Old-Time Fiddler Remembers The Music That Sustained A Region
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution May 2, 1999 By: Lee May (Staff Writer)
The lights are low in the Yellow Jacket restaurant, and E.P. (Slim) Stewart, longtime country musician, is singing passionately, his voice rising and falling in concert with his six-string flattop Gibson, while his son, Larry, backs him with voice and fiddle. “I was danc-ing with my dar-lin’ to the Ten-nes-see Waltz when an old friend I hap-pened to see…”
The music, an extension of an interview, drifts sweet and sad, a song that grabs you no matter how many times you hear it. Or play it. “Yes, I lost my lit-tle darling’ the night they were play-ing the beau-ti-ful Ten-nes-see Waltz.” With that familiar last line still hanging in the air, Stewart says, softly, seriously: “Occasionally, when I play, I get a little emotional. Some of ‘em touch me. I used to do solos, but I don’t do that anymore; I don’t want to crack up.”
To be sure, this song, familiar worldwide as a Patti Page pop hit, a wedding favorite, the state song of Tennessee and a comfortable old country standard, touches untold millions. But for Slim Stewart, 80, it resonates most deeply. He is the brother of Redd Stewart, who co-wrote the song with Pee Wee King. (As the story goes, Redd and Pee Wee were returning to Nashville from Texas in 1947, with the truck radio tuned to the Grand Ole Opry. Hearing “The Kentucky Waltz,” Pee Wee joked that Redd ought to pen a song about Tennessee. Redd quickly set in, writing words on a matchbox cover.)
Redd, who is 75 years old, can’t sing or play anymore; in 1992 he took a bad fall on the basement steps of his Louisville, Ky., home. Says his wife, Darlene: “He was tired, lost his balance while carrying a sing-along machine” and suffered severe injuries to his head. “His mind’s there, but he can’t use it,” Slim Stewart says sadly.
This reality is far from the one back when they were children in Louisville, when, as Slim recalls, 4-year old Redd “would sit on the front steps and play the banjo, and people would stop and listen to him.” And far from those heady days in the 1940’s and ‘50s when Redd and Pee (Redd was vocalist with Pee Wee’s Golden West Cowboys) were known in music circles as “the men with the golden pens” because of songs such as, “You Belong to Me,” “Bonaparte’s Retreat” and “Slow Poke.”
Slim Stewart, who has lived in McCaysville, Georgia since 1940, isn’t one to talk much about sad times, in fact, he is know around the Copper Basin as a man of few words, a man more likely to let his music do the talking. But on this day, during a two-hour conversation in a wood-paneled back room of the Yellow Jacket, he conducts a conversational, musical tour of old country music and his love for it-and, like others who grew up with the music, praises its powerful influence on life in an Appalachia before television, movies and travel prevailed as entertainment.
Old Is Gold
The effect that old country had on Appalachian people is “inestimable,” says John Rice Irwin, founder and director of the Museum of Appalachia in Norris, TN, which exhibits several dozen pieces relating to the Stewart family, including photos and costume items. “The music has had an unbelievably profound effect on people in the region. It sustained them, inspired them, brought tears to their eyes. Fiddlers were heroes of the communities, even though some were so poor they carried their fiddles in a sack because they couldn’t afford cases.”
Mind you, Irwin is talking about old country, not the rocking-the-jukebox kind ubiquitous on country music charts today. He’s talking about the kind of music whose guitars and fiddles and banjos and lilting, moaning voices coax and pull and jerk pain and pleasure from your heart and soul, throw your emotions around a good-time room or onto the floor for the drums to stomp. Irwin compares old country to “vintage furniture, which never goes out of style.”
He says the museum gets 100,000 visitors a year from all over the world, and the song they request most from the museum is “Tennessee Waltz.” I got a letter this morning from someone saying how difficult it is to find the old music anymore,” he says.
It’ll get easier, says Mike Panter, a financial consultant in Blue Ridge, who also is a music promoter. After listening to 400 singers under age 21 around the South during the past year, he concludes, “Some of the old songs are starting to come back and will be rerecorded by younger artists.”
Meanwhile, as new country continues its mainstream course, old country is in some ways a specialty item, found on some radio stations (including “golden oldie” outlets) at special events and select entertainment spots. And, on this day at a Southern-food restaurant in the North Georgia mountains, from the hands and mouths of Slim and Larry Stewart. (Larry works at Opryland Productions in Sevierville, TN, near Pigeon Forge, mainly playing steel guitar, harmonica and banjo. Slim’s other son, Bob, who lives in this area, also is an accomplished musician.)
