Born May 29, 1916
By Gary Reid
Carl Moore Story Born: May 29, 1916, Lenoir, North Carolina
Died: March 31, 1995, Greenville, South Carolina
Primary Instrument: Guitar
Composed: BMI’s database credits Carl Story with 178 published compositions, co-compositions, and arrangements including: “I Overlooked an Orchid While Searching For a Rose” “Always Be Kind To Mother” “I Heard My Mother Weeping” “I Love The Hymns They Sang At Mother’s Grave”
Early influences: Riley Puckett Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers G. B. Grayson and Henry Whitter Uncle Dave Macon
Came to fame with: Carl Story and the Rambling Mountaineers, 1945-1995
Performed with: Rambling Mountaineers, ca. 1934, 1935-1942 J. E. Clark and the Lonesome Mountaineers, ca. 1935 Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, 1942-1943 Carl Story and the Rambling Mountaineers, 1945-1995
Led the way:
- Story’s career in traditional country, bluegrass, and gospel music spanned more than six decades.
- Led one of the first bands to utilize the three-finger style of banjo playing.
- As a bandleader, fostered the talents of many successful artists, including Red Rector, Bud and Willie G. Brewster, Bobby Thompson, and Tater Tate.
- Released the first all-bluegrass gospel album on a major label (Gospel Quartet Favorites, 1958, Mercury Records).
- International Bluegrass Music Association Hall of Fame, 2007.
- Co-wrote “I Overlooked an Orchid,” an early country music hit for Carl Smith in 1950. The song was revived in the 1970s by Mickey Gilley.
By the Way:
- A broken leg resulting from a line drive ended Carl’s hopes of becoming a professional baseball player.
- Played fiddle for the first decade of his career.
- Nicknamed the “Father of Bluegrass Gospel.”
- One of the first to record the instrumental “Feudin’ Banjos” (as “Mocking Banjo”), later a hit in the 1972 movie Deliverance as “Dueling Banjos.”
- Story’s cover recording of Johnny Cash’s “Daddy Sang Bass” enjoyed brisk sales when it appeared as an alternate selection in the Capitol Record Club.
Carl Story came by his love of old-time and country music naturally, having been exposed to it at home as a youth. His father was an old-time fiddle player who enjoyed collecting recordings of Charlie Poole, Grayson and Whitter, and others. Carl took up the fiddle at age nine and eventually learned guitar and clawhammer banjo. He organized his first band, along with banjoist Johnnie Whisnant, on October 13, 1934.
One of Carl’s few times to work for other bands came in the middle 1930s when he signed on with J. E. Clark and the Lonesome Mountaineers. His stay was short-lived and he soon left to re-organize the Rambling Mountaineers. Members of that band included Carl on fiddle, guitarists Ed McMahan and Dudley “Uncle Dud” Watson, and banjoist Johnnie Whisnant. Whisnant had by this time developed a three-finger banjo style later popularized by contemporaries Earl Scruggs and Don Reno. This band, which Story said made commercial recordings for OKeh that were never released, operated in various configurations from 1935 until 1942 when World War II and the draft made it increasingly difficult to keep a group together. A chance meeting with fellow North Carolina musician Clyde Moody led to Carl’s joining Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys. He played fiddle for Monroe from the waning days of 1942 until October of 1943 at which time he was called to join the Navy.
Following his discharge from the Navy in 1945, Carl again re-assembled the Rambling Mountaineers. Band members included brothers Jack and Curley Shelton, banjoist Hoke Jenkins, and Claude Boone on bass. It wasn’t long until the group secured a spot on WNOX radio in Knoxville, Tennessee and its popular Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round. Carl stayed at the station for five years, honing the talents of the band. They sometimes teamed up for show dates with other performers from the station such as Molly O’Day and the Cumberland Mountain Folks.
It was in Knoxville that Carl came to the attention of Mercury Records. Producer Dee Kilpatrick heard the group on the radio and approached them about recording. From 1947 until 1953, Story recorded 11 sessions for Mercury, cutting a total of 50 songs. Initially he recorded a mix of secular songs and gospel. Tunes like “I Watched You Walk Away,” “Faded Love,” and “Tennessee Border” fared well alongside rousing quartet numbers such as “I’ve Found a Hiding Place,” “Keep on the Firing Line,” and “He Will Set Your Fields on Fire.” After 1950 the remainder of his Mercury sessions were all gospel.
Knoxville proved a good location for securing new material, especially numbers sold by composer Arthur “Q.” Smith and those emanating from the duo of Ira and Charlie Louvin. Some of the early Louvin classics that were introduced for the first time on record by Carl Story were “God Saved My Soul,” “Are You Afraid to Die,” and “I’ll Live With God (To Die No More).”
