Hillbilly-Music.comThe People. The Music. The History.
About The Artist
The WSB Barn Dance of Atlanta, Georgia, was one of many regional combination stage and radiobroadcast country music shows of the thirties and forties whose importance, to a large extent, has been overshadowed by the scope and endurance of the Grand Ole Opry. To many Georgians and listeners in surrounding states who not only could hear the Barn Dance on the radio, but could also attend local stage shows put on by the Barn Dance performers, this particular country music show was an important source of entertainment. On Saturday nights many loyal fans would switch their radio dials from WSM to WSB for the thirty minutes that the Barn Dance was on the air.
The WSB Barn Dance made its debut on Saturday night, November 16, 1940, at 10:30 in the station's main studios atop the Biltmore Hotel at 817 West Peachtree Street, N.E. in Atlanta. (1)
Atlanta had been a mecca for hillbilly musicians as far back as 1913 (when the first of many annual fiddling conventions was held at the municipal auditorium^) , and WSB had been perhaps the first radio station to feature country music' Known as "The Voice of the South," by 1940 WSB could already list among its alumni such country music pioneers as the Rev. Andrew Jenkins, John Carson--the first "real 'country'" recording artist, (4) Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers, and Riley Puckett.
Such achievements, along with the fact that Atlanta was a field headquarters during the 1920's and 1930's for most of the record companies which were seeking hillbilly talent (as attested by the recording location credits in the liner notes of numerous reissues of early country music), have resulted in Atlanta's being called a "pre-Nashville Nashville"-3 and a one-time "country music capital." (6)
In the 1930's WSB had broadcast, for a brief period of time, Pop Eckler's Jamboree, a Saturday night country music show promoted by Eckler and originating from the stage of the Atlanta Theater (long since demolished) which was located two blocks east of Five Points, the heart of Atlanta's business district. (1) But it was not until after WSB and its parent, Atlanta's evening newspaper, The Atlanta Journal, were purchased by the Cox enterprises of Ohio in 1939 that the station's management, now under the leadership of J. Leonard Reinsch, gave serious attention to a regular Saturday night barn dance broadcast along the lines of those already underway on such stations as Chicago's WLS and Nashville's WSM.
John Lair, the brain behind the already popular Renfro Valley Barn Dance in Kentucky, was engaged by WSB to put together a collection of talent that would mark the beginning, not only of the WSB Barn Dance, but of a group of smaller units which would make daily broadcasts over the station and travel the length and breadth of the "Empire State" of the South to bring live hillbilly entertainment to within easy reach of most of her citizens.
Less than a year after going on the air, the WSB Barn Dance acquired a master of ceremonies who also served as fiddler, singer and, at times, cashier. He was Cotton Carrier who, except for a tour of duty in the army, would stick with the Barn Dance until its demise almost a decade later.
When the WSB Barn Dance and other live country music programming on the station were phased out in approximately 1950, Cotton Carrier did not seek a non-musical job, nor did he move to some other area of the country (as did others) to compete for the dwindling opportunities available to country music artists who had not achieved superstar status. He remained in Atlanta, ever alert to prevailing musical trends and at the center of the city's musical action. The result has been his major involvement in the development, not only of modern country music, but of popular music in general.
Joseph A. "Cotton" Carrier was born on a farm near Arthur, Kentucky — a town which no longer exists, having been absorbed by the Mammoth Cave National Park. When Cotton was eleven or twelve years old, the farm near Arthur was sold to the government, and the Carrier family moved to a new home not far from Brownsville, Kentucky, the county seat of Edmonson County.
While he was growing up, Cotton was continually exposed to music in the home. As he puts it, "Somebody was always picking on something." It would probably have been difficult for Cotton and his older brother, Billy, not to have become musicians.
"Our parents were nice enough to think that we ought to learn to play something," Cotton relates. "In those days we bought everything from Sears Roebuck, out of the catalog. We ordered it from Memphis. And they ordered us a guitar and mandolin when we were kids."Cotton was about twelve years old at the time, and the mandolin was for him. However, the fiddle was his favorite instrument, and it would be his fiddle playing that would later land him his first job and still later take him to Atlanta.
