“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.”
Old time fiddle virtuoso William Clayton McMichen died in 1970 but he’s not forgotten. Bob Everhart, President of the National Traditional Country Music Association bestowed a new award on the fiddler from Georgia. “We just finished our 34th festival of old time music in LeMars, Iowa,” said Everhart, “and Juanita McMichen was on hand to accept the proclamation we made, making her father the “Fiddler of the Century” for our upper Midwest area. Clayton McMichen was an incredible fiddler.”
Recently, I drove through the winding Kentucky hills to Battletown, where Clayton McMichen spent his last fourteen years. High on a bluff on a grassy knoll above the Ohio River sits the house Clayton helped build. His eldest daughter Juanita McMichen Lynch lives in this secluded area with her husband of sixty years, Clifford. Now eighty-four, Juanita helped me go through boxes of memorabilia she collected about her famous father over the years. She had grown up with the Skillet Lickers. She told me Clayton loved to cook and among the dinner guests were Fiddlin’ John Carson, Riley Puckett, Gid Tanner, Arthur Tanner, Hugh Cross, Earl Johnson, Lowe Stokes, Slim Bryant, Kasper Malone, and Uncle Bert Layne.
McMichen, who once quipped, “There’s 500 overalls sold for every tuxedo suit –– that’s why I stick to swamp opera,” was a master of old time hoedown fiddling. He was the driving musical force behind the old time super group, The Skillet Lickers. McMichen was much more than the comic country bumpkin figure he portrayed in the Skillet Lickers’ musical skit “Corn Licker Still in Georgia” or in stage show comic routines. McMichen also loved pop tunes, jazz, and blues. As early as 1922, McMichen’s Home Town Boys band featured Robert Stephens on saxophone and K. D. Malone on clarinet. After the Skillet Lickers he teamed up with jazz- oriented guitarist Hoyt “Slim” Bryant in the early 1930s to form the Georgia Wildcats. Then in the 1940s he added a twelve-piece Dixieland jazz band that regularly played on WHAS in Louisville.
Clayton McMichen, known as “Mac” and later in the mid-1940s as “Pappy,” was respected by the leading musicians of his era. “When he lived in Louisville he owned the town,” said Pee Wee King, another famous Louisville musician, in the book Hell Bent for Music. “Everybody loved him and his music.”
William Clayton McMichen was born on January 26, 1900 in Altoona, Georgia, to Mitchell Harvey McMichen (March 15, 1874-Aug. 1961) and Missouri Elizabeth Smith McMichen (May 5, 1880-Nov. 5, 1964). Their Scots-Irish ancestors came to the United States around 1800 and became farmers. The McMichen family also played music; his grandmother (Sarah Lankford McMichen, b. November 1855) played banjo and many of the nine children were musically inclined.
Clayton was a young boy when he learned to play the fiddle from his uncles and his father, a trained violinist. He played Viennese waltzes at the uptown hotel “crinoline” dances. “Mitchell (Clayton’s father) studied and played classical music and thought fiddle music low-class,” said Juanita McMichen Lynch. “He was a concert violinist and wouldn’t let my dad touch his violin. So Mitchell hid the fiddle under his bed so no one could mess with it. When he would go out, my Dad would take it out from under the bed and sneak out to Mitchell’s saw mill.”
Clayton befriended an old black gentleman whom the family fondly called “Uncle.” Clayton loved Uncle and spent as much time as he could with him. Whenever Clayton disappeared, they knew to go to Uncle’s house first. Uncle encouraged Clayton to play the fiddle and taught him his first song, “Sally Goodin.” Young Clayton played it “over and over” until he almost drove his sisters and mother crazy “see-sawing back and forth.” [“The McMichen Family” by Joann T. Allen]
Clayton took his father’s fiddle every day when he went to work and put it back when he heard him coming home. One day his father came home and accidentally heard young Clayton playing. When asked what he thought he was doing, the six year old Clayton replied, “Trying to play this durn thing.” When Bertha, his oldest sister, asked if he could play “Sally Goodin,” he tuned his fiddle and rendered the tune perfectly. Grandpa was so amazed at how well the boy could play he got him his own fiddle and told him he’d help him any way he could.” [Unpublished Manuscript on her father by Juanita McMichen Lynch]
Some of the first fiddle pieces Clayton learned from his father and real uncles were “Pretty Little Widow,” “Billy in the Low Ground,” “Nancy Rollin’,” “Arkansas Traveler,” and “Durang’s Hornpipe.” “There was a black string band that used to play at a brothel nearby and my dad would go listen to them play and sing,” said Juanita. “He’d lay in the grass for hours listening. He learned some of his best licks from that group. Some of his songs like “In the Pines” came from them.”
Clayton’s grandfather, William Harvey McMichen (b. Sept. 1854) ran a local store, the local post office, and owned one of the first automobiles in the area. Grandpa McMichen feuded with a Mr. Armstrong who ran a competing local store. After Armstrong bought a Columbia cylinder machine, Grandpa McMichen bought an Edison machine which out-drew Armstrong’s and gave Grandpa all the town’s business. As a boy, Clayton learned several songs from the Edison including Arthur Collins’ “All in, Down and Out,” issued in 1907 and Ada Jones’ “I Remember You,” issued in 1909. [Cohen]
“When he was nine years old, he entered a fiddle contest,” said Juanita. “He won but was too young to be awarded a prize.” When audiences heard him play they were in awe of his ability. When someone whose family was from Ireland would play or sing a song, Clayton would play his version and they were elated to hear their old native music. Much of the music that we pass from generation to generation was recorded that way.” [Unpublished Manuscript on her father by Juanita McMichen Lynch]
Bertha and Trudy, Clayton’s sisters, remembered the many good times they had at their neighborhood dances, some of which were held in their home. Their mother “beat spoons” and “beat straws” and accompanied her husband, brother-in-laws, young Clayton, and the other musicians.
[For the rest of this lengthy article, purchase the Spring 2011 issue.]
[Richard L. Matteson Jr. lives in Louisville, Kentucky, where he performs and teaches at Mom’s Music. Matteson writes for Mel Bay Publications, The Old-Time Herald, and publishes articles on World Wide Bluegrass and his website: BluegrassMessegers.com. His new Bluegrass Series of old time song paintings can be viewed at the Kentucky Music Hall-Of-Fame in Renfro Valley, Kentucky, or on his web-site: MattesonArt.com.]