Hillbilly-Music.com—The People. The Music. The History.
James Carson
Born:  February 10, 1918
Died:  June 21, 2007
Atlanta Country Music Hall of Fame (1985)
WSB Barn Dance
WWVA Original Jamboree
WBIR Knoxville, TN
WHIS Bluefield, WV
WNOX Knoxville, TN
WROL Knoxville, TN
WRVK Renfro Valley, KY
WSB Atlanta, GA
WWVA Wheeling, WV

About The Artist

James William Roberts had a long career in music although he was seldom in the limelight. Part of this resulted from name confusion. In Georgia, east Tennessee, and West Virginia he was best known from his stage name of James (or Jimmy at WWVA) Carson, while in his home state of Kentucky, he was commonly called by his real name of James Roberts. However known, he did have some real achievements in the field.

Born near Richmond, Kentucky, James was the son of Philip "Fiddling Doc" Roberts, one of the truly great early fiddlers in country music who first recorded in 1925.

James Roberts - Early Years

Perfect Records - James Roberts - May I Sleep In Your Barn Tonight, Mister James started recording at age ten, singing harmony with his father's guitar picking sidekick and vocalist under the name Martin and Roberts. The threesome made numerous recordings with Asa singing lead and picking guitar, Doc Roberts playing mandolin, and James singing harmony and sometimes also playing guitar. Starting with Gennett Records in 1928, they moved to the many labels associated with the American Record Company from 1931 through 1934. In the latter period, young Roberts cut a few solo numbers under his own name.

In 1932, Doc and James went to Iowa and worked on a three radio station hookup sponsored by Georgie Porgie Breakfast Food but they then returned to Kentucky where the Roberts did two more sessions with Asa Martin and James entered high school. On November 1, 1937, James Roberts joined the navy, but suffered injuries aboard ship in the South Pacific. He was discharged on April 1, 1939. He rejoined Asa Martin who was doing radio at WLAP Lexington.

James Roberts aka James Carson

At the station, he met the Amburgey Sisters (Bertha, Irene, and Opal), who were forging a career as "Minnie, Mattie, and Marthy." James and the Sisters soon left, going to WHIS Bluefield, West Virginia where James and Irene added duet singing to their talent; they married that November. (Ancestry records show that James Roberts married Irene (Martha) Amburgey on June 8, 1939 in Jeffersonville, IN.)

After several weeks the four went to the Renfro Valley Barn Dance. The girls became the Coon Creek Girls filling in for Rosie—on family leave—and the other two replacing Violet and Daisy who had left the group.

John Lair then sent the Amburgeys to WSB Atlanta where they became the Hoot Owl Holler Girls. James could not work on the station until they changed their policy about not hiring spouses. In the meantime, he did personal appearances on the road with Hank Penny's Radio Cowboys. Once WSB changed their policy James and Irene (Martha) had adopted Carson as a stage surname and became James and Martha, the Barn Dance Sweethearts.

White Church Record - James and Martha - When He Heard My Plea
Capitol Records 1129 - James and Martha Carson - Man of Galilee

Throughout the 1940s, James and Martha probably ranked as the top stars of the WSB Barn Dance and had popular daily shows as well. They did mostly sacred numbers as a mandolin-guitar duet, often rearranging quartet numbers into two-part harmonies. In 1947 they recorded eight duets for White Church and in 1949-1950 another twenty-two for Capitol (for further discussion and recordings see James & Martha Carson entry).

At the beginning of 1950, the twosome moved on to WNOX Knoxville where their popularity continued, but their marriage began to crumble. By their last session, they had separated.

James and Martha Carson - WSB - Atlanta GA - 1946

James Roberts — Later Career

Soon afterward, James went to WWVA Wheeling, working initially for Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper, and then as part of the Country Harmony Boys, the WWVA staff band, which also included Roy Scott, Gene Jenkins, Monty Blake, and Bill Chamberlain. This work lasted until mid-1952.

WWVA Country Harmony Boys Jimmy Carson, Monty Blake, Gene Jenkins, Bill Chamberlain

Meanwhile, James remarried local girl Pearl Arman and they subsequently had two children.

In mid-1952, James returned to Knoxville where he worked with the Cas Walker Entertainers in various combinations over WBIR and WROL, and later WBIR-TV. During this time, he wrote a few songs recorded by others and made some Columbia recordings with the Masters Family that included some of his originals such as "Everlasting Joy" and "I Wasn't There (but I Wish I Could Have Been)." In 1954, James also did two sessions on RCA Victor with the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers.

After 1960, James pretty much left the entertainment world. He made a living in piano tuning and service station management. He also moved back to Lexington.

However, James did make occasional forays back into music. As he lived close to his father and Asa Martin, he played some with them at concerts at Berea College (made possible by renewed interest in old time music) and also worked some at Renfro Valley, both the bluegrass festival and barn dance.

His inside knowledge of old-time music and the radio scene in Atlanta, Knoxville and Wheeling he willing shared with scholars including Charles K. Wolfe, Archie Green, Loyal Jones and myself.

In 1985, he was inducted into the Atlanta Music Hall of Fame.

In his later years, Pearl suffered from brain ailments and after her passing James married a third time. The obituary for James Roberts mentions he was a widower, as his wife Sally Ann Griffiths Roberts had preceded him in death. James and Sally were married on June 25, 1988. She was born on March 16, 1918 and passed away on December 3, 2004.

He died at the age of eighty-nine.

The Songwriter

James also penned a lot of tunes. Here are some of the tunes as "James Carson" and published by Acuff-Rose.

  • Got A Little Light
  • Everlasting Joy
  • Coming To Carry Me Home
  • Let's Go Bunny Huggin'
  • When He Heard My Plea
  • I'm Gonna Let It Shine
  • Budded On Earth To Bloom In Heaven
  • The Man Of Gallilee
  • Got a Little Light (as James Carson)
  • I Wasn't There (But I Wish I Could Have Been)

Credits & Sources