Old-Time Fiddlers Hall of Fame

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  Charlie BowmanCharlie Bowman
1889 -1962 - East Tennessee


CHARLIE BOWMAN
EAST TENNESSEE OLD-TIME FIDDLER —
A BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH
by family members Bob Cox & Dr. James Bowman

He was known as “the champion fiddler of East Tennessee”. Some people called him “Fiddlin’ Charlie Bowman” while others called him “Tenn-O-See Charlie”. Still others called him “Fox Hunt Charlie”. As family members, we knew him simply as “Uncle Charlie”. He was a natural born old-time fiddler possibly because his father, Samuel Bowman, and his grandfather, Jim Bowman, were both old-time fiddlers.

Charles Thomas Bowman was born on July 30, 1889 on a small farm in Gray Station, Tennessee (located about ten miles west of Johnson City, Tennessee). Music was a big part of his early life as it was always being played in his home by family members, friends, and neighbors. Charlie first learned to play a homemade banjo when he was twelve years old. Not long after, he began to “saw on the old fiddle”, as he often referred to it. He borrowed a fiddle from a friend and learned a few tunes. It was not long until he knew that the fiddle was the instrument for him so he purchased his own fiddle for $4.50, which he later said was the best fiddle he ever owned.

The Samuel and Nancy Bowman family consisted of five sons and four daughters. Each of Charlie’s brothers chose a different instrument as they grew up. Within a few years, the Bowman Brothers band was literally birthed into existence. The group consisted of Charlie (fiddle, guitar, banjo), Walter (fiddle, guitar, banjo), Elbert (banjo, guitar), and Argil (guitar, banjo). The oldest of the five brothers, Alfred, did not play an instrument. Charlie’s four sisters (Jennie, Nora, Mary, and Ethel) could also play music, but none of them ever performed publicly with him. His youngest sister, Ethel, had a unique style of guitar picking. The brothers became very versatile over time such that they could literally play each other’s instruments.

Charlie made his first recording about 1908. He had taken some corn over to one of his neighbor’s corn mill. The neighbor showed Charlie his new Edison cylinder phonograph that recorded as well as played. Knowing that Charlie was a fiddler, the neighbor asked him if he wanted to make a recording. Charlie went home and returned with his fiddle. The neighbor recorded Charlie playing “Turkey in the Straw”.

While the Bowman Brothers were not well known outside of Gray Station before 1920, that began to change as they routinely performed at local theaters, schoolhouses, square dances, ice cream suppers, and political rallies. It was fashionable in those days to have a musical show when the school year ended. Sometimes each brother was paid seventy-five cents for making an appearance, but as often as not, they just got whatever came in from “passing the hat”. Times were so lean they were lucky to get their hat back. Charlie recalled how they would walk long distances through bad weather and mud to get to their performances. Since they did not have cases for their instruments, they wrapped them in newspapers to protect them from the weather. There was no radio in those days to advertise their appearances so they had to rely on the local Jonesboro, Tennessee newspaper. However, since the newspaper was published only once a week, their concerts would often be over before some people read about them. In addition to their being good musicians, the boys were good vocalists and sometimes entertained as a barber shop quartet.

In the early 1920’s, a fiddlers’ contest was held in Johnson City and sponsored by the United Commercial Travelers. Local businessman, Bert Pouder, had heard about Charlie’s fiddling and wanted him to participate in the contest. He located Charlie working in nearby Kingsport, Tennessee. Mr. Pouder offered him five dollars of his own money if he would participate in the contest. Charlie took the money and bought a new pair of shoes from a store on Johnson City’s Main Street. While walking down the street, he saw several signs advertising the contest featuring Georgia’s state champion fiddler, Clayton McMitchen. Charlie doubted that he was good enough to be in the contest, but decided to give it a try. It paid off as he won second place and was awarded $25 prize money. Getting paid $30 for fiddling in a contest inspired Charlie to enter more contests.

