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. The innovative approach, craftsmanship, and professionalism of this widely imitated ensemble was due in large part to the talents of such competent band members as Clayton McMichen on fiddle and Riley Puckett on guitar.
James Gideon “Gid” Tanner was born at Thomas Bridge, near Monroe, in 1885 and spent most of his adult life in Gwinnett County, where he made a living as a farmer. He learned to play the fiddle as a teenager and became known in local circles for his prowess with the instrument. As a young man he was a regular participant at the Georgia Old-Time Fiddlers’ Conventions, held annually in Atlanta between 1913 and 1935. He won the state fiddling championship in 1928. Tanner was known among musicians and convention audiences as a crowd pleaser. He was not only a fiddler but also a comedian noted for his stereotypical imitations and a singer with legendary range. Tanner allegedly knew the words and music to more than 2,000 songs. The favorite among his audiences was “I’m Satisfied,” which he sang in alternating falsetto and bass registers. When Tanner sang the song at the fiddlers’ conventions, newspapers reported that he “brought down the house” and was forced to repeat the song several times “before the audience would let him go.”
On April 17, 1926, the Skillet Lickers recorded eight songs for the Columbia record label in an Atlanta studio. During the next eight years various combinations of Atlanta-area musicians joined Tanner to record more than 100 songs under the Skillet Lickers name. Besides McMichen and Puckett, the Skillet Lickers at one time or another included Ted Hawkins (mandolin, fiddle), Bert Layne (fiddle), Fate Norris (banjo, harmonica), Hoke Rice (guitar), Lowe Stokes (fiddle), Arthur Tanner (banjo, guitar), and Mike Whitten (guitar). With such songs as “Bully of the Town,” “Pass Around the Bottle and We’ll All Take a Drink,” and “Soldier’s Joy,” these records were well received by fans of old-time string band music, and they sold well. The band’s biggest-selling record was “Down Yonder,” recorded at its last session in 1934, with Tanner’s son, Gordon, playing the lead fiddle.
In addition to traditional folk music, fiddle tunes, and novelty songs, the Skillet Lickers recorded a series of skits in which humorous dialogue, interspersed with snatches of familiar songs and tunes, was the main feature. Called “rural drama records,” these skits, as their titles indicate, recounted stories about such topics as “A Corn Licker Still in Georgia,” “The Medicine Show,” and “Kickapoo Joy Juice.”
Although Tanner’s recording career ended in 1934, he remained active as an entertainer until shortly before his death. During his last years he performed on stage and radio and entered fiddlers’ contests. He won his last first-place trophy at the age of seventy-one.
At his death in 1960, just three weeks shy of his seventy-fifth birthday, Tanner left behind a living legacy of his work as a musician. His grandson Phil Tanner and Phil’s son, Russell, both fiddlers, are still actively performing in an old-time string band that retains the name Skillet Lickers. Four generations of Tanners have kept Georgia’s old-time music alive for more than a hundred years. Tanner was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 1988.