Obituary: Grandpa Jones
Friday 27 February 1998
In the mid-Thirties he and Joe Troyan, "Bashful Harmonica Joe", had joined Bradley Kincaid's radio show on WBZ, Boston. When letters poured in asking after the singer with "the old voice", Kincaid furnished Jones both with a new name and with the stage attire which later became his trademark: flat round hat, spectacles, braces, white hair and moustache and, initially, a pair of 100-year-old boots. It was a persona that was to stay with him for over six decades.
The youngest of 10 children of a Kentucky sharecropping family, young Louis, in common with many musicians of his generation, idolised America's Blue Yodeller Jimmie Rodgers. At the age of 15, playing guitar and singing in the style of his hero, Jones won a talent contest organised by the hillbilly recording pioneer Wendell Hall and found himself in demand locally.
In 1934 he joined Lum and Abner's Pine Ridge String Band, making the move to Boston a year later. In 1937 he joined the cast of the WWVA Wheeling Jamboree, broadcasting out of Wheeling, West Virginia, where he was taught to play banjo in the traditional drop thumb frailing style by Cousin Emmy (Cynthia May Carver).
He made his recording debut the same year, returning to the studio on completion of his war service to join Merle Travis and Alton and Rabon Delmore in forming The Brown's Ferry Four, a largely gospel quartet whose work for Syd Nathan's Cincinnati-based King label is now much valued by aficionados. He also enjoyed solo success, cutting tracks like "Old Rattler" and "Mountain Dew" that were effectively to become signature songs.
After signing to RCA in 1952, he found himself recording predominantly novelty numbers including "I'm No Communist", "Herd O' Turtles", "Gooseberry Pie" and "TV Blues", but balked, perhaps understandably, when asked to tackle "Hey, Liberace". Unhappy at the musical direction in which he was being pushed, he then switched to Decca. His output for the label, although limited, included some of his finest work: "Eight More Miles To Louisville", "Waiting For A Train" and the superb "Falling Leaves" which was belatedly issued in 1992.
Label-hopping to Monument, he found himself in the country Top Ten for the first and last time in 1962 with a remake of Jimmie Rodgers's "T For Texas", one of several songs by his hero he cut over the years.
Exposure on the burgeoning folk circuit over the next decade broadened his audience as, in more dramatic style, did his appearances on the popular syndicated television show Hee Haw. Jones was no stranger to the medium, having appeared on Connie B. Gay's Washington-based show in the late Forties, but his membership of the Hee Haw cast brought his old-time music and cornball comedy into millions of American homes.
In 1978 Grandpa Jones was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Six years later an autobiography was published: Everybody's Grandpa: Fifty Years Behind the Mike which contrasted the highs of his career - his happy marriage to his wife Ramona, his membership of the Grand Ole Opry - with the tragic 1973 murder of his friend and fellow Opry star Stringbean (David Akeman).
A fellow comic and banjo player, Akeman and Jones had both performed on the Opry on 10 November, and had agreed to meet early the next day for a hunting trip to Virginia. That night on their return to their Goodlettsville farm, Akeman and his wife Estelle were gunned down by cousins John and Douglas Brown in a bungled robbery. Jones found the bodies at 6.40 the following morning.
Over the past few years, Jones continued to appear regularly on the Opry; a duet version of "Eight More Miles To Louisville", with Willie Nelson on the latter's 1995 album Just One Love, proved that the octogenerian could still sing and play as exuberantly as ever.
Louis Marshall (Grandpa) Jones, singer and banjo player: born Niagra, Kentucky 20 October 1913; twice married (one son, three daughters); died Nashville, Tennessee 19 February 1998.
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