There have been many musicians whose careers have encompassed the history of country music, but Earl White may be the only one who has lived the history in reverse. Earl, who was born in Hardin County, Tennessee, on March 1, 1936, passed away earlier today.
Earl began playing the fiddle at an early age and by the time he was eightenn he was playing with Marty Robbins and Hawkshaw Hawkins. In the 1960s he took a step backwards in time when he started playing bluegrass with the Cumberland Mountain Boys. And in the 1970s he found himself at the dawn of modern country music when he joined the Crook Brothers, an old time music act that had first appeared on the Grand Ole Opry in 1926. In 2005, he celebrated the 50th anniversary of his first appearance on the Opry.
In an interview, Earl talked about being at the Opry in the 1950s:
"Yes, it was. I got to meet and play with all my favorite musicians. I became friends with Benny Martin, who, after my father, had the biggest influence on my playing. I was also inspired by Howdy Forrester and Tommy Jackson. The great thing about the Opry back then was that it was all about the music. Roy Acuff's dressing room was always full of fiddlers and pickers and he enjoyed nothing more than sitting back and listening to us play. You got a chance to learn music from people you really respected. When I stated playing there, there were still people from the early days and I got to play with Sam and Kirk McGee, the Crook Brothers, and Dr. Humphrey Bate's daughter Alcyone, people who had been there when the Opry first got started."
As mentioned, in the 1970s, Earl joined the Crook Brothers group. Due to the death and retirement of various members, by the 1980s, the Crook Brothers consisted of Lewis and Herman Crook, along with Earl White. As they had since the start of the Opry, the Crook Brothers performed individually and as back-up for the square dancers. After the passing of Herman and Lewis Crook, it was Earl White and Charlie Collins who backed the dancers, and after the death of Charlie, it was just Earl and the Opry Staff Band. Needless to say, Earl will not be replaced and any link to the Crook Brothers will be forgotten.
I did not know Earl personally. I did shake his hand a few times while at the Opry and said hello. What always struck me was how well liked and respected he was among his fellow artists. I never heard a bad word said about Earl and I never heard him say anything bad about the others. It was true respect and friendship.
While Earl was not an "official" member of the Opry, I hope on Saturday night that the Opry will take a few moments and remember Earl. Perhaps a few words will be said and the square dancers will do a special number.
As the Opry prepares to celebrate it's 89th anniversary in the coming months, another link to the Opry's past has been lost. No, he did not go back with the Opry all the way to 1926, but he played with those who did. And he tried his best to keep that sound alive on the Opry stage. With that, he succeeded.