A soft, almost shy smile turns up the corners of Pappy's mouth when he puts his fiddle under his chin. It is something he has been doing for seventy-eight years of his life. A master fiddler, and now eighty-five years old, his delight with the instrument's feel and sound has never diminished.
At the age of seven, he was given a Sears and Roebuck $1.98 tin fiddle and shortly afterwards got his first taste of performing, working for his father who was a farmer. Pappy recalls, "I used to fiddle for my daddy to help him sell watermelons. By noon all ours would be sold and we'd leave the other farmers standing out in the hot sun."
Born in Sherrill's Ford, North Carolina, Pappy's first professional performance was in 1928 at radio station WSOC in Gastonia, North Carolina, when he was thirteen. His notoriety began in earnest in 1934 with his performances for the Crazy Water Barn Dance on Charlotte, North Carolina's WBT. Historically one of the first manufacturers to sponsor country music, these Crazy Water Crystals live radio performances produced many musicians who became famous, among them the Father of Bluegrass Music, Bill Monroe.
Continuing to play for Crazy Water Crystals, Pappy joined The Blue Sky Boys (Bill and Earl Bolick) on station WWNC in Asheville, North Carolina, for about two years before moving on to WGST in Atlanta, Georgia, as The Crazy Blue Ridge Hillbillies. It was in Atlanta that he met his wife, Doris Lyle. Forming a new group, The Smiling Rangers, Pappy's next move was back to Raleigh, North Carolina, at station WPTF. From Raleigh, the Rangers moved on to Danville, Virginia's WBTM. By then, Pappy had become among those of the first generation of musicians to earn a living from radio performances.
In 1939, Pappy moved his family to Columbia, South Carolina, and joined Byron Parker's Hillbillies to play on station WIS. It was a fortuitous event that cemented his friendship with banjoist "Snuffy" Jenkins and developed into an extraordinary partnership lasting more than a half century. After Byron Parker's untimely death at thirty-seven, the band renamed themselves The Hired Hands in his honor. Parker had been a phenomenal radio announcer who, in working at WAAW in Omaha, Nebraska, became acquainted with Bill and Charlie Monroe and booked their personal appearances. He had always signed off the air as "your old hired hand."
Via their daily WIS broadcasts, The Hired Hands became South Carolina's premier country band. Pappy's lively version of "The Orange Blossom Special" would call folks from field to radio for their noontime program. Pappy had learned the tune directly from its composer, Ervin Rouse, in 1938, and played it on show dates after the Rouse Brothers had recorded it for RCA. Pappy's fiddling directly helped to popularize this now-famous tune. Even though he has performed for every conceivable kind of audience, Pappy has never forgotten playing back on the "Kerosene Circuit" when only lanterns lit the stage. The applause sounded just as sweet then as it does today in places like the Newberry Opry House in Newberry, South Carolina.
Already veterans of live radio productions, The Hired Hands appeared on WIS-TV the very first day of broadcast. From 1954 to 1958, they conducted an hour television show once a week called "Carolina in the Morning." National acclaim came to Pappy and Snuffy in 1973, when Esquire magazine printed an article featuring the banjo. Other articles in publications such as Bluegrass Unlimited, Banjo Newsletter, Pickin', The New York Times, and The Village Voice have all recognized their historic contributions to old-time as well as country music. Their early recordings on the RCA Vintage Series, Early Rural String Bands and The Rail Road in Folksong, are now collector's items.
Over the years, The Hired Hands played such prestigious venues as the 1982 World's Fair, The University of Chicago Folk Festival, The Joffrey Ballet, Wolf Trap, the Washington, D.C. American Folk Festival, and Carnegie Hall. They were filmed in a captioned documentary, "Free Show Tonight," which was made by the Smithsonian in tribute to the early entertainers of vaudeville and medicine shows.
As our visit with Pappy and a fun-filled afternoon of fiddling was finished, my friend Chris and I began to case our instruments. As an afterthought, I turned to him and said, "Pap, I've told Chris about when you used to do all your trick fiddling and he's never seen anything like that. Do you still do it?"
The genuine surprise on his face turned wistful as he momentarily paused. Then, with the same shy smile, the unmistakable strains of "Pop Goes the Weasel" came from his fiddle. Gracefully, and with an age-defying agility, his face once again glowing with the blush of youth, he continued, with impeccable timing, to play his fiddleunder his chin, down on his chest, behind his back, between his knees, and on the floor between his feet, the flourish ending with a perfect toss of the bow being caught in mid-air. It had been a moment of magic, and our applause filled the room. Even for an audience of two, Pappy was still a great entertainer.
[For the full text of this article, purchase the Spring 2001 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]
[Pat Ahrens is a free-lance writer and the author of Union Grove The First Fifty Years. A rhythm guitarist, she is a past president of the South Carolina Bluegrass and Traditional Music Association and has served on its Board of Directors for more than a decade. She is a 1996 recipient of the South Carolina Folk Heritage Advocacy Award.]