What The Reviewers Say

VRCD 303

A CORN LICKER STILL IN GEORGIA BY GID TANNER & HIS SKILLET LICKERS

A well-done re-issue of all 14 parts of this famous skit originally recorded between 1927 & 1930. When these originally came out on 78s, they were about the most popular country items on the market, selling hundreds of thousands. It's nice to see the whole set on one LP, and Voyager has done a pretty good job with the re-mastering. In addition to the humor -- which ranges from pretty funny to pretty stilted -- there are about 40 samplings of music which include some great fiddling by Lowe Stokes & Clayton McMichen, and some little known tunes. A fine LP for old-time collectors. (County Sales Newsletter)

*****

The records depict the ups and downs of moonshining in Georgia during prohibition. The humor of the skits is outdated in parts but still the listener will enjoy a good laugh now and then. There is also plenty of good music mixed in the with dialogue including some drunken barbershop singing.

This is a nice album for the old time music fan and a must for the old time collector. (Cotton Patch Rag)

*****

Should be in the fiddle tune collector's group of records. (American Old Time Fiddlers News)

*****

The irrepressible Georgia string band, The Skillet Lickers, were the toast of the old time fiddling world in the late '20's when they recorded this 14-part ongoing skit on seven 78's, consisting of rural humor and social commentary at its best, goshdurn great fiddling by Clayton McMichen, Lowe Stokes, and Gid Tanner, the popular crooning of Riley Puckett, and the closet-banjo of Fate Norris. We follow the boys as they get busted, distill some licker, open a speakeasy ("Well, I ain't no camel," "And this ain't no desert, either!"), suffer a ruinous fire, yet come out of it all smelling like roses, singing and playing pre-Depression country favorites all the way. This is a fine CD reissue by our Seattle neighbors Phil and Vivian Williams, including a bootlegging glossary (bet you never knew what a "Thumper Keg" was) and an almost-accurate listing of the tunes and songs played. Great fun. (Victory Review)

*****

The Gid Tanner record presents one of the most popular, talented, and influential groups among early string bands. On "A Corn Licker Still in Georgia" ..... Tanner and his group enact, with much corny humor and many lively fiddle breakdowns, the story of a group of moonshiners and their brushes with the law and the moonshine. Novelty records, dramatizing a story or situation, were quite popular and recorded by many performers in the 20's and 30's. The Skillet Lickers were adept at this approach, and this record is fun to listen to. Riley Puckett's guitar accompaniment is just right. (Journal of the Folklore Society of Greater Washington)

*****

The music is, of course, remarkable, but the set also throws a light on the brand of folk humor that was so popular in the South in the late 1920s. According to Frank Walker, the "talent scout" who recorded many old-time musicians in the 1920's, the Skillet-Lickers' skits were always more popular than their "straight" numbers which have, up until now, attracted the most attention from scholars and folklorists. (Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin)

*****

In 1927, as Americans squirmed restlessly under the iron thumb of Prohibition, Columbia Records offered a welcome dose of comic relief. It came from a colorful string band from North Georgia with an uncommonly colorful name, The Skillet Lickers. Formed in 1925 by fiddler James Gideon "Gid" Tanner and singer/guitarist Riley Puckett, the band started recording for Columbia the following year, and its records were soon selling briskly throughout the South. In 1927 Tanner and his group struck gold with the first of seven 78-RPM records, beginning a 14-part comedic skit about a band of mountaineers trying to make a living from moonshining and music. Under the title "A Corn Licker Still in Georgia," the routine sold well over a million records by the time of its completion in 1930. Now, thanks to Phil and Vivian Williams and their Seattle-based Voyager label, the entire set is available on a single, well researched, and lovingly produced compact disc.

Since its inception in 1966, Voyager has devoted the vast majority of its catalog to live recordings of Northwest-based old-time fiddlers. Its founders' love of the music had been kindled in the early 1960's when Southern string band recordings from the 1920's started appearing on compilation albums. Before long, Phil and Vivian Williams were combing thrift shops in search of vintage 78-RPM treasures. "We started early," Vivian recalls. "We had furnished our house out of junk stores, so we figured we might as well furnish our music library out of them, too."

By the end of the decade, there were dozens of old-time string band re-issues on the market, including one from the Virginia-based County label containing part of the famous "Corn Licker Still in Georgia." By this time, Vivian Williams and her husband had found the entire routine on original 78's. "There was another guy in Bellingham, Howard Myers," she explains. " He had been collecting longer than we had. We had some and he had some, and between us we had the whole set of 14 parts. County had already put out a couple of parts, so we thought, "Why not do the whole thing?"

