By: Jack Swift
Johnson County Historian
Sometime a few years ago, I ran across a Life Magazine dated June 30, 1972. I bought it and I still have it and I value it highly. I, of course, was interested in it because of the fact it was as old as it was, but also because of one of the feature stories it contained. As I was perusing the magazine the story that caught my eye was “The Living Roots of Country Music.”
I was pleasantly surprised that the story featured some of Johnson County’s well-known musicians. One page featured the late Fred Price playing his fiddle as he sat at the side of his house in the Third District of Johnson County. Another page pictured Fred in his home playing his banjo. A family photo of the popular and famous “Doc” Watson showed him and his son Merle, who died as a result of a tractor accident, as well as other family members on the front porch of the family home. Doc as you probably know was famous for his outstanding guitar playing talent and baritone singing.
There was also a picture of Fred Price, Clint Howard, Fred’s son Kenny and Clint’s son Clarence. That group played extensively in Johnson County and the surrounding area. Moreover they played at Carnegie Hall and colleges and universities across the United States.
A jam session was taking place at a service station that was once located on Highway 421 South, Mountain City when in walked a reporter from Life Magazine who asked if he could take some pictures and ask some questions. Of course the guys said he could. It turns out that their picture also appeared in the aforementioned Life Magazine story about country music in the rural south. Shown in the picture are J. R. Stout on the guitar, Denny Philips on banjo, Hal Wagner on guitar and Ben Simcox on the electric guitar. Looking on are Frank Tester and an unidentified man.
The Life article rounds out with a photo of the crowd at Grand Ole Opry. A picture of Loretta Lynn and her twin daughters is pictured as well as western singer Tex Ritter and mandolin playing Bill Monroe who is known as “The father of Bluegrass.”
Before radio and television, playing music was a way to be entertained after a hard day’s work. Before those media came along, 78-rpm records were the primary way of enjoying music. I have a few original records of the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers (sic), the Monroe Brothers and others. Although they still can be played, they are a bit scratchy.