It was a common practice among rural entertainers in the 1940s and ‘50s to move around from radio station to radio station, using the exposure of live broadcasts to promote local concert appearances. When artists had been in one location for a while and had “played out the territory,” they would move on to a new location. Such was the case with Carl Story. After a five-year stretch at WNOX, he left for WPAQ in Mount Airy, North Carolina, in the summer of 1951. In January of 1952, he set up shop at WCYB in Bristol, Virginia/Tennessee, where he appeared on the legendary Farm & Fun Time program. After a brief stay there, it was off to WAYS in Charlotte, North Carolina, where Carl did live radio and also worked as a disc jockey. By the mid 1950s, Carl was back in Knoxville, at times performing on WNOX or appearing on television for grocery store magnate Cas Walker.
In 1953, Carl changed labels and landed at Columbia. Over the next three years, he recorded a total of 18 songs which, like his earliest Mercury material, mixed secular and gospel selections. The sessions highlighted the talents of one of Carl’s best bands, which included long-time bass player Claude Boone and mandolin player Red Rector. Rector’s lead singing graced one of Story’s best Columbia sides, the Louvin Brothers’ composition “Love and Wealth.” Other notable tracks included what became the Story standard, “My Lord Keeps a Record,” and his original composition “I Love the Hymns They Sang at Mother’s Grave.”
In 1955, Carl returned to Mercury for three years, cutting 16 more songs. It was during this second stay at Mercury that Carl solidified his bluegrass sound by adding five-string banjo. For a period of time, his 45-rpm releases featured a gospel song on one side and a hot bluegrass instrumental on the other. The first session with bluegrass banjo had Bud Brewster playing “Mocking Banjo,” a cover of the recent Arthur Smith/Don Reno release “Feudin’ Banjo,” and “Banjo on the Mountain.” A subsequent session featured Bobby Thompson, recognized as one of the innovators of the melodic style of banjo playing, on “Banjolina” and “Fire on the Banjo.” At this session, Carl added several signature sacred numbers to his repertoire with “Light at the River” and “Family Reunion.”
For a period of time in the late 1950s, Starday Records supervised Mercury’s country and western division. A number of Carl’s releases were labeled Mercury-Starday. When the two labels terminated their partnership in 1958, Carl went with Starday. Over the next 10 years, Carl released a dozen albums, making him one of the most-recorded artists on the label. One release paired him with another powerhouse Starday group, the Lewis Family. Many of Story’s Starday albums featured the talents of the Knoxville-based Brewster brothers, Bud and Willie G., along with Claude Boone. A few of the later albums were augmented with the talents of the Jones Brothers, a duo from North Carolina.
As the bluegrass festival phenomenon caught fire in the 1970s, Carl’s performing career and visibility received a strong boost. Sadly, many of his strongest earlier recordings on Mercury and Columbia, many released originally only as singles, never made it to album except in Europe and were thus unavailable to North American fans during the years that the seminal work of other pioneers shaped the bluegrass repertoire.
In the 1970s, Carl recorded for several labels, most notably Atteiram Records of Marietta, Georgia, and the newly founded CMH label of Los Angeles, a joint venture involving Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith and former Starday staffer Martin Haerle. Initial releases on CMH usually consisted of lavishly produced two-LP sets that featured re-recorded versions of past hits. Such was the case with Carl’s The Bluegrass Gospel Collection. Single CMH albums included Mountain Music and A Lonesome Wail From the Hills.
Carl spent the last 30 years of his life in Greer, South Carolina, where he headquartered the Rambling Mountaineers. As he had done throughout the earlier portions of his career, he supplemented his touring schedule by working during the week as a disc jockey. His last DJ work was a five-year stint on WESC in nearby Greenville, South Carolina. Carl passed away in March of 1995 from complications of heart bypass surgery.
Gary Reid is a bluegrass music historian, journalist, and producer, based in Roanoke, Virginia.
“It was no trouble at all to sell 20,000 song books a week.” Quoted by Don Rhodes in “Carl Story,’” Pickin’, January, 1978.
“The release “Light at the River” / “Mocking Banjo” is probably the most important single in Carl Story’s recording history.” Ivan Tribe, from “Carl Story: The Father of Bluegrass Gospel,” Precious Memories, Journal of Gospel Music, September-October, 1988.
“The original issues of these two Mercury LPs [Gospel Quartet Favorites and More Gospel Quartet Favorites] are among the rarest and most prized by collectors of bluegrass and country LPs. They are the finest examples in existence of Story’s delightful ‘raw’ mountain style of bluegrass gospel music.” Lance Leroy, in obituary for Carl Story, Bluegrass Unlimited, May, 1995.
“During this time [ca. 1952-‘53] they sponsored a contest give away of a TV set and received some 27,000 pieces of mail, reminiscent of the thirties and forties when country acts received so many thousands of letters in a short time.” Ivan Tribe, in “Carl Story: Bluegrass Pioneer,’” Bluegrass Unlimited, January, 1975.