Josh Graves – Sliding in first time (the Resonator)
It could be dangerous. Graves says he never has been afraid onstage (“didn’t have sense enough to, I guess”), but, playing one of the group’s early-morning radio shows soon after signing on in the mid-1950s, he recalls coming close.
“We did ‘Flint Hill (Special)’. Earl was just a-gettin’ it, and I didn’t know the routine that they’d worked out. I come in to take my break and come back the wrong way and hit Earl and knocked the bridge down on his banjo. I said, ‘Uh oh,’ but I had enough sense to jump back in and take it on out.
“After the show I said, ‘Scruggs, I’m so sorry, man. I just didn’t think when I come back.’ He said, ‘You won’t do it again. Will you?’ And I never did, never hit him again.”
Burkett Graves was born in Tellico Plains, Tennessee, and grew up in the Alnwick community near Maryville. His family rented a place on a farm, and his father kept them eating with regular paychecks from his daily shifts at a local Aluminum Company of America plant.
The elder Graves loved music, playing drop-thumb banjo, and he encouraged his son’s interest, buying him records “when he could afford it.” Most country records in those days were by the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, and Rodgers’ were characterized by the distinctive, compelling sound of a dobro played by Kentuckian Cliff Carlisle.
One night Carlisle and his younger brother Bill played the local schoolhouse auditorium. Fired by the performance (“my heart was beating 40,000 times a minute”), at intermission Graves followed his new idol outside.
“Cliff was standing talking to these guys,” he says. “Like I said, I never was scared onstage, but he scared me to death, just looking at him. He seen me standing there. I couldn’t have been over eight or nine years old, and he left those guys and turned around and got down on his knee; I was that short.
“He said, ‘How you doin’, John?’ He called everybody ‘John.’ He scared me so bad I like to wet my britches. The only thing I could say was, ‘I got a guitar like yours.’ [But] I [just] had an old Stella, no resonator or nothin’.
“Cliff played with a straight pick, and he could play some of the prettiest stuff that you ever heard. But I didn’t know what to call that guitar. D-O-B-R-O. I’d call it a ‘dobie.'”
He learned how to play it, though, using a straight pick like Carlisle. Within five years, at 13 or 14, he was playing it professionally, along with a bass guitar, in a local group headed by a couple of ALCOA employees, the Pierce Brothers, who had a show on WROL in Knoxville.
His salary was $8 a night for Friday and Saturday, but the brothers, with regular jobs at ALCOA, gave him their shares of each night’s take. He thought he had struck gold. Then Maynardville, Tennessee, vocalist Esco Hankins came out of the Army to start a band in early 1943, and Graves got recruited — “because I could play mandolin, guitar, bass, whatever.”
He ended up working with Hankins off and on through 1950, through times that “got real bad.” In 1945, when he was 17, he married a 15-year-old Evelyn, and she soon was pregnant. To make ends meet during slack periods, he took construction and plumbing jobs around Maryville. With Hankins, he recorded in Cincinnati and played radio shows in Lexington, Kentucky.
Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper, a riveting and rising act from Wheeling, West Virginia, called him in 1951. Cooper asked if he played like Acuff’s dobro player, Beecher (Bashful Brother Oswald) Kirby.
“I said, ‘Sir, if you’re looking for somebody that plays like Oswald you’ll have to go somewhere else — I won’t copy nobody,'” he remembers.