About The Artist
Carl Story is often termed the "father of bluegrass gospel music" although he did not actually use a 5-string banjo on his recordings until 1955. Nonetheless, many of his earlier discs often came close to bluegrass with a spirited mandolin often played by Red Rector. His bluegrass image was solidified by a long series of bluegrass albums during the 1960s for Starday Records as well as steady appearances at bluegrass festivals almost until the time of his death.
A native of Lenoir in Caldwell County, North Carolina, Carl grew up in a family with an old time fiddler father who often bought Charlie Poole's Columbia recordings with "Monkey on a String" being a particular favorite. Like his father, Carl was initially a fiddle player, but later shifted to guitar.
By the mid-1930s, Carl was working in a Mead Corporation paper mill where he won a talent contest and soon obtained a quarter-hour weekly show at 250-watt WLVA in Lynchburg, Virginia. Later he and boyhood friend banjo picking Johnnie Whisnant worked in a group, J. E. Clark's Lonesome Mountaineers at WSPA Spartanburg, South Carolina. Story, Whisnant and a couple of others soon went on their own calling themselves the Rambling Mountaineers.
In 1938 the Rambling Mountaineers moved to brand new WHKY Hickory and then to WWNC Asheville in 1939. In Asheville, the band did fairly well, adding former Wade Mainer sideman Jack Shelton to their group and had a sponsor, the Vim Herb Company. But the approach of World War II and then Pearl Harbor began to create havoc. Shelton was drafted early in 1942 followed by Whisnant and Dudley Watson. Ray Atkins and Buster Moore were with him briefly. Carl, as virtually the only Rambling Mountaineer left, opted to join Bill Monroe as a fiddler in early 1943 for about eight months until he, too, entered the U. S. Navy until October 1945.
Back in civilian life, Carl organized a new Rambling Mountaineers band at WWNC with Jack Shelton and his brother Curly on mandolin, former Carlisle sideman Claude Boone, and Hoke Jenkins, another 5-string banjo pioneer. After two months they went to WNOX Knoxville, still sponsored by the Vim Herb product, Scalf's Indian River Medicine. The band was based in Knoxville for about five years. Carl went to WCYB Bristol briefly and then to WAYS in Charlotte doing both radio and TV.
Meanwhile, Carl and the band landed a record contract with Mercury, then on their way to major label status. He did his first session in September 1947 and would remain with them through 1952 recording over fifty numbers of his best work. By and large, the better the band the better they sounded. Various band members came and went although Claude Boone was a regular for some twenty years. Other than that, Red Rector with his ability to sing both lead and tenor was a key figure. Others were Clyde and Hack Johnson, Cotton Galyon, Tater Tate, Fred Smith, Willie and Bud Brewster, and sometimes either Clyde and Marie Denny or Bonnie Lou and Buster Moore (the latter also had a regular morning TV program at WJHL in Johnson City, but worked personals with Carl).
In August of 1950, Johnny Sippel told readers of The Billboard that Charley Lamb had resigned from the Mercury Records label and became manager of Carl Story and the Rambling Mountaineers. At that time, the group included Carl Story, Claude Boone, Red Rector, Cotton Gaylon and Kentucky Slim.
Gospel numbers became increasingly, but never exclusively, associated with the band. His best known numbers included "My Lord Keeps a Record," "If You Don't Love Your Neighbor," "God Had a Son in Service," and quality arrangements of songs like "He Will Set Your Fields on Fire" and "From the Manger to the Cross" were outstanding. Rapid delivery songs with Red Rector on mandolin were probably the best.
After a couple of years in Charlotte, Carl went back to Knoxville about 1953 for another three years. Rock and roll began to take a toll on more traditional sounding groups about this time. And even if he was not doing TV, he increasingly relied on musicians who worked for Cas Walker, such as Boone and the Brewsters.
In 1953, Carl and the Rambling Moutaineers were performing over WNOX in Knoxville, Tennessee. Carl also had a hymn program that was on Sundays at 7:30am.
Group members included in 1953 included:
Carl also went with Columbia Records in 1953 for a couple of years cutting a new arrangement of "My Lord Keeps a Record," and a Louvin composition "Love and Wealth" as most notable among the sixteen songs on that label. Rector, Boone, and Ray Atkins helped furnish support as well as some Nashville session musicians.
