The Fiddler of the Century

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Playing at a street fair.
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A fiddler performing at an open-air concert.
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Taking a closer look at a fiddler at work.

LeMars, Iowa – “Clayton McMichen was one of those old-time fiddlers that pushed the envelope in just about everything he did.  He was years before his time, and he expanded interest and admiration for fiddle music more than just about any other fiddler in America,” says Bob Everhart, president of the National Traditional Country Music Association. 

McMichen will be honored as “Fiddler of the Century” at the annual meeting of the association during the 34th National Old-Time Music Festival August 31-September 6 in LeMars, Iowa.  Attending the event will be McMichen’s daughter, Juanita, to accept the honor. 

The festival was created as an American Bicentennial event to foster interest and admiration for America’s ‘rural’ musical art forms, specifically in the upper Midwest.

A plaque in McMichen’s honor will be placed in the America’s Old Time Fiddlers Hall of Fame at the Pioneer Music Museum in Anita, Iowa.  “There are more than 100 fiddles and nearly 200 fiddlers in this particular Hall of Fame,” Everhart says, “and we are quite proud and happy to announce Clayton McMichen as the ‘Fiddler of the Century.’  We also have a fiddle contest at our festival; all are encouraged to participate at whatever level they feel comfortable.

“What’s also interesting about this event is the fact that one of Clayton’s close musicians, Slim Bryant, is still alive, and at the age of 100, is contemplating attending to honor his old friend and music-making partner.  Mr. Bryant still teaches guitar, the instrument he played with McMichen.”

According to Everhart, McMichen was one of the major figures in early hillbilly and country music of the 1920s and ’30s, but his ‘direction’ was somewhat different than most musicians of that time period. 

“McMichen was way ahead of most other fiddlers.  Even though he loved what he called ‘old-fashioned swamp opera and hillbilly music’ and enjoyed playing and recording it, he was preeminent to other fiddlers because he introduced the fiddle to contemporary music of that time, and also played jazz, blues, Dixieland and country-pop music, most of which was far ahead of what was to follow in McMichen’s footsteps.  Western-swing music probably would not have developed without McMichen’s influence, and much of what we hear today, what’s left of the fiddle in country music, can be traced back directly to McMichen’s incredibly creative fiddle riffs and runs.”

McMichen was born January 26, 1900, in Allatoona, Georgia, learning music when he was just a boy.  By the time he was 11, he was already a gifted fiddler, learning most of his songs from his uncles and his father. He won nearly every fiddle-contest he ever entered, including those dominated by John Carson and Gid Tanner.  McMichen later began recording with Tanner for Columbia, helping Tanner re-organize his band, the Skillet Lickers. McMichen did all the fiddling, but wasn’t recognized for his work.  He left the Skillet Lickers to form his own band, the Georgia Wildcats.  He also began working with Jimmie Rodgers for RCA. 

“What’s important about Clayton McMichen isn’t so much whether he was in the right musical ‘style’ of the time; what’s important is what he left behind in so far as ‘music’ development is concerned,” Everhart says.  “He went from country and hillbilly music to Dixieland very easily and captured the imagination and loyalty of many fans.  He retired in 1955, but was called back to the entertainment world in 1960 for an appearance at the University of Illinois followed by other appearances.  An automobile accident and emphysema took their toll and McMichen died Janurary 4, 1970.  He was inducted into America’s Old Time Fiddler’s Hall of Fame in 1984.”

For more information about the Hall of Fame, the Pioneer Music Museum and the festival, visit the website.