Predictably, "A Corn Licker Still in Georgia" became one of the most popular items in Voyager's entire catalog. With the vinyl album now long out of print and the CD re-issue boom still in full swing, Phil and Vivian Williams decided it was high time to put The Skillet Lickers' famous skit on compact disc. Consequently, when promotional copies of the new release went out to the reviewers last May, an accompanying press release headline proclaimed, "RE-ISSUED IN RESPONSE TO POPULAR DEMAND!"

As the routine opens, Riley Puckett is leading a few of the Skillet Lickers on in an old alcoholic lament called "Rye Whiskey." A sharp knock at the cabin door brings the music to an abrupt halt. "We cain't have all that fuss around here," protests fiddler Clayton McMichen. "If we're gonna make this liquor, why, let's make it 'n' git through with it." After the still has been assembled, the distilling begun, a customer satisfied, and a few fiddle tunes played, the inevitable happens. "All right, you boys, stick 'em up, there, we got you covered!" a revenue officer barks. "Who's runnin' this place?" "I'm runnin' it m'self," McMichen answers in a slow, sly drawl. "What kind of a run you got started?" "We got about five hundred gallons done run off." "I'm sorry," says the officer, "we'll have to bust you up and take you down to Gainesville."

But the wily McMichen is ready for him. "Well, looks like there's some way to git outa this,: he drawls, offering the officer a taste. Though he refuses at first, the revenuer is finally obliged to comment, "Well, that is pretty good liquor, I'll admit that! What's all these instruments doin' around here?" "Awright boys, come on play 'im a little tune," McMichen exhorts. "Hoop it on up. It's either play or go to jail." After more product demonstrations and a rousing rendition of "Pass Around the Bottle," the officer is won over. "Tell you what I'm gonna do, Mac," he proposes, "I'm gonna let you off this time if you'll give me about ten of those cans. Can ya do that?" "I'll give ya a hundred if you want," McMichen replies happily. "I want ya to keep quiet from here on," the officer warns. "Good luck to you boys!" Of course, the narrow escape calls for a celebration and the band strikes up the old fiddle tune "Katie Hill."

The next time they come in contact with the law, the moonshiners aren't so lucky, and for awhile they find themselves on the chain gang. Nevertheless, a public letter-writing campaign gets the popular string band paroled. "Now you boys go home," the warden tells them, "and remember, don't make any more corn liquor." "We're through for good," McMichen promises.

Back home in the mountains, however, the musical moonshiners distill some potent economic theory. "We got about five, six hundred bushels of corn out yonder in the crib that's goin' to ruin if we don't do somethin' with it, " McMichen observes. "I don't think there's no use to try to farm no-how as long as Prohibition's in effect," banjoist Fate Norris comments. "What's the use to try and sell corn for two dollars a bushel in the ear when you can get $20 for a can?" asks Riley Puckett.

For Vivian Williams, there's an obvious parallel to be drawn between the Prohibition era and today's ill-fated drug war. In her press release she observes "The band's run-ins and dealings with law enforcement, and their ultimate success fin furnishing a commodity people wanted despite the law, are depicted with humor, satire, and an accurate reflection of public attitudes during this period of government repression. At least in this regard, things haven't changed much since the start of the century." (Heritage Music Review)

*****

Seattle's Voyager label has re-issued their old LP album from years ago that contains all 14 parts of a popular recorded skit that was a huge seller in rural America when it was originally on the market from 1927 to 1930 or so. The sketches and patter are often forced and somewhat awkward, but there are many snatches of fine fiddle music from Lowe Stokes and Clayton McMichen along with help from Gid Tanner, Riley Puckett, Fate Norris and other famous musicians from North Georgia and all in all it's an enjoyable period piece. (County Sales Newsletter)

*****

This skit-with-music features one of the legendary groups from the early days of recorded old-time country music, Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers, with three fiddlers (Tanner, Clayton McMichen, and Lowe Stokes), guitarist Riley Puckett, and banjo player Fate Norris. The material was recorded between 1927 and 1930 during Prohibition and originally released on seven 78 rpm platters. "A Corn Licker Still in Georgia" was the running title of this series, which sold hundred of thousands of records.

The plot concerns the trials, travails, and triumphs of our heroes as they make their moonshine, get drunk, sell moonshine, get caught by the authorities, are thrown in jail, get released from jail, make more moonshine, get drunk again, and play lots of music throughout the proceedings. On each track the dialog is interspersed with brief snippets of music - usually only a few bars long - from over 40 tunes such as "Soldiers Joy," "How Dry I Am," "Cotton Eyed Joe," "Going Down That Long Lonesome Road," and many more. This is a fun listen, and gives a glimpse of rural Southern humor at the height of Prohibition. (Dirty Linen)

*****

Some of the record labels that recorded old time music in the 1920s thought that fiddle tunes were not enough to sell records. So they pressed their recording artists to work up skits for their albums. Some of these are stiff and embarrassing. But the Skillet Lickers based their skits in the refined form of the minstrel shows, and their performances are highly entertaining. The most popular of the Skillet Lickers' skits was "A Corn Licker Still In Georgia," which sold more than one million copies between 1927 and 1930. After the promising sales of the first side, a total of 14 sides (parts) or seven 78 r.p.m. records were issued. The skit was written by Columbia Records A&R man Frank Walker, who based it on stories he had heard the Skillet Lickers tell during recording sessions. Voyager issued these on a single LP and has now released them on a single CD.

