by Paul Wadey
Robert McKinley Douglas, fiddle player: born Pikeville, Tennessee 9 March 1900; married (two sons, and one daughter deceased); died Dayton, Tennessee 2 May 2001.
Bob Douglas was an old-time fiddle player who, during the 101 years of his life, became something of a legend in southern Tennessee. Born, the son of a fiddle player, in the state’s Sequatchie Valley in 1900, Douglas had initially played guitar in the family band and only took up the bow at the age of 23. He won his first fiddling contest just three months later using an instrument presented to him by his father that is now on permanent display in the Museum of Appalachia in Norris, Tennessee.
In 1925 he became the first person to perform live on WDOD, Chattanooga, and in 1928 worked with the Allen Brothers, Austin and Lee (“The Chattanooga Boys”), on a series of recordings for RCA Victor. The Allens’ brand of blues-influenced hillbilly music, which sometimes saw them inadvertently labelled as a black act, is now much prized by collectors. In that same year, Douglas again found himself immortalised on disc, this time in partnership with the Alabama-born fiddler Jess Young.
Douglas became a mainstay of fiddle contests throughout the south-east, regularly competing against master bowmen like Curly Fox and Clayton “Pappy” McMichen and, as a bandleader, was instrumental in kickstarting the careers of the Louvin Brothers. In 1975 he won the Smithsonian Institution’s Festival of American Folklife fiddle contest, playing there again in 1976 and 1986.
In 1990 he appeared on Sequatchie Valley: seven decades of country fiddling, a Tennessee Folklore Society album produced by the banjo player and musicologist Bobby Fulcher. In 1999 he performed to national acclaim on Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion radio show and last year made his début on Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry where his three-number set resulted in a standing ovation. Just months later he played for an astonishing two hours in front of an enthusiastic audience at Knoxville’s Laurel Theater.
Douglas claimed to know nearly 600 tunes, joking only recently, “I can play a lot of them when I can think of them. On his 101st birthday in March he performed at Chattanooga’s Mountain Opry and, as a recipient of a Governor’s Award in the Arts, was planning to play in Nashville later this month. He had recently been nominated for a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, DC.Rich Boyd, the executive director of the Tennessee Arts Commission, has paid full tribute to Douglas:His loss is immeasurable. He eclipsed being a Tennessee treasure; he was a national treasure. His ability to perform with such vigor and longevity right up until his death is just a remarkable achievement.
Glen Davis of the Buffalo Ford Boys
Larry Davis, the son of Glenn Davis, every year produces a concert as a way to remember his father, Glenn, a North Carolina (Coleridge) native who died in 1986. Glenn Davis started playing the banjo when he was 12 and throughout his career showcased a two-fingered picking style all over the South — in festivals and at dances and fiddlers conventions. Beginning in 1948, he became a regular performer at the N.C. State Fair each year.
Fiddler Archie Clark, an acquaintance of Lauchlin Shaw (they could play harmonies to each other in the key of B or Bb), started the Buffalo Ford Boys and Glenn Davis joined them as their banjo player…also Fred Olson and Glenn Glass were part of the band, but Marvin Gaster said there were probably 25 different people who played in the band over the years.