McMichen was born on January 26, 1900, at Allatoona, in Cobb County. With a father who played fiddle and a grandfather who played banjo, he showed an interest in music at an early age. By the time he was eleven years old, he was playing the fiddle and eagerly learning the ancient tunes that had been handed down in his family. His first documented appearance at the Atlanta fiddlers’ conventions was in 1922, when he won second place for his rendition of “Arkansas Traveler.”
On September 18, 1922, a mere six months after Atlanta’s first radio station, WSB, went on the air, McMichen and a group of his musician friends, calling themselves the Home Town Boys, made their broadcast debut. They soon became one of the most frequently appearing acts on the station, and their programs, featuring a mixture of fiddle tunes, popular jazz numbers, and familiar ballads, provided entertainment for WSB listeners over the next four years.
In 1923, at a fiddlers’ contest in Macon, McMichen won first place with his fiddling ability, and a newspaper reporter covering the event dubbed him “The North Georgia Wildcat.” The epithet stuck, and McMichen’s future fiddle bands became known as the Georgia Wildcats. Between 1926 and 1930 McMichen recorded with Gid Tanner’s famous Skillet Lickers, an influential Atlanta-based old-time string band. Modern critics have given McMichen much of the credit for the success of the Skillet Lickers, citing his jazzy but polished fiddling. McMichen himself criticized some of his fellow Skillet Lickers band members for being “about thirty years” behind the times in their musical styles and repertoire.
On January 13, 1931, McMichen made what was apparently his last appearance on Atlanta radio with a broadcast over WSB. He subsequently worked on various radio stations in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the Midwest, and in Nashville, Tennessee, where he was a member of the Grand Ole Opry. McMichen settled in Louisville, Kentucky, where, for many years before his retirement in 1955, he was heard regularly on local radio and television stations. During the last ten years of his professional career McMichen led his band in Dixieland jazz arrangements that met with enthusiasm among his audiences.
McMichen was rediscovered during the 1960s folk music revival, and for several years he made appearances on college campuses and at bluegrass and folk festivals around the country. Although known primarily for his performances on stage, radio, and records, McMichen was a songwriter of considerable talent. Some of his compositions that gained wide acceptance among country musicians were “My Carolina Home,” “Dear Old Dixie Land,” “Peach Pickin’ Time in Georgia,” and “Georgiana Moon.” He died in Battletown, Kentucky, on January 3, 1970.