Dr. Humphrey Bate

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A pioneer, possibly the first old-time musician to play anything resembling country music.
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b. 25 May 1875, Sumner County, near Nashville, Tennessee, USA, d. 12 June 1936, Nashville, Tennessee, USA. Bate learned to play harmonica as a boy but followed his father’s profession when he graduated from Vanderbilt Medical School. He served in the Medical Corps during the 1898 Spanish-American War, before taking over his father’s long-established practice at Castalian Springs, near Gallatin, Tennessee. His keen interest in music, particularly light classics and the marches of Souza, saw him form his first string band in the early 1900s and by 1919 his Castalian String Band was popular in the area. When, in 1925, Nashville’s first two radio stations began broadcasts, Bate seemingly became the first old-time musician to play anything resembling country music. He played initially on WDAD and then led the first string band to play on WSM, on 25 October; George D. Hay would later name Bate’s band the Possum Hunters. Bate’s daughter, Alcyone (b. 1912, Nashville, Tennessee, USA, d. 14 October 1982, Nashville, Tennessee, USA), first sang with his band as a four-year-old and by 1926, at the age of 13, she was the regular pianist who could also play ukulele. She is reckoned to be the first woman both to appear on and sing on the Grand Ole Opry. Bate, who was fondly known as the ‘Dean of the Opry’, remained an active Grand Ole Opry artist for 11 years. He discovered Deford Bailey and it was his recommendation to WSM that led to Bailey becoming the Grand Ole Opry’s first black star. In March 1928, Bate and his band recorded for Brunswick Records in Atlanta. The session (the only one of his career) saw 10 Brunswick Records and two Vocalion Records sides released. In 1936, he suffered severe heart problems but pleaded successfully with Hay ‘to let me die in harness’ and remained on the Grand Ole Opry until the end. Being a doctor, he recognized the seriousness of his final attack, saying to his wife, ‘Ethel, this one’s going to take me away from here’, and was apparently taking his own pulse when it stopped. The Possum Hunters inevitably saw some personnel changes but usual players were Bate (harmonica), Oscar Stone (fiddle), Walter Ligget (banjo), Oscar Albright (bass), Staley Walton (guitar), Burt Hutcherson (guitar) and from 1931, Humphrey ‘Buster’ Bate Jnr. (harmonica, guitar, Jew’s harp).

After Bate’s death, Stone (b. c.1881, Obion County, Tennessee, USA, d. 1949) led the band until his own death. Alcyone Bate also had her own programme on WSM; during the 30s she sang with Jack Shook’s band, led a vocal group, the Dixie Dons, worked as a staff composer and arranger for WSM and even made a few solo recordings, of which a version of ‘Silver Threads Among The Gold’ is highly rated. After Stone’s death, she and Walton kept the Possum Hunters going into the 50s but eventually the band folded and for a time, they played with the Crook Brothers. After Walton’s death, Alcyone Bate Beasley retired after a career lasting over 40 years. She died in Nashville’s Memorial Hospital in October 1982, following a stroke. A few of Bate’s recordings have appeared on County and Rounder Records compilation albums, being perhaps the only examples left of an early-day artist who seemingly appeared on the Grand Ole Opry before any other country act.