Saturday, October 10, 2009

Hell Broke Loose in Georgia: Lowe Stokes and Mac


Here's a photo of Mac's Hometown Boys (click to enlarge) a band he started in the early 1920s. Was it the first country swing band?

On July 7, 1925 McMichen’s Home Town Boys recorded their first sides at Columbia’s Atlanta studio. Above is a photo of the performers (from left to right): Mac (fiddle); Lowe Stokes (guitar) Bob "Punk" Stevens (banjo) and Bob Stevens Jr (clarinet).

The songs were "Alabama Jubilee," "Bully Of The Town," "Silver Bell," and the song that became McMichen's first solo hit and one he would become identified- "Sweet Bunch Of Daisies." The song was a tribute to Clayton's wife, Daisy, and became his theme song on his radio shows in Louisville.

Over a month later on August 25, tragedy struck. Bob Stevens Jr was killed in an auto wreck while Mac was driving, bringing an end to the band. "They were going to a show and got in a bad car wreck," said Juanita. "At first they got out of the car and thought no one was badly hurt but turned out young Bob had a broken neck and he just dropped down and died on the spot. His dad went back home, he never got over it." [Juanita McMichen/Lowe Stokes].

Lowe Stokes was not a regular performer in Mac's Hometown Boys. Lowe was playing guitar for Mac because they were friends and at one time roomates for a year. In fact, Stokes was one of the best fiddlers- period. No one portrayed the tune "Hell Broke Loose in Georgia" better than Stokes. The wild and wooly Stokes was crazy as hell and loose in Georgia. According to Bert Layne, Lowe had more "nerve" than any man he knew.

Lowe Stokes born May 28, 1898, was the sixth of seven children born to Jacob Stokes, who was a fiddler and farm laborer, born in 1848. The Georgia Old-Time Fiddlers' conventions has been credited with launching his career when he defeated Fiddlin John Carson to win the coveted 1924 fiddle competition. To prove that was no fluke, Lowe won the next year.

Whne Stokes beat Carson in 1924 he won playing Carson's tune "Hell Broke Loose in Georgia." Many credit Lowe with inspiring the Charlie Daniels’ song "The Devil Went Down To Georgia" which is reportedly loosley based on the famous competition.

After poet Stephen Vincent Benet read a 1924 article in the Literary Digest describing Stokes victory, he penned his 1925 poem, "The Mountain Whippoorwill" (Or, How Hill-Billy Jim Won the Great Fiddlers' Prize) which begins:

Up in the mountains, it's lonesome all the time,
Sof' win' slewin' thu' the sweet-potato vine.
Up in the mountains, it's lonesome for a child,
Whippoorwills a-callin' when the sap runs wild.

Stokes learned the long bow style from Joe Lee then moved from Cartersville to Atlanta. He met T.M. "Bully" Brewer who invited Lowe to stay with him. Brewer, an accomplished guitarist and singer, wanted to learn the fiddle. "You can come on home with me," said Brewer, "and teach me to play the fiddle and you can stay with me forever."

Although Stokes lived with Brewer for three years, he began his recording career with fellow fiddle genius Clayton McMichen, who quickly became Lowe’s regular sidekick, his roommate for one year and protege. Lowe, who also hung around Mays Badgett's fiddle repair shop, probably met Mac there. Mac began visiting the shop in 1916.

In 1928 he replaced McMichen’s cousin Bert Layne and became the third fiddle in the Skillet Licker band. Frank Walker, Columbia's A & R man, started a Skillet Licker session with two fiddles instead of three. Walker knew something was missing so he sent Mac to find Stokes. With the talented Stokes in the line-up, Stokes played lead and Mac the high harmony.

Charles Wolfe wrote that "Often Stokes used a mute on his bridge to better match McMichen's sound; [Stokes] also said that this idea of [McMichen playing a close harmony to the individual notes of the melody] came from his listening to jazz fiddler Joe Venuti, who was then in his heyday." [Charles Wolfe: The Reluctant Hillbilly]

By 1930 Stokes was married and lived in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He was offered a retainer by Brunswick to back up any singer or group that need a little punch. [Charles Wolfe: Classic Country]

On one tour around 1930, the trouble-bound Stokes was stabbed perilously near the heart as the nasty consequence of a love triangle, then in a drunken altercation at a bootlegging joint a few days later was shot in the upper arm while still healing from the earlier wound. "Lowe knocked him clear out of the place and onto the ground out there," said Layne, "and he'd shot Lowe. It hit him about here in the arm so Lowe he liked to beat him to death with his own gun."

The Skillet Licker session of December 7, 1930 was Stokes last as a leader, and it was almost his last, period. On Christmas Day that year he was involved in a shooting incident near Cartersville, Georgia. Stokes never cared to talk about it afterwards.

According to Juanita, "Lowe was a ladies man. He was always getting into a scuffle over some woman. He was with some woman when her husband come home and pulled out his pistol. Lowe tried to grab the gun but the gun went off and blew off most of his hand. When Daddy heard about it he went to Lowe's house in Cartersville to find Lowe sitting in chair in his front yard drinking whiskey- while the doctor was taking the rest of his hand off!"

According to Bert Lane, after hearing the news, Bert hurried to Cartersville and found Stokes "sittin' up in a barber chair getting a shave! I never saw a man with such a nerve in all my life." Within a year or so he was playing again, using a prosthetic metal attachment devised for him by McMichen.

More to come,


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