The Story of Bluegrass Pioneer Carl Story

The Knoxville music legend's role as a bluegrass original has been overlooked for too long. A new box set aims to correct that.

On the south end of Market Square, next to a rectangular metal newspaper rack, a small, barely noticeable sign commemorates gospel music's significance in Knoxville's country music heritage. The sign features a faded photo of a middle-aged, balding man standing behind a microphone and holding a guitar. The brief text identifies him:

Carl Story and his band, The Rambling Mountaineers, are a classic reflection of the merging of country and gospel music styles. Story, known as "The Father of Bluegrass Gospel," and his legendary band performed regularly on WNOX in the 1950s.

More than 50 years after the peak of Story's career, and more than 15 years after his death, that marker is the only physical reminder that one of the great figures of early bluegrass spent much of his adult life working and living in Knoxville. The WNOX studio where he achieved his greatest fame has moved from Gay Street to West Knoxville; the location of the record shop he owned briefly in the early 1950s is now empty; the local studios where he might have made some of his earliest professional recordings remain unidentified; his greatest records haven't been available since they were originally released in the late 1940s and early '50s.

Story is a shadowy figure in Knoxville's music history, remembered vividly by those who were there to see him on WNOX's Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round but overshadowed by other artists who went on to greater national fame, like Chet Atkins, Archie Campbell, and Don Gibson. In bluegrass circles, Story has been eclipsed by Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, and the Stanley Brothers, even though he and his early bands were among the first to play the music.

But a new box set of Story's complete classic recordings aims to set the story straight, and to establish once and for all Story's importance as a bluegrass pioneer, as well as the unmatched artistry of his best recordings. The set, released by the prestigious German archival label Bear Family, includes four CDs with 132 songs and a lavish, 100-page hardback book with an essay, discography, recording notes, and dozens of rare photos.

"We started doing bluegrass many years ago," says Bear Family writer Colin Escott, a journalist and country music expert who wrote the book accompanying Carl Story and the Rambling Mountaineers: Bluegrass, Gospel, and Mountain Music 1942-1959. "We did the complete works of Bill Monroe, the complete works of Flatt and Scruggs, the complete works of Jim and Jesse, and several other artists. Carl Story was the guy kind of looming there as one of the original giants who hadn't been done."

Is this comprehensive account of Story's work overdue?

"Most definitely," says Story's widow, Helen. "He was way down the line in going into the [International] Bluegrass Hall of Fame, and he should have been among the first. Because he was absolutely among the first that started it."

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Escott's book is, to date, the definitive account of Story's life and career, from his birth in Lenoir, N.C., in 1916, until his death in 1995, and it's hard to imagine that more detail will ever be revealed. Story probably started playing guitar and fiddle before he was a teenager, inspired by early country music stars Charlie Poole, Uncle Dave Macon, Uncle Jimmy Thompson, and Riley Puckett. He started performing when he was 16, and spent the early 1930s putting together his first band. In 1938, Story gave up his job in a furniture factory to play music full-time.

His early professional career was interrupted a few years later by World War II—members of his band kept getting drafted, and Story did a short stint in 1943 with Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys before he was called up for Navy service himself. After the war, Story gradually assembled a new lineup of the Rambling Mountaineers—including bassist Claude Boone, who had played with him briefly before the war and who would remain part of the band into the 1960s—and moved the band from Asheville to Knoxville to perform on WNOX.

In those days, Story and the Rambling Mountaineers were still looking for their own sound. The band's earliest commercial recordings, from 1947, were made either in Nashville or Knoxville, or perhaps even in Morristown, for the brand-new Mercury label; the single-day session, which, surprisingly, includes electric guitar, starts with four competent but unremarkable and derivative songs. But the session also contains some of what Escott calls "the good stuff": soaring gospel country based on intricate, four-part harmonies and featuring Story's otherworldly falsetto. (According to Escott's book, Story said later that Monroe encouraged him to sing in falsetto.) By 1949, Story had stripped the lineup down to an acoustic quartet and was recording exclusively gospel songs. By the early 1950s, he and the band had refined their harmony gospel sound to a state-of-the-art precision, fast and high, both vocally and instrumentally impeccable—like the best of both Monroe's hotshot Blue Grass Boys and the eerily attuned Stanley Brothers.

"When he was on Mercury Records, he did some secular recordings with a small band, with electric guitar and so on—those were kind of anonymous," Escott says. "But when he cut those quartet records, that was stirring stuff. That was probably bluegrass gospel quartet music at its absolute finest, I would say."

As great as Story's 1950s recordings are, though, he never had a national breakthrough. His biggest recorded success in those early days was the regional hit "My Lord Keeps a Record," a 1949 single.

