The entire story of recorded country music can be traced back to a fiddle player named Eck Robertson, “World’s Champion Fiddler.”
Robertson was the son of a Confederate soldier, born in Arkansas in 1887 and raised in Texas. His father made a living as a farmer and a preacher, but also taught his son how to play the fiddle. Robertson carried on the family tradition of playing fiddle, learning the instrument at the age of five years old. Once grown, he joined the traveling band of a medicine show.
Robertson married his wife Nettie, also a musician, in 1906. He became a piano tuner by trade, but Eck and Nettie would still perform in the Texas area, competing in fiddling contests and providing the musical accompaniment in silent movie theaters. It was in 1916, while playing at an Old Confederate Soldiers reunion, that he met Henry C. Gilliland, a veteran fiddler in his mid-seventies. The two became a powerful team, touring similar reunions across the south, with Robertson serving as lead fiddler and Gilliland playing second fiddle.
As the duo was gaining popularity, so was the recording industry. Records were being made as early as the 1890s, but their popularity truly soared during the economic boom following World War I. By that point, Columbia, RCA, and Victor were major players in the market, but by the early twenties, there still hadn’t been any hillbilly sides of note.
In walked Robertson and Gilliland. Quite literally. They walked right into the label offices of Victor in June, 1922 and requested an audition. Expectations were low, as fiddlers were high in number and not considered anything special. But they had the right combination of moxie and talent, and Victor saw their fiddle playing as an opportunity to make records for country dances.
So the next day, Robertson was asked to come into the studio and make a test record. A successful session led to Robertson’s debut 78, “Sallie Gooden”/”Arkansas Traveler”, the very first release in the genre that would eventually be called country music.
Robertson laid down several tracks with Victor Records, most of which were released in 78 form, the most significant being “Turkey in the Straw” and “Ragtime Annie.” Not much commercial success was found, and Robertson was soon eclipsed by newer artists and better recording technology. But Robertson remained a forceful presence on the road and returned to the recording studio again, putting down another set of tracks for Victor in 1929 and 1930.
He played barn dances and fairs throughout the next few decades, and the folk revival movement brought him overdue recognition. County Records visited him at home in 1963, and recorded the tracks that became his first LP, Eck Robertson, Famous Cowboy Fiddler. He was featured in the 1968 documentary Newport Festival, alongside Johnny Cash and Cousin Emmy.
Robertson passed away in 1975, but his music lives on. His recordings for Victor remain widely available on compact disc and through digital download, while his County LP is a highly prized collector’s item for country music historians and enthusiasts.
- Sally Gooden/Arkansas Traveler, 1922
- Turkey in the Straw/Ragtime Annie, 1923
- Brilliancy Medley, 1930
- Eck Robertson: Famous Cowboy Fiddler, 1963
- Eck Robertson: Old-Time Texas Fiddler, 1999
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