Old-Time Fiddler Remembers The Music That Sustained A Region
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution May 2, 1999 By: Lee May (Staff Writer)
The lights are low in the Yellow Jacket restaurant, and E.P. (Slim) Stewart, longtime country musician, is singing passionately, his voice rising and falling in concert with his six-string flattop Gibson, while his son, Larry, backs him with voice and fiddle. “I was danc-ing with my dar-lin’ to the Ten-nes-see Waltz when an old friend I hap-pened to see…”
The music, an extension of an interview, drifts sweet and sad, a song that grabs you no matter how many times you hear it. Or play it. “Yes, I lost my lit-tle darling’ the night they were play-ing the beau-ti-ful Ten-nes-see Waltz.” With that familiar last line still hanging in the air, Stewart says, softly, seriously: “Occasionally, when I play, I get a little emotional. Some of ‘em touch me. I used to do solos, but I don’t do that anymore; I don’t want to crack up.”
To be sure, this song, familiar worldwide as a Patti Page pop hit, a wedding favorite, the state song of Tennessee and a comfortable old country standard, touches untold millions. But for Slim Stewart, 80, it resonates most deeply. He is the brother of Redd Stewart, who co-wrote the song with Pee Wee King. (As the story goes, Redd and Pee Wee were returning to Nashville from Texas in 1947, with the truck radio tuned to the Grand Ole Opry. Hearing “The Kentucky Waltz,” Pee Wee joked that Redd ought to pen a song about Tennessee. Redd quickly set in, writing words on a matchbox cover.)
Redd, who is 75 years old, can’t sing or play anymore; in 1992 he took a bad fall on the basement steps of his Louisville, Ky., home. Says his wife, Darlene: “He was tired, lost his balance while carrying a sing-along machine” and suffered severe injuries to his head. “His mind’s there, but he can’t use it,” Slim Stewart says sadly.
This reality is far from the one back when they were children in Louisville, when, as Slim recalls, 4-year old Redd “would sit on the front steps and play the banjo, and people would stop and listen to him.” And far from those heady days in the 1940’s and ‘50s when Redd and Pee (Redd was vocalist with Pee Wee’s Golden West Cowboys) were known in music circles as “the men with the golden pens” because of songs such as, “You Belong to Me,” “Bonaparte’s Retreat” and “Slow Poke.”
Slim Stewart, who has lived in McCaysville, Georgia since 1940, isn’t one to talk much about sad times, in fact, he is know around the Copper Basin as a man of few words, a man more likely to let his music do the talking. But on this day, during a two-hour conversation in a wood-paneled back room of the Yellow Jacket, he conducts a conversational, musical tour of old country music and his love for it-and, like others who grew up with the music, praises its powerful influence on life in an Appalachia before television, movies and travel prevailed as entertainment.
Old Is Gold
The effect that old country had on Appalachian people is “inestimable,” says John Rice Irwin, founder and director of the Museum of Appalachia in Norris, TN, which exhibits several dozen pieces relating to the Stewart family, including photos and costume items. “The music has had an unbelievably profound effect on people in the region. It sustained them, inspired them, brought tears to their eyes. Fiddlers were heroes of the communities, even though some were so poor they carried their fiddles in a sack because they couldn’t afford cases.”
Mind you, Irwin is talking about old country, not the rocking-the-jukebox kind ubiquitous on country music charts today. He’s talking about the kind of music whose guitars and fiddles and banjos and lilting, moaning voices coax and pull and jerk pain and pleasure from your heart and soul, throw your emotions around a good-time room or onto the floor for the drums to stomp. Irwin compares old country to “vintage furniture, which never goes out of style.”
He says the museum gets 100,000 visitors a year from all over the world, and the song they request most from the museum is “Tennessee Waltz.” I got a letter this morning from someone saying how difficult it is to find the old music anymore,” he says.
It’ll get easier, says Mike Panter, a financial consultant in Blue Ridge, who also is a music promoter. After listening to 400 singers under age 21 around the South during the past year, he concludes, “Some of the old songs are starting to come back and will be rerecorded by younger artists.”
Meanwhile, as new country continues its mainstream course, old country is in some ways a specialty item, found on some radio stations (including “golden oldie” outlets) at special events and select entertainment spots. And, on this day at a Southern-food restaurant in the North Georgia mountains, from the hands and mouths of Slim and Larry Stewart. (Larry works at Opryland Productions in Sevierville, TN, near Pigeon Forge, mainly playing steel guitar, harmonica and banjo. Slim’s other son, Bob, who lives in this area, also is an accomplished musician.)