In today’s installment of our series American Composers and Musicians from A to Z, the NLS Music Section takes you back in time to the early days of the country music industry to meet one of its brightest stars: singer and guitarist Riley Puckett.
Riley Puckett’s recorded yodeling and distinctive guitar playing made him an important figure in the early development of what record companies initially termed “hillbilly music” and would later become known as country music. Puckett was born in Alpharetta, GA, in 1894 and, after being accidentally blinded as an infant, attended the Macon School for the Blind, where he learned to read braille and began playing banjo and guitar. Jason Ankeny notes that Puckett developed “a unique, arrhythmic style of playing bass-note runs to bridge chord changes. He also attracted attention at regional fiddling contests.” Puckett developed a wide-ranging repertoire of songs from British ballads to pop, jazz, and vaudeville tunes and made his radio debut on WSB in Atlanta in 1922. His smooth vocal style and yodeling ability earned him the nickname the “Ball Mountain Caruso” and made him one of the station’s most popular performers.
In 1924 Puckett went to Columbia Records studio in New York City and recorded a song called “Rock All Our Babies to Sleep,” which is believed to be the first instance of recorded yodeling in country music and likely drew upon the repertory and diverse yodeling practices already established in the vaudeville scene. Puckett’s yodeling may have influenced Jimmie Rodgers, country music’s first genuine star, who became known as the Blue Yodeler. Puckett enjoyed further success, becoming one of Columbia’s most successful acts in its “Hillbilly Series” released in 1925.
Riley Puckett is best remembered today as the lead singer and guitarist of the Georgia string band Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers, which he joined in 1926. According to Grove Music Online, the group’s repertoire was primarily “traditional fiddle tunes and ballads, minstrel stage numbers, popular songs, and rural drama skits.” The group had a raucous style, propelled by Tanner’s charismatic clowning, two or three fiddles, and Puckett’s inventive guitar backing and melodious vocals. The band’s first release in 1926 sold 207,000 copies at a time when most hillbilly records sold only 12,000. The Skillet Lickers went on to record roughly 150 sides and had their final recording sessions in San Antonio in 1934.
Aside from his success with Gid Tanner, Riley Puckett had an immensely active career as a soloist and with numerous other groups, making more than 200 recordings before his death in 1946. He was one of only a few hillbilly musicians of the 1920s who was able to make music his full-time profession, and his guitar technique was emulated by many musicians during the folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s.
By now I’m sure you’re eager to hear some of Riley Puckett’s music. Well, you’re in luck! The NLS Music Section offers Classic Country Music (DBM03645), which features Puckett’s vocal style and guitar on “Ragged But Right” as well as on “Soldier’s Joy” with Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers. For additional context, visit the National Jukebox to hear numerous recordings of yodeling in various genres of music from the early 20th century. And if this listening has inspired you to make your own music, check out Learn to Yodel (DBM01293) by Cathy Fink and Tod Whittemore.