Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The North Georgia Wildcat: Clayton McMichen

Yesterday's post got me to thinking about those wild Georgia fiddlers of the 1920s and '30s. Everyone should be familiar with Gid Tanner but he wasn't the only one creating a breeze in the hot Georgia nights with some frantic bow work.

From 1913 to 1935 the old Atlanta City Auditorium at the corner of Courtland and Gilmer streets was home to the Georgia Old-Time Fiddlers' Convention and the competition there was hot. The list of winners at these competitions reads like a history of Old Time music. Fiddlin' John Carson, A. A. Gray, Gid Tanner, Shorty Harper, and Clayton McMichen are a few of the names that would change American music. Some might say that the influence of the early Georgia fiddlers can be attributed to the fact that Atlanta was one of the first Southern cities to build a radio station and one of the first major recording centers in the Southeast. That may be true, but it is hard to discount the frantic fiddling style that was prevalent and the fierce competition in Georgia compared to the styles popular in North Carolina, Tennessee, or Virginia.

Clayton McMichen was born on January 26, 1900, at Allatoona, in Cobb County, Georgia. As is usually the case, McMichen was born into a musical family. His father played fiddle and his grandfather played banjo. By the time Clayton McMichen was eleven years old he was learning to play the old tunes on his own fiddle.

In 1922, after Atlanta's first radio station, WSB, went on the air, McMichen and a group of his musician friends, calling themselves the Home Town Boys, made their broadcast debut. They soon became one of the most frequently appearing acts on the station, and their programs provided entertainment for WSB listeners over the next four years.

McMichen took first place at the fiddler's convention at Macon in 1923 and a newspaper reporter dubbed him "The North Georgia Wildcat". The nickname stuck and McMichen's bands from that time forward were known as the Georgia Wildcats. The photo above is one version of the Wildcats, with Clayton McMichen in the center and Merle Travis sitting at his left shoulder. Between 1926 and 1930 McMichen played with Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers. More than a few modern critics credit McMichen's more polished fiddle style as a major reason for the popularity of the Skillet Lickers.

Clayton McMichen was "rediscovered" during the Folk Revival of the 1960s and toured college campuses, folk and bluegrass festivals. Although he was known mostly for his fiddle playing, McMichen was a talented songwriter also. A few of the songs he penned, "My Carolina Home," "Dear Old Dixie Land," "Peach Pickin' Time in Georgia" have become standards. Clayton McMichen died in Battletown, Kentucky, on January 3, 1970.

Joining Clayton McMichen on these recordings is the unmistakable guitar of fellow Skillet Licker, Riley Puckett.

Clayton McMichen & Riley Puckett - Old Molly Hare.mp3

Clayton McMichen & Riley Puckett - Fire On Mountain.mp3


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