Johnson County and surrounding counties have been known for years for Bluegrass and Traditional Music. The musicians who were born, raised and lived/live in Johnson County are numerous and many are legends. While I've always loved country music, I'm just learning about Johnson County's contribution to the traditional music of our country. So please bear with me.
Two people I must thank for their encouragement and research in this project are TOM GENTRY and JOE WILSON. Tom, of course, is the Johnson County Historian and Joe is the Executive Director of theNational Council for Traditional Arts in Washington, DC. Joe was born and raised in Trade, TN. Among other things, Joe is the founder of the annual Lowell Folk Festival in Lowell, Massachusetts. The Festival is held every year the last weekend in July.
The best musicians in the area around Mountain City were invited. It was an area rich in music and the old timers who were there invaribly recall this convention as the best ever. Some of the performers were: Eva Ashley, daughter of Clarence "Tom" Ashley, danced at the convention. B.K. "Bertie" Jenkins, born in Sullivan County, Tennessee, lived at Blowing Rock, North Carolina and later headed the first country band to give a concert over WRVA, Richmond. Walt Bacon, born at Fall Branch, Tennessee, played with the Bowman Brothers.
Charlie Bowman, born at Gray Station, Washington County, Tennessee, met the Hopkins brothers and Tony Alderman at this convention and they were so impressed that they persuaded him to join The Hill Billies. Much of the subsequent reputation of this band is based upon Charlie's fiddling and he toured widely with the group. Charlie and his brothers, Argil, J.W. and Elbert were carpenters, painters and farmers but music came first in their lives. The brothers formed a vocal quartet, all played guitar and banjo and J.W. also played fiddle. Charlie's excellent "moonshiner and His Money" was recorded in 1929, J.W. played three-finger banjo. Charlie's daughters Jennie and Pauline also recorded.
Fiddlin' John Carson was the first rural musician to heard regularly on radio and his broadcasts over Atlanta's powerful WSB had made him known in the area. He was either the first or second rural white musician to have a successful recording released and if country music has a "father", John Carson has first claim to the title. Mr. Alderman helped organize the Hill Billies and recalls that N.C. Parsons, one of the top salesmen for the Buster Brown Shoe Company, was instrumental in sponsoring the Mountain City Convention.
Al Hopkins headed The Hill Billies, played the piano, led comedy routines, served as business manager, etc. His group was first among the high flying bands of the '20's. They toured through the eastern United States as vaudeville performers, made a serious attempt to copyright the name "Hill Billy", sold stock in "The Original Hill Billies" during the late '20's, played for President Coolidge and made a movie short for Warner Brother (Vitaphone) in New York in 1928. They followed Al Jolson's "Singing Fool" on the Warner Brothers lot.
Clarence "Tom" Ashley lived near Mountain City and had begun his entertainment career in medicine shows a decade earlier. He recorded with Byrd Moore and Clarence Greene as "The Hotshots" and with Doc Walsh and Garley Forster as the Carolina Tarheels and with a group he called the Blue Ridge Entertainers. Roy Acuff began his musical career with Ashley in a medine show during the 1920's. In the "folk" fad era of the 1960's, Ashley's career was briefly revived with a band that included Doc Watson, Clint Howard and Fred Price.
G.B. Grayson also lived near Mountain City and was one of the most influential fiddlers of the '20's. At another convention at Mountain City in 1927 Grayson met his recording partner Henry Whitter, but he appeared more frequently with Ashley. They toured the coal fields of West Virginia together and they were heard together at this convention. Grayson was killed in an accident on August 16, 1930.
Roe Greene appeared at the convention with Bertie Jenkins. He lived at Boone, North Carolina.
Sam Dykes lived at Telford, Tennessee and died in 1936 in a traffic accident. He was a comedian and his specialty was "The Preacher and the Bear" which he is said to have recorded at Bristol's WOPI studios, but again, the name of the group is not known. Dykes played both banjo and fiddle. "Fiddlin' Dud" Vance (Dudey Vance) was another recording pioneer then known over a wide area of the Southeast. He was winner of championship contests in Tennessee, Florida and Oklahoma. He operated a country music park and resort in East Tennessee.
Most of these musicians came to Mountain City to compete for $40 in prize money with the first place winner takiing a $20 gold piece. Three of the winners and their tunes are remembered: G.B. Grayson with "Cumberland Gap", "Fiddlin' Dud" Vance with "Twinkle Little Star" and Charlie Bowman with "Sally Ann".
The positive response to rural artists had surprised executives of the radio and recording industry and at Mountain City a third surprise was in store: these musicians learned that people who knew them only from their recordings and broadcasts were willing to lay down good money to see them in person.
This convention may have inspired other musicians to try their hand at recording and radio. Tony Alderman erected a small portable radio station at Mountain City and gave the first demonstration of radio transmitting that had been seen there. He recalls that G.B. Grayson lingered by the microphone longer than anyone else while Grayson's neighbors listened at the receiver a short distance away. Grayson was deeply interested in recording and Tony recalls being delighted to hear, two years later, that Grayson was recording. Within the same two years, Charlie Bowman, Fiddlin' Dud Vance and "Tom" Ashley found their way to recording studios.
