Some of the most important figures in the history of commercial country music received their first significant exposure as performers at the annual Georgia Old-Time Fiddlers’ Conventions, which were held from 1913 to 1935. Among them were Fiddlin’ John Carson, Gid Tanner, Riley Puckett, and Clayton McMichen, all of whom went on to become nationally known radio and recording artists.

Gid Tanner
Gid Tanner

Courtesy of Phil Tanner

In April 1913, after a long weekend of music making in Atlanta, Georgia’s leading practitioners of traditional fiddling organized the Georgia Old-Time Fiddlers’ Association. For the next twenty-two years fiddlers from throughout Georgia met annually in Atlanta for several days of fiddling that ended in a contest in which the state’s fiddling champion for the ensuing year was selected.

These  events received copious coverage from Atlanta’s three daily newspapers and attracted the attention of out-of-state journalists, who reported on them in nationally circulated newspapers and magazines. When a youthful Lowe Stokes defeated the elder statesman of Georgia fiddlers, Fiddlin’ John Carson, at the 1924 convention, the story was printed in the Literary Digest. In 1925 Stephen Vincent Benét published a poem titled “The Mountain Whippoorwill; or, How Hill-Billy Jim Won the Great Fiddlers Prize.” The similarity between published reports of the Stokes/Carson contest and the events recounted in “The Mountain Whippoorwill” suggests the likely source for Benét’s poem.

Fiddlin’ John Carson
Fiddlin’ John Carson

Photograph by Wilbur Smith

Unwittingly, the rustic musicians who performed at the Georgia Old-Time Fiddlers’ Conventions helped set the stage for two epochal developments in commercial country music that would occur in the next decade—the use of old-time musicians as recording artists and as sources of live talent on radio broadcasts.

The annual fiddlers’ conventions were held in the old Atlanta Municipal Auditorium (the lobby and front offices of which later became Georgia State University’s Alumni Hall) at the corner of Courtland and Gilmer streets. A typical convention began on a Thursday and ended the following Saturday night. The Thursday and Friday night programs were exhibition, or warm-up, programs and featured string bands, comedians, dancers, singers, and other types of entertainers in addition to the fiddlers. The contest, held on Saturday night, was usually followed by a square dance in the auditorium’s Taft Hall (later Veterans’ Memorial Hall).

A. A. Gray
A. A. Gray

Courtesy of Earl Gray

Audiences for the fiddlers’ conventions included former rural dwellers who had recently migrated to Atlanta in search of employment in the city’s textile mills and other industries. Among others who attended these annual musical events were local residents with rural Georgia roots who had become leaders in Atlanta’s business and political arenas. On many occasions members of Atlanta’s younger and urban-reared citizens came in search of something different in the way of entertainment.

With the introduction and growth of other such sources of entertainment as radio, motion pictures, and phonograph records, the fiddlers’ conventions began to lose their audiences, and in 1935 they came to an end. During the conventions’ heyday, crowned state champions included J. B. Singley (1913), Fiddlin’ John Carson (1914, 1923, 1927), Shorty Harper (1915, 1916), John Silvey (1917), A. A. Gray (1918, 1921, 1922, 1929), F. B. Coupland (1919), R. M. Stanley (1920), Lowe Stokes (1924, 1925), Earl Johnson (1926), Gid Tanner (1928), Joe Collins (1930), and Anita Sorrells Wheeler (1931, 1934).

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Gid Tanner

Gid Tanner

Gid Tanner was one of the most widely recognized names among country music enthusiasts of the 1920s and 1930s. The group that he headed, Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers, was one of the most influential string bands that recorded during the formative years of the country music industry.

Courtesy of Phil Tanner

Fiddlin’ John Carson

Fiddlin’ John Carson

Fiddlin' John Carson, pictured circa 1924, began playing fiddle on Atlanta's WSB radio station in 1922. On June 14, 1923, the country-music recording industry was launched when Carson made his first phonograph record. His recording career, which yielded some 165 recorded songs, lasted into the 1930s.

Photograph by Wilbur Smith

A. A. Gray

A. A. Gray

A. A. Gray of Tallapoosa was the most frequently documented first-place winner of the contests sponsored by the Georgia Old Time Fiddlers' Conventions, taking home the honors in 1918, 1921, 1922, and 1929.

Courtesy of Earl Gray

Anita Sorrells Wheeler

Anita Sorrells Wheeler

Anita Sorrells Wheeler of Atlanta was the only woman to win the state fiddling championship during the heyday of the Georgia Old-Time Fiddlers' Conventions. She won first place in 1931 and 1934.

Courtesy of Anita Mathis