George Riley Puckett was one of the nationally known pioneer country music artists who gained experience and exposure at the Georgia Old-Time Fiddlers’ Conventions, held in Atlanta between 1913 and 1935. His dynamic single-string guitar playing, featuring dramatic bass runs, earned for him an enviable reputation as an instrumentalist. Many aspiring guitarists who followed him have studied and copied his style. Although he was an accomplished musician on several instruments, his singing was most responsible for establishing him as an important figure in the history of country music.
Born near Alpharetta in 1894, Puckett was blinded shortly after birth, presumably the result of misapplication of medicine for his eyes. While attending the Georgia Academy for the Blind in Macon, he learned to play the piano. Later, as a teenager, he taught himself to play banjo, and in time he became a contest winner on the instrument.
His vocalizing was a regular feature at the Georgia Old-Time Fiddlers’ Conventions. Newspaper reporters covering these events referred to him as the “Bald Mountain Caruso” in admiration of his renditions of such songs as “When You and I Were Young, Maggie” and “Sleep, Baby, Sleep.” For several years Puckett played and sang with the Home Town Boys, a string-band ensemble composed of Atlanta-area musicians. They made their debut on Atlanta’s six-month-old radio station, WSB, on September 18, 1922. Until going off the air in 1926, they remained one of the station’s most popular acts.
In 1924 Puckett accompanied fiddler Gid Tanner to New York, where, on March 7 and 8, they recorded twelve songs and tunes for the Columbia Phonograph Company. They were the first country-music artists to record for that firm. These recording sessions yielded vocal selections by Puckett and fiddle tunes by Tanner. One of Puckett’s songs, “Rock All Our Babies to Sleep,” established him as probably the first country-music artist to yodel on records. Yodeling was employed as an embellishment by numerous country music vocalists well into the 1940s.
Puckett was a charter member of the influential string band Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers and continued to record with the group through their last session in 1934. Puckett recorded as a solo artist into the early 1940s, creating a discography of more than 200 records on such labels as Columbia, Decca, and Bluebird. His repertoire included novelty songs, religious songs, traditional folk songs, cowboy songs, and ballads from the field of popular music.
In addition to making records, he appeared in stage shows and worked on radio stations in Atlanta and other Georgia cities, as well as selected eastern and midwestern cities. Riley Puckett was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 1986. He died on July 13, 1946, in East Point.