Carl Story and Don Gibson were part of a special night on the Tennessee Barn Dance in Knoxville in late 1954. It was dubbed WNOX World Premiere Night. Why? Don and Carl were going to introduce their latest Columbia record releases. Don premiered "Symptoms of Love" and "Many Times I Waited." Carl premiered "Step It Up And Go" and "Have You Come To Say Goodbye." The show aired from the WNOX auditorium/studio located at 110 South Gay Street in Knoxville. The auditorium/studio was filled to capacity with 750 people. Lowell Blanchard served as emcee for the show, which included 30 minutes broadcast over the CBS network.
By August 1955, he was back with Mercury and did two four-song sessions that year, and two more in 1957; he had gone full bluegrass. Ironically, when many country artists were trying to sound more modern, Carl went in the opposite direction. Bluegrass he became and bluegrass he remained. His first session on February 25, 1957 included Tater Tate on fiddle, Willie Brewster on mandolin, and Bud Brewster on banjo.. The songs included "Light at the River" which eventually ranked with "My Lord Keeps a Record" as Carl's best known numbers and the instrumental "Mocking Banjo." It was the first full bluegrass treatment of a tune that later became more famous via the movie soundtrack on Deliverance. An August session yielded another Story standard "Family Reunion" and more original banjo tunes, but with Bobby Thompson on banjo. In 1957, the entire band went to WLOS-TV in Asheville where they were based for about two years. From 1958, he primarily did deejay work at various locales, but also made personal appearances on a regular basis.
Through the 1960s, Carl Story and the Rambling Mountaineers turned out about a dozen albums for Starday Records, most often with Claude Boone and the Brewster Brothers, and Tater Tate sometimes on fiddle. Like the Stanley Brothers who often recorded for other firms between contracts, Carl did the same, so he had albums on Rimrock, Scripture, Spar, and Songs of Faith in between. By the end of the 1960s, the Jones Brothers (Bruce and Lee) replaced the Brewsters and they had a weekly TV program at WCCB in Charlotte. By this time Carl lived in Greer, South Carolina and did deejay work through the week. The Jones Brothers also did three Starday albums (SLP 411. 438, & 447) with Carl in the 1968-1970 period and another for Pine Tree. By this time bluegrass festivals were keeping them busy on warm weather weekends.
Bluegrass festival work enabled Carl to maintain a quality band, at least through the festival season although there were frequent personnel changes. Mitchell Moser was a frequent bass player, Larry Beasley (banjo), Harold Austin (lead vocal-guitar), Fred Richardson (banjo), George Hazelwood (mandolin), and Billy Baker (fiddle) were among them. Red Rector also came back and did some session work, but did not travel with the band. He even recorded a final Starday album (SLP 488) in the seventies, but it was so scarce, one sometimes doubts if it was actually released. But Carl did have new albums that appeared on several labels in the seventies and early eighties, but those on CMH probably had the best distribution. All but one was gospel. Some of his earlier Mercury and Columbia material also appeared on such labels as Cattle in Germany and Old Homestead which were aimed at the collector market. With plenty of material available Carl seems to have cut back on recording from the mid 1980s.
Carl was a contributor to Country Song Roundup magazine in its Coast-to-Coast Roundup section of the magazine during 1954. He would report what was going on in North Carolina with country music.
Carl also wrote many tunes:
In the early 1990s, Carl assembled a new group of Rambling Mountaineers made up of young pickers that included Danny Arms on mandolin, Brett Dalton on banjo, and Jim Clark on bass (one of many with that name). One compact disc, Thank the Lord for Everything, came out in 1994 on the Minnesota-based Pure White Dove label. The last time I talked with Carl via phone, he was quite excited about it and rightly so. The next call a few months later came from former Rambling Mountaineer Harold Austin who informed me that Carl had just died on March 31, 1995.
When inducted into the Bluegrass Hall of Honor in 2007, widow Helen Story accepted his plaque. Helen kept the band together for a year or so afterward. She soon married Lloyd Bell (sister of Bonnie Lou Moore) and not long after was widowed again. A chapter on Carl appeared in my book Folk Music in Overdrive: A Primer on Traditional Country and Bluegrass Music (Knoxville, 2018), by which time Bear Family in 2011 had released a four CD box set containing his entire pre-1960 output. In all a nice achievement for a nearly sixty-year career for a musician who never had a single hit on the Billboard charts.
Credits & Sources
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