Dear Doc Knox,
I am searching for information on a local musician and relative, “Blind” George Reneau. I know that he performed around Knoxville, and recorded some 78 rpm records. (My dad has one of the records). I can’t find much info about him, so anything you have would be appreciated.
My Dear Mr. Reneau:
We are honored to consider your question, and welcome this chance to discuss one of country music’s not-quite-forgotten forebears.
Before Nashville had its first recording studio, before Roy Acuff learned to play fiddle, before the landmark Bristol recordings, there was George Reneau, of Knoxville, Tenn. He was making records, and selling them, as one of America’s first professional country musicians.
It wasn’t a very dependable way to make a living, which is why many of the people who were attracted to making a profession of folk, blues, or country music were people whose career choices were limited anyway, because they were disabled. As was the case with Piedmont blues during the same era, several of country music’s first recording artists were blind musicians who were accustomed to performing on the sidewalk beside a tin cup.
Our knowledge of Reneau’s life is a little foggy, as is the case with many pioneers of folk, blues, and country music, but he seems to have been born in 1901 in Jefferson County. He first arrived in Knoxville as a very young man, maybe still a teenager, soon after World War I. By some accounts he worked the streets, playing music for the nickels of kind strangers. He lived downtown, in cheap boarding houses, sometimes off alleys. Probably around 1923, an influential passerby named Gus Nennsteil heard Reneau play. Nennsteil worked for Sterchi Brothers Furniture. Headquartered on Gay Street, and with 60 stores around the South, Sterchi’s claimed to be the biggest furniture company in the world.
You might not expect a furniture dealer would have strong connections to the recording industry, but it was a different time. In 1923, Sterchi was looking to expand the market for one of its newer products, the phonograph machine. Rich people had been buying phonographs for more than 20 years, and they tended to go for opera, classical, sometimes religious or patriotic music. Radio was brand new, and crooners of popular vaudeville songs had been catching on, too. But as for working-class music, folk music, country music, no one had ever recorded it much. Sterchi’s might have been the South’s biggest purveyor of phonographs, and its executives were convinced they saw a major untapped market for them, especially as less-expensive models were coming out. To reach a working-class market, Sterchi believed, it might be useful to provide them some good working-class music. And in hearing Reneau’s guitar and harmonica playing, and his plaintive lyrics, Nennsteil thought he’d found the very thing.
Sterchi’s had already enlisted a few other musicians to send to the closest professional music-recording studios, which were in New York. Reneau took that trip in the spring of 1924. They weren’t sure about his rough voice, at first, and got a pop crooner to sing Reneau’s songs over Reneau’s guitar accompaniment. Gene Austin, who’s much more associated with early jazz—“Bye Bye Blackbird” and “My Blue Heaven”—sang the vocals on some of Reneau’s first recordings. But soon they decided a rough voice was sometimes perfect, especially for this new musical genre. Reneau eventually cut about 70 songs in the New York studios. Among them are some minor classics: “Here, Rattler, Here,” “Rovin’ Gambler,” “Wild Bill Jones,” “Wild and Reckless Hobo.”
We see a recurrent theme in his choice of material. He seemed to be drawn to the subject of wildness, and roving. But at that time, he lived in a boarding house called Maggie Guinn’s on Wall Avenue near Market Square.
Reneau was sometimes associated with another blind guitarist and harmonica player, Charlie Oaks, who was probably a generation older than Reneau, and had been at it since about 1900, but the two both made their first recordings in New York at the same time.
Note that this is a few years before the landmark field recordings in Bristol in 1927. Those recordings of Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family were important, certainly, probably the most influential country-music recordings of their era, and long before Nashville was involved in country-music recording.
But country music thrived earlier, even as a recording-industry phenomenon. Reneau took the train to New York to make his recordings. If the first recordings of country are what matters most, New York City is the Birthplace of Country Music.
By 1926, Reneau was one of the very few who had the temerity to list himself as a professional “musician” in Knoxville city directories. But despite all the trips to New York, he never got rich. Married to a woman named Elsie, he lived in an alley between Central and State Streets called St. Charles, near the First Presbyterian graveyard.
Interest in Reneau’s music peaked around that time; he’d caught the first wave of country-music mania, but then it was over. By the time of the Bristol sessions, Reneau was already a country-music has-been. When his old label, Vocalion, came to Knoxville in 1929 to record what have become known as the St. James sessions, Reneau wasn’t part of the party.
By the time the Great Depression had hit, he had returned to the Knoxville streets. According to the story, George Reneau been playing guitar outside in the cold in December, 1933, when he came down with pneumonia and died. He was then 31 years old.
Reneau is remembered by academics as one of the very first professional country musicians. The late country-music historian Charles K. Wolfe said as much in his recommended book about the history of country music in this state, Tennessee Strings.
For a long time, it was hard to find George Reneau’s music. A 1998 CD compilation called My Rough and Rowdy Ways included his ballad about Jesse James. But thanks to YouTube, several George Reneau songs, recorded in the mid-1920s, are available to listen to. “The Lonesome Road” was a tune later better known as “Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad,” with its chorus, “I ain’t gonna be treated this-a-way.” An early country classic, it was later recorded by Woody Guthrie, Bill Monroe, and many others, but Reneau’s record was one of the first. His recording, “The Baggage Coach Ahead,” also on YouTube, is one of the saddest songs ever recorded.
Naturally, we’d be interested to hear more about what you know about your relative, this seminal and too-often overlooked figure in the history of country music.
Yr. Obt. Svt.
Z. Heraclitus Knox
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