The skit is narrated primarily by fiddler Clayton McMichen, though the voices of Gid Tanner, Lowe Stokes, Fate Norris, and Riley Puckett are also heard. Forty tunes - some given a comic and sometimes drunken treatment and many with alcoholic themes but all brief - are played as part of the skit. These five north Georgians are among the finest traditional musicians ever to record, and these snippets of song and instrumental interludes display them at their finest. Note that the "Liberty" they play is a different tune from the D tune commonly played today. This G tune is also known as "Old-Time Liberty" or "Liberty Off The Corn Licker Still."

Between the musical breaks are technical details about the manufacture and sale of moonshine, a visit by revenue officers - won over with a tune and a lot of liquor - and many connections between drunkenness and music, which may explain why many young men and women were discouraged by their families from playing music in the early years of this century. Listeners are transported back in history to an era which is long gone but well-documented by these recordings. (Bluegrass Unlimited)

*****

Some fine humor of the period. (Disc Collector)

*****

Fiddlers Gid Tanner, Clayton McMichen and Lowe Stokes, together with Riley Puckett on guitar and vocals, and Fate Norris' banjo defined an uninhibited style of old time music as raucous and tasty as the liquor they supposedly brew in this compilation of comic skits. A Corn Licker Still In Georgia is a reissue of the 78 rpm records from the late '20s, containing very loosely rehearsed sketches that were sufficiently popular to warrant seven double-sided discs. It follows the boys in and out of the hoosegow as they pursue the occupation of moonshiners and never fail to sell their wares to some undercover lawman.

The Skillet Lickers also made a few shorter series such as Night in a Blind Tiger (a speakeasy) and Fiddler's Convention. McMichen (who does most of the narration) and Stokes were as fine as any fiddlers of their era. Tanner was (kindly) described as more of an entertainer, sporadically adding wild falsetto vocals to the band's records. The personnel of the Lickers frequently changed and it is often uncertain just who is playing on each cut (though this is sometimes indicated in the narration). The skits can be amusing if you are into very broad humor and are more notable as artifacts of the times. Every possible excuse is found to interrupt the comedy with some great fiddling. There are plenty of tunes, though usually played but once through. About half of these are vocals featuring Puckett. (Fiddler Magazine)

*****

It is arguable that the Atlanta-based Skillet Lickers were the most influential old-time string band in the early history of country music. Featuring the stellar fiddling of Clayton McMichen and Lowe Stokes, and guitar genius of Riley Puckett, the old-time banjo expertise of Fate Norris, and Gid Tanner's undeniable flair for showmanship, the Skillet Lickers achieved national popularity. In addition to recording countless pieces of classic string band music, they also recorded numerous skits that combine rural humor and music. The most famous of these skits is "A Corn Licker Still in Georgia." These skits, which were issued in fourteen parts on seven 78 rpm records, depict the varying fortunes of a band of mountaineers who try to make their living at moonshining and music during the Prohibition era. Various incidents in the plot provide an interesting social commentary. For example, the ineffectiveness of the jail sentence in stopping their moonshining demonstrates the futility of the Federal Government's efforts to enforce Prohibition. Another realistic feature is the complicity of the authorities who themselves are not above enjoying the illegal liquor.

The interesting skits notwithstanding, you will find this CD packed with great examples of the best of the Skillet Lickers repertoire. Interspersed with the dialog they play brief excerpts of their most famous tunes. If you have not added Skillet Lickers recordings to your music library, here is your chance to obtain the complete set of A Corn Licker Still in Georgia recordings in correct sequence on the same disc. The digitally remastered sound transfer from the classic 1920's recordings is excellent; the music is sharp, clear, and crisp. In short you will enjoy this CD time and again! No wonder it has been one of Voyager Recordings best sellers. Highly Recommended. (Devil's Box)

*****

Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers, probably the most renowned of the old-time North Georgia string bands, performed and recorded for almost 15 years. Integral to their brand of entertainment were the skits, combining broad humor and music, which were a direct descendant of the minstrel shows and a link to modern country music. This CD combines 14 (count 'em) 78 rpm records which, taken as a whole, tell a story, and were million-sellers for the band. The changing fortunes of a ne'er-do-well bunch of moonshiners makes up the plot, and the band plays 30 or so tunes and snatches of songs. The quality of the recording is surprisingly good, and the boys are really pretty funny throughout the skit. The music, of course, is great, featuring Tanner, Lower Stokes and Clayton McMichen, fiddles; Fate Norris, banjo; and Riley Puckett, guitar and vocals. (Sing Out)

