Obituary: Lewis Crook

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To appear on the stage of Nashville's famed Grand Ole Opry is today the ambition of almost every aspiring country musician. To become a member of its cast, performing for radio and television audiences across America, is a dream only a tiny minority realise.

For over 60 years, Lewis Crook did just that. A banjo player and vocalist, he had joined the band of Herman and Matthew Crook - to whom he was not related - in 1929, having met them at a fiddling championship two years earlier. Matthew Crook left shortly thereafter to join the Nashville Police Department leaving Herman and Lewis at the core of an act which would play the Opry stage, perpetuating a traditional style of string-band music that has increasingly been squeezed from its schedules, until Herman's death.

At one time the situation had been very different. The first performer on the WSM Barn Dance, as it was then known, had been a 77-year-old fiddler named Uncle Jimmy Thompson who, on 28 November 1925, ushered in a new era in country music broadcasting when he played, accompanied by his niece Eva Thompson Jones, for over one hour. Other solo acts including the black "harmonica wizard" DeFord Bailey and, most notably, Uncle Dave Macon early on became stars of the Barn Dance - shortly to be re-named The Grand Ole Opry - but it was local string bands that dominated its roster.

Acts like Dr Humphrey Bate and the Possum Hunters, Dad Pickard and his Family, the Gully Jumpers, the Fruit Jar Drinkers and the Crook Brothers were at the centre of its weekly output. Many of these musicians were talented amateurs and as such initially weren't paid. Indeed, throughout their long careers on the Opry, both Herman and Lewis continued to work outside music: Herman as a tobacco twister for the American Tobacco Co and Lewis as a salesman, first for the National Life and Accident Insurance Co (then owners of WSM) and subsequently for the Texas Boot Company.

In his 60-plus years with the Opry, Lewis Crook played each of its venues from the three WSM studios A, B and C, through to the Hillsboro Theatre and then, from 1936, the Dixie Tabernacle, progressing three years later to the War Memorial Auditorium - at which time portions were first networked across the States by NBC and a 25 cent admission began to be charged - and on to the famous Ryman Auditorium where it remained until transplanted to its present location at Opryland. The Crooks' claim to have performed at each of these venues remains virtually unique.

By the late 1930s a shift had taken place with the old-style bands gradually giving way to acts like Roy Acuff, whose charisma and professional rather than amateur status heralded an age of solo stardom which remains today. Their presence on the Opry stage continued to diminish over the years with group members gravitating to those that remained: Alcyone Bate and Staley Walton of the Possum Hunters, for example, both joined the Crooks as did Gully Jumpers' guitarist, Burt Hutcherson.

By the early Eighties only two such outfits remained: the Crook Brothers and the Fruit Jar Drinkers; anachronistic reminders of an earlier age. Herman and Lewis, now accompanied by the fiddler Earl White, nevertheless continued to perform traditional numbers like "Goin' 'cross the Sea" and "Lost John" every Saturday night, making their final appearance on 4 June 1988, just six days before Herman's death.

They are not well represented on disc. Although one of the first acts to record in Nashville, taking part in Victor's pioneering sessions in the city in 1928, their only other recordings are to be found on a 1962 Starday album with his fellow Opry veterans Sam and Kirk McGee.

Lewis Crook, banjo player and singer: born 1909; married; died Castalian Springs, Tennessee 12 April 1997.