Tangy as a crabapple, sweet to my ears
The Good Guys Wear White Hats — Left to right: Roger Ball, Osie Ownby, Brenda Huskey, and Jim Ball at Mt. Harrison in the late 1960s.
Like the eternal haze that gave the mountains their name, music has drifted over the hills and through the coves of the Great Smokies for centuries. My ancestors danced to this music in celebration of bountiful harvests; sang it as they planted crops, butchered hogs, preserved food; hummed it as they rocked babies; and recorded it in the thickets of their memory so it could be handed down just like the family Bible.
Someone once described this music—folk tunes, spirituals, ballads—to be “tangy as a crab apple, ebullient as hard cider.” That’s also a fitting description of what mountain life, not just the music, was like when I was young.
I grew up at the end of a narrow, pot-holed road a handful of miles from Pigeon Forge, Tenn. Today the town is a bustling, jumbled-up mix of all things touristy, but during my youth it was a sedate farming community. It was a time when ruler-straight corn rows hugged the byways; when wide expanses of grass separated the few homes and businesses; when it was common practice to cage black bears so tourists could watch them drink chocolate sodas bought for that very purpose. The word chain hadn’t been attached to our restaurants yet, and mom and pop motels always shut down for the winter.
Considering the setting, snuggled in the lap of the Great Smoky Mountains as it was, I’m inclined to romanticize my far-from-idyllic childhood. That old saying about living off the tourists in the summer and potatoes in the winter rang true for my family as we earned money from the motels, restaurants and music.
When I came along in 1953, the music of my forebears had evolved considerably. With the popularity of the Grand Ole Opry, this mountain, or hillbilly music as it was being called, was the favorite genre. Aspiring musicians were performing it wherever and whenever an audience could be assembled. It seemed to me that just about everyone in Pigeon Forge, and in nearby Gatlinburg, wanted their piece of the music pie.
I came to love this tangy music. It dominated my childhood summers. If I wasn’t doing household chores, picking blackberries, swimming in an icy mountain stream, or attempting Tarzan’s jungle yell while clinging to wild grape vines as thick as my thigh, I was somewhere doing something that involved music.
And, for a time I was even one of those aspiring musicians—until I realized talent was a requirement! Being the last of a dozen children, all the musical talent had been distributed by the time I came along. I couldn’t carry a tune, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying the music of my heritage.
We didn’t have much, but how blessed I was to have a family that loved music. Mama often invited local entertainers into our home for jam sessions though we didn’t know to call them that back then. Our small living room fairly throbbed from the picking, singing and toe-tapping. Making music worked up an appetite, so mama usually served up her biscuits and gravy before sending everyone home around midnight. With good food and good music, I felt within spittin’ distance of heaven.
There were no close neighbors on our lonely stretch of road, but our friend, Osie Ownby, who lived on a farm two miles away, was always a key participant in those fun evenings.
Osie was raised in the early 1900s in Gatlinburg and could play just about any instrument he picked up. His daughter, Mary, my sister, Brenda, and I were no different from all the other wannabes, so we formed a trio and Osie played for us. If our group had a name, I don’t remember it. If I did, I’d probably be reluctant to publicize it.
I couldn’t learn a simple G chord, but Brenda, an apt pupil, soon began accompanying Osie when we sang. Here I use the word “we” lightly. Remember that part about me not being able to carry a tune? They let me be part of the group anyway. Lip-syncing wasn’t in my vocabulary back then, but I sure knew how to do it.
As the number of tourists visiting the Smokies increased, the number of musicians seemed to rise in direct proportion. Even our trio was part of the rage; we debuted in the parking lot of the Toni Motel in Pigeon Forge. Guests sat near the office, or around the pool, as we sang songs like “On Top of Old Smoky.” We didn’t dazzle our audience, but did provide a bit of amusement before they headed off to the comfort of air-conditioned rooms.
Like the lowly parking lot, as early as the 1940s, musical venues in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg included street-side gazebos, cafes, motel lobbies, campgrounds, craft and county fairs, fall festivals and events like Old Timer’s Day. Even a converted Quonset hut wasn’t off limits, for that’s where Jim Ball and the Smoky Mountain Ramblers played—it was called Tubby Griffin’s Rec Hall.
Television stations in nearby Knoxville were airing programs like The Cas Walker Show and The Smoky Mountain Hayride. Families gathered around the TV to see which local entertainer would get the coveted fifteen minutes of fame that week.
In the mid 60s, the Smoky Mountain Travelers, led by Jack Grooms, played nightly in Gatlinburg. Not in a parking lot, but close; it was on the Pi Beta Phi school outdoor basketball court. Smoldering rags purported to keep the gnats and mosquitoes away, cleverly dubbed “gnat smokes,” were piled in large galvanized tubs and strategically placed around the court. I’ve often thought the Osborne Brothers’ song, “Don’t Let the Smoky Mountain Smoke Get in Your Eyes” would have been perfect for that show, unfortunately it came along just a bit too late.
Wiley Oakley, known as the Roamin’ Man of the Mountains, had a café/gift shop in Gatlinburg called the Wiley Shop in the 40s and 50s. It’s no surprise the shop had a stage for nightly performances. Great quantities of locally-made handicrafts displayed on and around the stage sometimes commanded as much attention as the entertainers.
A Gatlinburg attraction called Homespun Valley Mountaineer Village provided entertainment for over 20 years. The nightly square dances gave locals and tourists a chance to swing their partners to music provided by a core of regular entertainers and special guests. My older sister, Joda, performed there in the 1950s earning a much-needed $25 a week. Even my group sang there on occasion, as did Dolly Parton.
During the daytime, I often joined the tourists catching a show atop Mt. Harrison (Ober Gatlinburg). Getting there meant a slow, peaceful ride on the chair lift. Once there, after I’d filled up on the scenery, and hotdogs from the snack bar, I enjoyed old standards like “Cripple Creek,” “Orange Blossom Special” and “Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss” being performed on a rustic stage set in a structure resembling a three-sided potting shed.
As a teenager I sold tickets and ushered for a show called Archie Campbell Presents Stars of the Grand Ole Opry. Along with Nashville stars, this show had elaborate sound and lighting systems. A nightly feature was Osie Ownby doing the Barnyard Shuffle. As the music played, he comically danced around the stage, always attired in his faded bib overalls, black ankle boots and jet-black toupee. When the music suddenly hit a prolonged sour note, Osie would stop, look down at his feet, shuffle to the edge of the stage and painstakingly wipe some imaginary barnyard offal from his boot. The audience loved it! They also loved my sister, Brenda, even giving her standing ovations when she held a note in “Mule Skinner Blues” so long it appeared we’d have to call the rescue squad.
In time, music theaters popped up from Sevierville into Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. Nashville celebrities like Lee Greenwood and Louise Mandrell entertained in opulent theaters. Dolly had her own elegant Music Mansion. Today, talented artists at Dollywood, and at theaters like Country Tonight, The Smith Family, Smoky Mountain Opry and many others, continue the tradition.
Life took me away from my mountain home when I was barely out of my teens. When I moved back after 30 years, I found urban sprawl had taken up residence, too. We now had condos instead of cornfields. Many of our beautiful hills had been clear-cut for cabins. Historic hotels had been razed, and popular music hangouts were just memories.
I’ll never forget those talented musicians—Osie Ownby, Jim Ball, Jack Grooms, and especially my family—who inspired my love of mountain music. With music seasoning my summers, all those potatoes I had to eat in the winter tasted mighty good.