Uncle Jimmy Thompson

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Country fiddler in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
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Many details in the history of American country music are more like legends than facts. Uncle Jimmy Thompson, it is said in legend, was the very first musician to perform on the Grand Ole Opry, or the series of live radio broadcasts of old-time music that eventually became known under that catchy moniker. The reality is actually more interesting, providing further detail into the powerful music of a fiddler who left behind only four short recordings as a legacy. WSM radio had already presented several different old-time performers, such as Dr. Humphrey Bate & the Possum Hunters -- no possums found on the radio sound stage, thank you -- and the duo of Uncle Dave Macon and fiddler Sid Harkreader, the latter representing a possible be-all, end-all situation for old-time music. Nonetheless, it was an hour-long solo performance by Thompson that created a barrage of phone calls and such a pile of positive letters and telegrams that the radio station's honchos apparently could see no further possible objections to starting a regular old-time music show. This was despite the fact that the fiddler was only invited on to do the spot at the last minute when someone else didn't show up, a detail left out of most accounts of the event, which took place near the close of 1925. By 1927, some of the most popular of the new wave of "hillbilly" radio artists were cutting records. The ones who have survived are the first actual audible documentation of the regional musics of the period and the traditions behind them. Different styles of traditional fiddling were prevalent throughout the country and in Tennessee, Thompson was some kind of Hercules figure, having left his native state for, where else, but Texas, where he once vanquished all comers in an eight-day, non-stop marathon fiddle contest, or at least that's how the legend goes. Fiddle study fact is that Thompson's playing combines the best of both the Tennessee and Texas styles, clearly evident from not only the repertoire but the tricky turns taken in the extemporized passages on the around a dozen minutes of recorded music that he left behind.

From 1912, he was back in Tennessee from Texas, performing around his local area and earning a living from farming. As he got older and the latter occupation became too tiring, he began to put more energy into his musical talents, organizing tours to various outdoor fairs and other events and most often playing solo fiddle. For many years, he toured in conjunction with his wife, the two of them living out of the back of a truck where the ingenious fiddler had rigged up some kind of a small house. At performances, he would roll out a red rug from this primitive mobile dwelling and the missus, known as Aunt Ella, would do a buck dance along with the fiddle music. The Opry break came through his niece, Eva Thompson Jones, a Nashville music teacher who would eventually provide piano accompaniment on the fiddler's recordings. Unfortunately, the glitzy life of a country star in Nashville was not for this particular country boy, who was not a boy at all: He was 77 years old at the time of his radio debut. Of course, the nature of legend has led to variations on that age, with some reports claiming that the fiddler was 80 and even 85 when he performed on the radio for the first time. There is even disagreement over whether the performance went over as wonderfully as everyone believed, as there is a theory the listening public preferred the full-out clamor of a slightly stupefied hillbilly string band to the lone warblings of a fiddler, even one who claims to know 1,000 tunes. (This number has also expanded to 10,000 and even 100,000 in various descriptions of the stuffed larder Thompson called his repertoire of fiddle tunes.) He wandered off the Opry a bit more than a year later in 1927, despite his massive popularity with audiences. Peers in the old-time music trade such as harmonica player DeFord Bailey and the string band the Gully Jumpers took the opposite choice in their careers, staying with the show as a sort of old-time music feature for the tourists until they were finally forced out the door in the '60s. Many of these performers were much younger when they began playing on the Opry, however. Thompson's age gives his fiddle performances an even further distinction in that they are a ladle dipping deeper into the undocumented musical history of the 19th century. In a photograph of Thompson from the Nashville radio period, the elderly gent seems to look more like a wax figure than a human -- in fact, there are old-time music fans who are under the impression this is a photo of a wax figure of Thompson from the Country Music Hall of Fame. The wax would indeed melt from the heat of his wonderful fiddle recordings, such as "Karo" or "Billy Wilson." There is a historic marker and site devoted to Thompson on Tennessee state highway number 109; one has the option of having a drink of water from the fiddler's original well.