"My Uncle Ed Tunks was the one who influenced me most of all to get into the business, because he played fiddle. Out of everything they played around the house, the fiddle was what I liked."
About the time he finished high school, Cotton and some of his contemporaries formed a hillbilly band that
"played a little from time to time. Some fellow who played a fiddle . . . had a service station, and he was nice enough to let us sit around the service station and pick and sing all day while he sold gasoline."
While he was growing up, Cotton recalls, his family
"...had an old radio that we ordered from Sears Roebuck, a battery-operated thing. We listened some to WSM . . . WLS in Chicago and the National Barn Dance a lot . . . And around 1935 and '36, I listened to WSB in Atlanta a lot . . . The Crossroad Follies ... I remember Pop Eckler and The Young 'uns and Hank Penny and The Radio Cowboys."Cotton tells us, further, that
"...Clayton McMichen and His Georgia Wildcats were my heroes. During the time I was a kid up there listening, hoping to get into the business, they were at WHAS in Louisville for a while, WAVE in Louisville, WLW in Cincinnati, and the WSM Grand Ole Opry."
By the time he was sixteen years old Cotton, who could then play "a few fiddle tunes" and a "little on the guitar and mandolin," had decided to become a professional musician. He had just finished high school, but the only performing outlet he could find was around the local service station with his friends. He was beginning to learn that jobs as a musician were not easy to come by.
In 1937, he and two friends, Warner Dossey and his cousin, Albert Dossey, hitch-hiked to the Wenatchee Valley in Washington state where they got jobs picking apples. In July of 1937, the trio, consisting of Cotton and his fiddle, Warner Dossey who played guitar, and Albert Dossey on mandolin, went to KPQ in Wenatchee, Washington, to see if "they'd let us sing a few songs on their radio station." The band was referred to KPQ's remote facility in Cashmere, Washington, about thirty miles away.
"So we went over there, and the nice man running the one-hour remote show said 'sure,' he'd let us sing, [but] we couldn't think of anything to sing then. We only knew one song we were sure of. That was 'Tumbling Tumbleweeds. ' . . . So we sang 'Tumbling Tumbleweeds;' I played the only three fiddle tunes I could think of, and then we sang 'Tumbling Tumbleweeds' again, and thanked them and ran." Cotton's second radio broadcast occurred later in the year in Seattle on a station whose call letters he doesn't recall. There, Cotton says, "They let us [Cotton and the Dossey cousins play three or four fiddle tunes and songs. "
After about five months in Washington, Cotton and his friends returned to Kentucky, but the following apple season found him, Warner Dossey, and two other home-town boys once again in the Wenatchee Valley. During this second visit to the state of Washington, Cotton's musical activities did not include any radio performances. Instead, he tells us that "We organized us a little band out there. We found some boys from Idaho and Washington [who were musicians] . . . and [we] played a square dance every Saturday night up at Ardenvoir, Washington." This band, which was composed of about six members, featured a second fiddle in addition to Cotton's.
Cotton recalls that he was paid forty cents an hour for picking apples.
"They had bunk houses where we lived. I believe we lived free . . . They had a cafeteria-type kitchen thing for the workers. They charged us forty cents a meal."
At the end of the 1938 apple season Cotton returned to Brownsville, Kentucky, where he "sat around the filling station again and picked and sang" until the fall of 1939 when he decided to head south. His older brother, Billy, was already in Knoxville singing with a quartet called The Vaughan Four, later known as The Swannee River Boys.
Cotton hitch-hiked to Knoxville, Tennessee, to see if he
"...could get a job on The Mid-Day Merry - Go-Round. I went out with the quartet several times on personal appearances . . . Then I went out, once or twice, with The Carlisles, Cliff and Bill, I believe, and I couldn't get a job with them ... So I decided I would come to Atlanta to see if I could get a job on The Crossroad Follies."
In Atlanta Cotton met Hank Penny and Pop Eckler to whom he had listened on WSB back in 1935 and 1936. Cotton didn't get a job in Atlanta, but he did get to fill in a time or two with his fiddle when Chick Stripling, the regular fiddler on The Crossroad Follies, was sick. By Christmas of 1939, Cotton was back in Brownsville, Kentucky, without a job, but he would not be jobless long.