Our many thanks to Joe Wilson for his research and contribution to this article."
Clint grew up on a small farm in Johnson County in the Shouns community more known as The Third District. Learning from his father at an early age, Clint learned to work oxen as well as horses in taking care of their crops.
For entertainment in those days, Clint's mother taught him to sing. She would sing a ballad or a hymn to give Clint the pitch of the part he was to sing and then she would join to sing a harmony part with him. Most of these songs her family had taught her when she was a child. This was the beginning of Clint's music career. After teaching himself to play the guitar before he was a teenager, he spent many hours singing and picking.
After marrying Betty Jane Snyder from Ashe County, NC, the daughter of Rayburn Clarence and Ethel Snyder in 1950 and having three children in the following 10 years, as well as being a dedicated father to Patsy Sue, William Clarence and Ray Clinton, he worked as a welder, farmed well over 100 acres and began to play what he likes to call Mountain Music professionaly. He teamed up with Clarence Ashley, Dock Watson and Fred Price and they performed at numerous festivals all over the United States, including The University of California, Newport Folk Festival and Carnegie Hall.
During these years Clarence was following in his father's footsteps in learning to play the guitar and singing the ballads that were being passed from generation to generation. While most teenagers were going for rock music, Clarence was joining his dad to make up a band called Clint Howard, Fred Price & Sons and became well known as a great Mountain Music band. They had show dates at the Smithsonian, Washington, DC, the 1982 World's Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee, the National Folk Festival Wolf Trap Farm Park in Vienna, Virginia. They traveled with a tour that had performances in 14 different cities sponsored by The Gabier Folklore Society. These are but a few of the performances mentioned. They were filmed by ABC Network and shown on national TV 20/20 as well as playing for local TV and radio shows. They were featured in Life Magazine and Mountain Music Home Coming with nothing but honorable mentions.
Clint, now in the 1980s having reared a family and having 6 grandchildren, still farms and has a new band called Clint Howard and Band. The band features Clarence Howard, Dan Isaacs and Doug Warder. They play in churches and are booked for different occasions well in advance.
Clint will tell you that his family he loves, his farm he works and his music he enjoys. He has recorded for record labels Folkway, Vanguard, Rounder and his latest album "Lookin Off Down The Road" has just been released by Old Homestead Record Label. The album contains some old favorites as well as two tunes that were written by Clint himself.
Those that know Clint will tell you that he is a busy man, but is also known as a good neighbor in his community, a strong Republican and has served for two terms on The County Commission and is a member of The Walnut Grove Church where he is a believer in the Baptist faith."
Fred was born in 1915 in Johnson County high in the mountains. Alfred and Neelie Wilson Price were his parents. He had two brothers and two sisters. By the time Fred was walking he began to love music. His mother played the banjo and sang to him.
When Fred was ten, his father brought home an old fiddle and wanted Fred to learn to play it. He says this marked the beginning of his career. Fred knew it was the fiddle for him. It became his pride and joy, going wherever he went. On Sunday Fred and his father walked across the mountain to play for his sisters.
When Fred went into service he bought another fiddle since his old one couldn't go along. He kept his buddies entertained as well as himself. Many lonely hours were spent learning new tunes and wishing he was back in the mountains. Fred served in World War II.
By the time his army hitch was over, Fred was ready to play all the local events such as pie suppers, radio stations and square dances. Fred met his present wife, Matrtie Howard Price, at a pie suppper. He always managed to bid highest on her pies. They married in 1948. Her family loved music also. Her uncle Calt Smith played the banjo with G.B. Grayson. Fred and Mattie lived with his parents and cared for them until they died.
Fred and Mattie raised two children. Their son, Kenny Price, is well known throughout for his left handed banjo picking. Their daughter, Lois Price Dunn, plays guitar and sings.
In the early sixties, Fred began to travel with his fiddle. Tom Ashley became a close associate along with Clint Howard and Doc Watson. They traveled as a team from the east coast to the west. Some of their show dates were Carnegie Hall, Greenwich Village, Dallas, Los Angeles, Monteray, California and Seattle, Washington. They played many universities along the way also. Several records were produced under Vanguard and Folkway record companies.
Fred's old time and bluegrass fiddling is known world wide. 20/20, Life Magazine, London Times and many other magazines and talk shows have featured Fred and his fiddle. He's recognized as one of the smoothest fiddlers in the business.
In 1979, Fred, Clint and other old musicians toured the eastern U.S. playing in high schools, colleges and many other events. Also the 1982 World's Fair featured Fred, Clint and their sons for a week.
Fred drove the school bus 21 years for Johnson County and did some farming. He still always finds time for his favorite past time--the fiddle. At night it is such a pleasure to hear Fred fiddling out those lovely tunes in the living room by the fire. Through the years "Orange Blossom Special" has become his favorite tune.
Fred is 68 and has slowed down a lot on traveling, other than a few weekends he and his son do a show together. Most every Sunday is spent in his home with his family, picking and singing and enjoying life high in the mountains.
Clarence Ashley The Official Website or Tom Ashley
Doc Watson's Home Page
Performer Index - Folk Music on Recordings
National Heritage Awards
© 1999 Mary Floy Katzman: links updated 19 January 2006