Tex Atchison chose music over the mines
Ohio County 09/21/04
By Keith Lawrence
Country music historian Charles K. Wolfe calls him, "arguably the
best left-handed fiddler in the history of country music." But back
home in Ohio County, the memory of Shelby David "Tex" Atchison is
Atchison was born near Rosine on Feb. 5, 1912. Five months earlier,
William Smith "Bill" Monroe had been born on the farm next door. The
boys went to school together. But the musical paths they followed
took them in different directions. Monroe became known as "the
father of bluegrass music." Atchison found his fame in western
swing. In 1920, when Atchison first picked up his father's fiddle,
no one in his family expected him to be able to play it. He was
left-handed. And the fiddle was built for a right-handed musician.
But Atchison, youngest of 10 children, loved the sounds the fiddle
made. And he was determined to make it sing for him like it did his
father. "My father was considered one of the best fiddlers around,"
Atchison recalled in a 1980 interview. "He never played for money,
but he could have been a pro in later days when country music became
more commercial." When he was 14, Atchison's family moved to
McHenry, where he went to work in the mines. But his father's fiddle
was about to change his life. Forrest "Boots" Faught, a fellow miner
and band leader, heard Atchison playing his fiddle one day and
offered him a job with Faught's Entertainers, one of the top bands
in the area in the 1920s -- a band that combined country music and
Arnold Shultz, the black guitarist who was one of Monroe's
inspirations, was also a member of the band. Barely in his teens,
Atchison found himself digging coal by day and playing fiddle,
saxophone and clarinet by night in coal-field dancehalls. Soon, he
discovered that music made more sense than mining. "I think the
first show I played, I got $3," Atchison said. "I was making $2.56 a
day in the mines." In 1932, he left the mines forever. A few weeks
later, three men from southern Kentucky -- Jack Taylor, Charles
"Chick" Hurt and Floyd "Salty" Holmes -- were looking for a fiddler
for a band they were putting together. They offered the slot to
Taylor's cousin. He wasn't interested. But he told them about seeing
Atchison at the Shady Rest.
The Kentucky Ramblers came to McHenry with an offer for Atchison.
And they didn't have to ask twice. He picked up his fiddle and hit
the road. The Ramblers headed north to radio station WOC in
Davenport, Iowa, and its sister station, WHO, in Des Moines. The
stations broadcast on 50,000 watts to a wide section of the Midwest.
And the Ramblers were a hit.
"We had a program every night from 6 to 6:30," Atchison said. "There
was a man breaking in as a sports announcer there who did a
five-minute sports show at 6:10. His name was (Ronald) 'Dutch'
It was in Iowa that Shelby Atchison disappeared and Tex was born. "A
man named Oklahoma Jack gave me the name," he said. "He said Shelby
wasn't commercial enough." After five months in Iowa, the Kentucky
Ramblers moved to Chicago and the legendary WLS National Barn Dance.
That radio show from the Eighth Street Theatre had signed on the air
on April 12, 1924 -- 18 months before WSM's Grand Ole Opry in
Nashville. "We started there in January 1933 and worked until
December 1934," Atchison said.
In 1934, he won the Henry Ford fiddling championship at the Chicago
World's Fair and in 1946, Atchison took first place in a national
championship at the Los Angeles Coliseum. In 1935, the Ramblers
headed for radio station WOR in New York City. There, the Kentucky
Ramblers became the Prairie Ramblers --switching from country music
to the more popular western swing. With the new name came a new
wardrobe -- western clothes, boots and hats.
At the same time, they hired Rubye Rebecca Blevins, a young singer
from Hot Springs, Ark., who had recently changed her name to Patsy
Montana. In 1936, she became the first woman in country music to
record a million-seller -- "I Wanna Be A Cowboy's Sweetheart."
That's Atchison's fiddle on the record. "We wanted to go western
because western records were selling," he said. "Country music and
bluegrass, you couldn't give it away on records then."
Gene Autry, who had started on the National Barn Dance in 1930, got
the Ramblers signed to a contract with Columbia Pictures and they
were the backing band on many of his records including "Tumbling
Tumbleweeds" and "Old Faithful." "Riding Down The Canyon" became the
band's theme song. Hits included "Nobody's Darling But Mine" and
"When I Grow Too Old To Dream."
Music historian Douglas B. Green -- better known these days as
"Ranger Doug" of Riders in the Sky -- has called the Ramblers "one
of the finest -- as well as most underrated -- old-time string
CountryWorks.com calls them, "The most commercially successful of
the Kentucky bands who made it onto records and radio in the 1930s."
They performed once before a crowd of 110,000 in northern Indiana,
The year 1942 found Atchison in Hollywood, where he signed a
three-year contract with Columbia Studios. And in 1945, Atchison
became a member of Foy Willing's Riders of the Purple Sage. "I went
with Jimmy Wakely and Johnny Bond," he said. "We took the place of
the Sons of the Pioneer in the Charles Starrett movies. We did 11
pictures a year for three years and then I
freelanced for the next 20 years, doing bit parts, riding and minor
stunt work, like falling off horses."
A broken leg ended his stunt career. And by the 1960s, Atchison had
drifted back home to Ohio County. By 1980, 97 of his 300 songs had
been recorded, including Glenn Campbell's version of "When You Cry,
You Cry Alone," Kaye Starr's "Honky-Tonk Hardwood Floor" and Doris
Day's "Crocodile Tears."
Atchison's fiddle was heard on records by Merle Travis, Tennessee
Ernie Ford, Tex Ritter and other musicians of the era. In 1978, he
taught himself to play the banjo -- his 10th and final instrument.
On Aug. 4, 1982, Atchison died at age 70 at the home of his
daughter, evangelist Joy Ann Silvey, in Granite City, Ill. They
brought him home to Ohio County for burial and laid his worn fiddle
atop his closed casket during the service.
Photos stolen off the web:
Quotes & info with a link to the page it was borrowed from: Tex
Atchison : 'Tennessee Hound Dog' / 'Mail Man' (Sage 343) Fantastic
!! A revelation !! Incredible breaks from Roy Lanham with those
trademark glissandi which give me chills every time. The good vocal
back up on both sides could be by The Frontiersmen (or The Sons Of
The Pioneers ?). Tex was no newcomer, having recorded in the '40s
and '50s on Crystal, King, Federal, Deluxe and Imperial ; he also
played fiddle on a number of West Coast sessions (for instance, with
Johnny Bond in 1951, for whom he wrote 'Alabama Boogie Boy' and
co-wrote 'Sick, Sober & Sorry'). He had even co-written the jumping
'Some Like It Hot' for Sammy Masters in 1956 (Four Star 1695, with
Jimmy Bryant on lead). Both sides of Sage 343 appeared on Crown CLP