UPPER CUMBERLAND – It’s the land of falling water, winding rivers, regal forests, mountain foothills, moonshine and melodies. Music makers across two centuries have meandered from the Upper Cumberland’s luscious landscape, leaving a multi-genre mark on music history. Others have passed through and stayed, nesting comfortably along the trails of a region replete with tradition.
Some are revered – though never made rich by their craft. Some are wildly successful.
The popularity of Smith County native Uncle Jimmy Thompson’s first live radio performance in 1925 on the WSM Barn Dance convinced WSM Radio officials to later launch the Grand Ole Opry. Fellow Smith Countian DeFord Bailey became the first solo performer, first harmonica player and first African-American on the Grand Ole Opry. Benny Martin of White County was an Opry member, singer, songwriter and Bluegrass Hall of Fame fiddle player.
Lester Flatt, also of White County, was a pioneering bluegrass musician, guitarist and vocalist who was part of the famous Flatt and Scruggs duo that sang the iconic theme song for “The Beverly Hillbillies.” He was posthumously inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor.
Born in Warren County, Dottie West’s successful singing and songwriting career earned her numerous awards and honors, including a Grammy, two CMAs for her duos with Kenny Rogers, four BMIs for songwriting and membership in the Grand Ole Opry.
Frazier Moss, born in Jackson County and a longtime resident of Cookeville, was an old-time fiddle player who performed on the Grand Ole Opry, won many national competitions, including first place awards at the National Fiddling Championship, the Southeast Fiddling Championship and the Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers’ Association championship.
Lynyrd Skynyrd drummer Artimus Pyle, who survived the airplane crash that killed some of his bandmates, spent summers and holidays with family members around Pall Mall in Fentress County and occasionally plays venues in the UC with local musicians.
Bluegrass prodigy Sierra Hull of Byrdstown is an internationally acclaimed musician, singer, songwriter and recording artist. Hull began playing the mandolin at the age of 8 and at 15 recorded her first album. Boston’s Berklee College of Music gave her the school’s most prestigious award, the Presidential Scholarship, a first for a bluegrass musician.
Jamie Dailey from Gainesboro has sung back up with Dolly Parton, Ricky Skaggs and others as well as being lead singer and guitarist with Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver. His duo partnership with Darrin Vincent has earned the pair numerous International Bluegrass Music Awards and several Dove Awards as well as multiple Grammy nominations.
Crossville native Mandy Barnett held the titular role in the musical “Always… Patsy Cline,” a musical based on the life of Patsy Cline. Her album, “I’ve Got a Right to Cry,” was a huge critical success, named by Rolling Stone magazine as 1999’s top country album. She appeared on David Letterman and The Tonight Show after raving reviews in People, Newsweek, Interview and other national publications.
Rodney Atkins, who attended Tennessee Tech and maintains property in Putnam County, has received six nominations from the Academy of Country Music and two from the Country Music Association, winning Top New Male Vocalist from the former in 2006. His album, “If You’re Going Through Hell,” produced four number one singles and was certified platinum, selling more than one million copies.
Others with UC connections who are making their careers performing are Cookeville’s Doug Derryberry, who plays with Bruce Hornsby; former Crossville/ Cumberland County resident and Tennessee Tech alumnus Randy Threet performed with the Southern rock/country rock band the Outlaws and is now with country music group Blackhawk; Dweezil Zappa’s tribute act of his father Frank Zappa’s music Zappa Plays Zappa includes keyboardist Chris Norton of Cookeville; and folk/Christian band Judah and the Lion, whose lead vocalist and songwriter grew up in Cookeville.
Some musicians have made the UC their home while they continue to perform worldwide. Country singers Aaron and Thea Tippin and John Anderson relocated to DeKalb County, where each of them has invested in the community by opening businesses and participating in philanthropic efforts.
For several years singer Alan Jackson owned a home on Center Hill Lake. Award winning songwriter and multi-instrument performer Darrell Scott, who has written some of country’s best known hits and recently toured with Robert Plant and the Band of Joy, owns a home and farm in Overton County.
Music provides a direct economic component for some former and current Upper Cumberland individuals and businesses.
Roy Roberts is a blues musician who grew up in Livingston. In addition to performing on stage and recording, he owns Rock House Records, which has earned worldwide recognition for its award-winning music production and update of the STAX Records sound. Roberts has received Producer of the Year, Artist Most Deserving of Wider Recognition and Best Blues Album awards from Living Blues Magazine.
Livingston native Nathan Smith founded Mainframe Recording Studio in Nashville. Clients have included Little Big Town, Lorrie Morgan, Sara Evans, Kathy Mattea, Steve Wariner and many others.
Jim Grainger owns and operates Custom Fretted Instruments and Repair in Sparta, which has been building and repairing fretted instruments more than 40 years. Zebulon Turrentine builds classical guitars operating out of a small shop in Cookeville. Collectors and performers alike buy his handcrafted guitars. Gene Horner is a noted maker of violins and mandolins who operates from his native Cumberland County. Horner’s fiddles and mandolins have long been sought out and played by celebrities’ top-tier professionals in bluegrass, country and symphony musicians.