On his birthday, 22 March 1940, Cotton decided to go to Fairview, Kentucky, to hear his old friend Warner (now called "Smiling Slim") Dossey perform with a group called Goober and His Kentuckians who were doing a show there. The Kentuckians already had a fiddler, Pete Stewart, but Goober, on learning that Cotton needed a job, hired him to play fiddle also. Although he didn't know it at the time, Cotton got more than a job that night. Exactly one year later he would marry "Little Sister Lillie" (Perry) who sang, played the accordion, and served as emcee with The Kentuckians. Lillie Perry, who had already toured the midwest as one of Dot Hackley's "Original Hollywood Cowgirls," would later be known as Jane Logan and as one of The Hoot Owl Hollow Girls to WSB Barn Dance listeners.
Cotton was soon the emcee for The Kentuckians' stage shows, and after "playing every school house and little theater in the country," the group moved from WHOP in Hopkinsville to WPAD in Paducah, Kentucky. While at WPAD, Cotton, in the late summer of 1941, received a job offer from WSB in Atlanta. The offer was accepted, and on September 1, 1941, Cotton assumed his duties as fiddle player and emcee on the WSB Barn Dance. In addition, Cotton had responsibilities on some of the other country music programs heard on WSB. He was emcee on the mid-day Georgia Jubilee show and, later on, a performer on the mid-morning Cracker Barrel program emceed by Hank Penny. During the course of his association with WSB, Cotton also performed on the early morning Dixie Farm and Home Hour and served as emcee on another daytime program, The Barnyard Jamboree.
In the forties WSB employed, at any one time, about twenty-five country musicians. The entire cast was featured on the Barn Dance, The Dixie Farm and Home Hour, and the Georgia Jubilee. The group was broken down into smaller units that were featured on usually fifteen-minute programs during the day. The Swannee River Boys, who with Cotton's brother, Billy, were already at WSB when Cotton arrived, had a program of their own. The other programs, The Cracker Barrel and The Barnyard Jamboree featured different combinations of the other country artists.
These smaller units made separate personal appearances during the week at school auditoriums and theaters in the cities and small towns in the area surrounding Atlanta. On Saturday nights the entire cast gathered together for the WSB Barn Dance Stage Show, thirty minutes of which was broadcast over WSB. During the forties, the Barn Dance graced a number of Atlanta stages. At one time or another, the Woman's Club Auditorium and the Erlanger Theater, both on Atlanta's famous Peachtree Street, and the College Park Auditorium were home for the Barn Dance. At times, especially during the summer, the Barn Dance was staged in other larger Georgia cities such as Albany and Macon, with the radio show being broadcast through WSB's remote facilities.
Among the country artists heard at various times, on WSB during the forties, were Hank Penny, Pete Cassell (blind singer and guitar player), James and Martha Carson (the same Martha Carson who became a well-known gospel singer and composer of the gospel song, "Satisfied," which was her biggest hit), Boots Woodall (steel guitar player), Jane Logan, Chick Stripling (fiddler), Nell Coleman (Stripling's wife), Harpo Kidwell (harmonica player), Mattie O'Neill (sister to Martha Carson and wife of Salty Holmes), The Hoot Owl Hollow Girls (originally Martha Carson, Mattie O'Neill, and their sister Minnie; and later Jane Logan) , The Pine Ridge Boys (Marvin Taylor and Doug Spivey), Boudleaux Bryant (now a Nashville music publisher), Lew Childre, Dwight Butcher, Louis Ennis, Dottie Castleberry (accordion player), Bill Carlisle, and Mac Wiseman.
Cotton remembers that when they were on the road, Mac Wiseman rode "shot gun" with him to keep him awake. According to Cotton, it was while on a personal appearance tour in South Georgia that Wiseman, having decided to leave WSB, called Bill Monroe to accept his earlier offer of a job.
When Cotton first came to WSB, Hank Penny had left to take a job in (Cotton thinks) Memphis, Tennessee. Sometime prior to July 1942, Penny returned to WSB to replace Cotton as emcee on the Barn Dance and to emcee The Cracker Barrel Program.
