Fred Kirby

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The career of Fred Kirby proves that a performer who finds the right regional basis can sustain a lengthy career and be incredibly influential without leaving town. His accomplishments are a bit like…
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The career of Fred Kirby proves that a performer who finds the right regional basis can sustain a lengthy career and be incredibly influential without leaving town. His accomplishments are a bit like an extremely slow motion version of a winning one-two punch combination. On one hand, there is the early Kirby career as a talented cowboy singer and string band player in the historic days of both the recording and broadcast industry. There are fine Kirby recordings that have been reissued from this period, with and without his Charlotte-based colleagues the Briarhoppers, a long-running string band institution that seems to have involved about a third of the old-time musicians in the state. As a songwriter, his material seems to have an appeal as indestructible as some of the subjects he wrote about, including both divine and atomic power. The latter theme was one of his favorites, resulting in not only the famous song "Atomic Power," but the ominous "When the Hellbomb Falls." His courage, or perhaps his bad taste, in singing about such subjects resulted in renewed attention to his work as the years went on. His songs showed up on the soundtracks to films such as Atomic Café and the PBS documentary Race for the Superbomb, and he even had his songs covered by modern-day punk rowdies such as Jello Biafra and Mojo Nixon, all part of an enormous catalog of recordings of his songs by other artists that are quite often credited incorrectly. One credit he did get would probably be enough to satisfy any country songwriter: not just one, but two cuts on a Little Jimmy Dickens release. By the time Biafra got around to "Atomic Power," Kirby was secure in the second phase of his career, that of an adored Charlotte television personality. Adored by who? Kids. Although his film career in the early days could hardly be said to have taken off with the gallop of his trusty horse, Calico, Kirby took to the small screen and the live audience of children like a tired cowpoke to a pot of steaming chili. For the record, his one film credit was the 1951 Kentucky Jubilee, also featuring fellow Briarhoppers member Claude Casey, but scholars should be advised the cowboy singer tends to get credit for every appearance by any actor named Fred Kirby, of which there are a few, including one with a small part in the ghastly Olivia Newton-John vehicle Xanadu. At any rate, folks who grew up during the '60s, '70s, and '80s in the Southeast, especially in the Carolinas, will no doubt have grown up on Kirby, unless they were barred from the television. He was a major fixture on Charlotte's channels WBT and WBTV, as well as a star on the WLS Barn Dance. As an older man, he spent most of his last years performing as a summer attraction for kids in the Appalachian mountains rather than even consider retiring. In 1998, UNC-TV reminded many viewers of the glory days of kiddie television with a documentary retrospective entitled Stay Tuned Boys & Girls: Kiddy TV Shows of the Past, proudly advertising a cast of "hometown heroes" such as Kirby, the Old Rebel, Joey the Clown, and Uncle Paul. The most unique aspect of these programs was the way in which youngsters could go down to the local station and be on their favorite show, which had to be an absolute thrill for any child.

As an early country performer, Kirby recorded for the best labels, including Bluebird, Columbia, Decca, MGM, and others. For many years, these 78s and 45s were the stuff record collectors butt heads and chins over, a situation rectified by the superb Cattle, which released an excellent Kirby CD. In addition, he shows up on vintage recordings by the Briarhoppers, most of them taken off original radio broadcasts. The Kirby recording repertoire included a smattering of hard-to-find cowboy songs, such as "Where the Longhorn Cattle Roam," "Night Time on the Prairie," and "Get Along Old Paint, and the superb but much less well-known answer to "Home on the Range," simply entitled "Home." His talents as a writer of country, patriotic, and gospel songs fill out the balance of his song material, including "Hang Your Head in Shame," "Heartaches and Flowers," "When That Love Bug Bites You," and "The Old Country Preacher." His country songwriting and kiddie shows seem to have truly worked hand in hand, at least in terms of knocking out influential musicians of the future. The Charlotte media payed several large tributes to Kirby following his death in 1996, but not surprisingly, the man had created his own best epitaph in a song title: "I'm Sorry, That's All I Can Say."