Monday, July 2, 2012

SINGIN’ THE WALTON COUNTY BLUES


July 2, 2012

Granted, Athens has been pumping out sweet and stellar melodies for the last half century, but decades earlier the music from Walton County was made by guys who killed and got killed.
This was long before our local band, the Versatilians that featured virtuoso New Orleans rock ‘n’ roll drummer Mark Brill who went on to join the long list of other performers over in the college town.
Ours is a musical area. Attaining a modicum of fame, the Normaltown Flyers called Allen’s hamburger bar home, where a single puff of breath after one of their extremely oniony creations could lay waste to an entire Al Qaeda training camp. Guitarist and leader Brian Burke has interred so many golf balls at the Country Club on the Monroe-Jersey Road that he’s practically a Waltonian himself.
Other Athens groups earning accolades included the B-52s and R.E.M and Widespread Panic as well as the late raver Terry ‘Mad Dog’ Melton. And  there was Jody Hay’s cacophonous combo Caca Fuego.
The Dashboard Saviors scored with the wistfully painful track about a jilted guy’s descent from mediocrity to worse:  ‘A Trailer’s A Trailer (Even If It’s Doublewide)’. Greg Reece’s ensemble Redneck GReece De-lux made ‘Snot-Nosed Kids In A Trailer Park’ a cult hit. What’s with all this miserable mobile home life in Athens?
To escape the pathetic cuckolds and runny noses let’s take 78 back to Walton County, 138 to a house in Walnut Grove and then backpedal a hundred years. That’s where we trace our own world famous superstar whom nobody’s heard of.
He was Robert Hicks, alias Barbecue Bob, born 1902 and you’d have to be at least 85 to remember him. In 1927 he was Columbia Records’ top-selling artist with his very first release ‘Barbecue Blues’. It sold all of 15,000 copies.
With that, Bob’s career took off. He was 25. He cut 68 sides for the label and became immensely popular before his death four years later. Bob was remembered locally for his performances at fish fries and house parties near the family home and in adjacent Newton County. His distinctive white apron and chef’s hat were one of the earliest uses of gimmickry, long before the onstage explosions and light displays, infantile dance routines and near-nudity of today.
In his famous publicity shot, one of only two known photographs, he’s in cook’s garb, grinning, with his foot atop a pile of meat. Far more colorful than the costume with which Columbia’s talent scout Dan Hornsby had outfitted him was Bob’s music.
His voice was strong and lilting, his guitar work coarse. Initially, he strummed in the age-old slashing ‘clawhammer’ style like you would a banjo, of which living bluegrass legend Dr. Ralph Stanley is probably the most famous exponent. But soon he was switching between the customary six-string and a 12-string guitar and regularly using a bottleneck to add “zing” to his own trademark country blues sound.
Playing in similar style was his brother, born two years earlier in Lithonia but also from Walnut Grove. This was a blues gentleman name of Laughing Charley who spent the final eight years of his with the smile wiped off his face. He was in prison for murder. Their sister Willie Mae explained he’d gotten life in Cairo for killing a stranger in a Christmas Day argument. He died behind bars in 1963.
The Hicks brothers learned their guitar licks from their mother’s friend, a lady called Savannah ‘Dip’ Shepard Weaver. She lived on a small farm over in Porterdale and mastered piano and guitar.
In their late teens they teamed up with a much younger harmonica wizard from Social Circle named Eddie Mapp who had made a name for himself in Walton and Newton counties playing in the streets for tips.
These three and Dip’s son Curley toured the area as a traveling string band. Curley Weaver, born in Covington, became an international success. From Warren County came 14-year-old Buddy Moss, harmonica and occasionally guitar, to join the ensemble as an additional instrumentalist and vocalist. They called themselves the Georgia Cotton Pickers.
The music suffered in 1931. In late October Bob caught the ‘flu and succumbed to pneumonia exacerbated by his tuberculosis. Three weeks later Eddie Mapp was found stabbed to death on an Atlanta street corner. No witnesses, no evidence, no motive: seems nothing much has changed in the Georgia capital.
Charley continued to perform as Charley Lincoln up until his incarceration. In 1936 Buddy Moss was incarcerated in Greene County for (a) murdering his wife or (b) killing a love rival: your choice, because this has never been fully explained. Six years later Columbia Records got him sprung for good behavior. He went on to become an accomplished blues star through the war years and into the 1960s and died in 1984.
These were the boys from Walton County and their musical friends from the immediate area, famous once, now dead and mostly forgotten. The acoustic blues from these towns east of Atlanta gave way to the electric styles of first T-Bone Walker and then Muddy Waters. But the music of our very own guitar-pickin’ Cotton Pickers lives on.
Curley Weaver’s daughter Cora Mae Bryant was a blues lady in her own right with several superb recordings to her credit. She lived just up the road in Oxford where she’d turned her house into a special music museum featuring, of course, her dad and his buddies. Walton County’s own. She died three years ago aged 82.

© 2012 Fred Wehner is a journalist formerly with the Daily Mail in London, who then founded and ran the New York News Agency before settling in Monroe 21 years ago.