"Then on personal appearances [of The Cracker Barrel unit]," Cotton relates, "he [Penny] would open the show as emcee, then he would go change into his comedy clothes and I would emcee the show and be his straight man ... He was a fine stand-up comedian."
Recalling the hectic schedule Of performing on WSB during the forties, Cotton states that
"Almost any human being working on the station . . . at that time . . . had an early morning show, a noon-time show . . . and then left ... in the afternoon ... to play a school house or auditorium or a theater and come back . . . sometimes at three or four o'clock in the morning . . . and start the whole routine over again . . . There was no time to sleep."
In June 1942, while Cotton was playing a show date in Athens, Georgia, an official at WSB called to tell him that he had been drafted into the Army. Cotton left WSB in July 1942 and returned in March 1946, following a forty-four month tour of duty in the service of his country. Cotton received a battlefield commission during a tour of duty in Europe and also served in the Philippines. While stationed at Camp Howze, Texas, Cotton learned that Bob Wills was also stationed there. "I went over several times trying to meet the guy," Cotton says, "but he was always gone. I never did get to meet him until we booked him here in Atlanta [at the Atlanta Sports Arena] several years later." Wills' Atlanta appearance would have been sometime in the fifties, and Cotton believes that this was his only Atlanta performance.
When Cotton first came to WSB, the arrangement with the station was that he (as well as the other performers) receive a salary, and the station get a commission from personal appearance proceeds. Chick Kimball (a WSB employee) served as a booking agent for the country musicians. After World War II the financial arrangements with the station changed.
"Up until about the early part of 1948, Cotton recalls,
"We had always worked . . . directly for the station, on salary, and we were allowed to do our personal appearances, and, I believe . . . right after World War II, the station stopped taking a percentage of our personal appearances.. . . It got to where we could book the dates . . . more easily than [the station] could. In the early part of 1948 [the station] quit hiring us on salary . . . and allowed . . . the leaders of the groups to form our own bands, . . . hire our own musicians, and pay them any way we wanted to. We would have certain program times on WSB with certain sponsors. The sponsors paid us [but the station] secured the sponsors."
It was at this time that Cotton formed his own band, which he called The Plantation Gang. In addition to Cotton, the original group consisted of Dink Embry (comedian and bass player), Dean Bence (mandolin), Chuck Franklin (electric steel), and Lee Roy Blanchard (fiddle). Others who, at one time or another, were members of The Plantation Gang include Arlie Wade (bass), Willis Hogsed (five-string banjo), and Calvin Bragg (steel guitar and fiddle) .
[Addendum by Hillbilly-Music.com]
Cotton points out that at one time (when Bragg played fiddle rather than steel guitar), The Plantation Gang had the typical instrumental composition of a bluegrass band, and their "styling was slanted a little toward bluegrass."
"The reason I formed that type of band . . . I'd been around Georgia long enough and been around hillbilly music in Kentucky and wherever to feel that [with this type of band] I could please the people, draw crowds, and earn a living. I didn't really think of myself as forming a bluegrass band at that time, but that's what we had."
A typical program by The Plantation Gang would include a fiddle breakdown, a steel guitar instrumental, a vocal solo by Cotton, a gospel song by "The Homemade Plantation Quartet," and possibly a vocal duet by Cotton and Dink Bence. The group's repertoire consisted mainly of the country songs and tunes that were popular at the time.
The Plantation Gang had two daily radio programs on WSB, one in the early morning and another in the middle of the day. They made personal appearances in the surrounding area during the week and joined the station's other country performers on Saturday nights on the WSB Barn Dance. The Plantation Gang, which disbanded in the latter part of 1951, was among the last groups to be heard on the WSB Barn Dance which itself ceased to exist around 1950.
While still working with WSB's live country shows, Cotton, in 1947, became the station's country music disc jockey. For several months he would emcee the Saturday night WSB Barn Dance in College Park until it closed around 11:00 pm then drive to the station some twelve or fifteen miles away for his 11:30 record show. Cotton, who also had an early morning country dee-jay show on WSB, says that one of the things he liked best about his work as a disc jockey was getting to meet the recording artists and interview them on his programs. Since Cotton was the only country music dee-jay in Atlanta broadcasting from a 50,000 watt clear-channel station, every artist passing through the city on a record promotion tour made it a point to contact him.