"Sometimes in the record business it just comes down to dumb luck," Escott says. "People downplay dumb luck, but so much hinges on that. Mercury was not really committed to the country music business until the '60s, and Carl was off the label by then. I don't think they really worked his music as hard as they could have. And it really was Southeastern music. It was music that came from the Southeast and belonged to the Southeast. It wasn't going to find a ready market in California or the Northeast. It really was Appalachian music, so I think the combination of its regionality and the weakness of Mercury in country music combined to marginalize him."

The rough-hewn, traditional nature of the Rambling Mountaineers' sound was dramatically different from the new, slicker country music that was emerging in Nashville in the late 1940s.

"It's what Don Gibson termed the ‘Knoxville sound,'" says Bradley Reeves, director of the Knoxville-based Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound, which contributed photos and other material to the Bear Family project. "It was a sound that looked backwards, towards the mountain music, while Nashville was headed in another direction. While Carl was making these 78s, Hank [Williams] was already in Nashville, modernizing the country sound. People like Ernest Tubb and Carl Smith—things were changing and going in kind of a slicker direction.

"But you listen to those Mercury 78s, and they're stuck in a time that harkens back to the old string bands. That's what's so great about it. That's what the Knoxville sound is all about. It was a whole different sound."

Helen Story, who married Story in 1959, attributes Story's overlooked legacy to something even more straightforward.

"He didn't want to be in a clique, in anybody's clique," she says. "He wanted to do his own thing. In other words, he wouldn't [join] a clique in order to get special favors. Bluegrass music was his life. He lived it, breathed it, and that was it. It was his whole life. And he did what he wanted to do, when he wanted to do it, and how he wanted to. That was always his way."

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The Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound is located underneath the East Tennessee History Center on Gay Street, in a basement full of old movies, old television tapes, old audio equipment, old cameras. Reeves and his wife, Louisa Trott, run TAMIS part-time; the other half of Reeves' work week is spent at the Knox County Public Library McClung Collection on the top floor of the same building. In both of his professional capacities, Reeves has helped amass a Carl Story collection that includes photos, papers, home movies, and some of Story's original acetate recordings.

"Four or five years before Colin Escott mentioned that Bear Family wanted to do a Carl Story box set, we'd already accumulated photographs and materials related to Carl Story," he says.

Escott approached Reeves in 2009 about the box set. Bear Family had been interested in issuing a Carl Story set since before Story died, but a tangle of copyright clearances and difficulty finding the original audio sources held the project up for more than a decade.

Reeves opened the TAMIS and McClung archives and coordinated a meeting with locals who knew and remembered Story, including his widow, who still lives in Knoxville. Their stories and photos make up a large part of Escott's book, and most of the music that is collected in the box set—some from McClung, some from Mercury, some from Columbia—has been out of print for half a century.

"Some of those pictures haven't been published or seen in decades," Reeves says. "These recordings, for the most part, other than obscure collectors of country music, haven't been heard in 50, 60, 70 years, if at all."

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He may never have had a career-defining hit single or made it to Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry, but Carl Story was a legitimate celebrity in Knoxville and the surrounding area. From his first appearance with the Rambling Mountaineers on WNOX in 1946, he was as big as country music stars got around here. He sold records and packed the WNOX auditorium for the Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round and the Saturday night Tennessee Barn Dance, in addition to regular regional touring.

"He keeps coming up in my research, and has for about 10 years," Reeves says. "The records that we find in thrift stores and junk stores and estate sales, they're more common than you'd think. He sold a lot of records in East Tennessee and Kentucky and Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina, pretty much the Appalachian region. ... The songbooks that he and the band put out over the years, people loved them, and they come into this archive. They would pitch them out on the road or at gigs—‘Send in two box tops or 25 cents and we'll send you a songbook and some photographs, information on the band.'"

As thorough as Escott's book is, though, Story remains an elusive figure.

"He was a radio man by profession, and he talked like a radio guy," Escott says. "He was very assured, and very pronounced in his opinions. He says, ‘I recorded this on this date, and here's who was on it, and on the way to this session this happened and this happened.' But when you really got into it, it wasn't quite that way at all. There wasn't a shred of doubt in his voice. ... His recollection would very often telescope two or three events into one. The more and more we dug into it, the less and less we knew, really."

Story said in one late interview that he had played in the Boston Red Sox farm league as a teenager, but Escott found no evidence to support the claim. In the same interview, he said he met future President John F. Kennedy during his Navy service, though it seems unlikely. The details of his childhood and early adulthood are, despite Escott's research, still shrouded in fog.

