1881-1939 - Carroll County, Georgia
Excerpt from "Pickin' On Peachtree -
Ahaz Augustus Gray was born on September 7, 1881 in Carroll County, Georgia. Although his parents, Matt and Eliza Gray, were not musicians, Ahaz, as he was known to his friends, had an older brother who played the fiddle, and it was he who taught the younger brother the rudiments of the instrument. In 1934, Ahaz described his musical instruction to Willard Neal of the "Journal"'s Sunday Magazine: "I guess I'm different from most of the fiddlers. Nearly all the others learned to play naturally, but I had to be taught. When I was seven years old my big brother started me off. He had to poke my fingers down on the strings and hold them there while I sawed with the bow. He taught me part of a piece, and then got mad because I couldn't learn any faster, and quit, but I kept trying 'till I picked out the whole tune. And I've been playing ever since." Ahaz was apparently a faster learner than his brother had realized since, according to family tradition, he played for his first dance when he was between seven and eight years old.
At the age of twenty-five, Gray married Ida Clarinda Smith in a ceremony that took place in Buchanan, the seat of Haralson County. Sometime after their marriage, the Grays moved to a rural community near Tallapoosa, some eight miles southwest of Buchanan. They spent the remainder of their lives in and around Tallapoosa where Gray earned his and his family's living by farming and fiddling. They had three children, two boys and a girl.
Gray was popular among Haralson County residents as a square-dance fiddler and as a performer with Gray's String Band, composed of Gray; Charlie Thompson, who played guitar; banjoist Henry West; and another fiddler, Fred Hill. An undated handbill (probably printed around 1925) announcing one of the band's forthcoming performances promised the audience good jokes, songs, buck-and-wing dancing, and "string music that will make you forget your troubles." Gray was constantly filling requests to play at square dances in his own and surrounding communities. As one lady who grew up with Gray's children once recalled, "The young people in the community kept an eye on where Mr. Gray went and followed him, because they knew wherever he went there'd be fun, music and dancing."
Saturday nights usually found the Gray family hosting a musical "get-together" in their home. Friends and neighbors would drop in to listen to Gray's fiddling as well as to the music of other members of the family. Mrs. Gray sang and played the guitar, as did their son Earl and their daughter, Gladys, who also played the organ.
Gray was remembered by neighbors as a hard-working, serious-minded, devoted husband and father. Although his avocation inevitably brought him in contact with every level of social drinker, from those who liked only an occasional nip to those who would today be called alcohol abusers, Gray himself was a tee-totaler. While his music inspired many an exhibition on the dance floor, he was not known for his dancing.
Gray's fiddling victories were not restricted to the state and regional contests, but included many local championships also. His children later recalled that he was a winner of at least one contest in Rome, as well as contests in other Georgia towns. In a 1934 interview, Gray said, "Once I toured south Georgia with a big crowd, playing in a lot of conventions." In the same interview, he also had something to say about his strategy for winning. "I find that the tune you play has a lot to do with winning prizes. A fellow just ahead of me [on the south Georgia tour] used 'Bully of the Town', and that's a mighty good piece. He won four prizes in a row. Finally, I happened to think of 'Bucking Mule'. It's a hard piece, but it's snappy, and you do a lot of fancy work behind the bridge that makes the fiddle bray like a mule. I won so many prizes [with that tune] that the other fellows got to calling me 'Mule' Gray."
Unlike most of the contestants at the fiddlers' conventions- even the champions - Gray's fiddling has been preserved on phonograph records. The only solo record he made was "Bonaparte's Retreat" backed by "Merry WIdow Waltz" which was recorded on the OKeh label. An OKeh advertising brochure dated June 5, 1924 states that:
Mr. A.A. Gray, hailing from Tallapoosa, Georgia, joins the ranks of Okeh's famous Southern hill-country musicians. His first record brings you his delightfully unique versions of the well-known BONAPARTE'S RETREAT and MERRY WIDOW WALTZ. Gray has a rare knack of playing two or three strings on his fiddle at the same time. It results in a combination of harmonies that are distinctly "up country", and yet, charmingly "different" from anything you've probably ever heard before.
Other records on which Gray can be heard are "Streak-O-Lean, Streak-O-Fat"/"Tallapoosa Bound", "N----- Baby"/"The Old Ark's A-Moving", "A Georgia Barbecue at Stone Mountain, Parts 1 and 2", and "A Fiddler's Tryout in Georgia, Parts 1 and 2", all on the Vocalion label. The first two records feature Gray on fiddle, and "Seven Foot Dilly" (John Dilleshaw) on guitar. "Streak-O-Lean, Streak-O-Fat" and "Tallapoosa Bound" are instrumentals. Vocals by Gray and Dilleshaw are heard on "N------ Baby"/"The Old Ark's A-Moving".
"A Fiddler's Tryout in Georgia" records a fake fiddling contest skit with "judges" and short solos by two supposedly competing fiddlers. The "contest" in this case was between Gray and Joe Brown, a fiddler from Burnt Hickory, a rural community near Dallas, Georgia. Brown was also a frequent contestant at the real Georgia Old-Time Fiddlers' Conventions. Brown plays "Arkansas Traveller" and "Blue Tail Fly", and the two together play "Leather Britches" and "Katie Hill". "A Georgia Barbecue at Stone Mountain," another recorded skit, features the music of Gray, fiddle; Pink Lindsey, bass; Shorty Lindsey, banjo and mandolin; and John Dilleshaw, guitar.
A.A. Gray died on June 21, 1939. He had been a member of the Methodist church for more that thirty years when he died and was remembered by those who knew him as a sober man and one well-regarded in his community. The writer of his obituary stated that "Mr. Gray was a good man and will be missed by many friends."
A.A. Gray is featured on "John Dilleshaw 1929-30" on Document Records.