Good Times, Bad Times
Born in Ashland City, TN, to musician parents, Eury Pershing Stewart (whom everyone around here knows as E.P. or Slim) and his four brothers and two sisters grew to love music at an early age. At age 10, Stewart and his 13-year-old brother, Al, performed on radio in Depressionera Louisville as the Newsboys Duo, combining their guitar and banjo playing (Slim played banjo then) with delivering The Louisville Courier-Journal. “We performed each Saturday morning for 15 minutes,” he says, “and received $7.00 apiece.”
During the next decade or so Slim Stewart toured with various groups, singing and playing “devil’s box” (fiddle) and “starvation box” (guitar). Those early touring days had a certain impoverished richness-”the good ol’ days when times were bad,” Stewart calls them.
He tells the story from the late 1930s about when he and Redd were working together in Pennsylvania: “We always had to check around with one guy to see how much money we could spend in the restaurant in the morning. So, chili being rather cheap, we ate a great deal of it. After checking with the treasurer and heading for the restaurant across the street, I said to Redd, “Dad gum, Redd, it’s chilly this morning.” Redd said, “Hunh. If I know anything, it’s chili every morning.” The telling, and the memory of that time, brings Stewart a good laugh!
After moving to Georgia, he began a 39-year career as a machinist in the copper and petroleum industries in nearby Copperhill, TN, “playing my music on the side, appearances at schools, dance halls, picnics.” He still plays as often as possible at “old-time gatherings. I’ll play at the drop of a hat, and I’ll bring the hat.” For many it has always been that way. Says Larry Stewart: “The music is not pretentious. In good times and bad times, people played. It was a form of release.” His father adds: “When I’m having a bad day, I can go pick up my guitar and feel better.”
‘Music In His Blood’
Indeed, for many mountain people, the music always was the medicine. Ask Dr. Bill Lee. Thirty years ago, he began organizing country music concerts, featuring mostly local players. Held for years at various locations in the area, including a barn, a school and on Main Street in nearby Ducktown, TN, the extraordinarily popular monthly events were called “First Tuesday, Ducktown, U.S.A.”
On a recent wet Saturday on Main Street, Lee, 72 and retired for medicine, pointed out a little gray frame building, half of which used to house his general practice office. The other half, outfitted with a potbellied stove and church pews, was home to First Tuesday at one point, with lemonade, coffee and brownies provided by Lee’s wife, Hattie Lorraine. Lee called it Circle L. Ranch. “We’d sit around and pick and grin,” he recalls, adding that the shows, which drew hundreds of people, grew too large for the building and spilled out onto Main Street– a problem that in 1980 forced the relocation of the concerts to the school, as the street also is Tenn. 68,and authorities didn’t want it blocked for five or six hours every month.
The concerts lasted about a year after that move (music fan Luneta Hamby likened the change to “when they moved the Grand Ole Opry from Ryman Auditorium to that new thing”), but what great good they did while they lived, says Lee, noting that they offered needed diversion to workers and their families during a bitter strike at the copper company. “We had a blowout for them,” he says, “and it helped a lot.” Moreover, throughout the lifetime of the concerts, “We realized that by encouraging the musicians, we’d uncover hidden talents and have a good time, too.” Speaking of talent, Lee, who admires E.P.’s, says that during his appearances he “would very seldom say anything, but he had music in his blood.” Still does.
Music You Don’t Leave
“Tennessee Waltz” will always be there, of course, like a family member. Says Stewart: “It gives me a measure of satisfaction to stand up and sing Redd’s song. He did a great job on it, and he was proud of it, and I am of him. We were all happy for him.”
At the same time, he’s still making his own music: “You don’t leave the music, and it won’t leave you.” During the restaurant session, Stewart, his voice ranging from baritone to tenor, sings and plays several songs with his son. The haunting “Amarillo by Morning,” as well as “Oh Susanna!” and “Georgia on My Mind,” recorded most notably by that soulful country singer, Ray Charles.
The Stewarts perform with we-know-each-other’s every move assurance and show pleasure without straining, vices and music simple and evocative.
Near the end of our visit, the father and son team up for an especially moving interpretation of “For the Good Times,” with Slim starting, “Don’t look so sad; I know it’s over. But life goes on; this old world keeps on turning.” And ending on “Make believe you love me one more time-for the good times.” And the old times. Times remembered happy and sad, conjured up by music unafraid to make you cry.