Over the next several months, Charlie began to travel to fiddlers’ contests both locally and in nearby states. He kept a log which showed that he entered such events in Tennessee (Bluff City, Bristol, Boones Creek, Erwin, Embreville, Johnson City, Jonesboro, Kingsport, Limestone, Mountain City, Washington College, Knoxville, Lamar), in Georgia (Atlanta, Rome), in North Carolina (Boone, Bakersville, Wilkesboro), in Virginia (Dante), and in Washington D.C. Amazingly, Charlie won 28 of the 32 contests he entered.

Some people complained about Charlie winning so many contests. When the next contest was held, the judges were placed where they could hear the contestants but not see them. Charlie still won. These contests became a way for him to make some money, and at the same time, display his fiddling talents to the public. “Fox Hunt Charlie” was starting to make his presence known.

By about 1923, Charlie Bowman and His Brothers were becoming well known all over East Tennessee. Politicians began to use the Bowman Brothers to draw crowds for political speeches. The Honorable Tennessee Congressman B. Carroll Reece particularly liked Charlie Bowman and His Brothers and used them on numerous occasions. This began a lifelong friendship with the congressman. Charlie even wrote a song for him called the “Reece Rag”. When Mr. Reece died in 1961, the Jonesboro newspaper, Herald and Tribune, mentioned Charlie & His Brothers in an article titled “Reece Death Recalls Bowman String Band”.
In 1923, a Mr. Hess from New York approached Charlie in Gray Station and offered him a recording contract with the Victor Talking Machine Company. Charlie said he turned the offer down which was one of the biggest mistakes of his life. Instead, the record company went to Morristown and signed a contact with Uncle Am Stuart. Charlie had toured some with Uncle Am, and the boys liked to play practical jokes on the always-serious Uncle Am (like putting a stuffed rattlesnake in his bed). While Charlie missed an opportunity with Victor Records, more opportunities would come later.

Charlie first met Al Hopkins at Johnson City’s second fiddlers’ contest. Al was the leader of his own band called the Hill Billies (also known as the Buckle Busters). The band members consisted of Al Hopkins (piano), John Hopkins (ukulele), Joe Hopkins (guitar), John Rector (banjo), and Tony Alderman (fiddle). The Hill Billies had been discovered by Ralph Peer a year earlier and had made some records for Okeh (a forerunner of Columbia). When Ralph Peer asked Al Hopkins the name of his band, Al responded “We ain’t nothing but a bunch of hillbillies from North Carolina and Virginia. You can just call us anything.” Mr. Peer appropriately named them the “Hill Billies”. Al offered Charlie a job traveling with his band, but Charlie did not accept the offer at this time.

Charlie met Al Hopkins again on May 8, 1925 at the Mountain City, Tennessee fiddlers’ convention. Fiddle contests had become very popular by then. The crowd was so large at the local high school auditorium that the nearby courthouse and grade school auditoriums had to be opened just to accommodate all the people. Prize money included a $20 gold piece for first place and $40 to be shared with the other winners. Dudley Vance of Bluff City won first prize. Charlie won second prize with the song “Sally Ann”. Uncle Am Stuart of Morristown won third place. It was during this convention that Al Hopkins approached Charlie again about joining his band. This time Charlie agreed to join the Hill Billies and go on the road with them. The “marriage” between Charlie and the Hill Billies went smooth because, according to a 1926 Radio Digest “They all talked the same language, played the same tunes, and no rehearsals were needed to break in the new trouper.”

Shortly after Charlie joined the Hill Billies, they went to New York City and recorded some more records for the jointly owned Brunswick and Vocalion Records. They used the name the Hill Billies when they recorded for Vocalion, and the name Al Hopkins and the Buckle Busters when they recorded for Brunswick.

In 1926, the Hill Billies moved to Washington DC and began broadcasting on Saturday nights over radio station WRC. A March 6, 1926 Radio Digest article titled “Hill Billies Capture WRC”. A subtitle said “Boys from Blue Ridge Mountains Take Washington with Guitars, Fiddles, and Banjos; Open New Line of American Airs”. Response to the broadcast was amazing with letters, postcards, and phone calls pouring in to the station from a wide area. Being in such great demand, it was not unusual for each performer to make $25 - $30 a night. This was in the days when $8 a week was a good salary.

