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2008 Inductee – Charles Keith Wolfe

Born: August 14, 1943, Sedalia, Missouri
Died: February 9, 2006, Murfreesboro, Tennessee
Primary involvement: Historian and Writer

Associated with

  • University of Kansas, Lawrence, 1967 – 1970
  • Middle Tennessee State University, 1970 – 2005
  • Editor, Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin

Led the way

  • Wrote liner notes for approximately 300 bluegrass and old-time music albums and CDs.
  • Set high standards of professionalism for research and writing about country music.
  • Served as a mentor to other writers and historians.
  • IBMA Award of Merit (Distinguished Achievement Award), 1990.
  • Two-time recipient of IBMA award for Best Liner Notes, 1995 and 2004.
  • Bluegrass Hall of Fame, 2008.

By the Way

  • Was an amateur photographer in his youth.
  • Became enamored with old-time music by hearing 78-rpm records on the family Victrola.
  • His mother loved the music of Elvis Presley.
  • Had aspirations of becoming a professional musician and after graduation from high school. Spent two years working in local bands including Johnny and the Echoes, Ronnie Self, and Terry Bidell and the Nighthawks.

Mentors

  • Herman Crook
  • Sam & Kirk McGee
  • Deford Bailey
  • Steve Davis

Growing up in central Missouri, Charles Wolfe became enamored with music at an early age and learned to play saxophone, accordion, banjo, and guitar. He later said his best instrument was the typewriter. To that end, he attended Southwest Missouri State University where he obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree in English in 1965. He went on to receive Master of Arts (1967) and Doctorate of Arts (1971) in English degrees from the University of Kansas in Lawrence. While attending the University of Kansas, Charles was an instructor in the English Department (1967 – 1970).

In 1970, Charles moved to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, to accept an Associate Professor position in the English Department of Middle Tennessee State University. He was made a full professor in 1982. He remained affiliated with the school until his retirement in 2005, at which time he was given Professor Emeritus status by the school dean.

It was shortly after his move to MTSU that Charles began his prolific career of documenting and writing about country music – which included old-time, traditional, blues, gospel, bluegrass, and more. Among his earliest writings were liner notes to albums on the Rounder label for Bashful Brother Oswald (1972) and the duo of Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard (1973). His fascination with the early days of the Grand Ole Opry led to the publication of a book, in England, that documented the first 10 years of this legendary radio show (1975). Another book, Tennessee Strings (1976), told the story of country music in Tennessee. A year later, he served as editor for the Alton Delmore autobiography, Truth is Stranger Than Publicity.

Throughout the ‘70s, Charles was a frequent contributor to the British publication Old-Time Music. Starting in 1972, he wrote at least 15 articles for the magazine, covering a broad range of old-time music topics and artists, such as Ralph Peer and the Bristol sessions, an interview with western swing player Johnnie Lee Wills, Sam McGee, the Powers Family, and his first solidly bluegrass piece, an interview with Bill Monroe.

In the late 1970s, he began contributing articles to Bluegrass Unlimited, mostly about old-time artists who influenced bluegrass, namely Senator Robert Byrd, Uncle Dave Macon, Clayton McMichen, and Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith. Charles also served as the co-editor of the Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin, the oldest continuously-published regional folklore journal in the nation. It was also in the 1970s that Charles began writing for The Devil’s Box, a quarterly journal initially published by the Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers Association for the purpose of promoting and preserving fiddling and related music. In all, he wrote over 50 articles for the magazine.

In the 1980s, Charles wrote two more books: Kentucky Country, a history of folk and country music in Kentucky, and Everybody’s Grandpa, a co-authored biography of Grandpa Jones. In this decade, he also wrote liner notes for approximately 50 albums/CDs. He became a consultant to TimeLife and Sony Music for two series of country music reissues, Your Hit Parade and Country USA respectively. In 1984, he wrote the first of a number of excellent booklets that would accompany boxed-set reissues for the German Bear Family label. This book was for the 12-LP set of early ‘50s country music by Lefty Frizzell called His Life, His Music. Of interest to bluegrass fans during this period were liner notes he wrote for releases by the Whitstein Brothers, Hazel Dickens, the Nashville Bluegrass Band, and a collection of gospel material by Flatt & Scruggs called You Can Feel It In Your Soul.

