and "Turkey in The Straw."

More to come,

Richard

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