"He was shadowier when I finished than when I started," Escott says.

Some of Story's shadows are darker than others. The music business is notoriously hostile to family values—young and willing fans, late nights, the temptations of the road—and Escott indirectly quotes former Blue Grass Boy Mac Wiseman on such matters in his book: "As his contemporary Mac Wiseman says, if Carl sang about Jesus for two hours before heading to the parking lot with a girl and a fifth of whiskey, he wouldn't have been the only one." Story, protective of his image as a gospel singer, in later life whitewashed his brief 1930s marriage—he and his first wife divorced in the early 1940s, and he apparently ignored his three children from that marriage. Reeves says there are even more details, but Escott ran into a wall of silence.

Helen Story was a teenager when she met Carl, then in his early 40s, in 1958; he was working at a radio station in Monticello, Ky., where she lived. Now married to Lloyd Bell, who played bass and guitar in Story's band in the late '50s, she is the official caretaker of Carl's legacy, and sticks to the strict protocol of old-fashioned family-friendly show business. She refuses to name a favorite band lineup or period of her late husband's work—"I don't want to say I had a favorite group, because I liked all the guys that worked with him," she says—and Escott left some of the juiciest stories from old-timers out of his book, in deference to her wishes, Reeves says.

"Colin wrote it in a way that wouldn't offend anybody" Reeves says. "He obviously wasn't a good father to his kids or a good husband the first time. There's a lot more—and you can quote me on this—there's a lot more to the story and his personal life that wasn't told, but as far as his professional life, it's great. There's so much that didn't make it because so much information has been lost to history. Carl Story is literally a mystery man in a lot of ways. You never know when he was telling you everything upfront or when he was changing stuff.

"Carl Story was a rascal. That doesn't come across as much. Maybe it does if you read between the lines. On a professional level, I think he nailed it as best he could. Either the folks that knew him are dead or they're not talking. ... A lot of old-timers would tell us stories, some of which did not make it into the book, out of respect for Helen Story. They always had colorful little anecdotes about Carl and his shenanigans."

As powerful a testament to Carl Story as the Bear box is, it is just as strong a tribute to another underappreciated cornerstone of country music: Knoxville itself, and the city's vibrant music industry during the first half of the 20th century. Story's story is also the story of Knoxville music at that time, one of the most exciting, inventive, and professionally accomplished musical periods in the city's history. Story was one of the biggest stars of Knoxville's country music heyday, and one of the few top stars who didn't succumb to Nashville's siren call. His career intersected with nearly every other important figure of that scene: He shared the stage with Archie Campbell, Don Gibson, Chet Atkins, and Homer and Jethro; he performed songs by Arthur Q. Smith; and his bands included William "Red" Rector, Franklin "Bud" Brewster, Bonnie Lou and Buster Moore, and Lloyd Bell, among others.

Escott quotes Harley "Sunshine Slim" Sweet in his book: "Nashville made a fortune offa what Knoxville threw away." But Escott and Reeves agree that the old myth that Knoxville could have been Nashville is just that: a myth.

"You could say the same thing about Dallas, you could say the same thing about Shreveport," Escott says. "I think what Nashville had was the Opry, and what the Opry had was the syndicated portion from 1939 onwards. That went out nationwide, syndicated on NBC stations, and that made the performers want to congregate in Nashville because they could get that nationwide exposure from being on that 30-minute spot."

Besides, Reeves says, television was becoming a major factor in entertainment by the time Story arrived in Knoxville. "Nashville already had it going on, even in the '30s," he says. "Sunshine Slim used to throw that around a lot—‘We coulda been Nashville.' But he also said that in 1951 he gave Elvis pointers. It was like, ‘Aw, get outta here'—story after story. He was a colorful guy, but you had to watch out."

But just because Knoxville wasn't Nashville doesn't take away from East Tennessee's rich country music legacy.

"We had a good farm team," Reeves says. "It was a good starting point, a good way to get exposure and go on to the next level. I don't see much progressive music past 1955, '56; by then the parade had gone by. It had gone to Nashville. There was so much talent here. ... All trails keep leading back here and how it all began and the influence Knoxville had. ... Half the band, if not more, were Knoxvillians. Red Rector—of course, he came from Asheville, so did Claude Boone, but they made their homes here, and they stayed. That influenced what other bands were playing.

"It's worthy of Carl's legacy, and his music," Reeves says of the Bear box set. "Red Rector—his musicianship. Claude Boone—his harmonizing was sometimes ungodly. It was great, and when they combined that with Carl Story's upper register, his falsetto, it's pretty good. It's a testament to Carl's music and to Knoxville's legacy."