The 1990s was Charles’ most prolific decade. He published seven books, including:

  • Mahalia Jackson, Civil War Music
  • DeFord Bailey: A Black Singing Star in Early Country Music
  • The Life and Legend of Leadbelly
  • In Close Harmony: The Story of the Louvin Brothers
  • The Devil’s Box: Masters of Southern Fiddling
  • A Good Natured Riot: The Birth of the Grand Ole Opry.

He wrote notes, or served as a consultant, for no less than 150 recorded projects, including a number of boxed-set compilations for Bear Family on artists such as Hank Snow, Bill Monroe, Don Gibson, Louvin Brothers, Carl Smith, and Grandpa Jones. There were also notes written for contemporary recordings including the Johnson Mountain Boys, the Dry Branch Fire Squad, Ralph Stanley, James King, Mark O’Connor, and Paul Williams. He also contributed over 25 articles on old- time music to The Journal, a publication devoted to traditional country music that was published by Country Music magazine.

The 1990s brought well-deserved recognition for Wolfe’s life’s work. In 1990, he received a Distinguished Achievement Award from the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA). In 1997, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Curb Music Business Program at Belmont University in Nashville. In 1998 he received a Belmont Book of the Year Award for The Devil’s Box. In 1999, he received a Ralph J. Gleason Book Award for A Good Natured Riot. Other professional activities included his election to the IBMA Board of Directors and in the following year his participation in the Old-Time Radio Conference in Mt. Airy, North Carolina, where he and Garrison Keillor were guest speakers.

The next decade continued to be a prolific one. In the first half of the 2000s, he authored eight books and nearly 50 sets of liner notes. Books released in this period included Classic Country: Legends of Country Music, The Carter Family: In The Shadow of Clinch Mountain, Country Music Annual 2002, The Women of Country Music, Uncle Dave Macon, Country Music Goes to War, The Bristol Sessions, and The Music of Bill Monroe. Highlights from his liner notes include releases by the Monroe Brothers, Bill Monroe (1936 – 1949, Two Days at Newport, and My Last Days on Earth), Mac Wiseman (‘Tis Sweet to be Remembered), Carl Story (Lonesome Hearted Blues), Roy Acuff (R. C. Cola Shows), Leroy Troy (Old Gray Mare), and several various artist collections, Nashville Early String Bands and Goodbye Babylon.

The early 2000s saw additional awards and recognition for Charles Wolfe. In 2000 he received an ASCAP/ Deems Taylor Award for his book, A Good Natured Riot, as well as a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association for Recorded Sound. Other career accolades include three Grammy nominations, two Outstanding Research awards from MTSU, and a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship.

In 2005, with 35 years of service, and with complications of diabetes taking their toll, Charles retired from MTSU. He continued to research and mentor as time and health permitted. His retirement was short-lived and he died on February 9, 2006.

Gary Reid is a bluegrass music historian, journalist, and producer, based in Roanoke, Virginia. With thanks to Fred Bartenstein.

“Tennessee has been country music’s best environment because Tennessee has been able to main both of these cultures, the pop and the traditional… it is this richness and this diversity, and its complex interaction, that justifies a study of country music in Tennessee.”
- Charles Wolfe, Tennessee Strings (University of Tennessee Press, 1977), viii.

“From [Bill Monroe’s] very first recording session, there was brilliance: breathtaking technical skill, soaring vocals, and a dynamic mixture of tradition and innovation.”
-  Charles Wolfe, in liner notes to Bill Monroe: Blue Moon of Kentucky 1936 – 1949, Bear Family BCD16399, 2002.

“The sound [Carl Story] made owed something to bluegrass and something to gospel, but also included early honkytonk country, a taste of rockabilly, and even a nod or two to western music. It was a prime example of what Don Gibson once called ‘that old Knoxville sound’.”
- Charles Wolfe, in liner notes to Carl Story: Lonesome Hearted Blues, Bear Family BCD 16689, 2005.

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