In 1952, Cotton gave up his dee-jay work because he "...got so tired of doing so many shows so many times a day." Cotton's dee-jay work may also have been interfering with his other musical activities. Shortly after The Plantation Gang broke up, Cotton joined a former WSB personality, Boots Woodall, whose group, The TV Wranglers, was playing for "round and square" dances on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday nights and on holidays at the Atlanta Sports Arena. The TV Wranglers also had daily television programs on Channel 5 in Atlanta. In addition to singing and playing rhythm guitar with The TV Wranglers, Cotton served as booking agent to bring out-of-town artists to the Sports Arena and other Atlanta stages. It was Cotton who booked Elvis Presley's first Atlanta appearance on 2 December 1955, the year of Presley's twentieth birthday. The public paid one dollar each for admission to the Sports Arena to see and hear the future "King."
Presley and his three back-up musicians received a total of $300 for a performance which drew 285 more people than the previous week's attraction.
"I was very favorably impressed with him as a person," Cotton recalls in discussing his first meeting with Presley. He was one of the nicest kids I ever saw. He was so sincere, and still saying 'yes sir' and 'no sir' to the cab drivers, I think, who hauled him around town." As to Presley's performance, Cotton says, "I was not overly impressed. He just sang his heart out and did a good job."
In 1953 one of Cotton's original compositions, destined to become a hit, was recorded. The Weavers had just had a big hit with their version of "On Top of Old Smoky" in which each line of the song was alternately recited and sung. The Smith Brothers, a popular Atlanta gospel duet, asked Cotton to write a song in the same format for them. The result was "I Have But One Goal," which became the first hit of a fledgling Atlanta music publishing firm, The Lowery Music Company. Now the Lowery Music Group, this firm has since had many hits including "Young Love," "(I Never Promised You a) Rose Garden," and "Games People Play."
Cotton has published a total of about twenty-five songs which have appeared on thirty-five different records. "I Have But One Goal" was recorded by Bill Lowery and The Smith Brothers, Molly O'Day, Wally Fowler and the Oak Ridge Quartet, and Wendy Bagwell and the Sunliters. Among Cotton's other original songs are "I Walk with the King;" "First Choice," recorded by Jimmy Smith; "Hello Trouble," recorded by Skeets Yaney; "Gotta Lotta Love," recorded by Texas Bill Strength; "God's Rocket Ship," recorded by The Smith Brothers; and "Remember Me Love in Your Prayers," recorded by Mel and Stan, The Kentucky Twins.
In 1957 Cotton joined the Lowery Music Company as a record promoter. He now holds the position of general professional manager with the firm and has three major responsibilities. He handles the printing operations of the firm, a job in which he makes arrangements for the production of sheet music, song books, and other printed forms of the company's material; he listens to songwriters and submits new material to record promoters; and he directs special projects. One of his most recent projects was the production of a silver anniversary two-album package containing twenty-five of the biggest hits released during the first twenty-five years of the company.
Cotton and his wife, Jane, currently make their home in the Home Park community of Atlanta. Jane works with senior citizens at a nearby Methodist church and one of her favorite pro projects is directing a twenty-four piece Senior Citizens Washboard Band. Jane and Cotton occasionally perform at benefits and other charitable events.
The Carriers have raised three children: their son Ed is an investment counselor in Norfolk, Virginia; their oldest daughter, Dorothy, is married and studying for a doctorate in education at Georgia State University in Atlanta; and Susan is married and lives in New London, Connecticut.
[Addendum by Hillbilly-Music.com]
-Wayne W. Daniel
NOTES (by Mr. Daniel)
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS (By Mr. Daniel)
I wish to express my sincere gratitude to Mr. Cotton Carrier and his wife Jane for allowing me to tape a three and one-half hour interview with them in their home. I am also grateful to Mr. Carrier for the loan of his scrapbooks, pictures, and other memorabilia which were of tremendous help to me in the preparation of this article.
Credits & Sources as Added by Hillbilly-Music.com