Charlie was impressed that hillbilly music was so well received by so many people. This resulted in more records being made for Vocalion and Brunswick. Charlie called on his younger brother, Elbert, to join them and play banjo on one of their New York sessions. The band took an assortment of records to their performances, selling them for seventy-five cents apiece.

It was about this same time that Charlie wrote a fiddle instrumental called “East Tennessee Blues” for Brunswick Records. Charlie is also credited for putting together the words of the songs “Nine Pound Hammer” and the companion song “Roll on Buddy” from a tune he had heard from some railroad workers. Charlie also wrote the words to “Moonshiner and His Money”, a comedy routine consisting of two fiddle tunes “Money in Both Pockets” and “Boys, My Money’s All Gone”. Charlie also composed a song about a famous CC&O Railroad engineer named “Fogless Bill”. Charlie imitated some dogs on his fiddle on a song involving a fox chase on Buffalo Mountain lead by Tennessee’s Governor Alf Taylor. Over the years, Charlie wrote twenty-five additional songs, which he kept in a notebook. In addition to the songs he recorded with his brothers, Charlie fiddled or played banjo on fifty-one songs recorded by the group.

Times got even better for the Hill Billies. The White House called. They were asked to perform at a White House social before President Calvin Coolidge. In 1928, Warner Brothers asked them to make a fifteen- minute Vitaphone “short” for the Al Jolson movie “The Singing Fool”. It was appropriately called “The Hill Billies”. This was the first all-talkie movie to be made by Hollywood. Each time the band went to New York City to record for Vocalion and Brunswick, the Broadway Theatre booked them for performances. A favorite of the audience was when Charlie and Tony Alderman stood one behind the other and bowed each other’s fiddle yet fingered his own fiddle.

In the fall of 1928, Charlie’s association with the Hill Billies ended and he returned to his home in Gray Station. Charlie found out that the Columbia Record Company had set up a recording studio in nearby Johnson City. On October 16, 1928, he, his three brothers, and his two teenage daughters, Jennie and Pauline, went to Johnson City for an audition. Charlie called on his brothers for studio musicians. The Columbia Record people were so impressed with Charlie’s two daughters that they recorded two songs “My Old Kentucky Home” and “Swanee River”. This is reported to be the first sister act to ever record in country music. Columbia Records also recorded several selections by Charlie and his brothers. In 1929, Columbia Records invited Charlie and his daughters to New York City to record two more songs “Railroad Take Me Back” and “Old Lonesome Blues”. Jennie and Pauline Bowman were now making their contribution to the music world.

After leaving the Hill Billies, it didn’t take Charlie long to get back into performing. H. M. Barnes approached him in Gray Station about joining his band, the Blue Ridge Ramblers, consisting of twelve entertainers. His two daughters, Jennie and Pauline, also joined the group. During the next six years, they traveled extensively all over the northeast playing the Loew’s Theatre Circuit. Before their tour ended, they had appeared in every New England state. Jennie Bowman kept a very detailed diary of all the cities and theatres where they performed.

In 1935, Charlie left the Blue Ridge Ramblers and began forming his own bands. He liked to combine his natural fiddling talents with his natural comedic talents. He could comfortably ad lib on stage in his hillbilly costume in front of a large audience. He wrote numerous clean hillbilly comedy skits on small pieces of paper and used them during his acts. Charlie could play fifteen standard and some not-so-standard instruments such as brooms, saws, washtubs, and thick balloons to the delight of his fans. Charlie’s music has been described as “real corn on the cob, shuck your own” fiddle music. A 1926 Washington Times newspaper article said “He can pull music out of anything from a one-string banjo to an underfeed furnace”. A 1926 Radio Digest article says, “Charlie plays any ding-busted stringed instrument that is or can be… He does mean things with a banjo, a guitar is more easy meal to his grist, while the fiddle — he actually makes a fiddle sit up and bark… imitates two houn’ dogs chasing a red fox through the Tennessee hills… fiddles his way through a barnyard selection, introducing the cacklings of the foul from gobbler to bantam hen.” A 1926 letter from the Ohio State Journal said “This fiddler has a lot of “stuff” that could be used by some of our present day violinists in high class dance bands.” Imagine a high-class dance band violinist fiddlin’ in a barnyard.