*****

"Hear, hear. We can't have all this fuss around here! If we're going to make this liquor, why, let's make it and get through with it. Riley? You go up there on the hill and bring that thumper keg down here and bring that rye paste with you," spoke Clayton McMichen at the beginning of what would become a 7-disc, 14-sided skit for one of the most popular hillbilly bands of the '20's, North Georgia's Skillet Lickers. This skit played on the general public's stereotyped image of the moonshining southern mountaineers who passed time fiddling around. The Corn Licker Still in Georgia" series was enormously popular in its own time and engendered countless imitations, but none as well-written as this set. Some critics get annoyed with this format because they want the songs and tunes in their entirety, and nothing but, but I like the skits because they allow some of the personalities of the band members to come forth. Mac (McMichen) was indisputably the leader, the driving force, and he is in the forefront throughout this skit. In later interviews he would reveal his disdain for the hillbilly image and for some of his fellow band members, so many of his comments here become more poignant in retrospect: to Tanner, while "in jail," "Now Gid, you got six months to stay in here and I think you ought to catch up with your fiddling in that time; looks like you're a little behind with it all the time." And in an earlier interchange between Gid and Mac, Gid says, "Well, Brown wanted us to play a tune or two, and we got it for him..." to which Mac replies, "Brown - Hell!!! Brown ain't a-running this place. I'm running it myself. If you're gonna work for me, I want you to work, and put that lousy fiddle up. That's all you've done since we took him in, it's see-saw, see-saw on that lousy fiddle."

The Skillet Lickers were quite prolific, even more so if one counts all the spin-off and related bands as well as solo and duet sides by various members. Even so, a few of the pieces found here in abbreviated form were not recorded elsewhere. It's a great pleasure to hear the band go after these rare, fine pieces of music, even these shortened forms. In my early days of seeking 78s, one could easily find some of these Corn Licker Still recordings, but one had to do some digging to find all of them. That's about when Phil and Vivian Williams shared some of their large 78 collection (and some 78s in the collection of Howard Myers, to complete the 14-side set) by issuing the LP version of this skit, which came out in 1970. Over the next few years, I heard many of these tunes, done in Skillet Licker style, at fiddlers conventions, and from time to time, I'd hear segments of the dialogue in old-time music campgrounds.

"Well fellas, here's our new home. Good sign we got up here: The Hen Cackle Inn, home of good fried chicken, old fashioned dance music, and that big question mark up there! All of you know what that means, don't you?" I recall many a reference to that Question Mark. A customer states, "Well Mac, you've got a mighty nice place here to have good time; good eats and good music, but I ain't no camel." "No, and brother this ain't no desert neither. How much do you want?" replies Mac.

I find I am reliving a lot of my (perhaps misguided?) youth in listening to these sides once again. I loved the music of the Skillet Lickers back then and I still love it now. I love their rustic humor, the mixture of fiddle music, the swamp opera. This is a very enjoyable set for me. The CD has fine sound, somewhat clearer than the LP. (Voyager digitally remastered the CD using the LP master tape rather than going back to the 78s themselves, and used digital noise reduction techniques, including CardDPlus.) The packaging has brief notes on the band personnel and also includes a glossary of some of moonshining terminology: "swab stick - a stick with a rag on it used to clean the still; double back - distilling the mash a second time, with additional meal and sugar," as examples. Vivian has also made a gallant attempt at identifying all the tunes and songs in the skits, even the very brief fragments.

This set may not be for everyone, but as I said above, I found it very entertaining. I don't think there was a more boisterous lot. "Pass around the bottle and we'll all take a drink, as we go marching on!" (Kerry Blech in The Old Time Herald)

*****

Gid Tanner & His Skillet Lickers was a North Georgia string band which only lasted from 1925 to 1931, but made lots of popular hillbilly records. Tanner was the leader and guitarist, Riley Puckett had the vocals. Their format was based on the old minstrel shows, which combined jokes and a story line with old time Country music. Between 1927 and 1930 they recorded one long story that was spread over 14 sides on seven 78s. The Seattle-based Voyager Recordings has compiled nice clean copies of all the sides and issued them on a 46-minute CD as A Corn Licker Still in Georgia. The plot has to do with a bunch of moonshiners during Prohibition. Lots of "cornpone" humor but there's some great mountain-style music and it's nice to have all 14 sides in one place (and not having to get up and change the record every 2 1/2 mintues. (Steve Ramm, In The Groove)

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