Saturday, August 20, 2011

Remembering Sam McGee

I wanted to take a moment and remember one of the long lost members of the Grand Ole Opry, Sam McGee, who passed away on August 21, 1975. Together with his brother Kirk, they performed on the Opry as either Sam & Kirk McGee, or as the McGee Brothers. Sam was born in Williamson County, Tennessee on May 1, 1894, while Kirk was born in the same location on November 4, 1899. The following is from "The Encyclopedia of Country Music" and was written by the late Charles Wolfe, who wrote some very fine books on the early history of the Opry and country music.

"Though folk music fans remember them primarily as the accompanists for Uncle Dave Macon, Sam and Kirk McGee had a career that extended from the very earliest days of the Grand Ole Opry to the show's movement from the Ryman Auditorium in 1974. In fact, it was one of their acoustic guitar duets that so impressed visiting journalist Garrison Keillor in 1974 that he was moved to start his radio show 'A Praire Home Companion'.

The music of the McGees was much more electric than that of early Opry denizens. Sam learned guitar tunings and slide techniques from black railroad workers near his family home: Kirk adapted the blues records of Papa Charley Jackson and others to the stringband style, and sported a singing style derived partly from his tenure at old-time singing schools; both liked old-time jazz and Sam adopted ragtime piano rolls to the guitar.

It was Sam who first tested the waters, playing guitar and banjo for the famed Uncle Dave Macon. While with Macon at a 1926 recording session, Sam made several guitar solos, including his famous 'Buck Dancer's Choice,' and 'Franklin Blues.' The discs were the first serious country guitar solos, initiating a tradition that would extend from Riley Puckett to Chet Atkins. In the early 1930s the brothers joined forces with Dickson County fiddler Arthur Smith to form the Dixielines, by most accounts the hottest string band the Opry ever had. Unfortunately, the band never recorded in its prime (the Bluebird records under the same name featured Smith and the Delmore Brothers).

As other of the classic Opry bands broke up, Sam and Kirk kept at it until the late 1950s, when they were discovered by folk revival fans. The McGees made a comeback of sorts, recording albums for Folkways and Starday and appearing at a number of festivals. Sam recorded several solo albums for Arhoolie and for MBA, a company he partly owned. In their later years, both Kirk and Sam hosted a procession of young instrumentalists anxious to learn from the masters.

Sam was killed in a farming accident in 1975; Kirk died in 1983."

In the WSM Grand Ole Opry History-Picture Book, 1972, Volume 5, Edition 1, Sam and Kirk actually wrote about themselves. Here is what Sam wrote:

"I was born Sam Fleming McGee in 1894, the ninth of ten children of John and Mary Elizabeth Truett McGee, in the Peytonsville Community of Williamson County, Tennessee. When I was about twelve years old I had been watching for sometime the colored folks play guitar with one finger and thumb. I figured if two fingers could pick that well, I would add another, so I began my own style finger pickin.

In 1914 I married Elizabeth Pate and at the time was in the blacksmith business. I had heard Uncle Dave Macon play and admired him very much. A few years later he came to put on a program at the local auditorium and we went to hear it. I enjoyed it so much I asked Uncle Dave to spend the night in our home. He saw my Martin Guitar in the corner of the room and asked if I played. I told him 'a little' and I'll never forget that I played the 'Missouri Waltz'. Uncle Dave asked me to join him for some personal appearances.

In 1925, three weeks after the beginning of the Grand Ole Opry, Kirk and I joined them. I am the oldest living still playing on the Grand Ole Opry in service and age and unless I'm out of town, making a personal appearance, I'm going to be there for our 11:00 p.m. show with my brother Kirk.

I have a recent album called 'Flat Top Pickin Sam McGee'. My first recording label was Vocalion and I've recorded for about six others. Presently I am recording for M.B.A. Records.

I like music.......any kind of long as its played well. Sometimes when I am in the company of young folks I pick along with whatever type of music they like, gospel, rock, fast or slow.

I'm 78 years young and can still work on my farm. I was plowing my tobacco just before writing this story. I know I can't last forever but as long as I'm able and needed I'll continue to play. And Opryland U.S.A. is a mighty big step from the little Saturday Night Show we did 47 years ago."

I just thought on the anniversary of his death, I would look back at Sam McGee, and at a time when the Opry was simpler and the music more down to earth than it is today. Except for an occasional moment here or there, the music that was played by Sam and Kirk McGee, along with the likes of Dave Macon and the other string bands, is missing from the Opry today. The Opry has come a long way from its roots. While I do enjoy a lot of the music that is played on the Opry today, once in a while I wish the Opry would look back and remember it's past and how it all started.


  1. Fred in Bismarck here:

    Thank you, Byron -- and amen to your closing sentiments. I grew to appreciate Sam & Kirk and their kind of music more and more with the passing years. There's never been much product out on them, but I'm lucky enough to have caught up with two pretty good CDs made late in their careers to go along with my wonderful old Starday LP featuring them and the Crook Brothers. (I trust Gusto will reissue that on CD one of these days.)

    Another good one referred to by you is that chronicler of the early Opry (Good-Natured Riot) and about everything else country, Charles Wolfe. We're going to miss that man and his prolific pen!

    Happy Saturday night! About time for me to head downstairs and start dusting off the hits.

  2. Amen all around. On You Tube, there are several clips, including Sam doing "Victory Rag" and Sam and Kirk with the Fruit Jar Drinkers on the 1950s television shows. Great, important entertainers in the history of country music.

    I understand the need to have the big stars, etc., etc. But Mike Snider shows that old-fashioned string band music and comedy are welcome to Opry audiences. Management should take a hint from that.

  3. Thanks for the You Tube tip, Michael. I will get on that today. -- Fred