In 1935, Charlie began broadcasting over radio station WHAS in Louisville, Kentucky with his own group the Blue Ridge Music Makers. That same year, his group moved to radio station WSB in Atlanta, Georgia. Charlie next joined Dwight Butcher’s WAGA (Atlanta) Radio Gang. He worked with the Blue Sky Boys (Earl & Bill Bolick) in 1936 and 1937. By 1940, Charlie was playing with the Rice Brothers (Hoke & Paul) & Their Gang on KWKH in Shreveport, Louisiana. He began traveling again, this time into the western states of Alabama, Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and California, forming several different bands as he traveled, including the Southern Mountaineers, the Buckle Busters (the name of his old group), and the Blue Ridge Entertainers. All total, Charlie performed in twenty states over his performing career. By 1957 at the age of 68, time was creeping up on “Tenn-O-See Charlie”. He knew it was time to give his fiddle and bow a rest.

When Charlie was asked “What makes a good fiddler?”, his answer was “Time and practice. To get started off on the right foot. To learn your tunes correctly. If you like the way a fiddler sounds, try to copy him. Use all the bow when you fiddle not just a portion of it. This gives smoothness and clarity.” Charlie Wolfe in his book, The Devil’s Box, quotes musician and fiddle maker, Ernie Hodges, as saying that Charlie “used a fairly good amount of bow, he fingered well, he had a good sense of harmony, he could back-up fiddle, he could do most anything.” Charlie credits an old-time fiddler from South Carolina by the name of John Mitchell with influencing his style of fiddling.

Over the years, Charlie was associated with an impressive list of old-time musicians such as Clayton McMitchen, Riley Puckett, Fiddlin’ John Carson, Uncle Am Stuart, Dudley Vance, James Cowan Powers, the Harris Brothers, the Roe Brothers, “Dad” Williams, Carson Robinson, Uncle Dave Macon, Bill Monroe (before he switched to Bluegrass), Roy Acuff, Kirk & Sam McGee, the Delmore Brothers, Charlie Poole, and the versatile Vernon Dalhart.

Although Charlie stopped performing in 1957 and was later confined to a wheel chair, he remained active in old-time music. He enjoyed a brief revival in 1960 when a Jim Walsh of Disc Collector Magazine interviewed him and wrote an article where he encouraged people to write to Charlie. This brought lots of mail to his home. Old-time musicians and historians began visiting him at his Union City, Georgia home. Dorsey Dixon, Mike Seeger, Ed Kahn, and Archie Greene recorded interviews with him. Charlie corresponded for a while with some of the people with whom he had worked including his old fiddle partner, Tony Alderman. Charlie also began taping jam sessions in his living room on his reel-to-reel tape recorder.

During the late 1950’s, “Uncle Charlie” was quoted as saying “I think it is a shame the way our music has changed these past few years… I still love what we now call hillbilly or old-time music. I think it will eventually come back. I hope so.” Right to the very end, Charlie never gave up his love for old-time music.

Charlie died in the early Sunday morning hours of May 20, 1962 at the age of 72. His song “East Tennessee Blues” took on a special new meaning on that sad Sunday morning. His grave marker has these simple words… “Charles T. Bowman, “Fiddlin’ Charlie”, Born Washington Co. Tenn, 1889 -1962”. The man who made a major contribution to old-time music was now at rest… but… the old-time music he was a part of and loved so much has indeed resurfaced… to new generations of lovers of old-time music.

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DISCOGRAPHY

Many of Bowman's early recordings were reissued on LPs in the 1970s, but unfortunately, they're all out of print. "A Moonshiner and His Money" by Charlie Bowman and His Brothers is available on the Roots N' Blues Anthology Box Set. Charlie also recorded extensively with the Hill Billies and Buckle Busters, and many of those tracks are available on the Document label.

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