Many stories tell how one individual became the leader of a particular musical group. Few prove more unusual than the way Carl Story was chosen as the leader of a band in 1934. Band members included Carl, fiddle, lead singer and Johnny Whisnant playing a three finger style of banjo with Ed McMahan and Dud Watson on guitars. Unable to choose a leader, four straws were prepared, one considerably shorter than the others, with the understanding that the person who pulled the short straw would become the bandleader. Carl Story drew the shortest straw, so the quartet became Carl Story and the Rambling Mountaineers, starting a legend that still thrives today. They selected the name because they were from the mountains and would be “rambling around” playing their music.
Were video tape available of one of the group’s performances, the scene would bring smiles to the faces of today’ s Bluegrass musicians, but fifty years ago it was a way of life. In a small, one room school house sort of illuminated by a kerosene lamp burning on one end of a small stage, Carl Story and the Rambling Mountaineers played their music for a small but appreciative audience. Many assert that this band was the first to ever play the style of music we know today as Bluegrass. Home recordings made in 1939 were released in 1973 on Dave Samuelson’s Puritan Records. (Extended play 45RPM, EP1001). A portion of the liner notes reads: “This record serves only to document one of the most influential bands in the development of Bluegrass Music.” Carl Story always believed that he had the first Bluegrass band, but he never failed to mention that Bill Monroe put the music where it belonged, and that was on the Grand Ole Opry. Carl and the band recorded for Okeh Records in 1939 at radio station WSB, Atlanta, Georgia, but the records were never released and the masters have long since disappeared.
Carl Story had a long, successful career in music as a performer, song writer, disc jockey and promoter. His career lasted sixty three years, and he recorded more than sixty albums. He was born in Lenoir, North Carolina on May 29, 1916. Carl underwent triple heart bypass surgery in South Carolina’s Greenville Hospital in February, 1995. A second surgery was necessary to repair damage to the surgically implanted wiring placed during the first operation. Carl passed away on March 31, 1995. The music of Carl Story is being carried on by his band under the name, Carl Story’s Rambling Mountaineers.,. The band is managed by Carl’s widow, Helen Story.
Carl learned to play the fiddle by listening to, and watching his father. His first band experience came with The Carolina Ramblers as a fiddle player in 1932. Just two years later, he was leading his own group. During this period Carl worked a day job in a furniture factory, working sixty or more hours a week, and earning ten cents per hour. When the Rambling Mountaineers played a show in the court house in Taylorsville, North Carolina, so many people came that a second show had to be scheduled. This success motivated Carl and the band to give up their day jobs, and devote full time to their music. They had a radio show on WCKY, Hickory, North Carolina until 1938, when they moved to WSPA, Spartanburg, South Carolina and later to WWNC, Asheville, North Carolina.
Carl was a close friend of Clyde Moody, who was playing guitar and singing lead with Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys. When Bill needed a fiddle player, Clyde recommended Carl. This led to Carl joining the Blue Grass Boys in 1940, staying until he was drafted into military service in 1941. Discharged in 1945, Carl returned briefly to his home town and then went to WNOX in Knoxville, Tennessee, to play on “The Midday Merry Go Round” radio show, Monday through Friday and “The Tennessee Barn Dance” on Saturday night. Members of Carl’s group at this time were Jack and Curley, the Shelton Brothers and Hoke Jenkins, who would later play banjo for Jim and Jesse McReynolds.
Mercury Records signed Carl and he recorded the song, “Tennessee Border,” that stayed on the record charts as number one for eighteen consecutive weeks. This song was also a major hit for country artist Carl Smith and was recorded by several other artists. During this time with Mercury Records, Carl Story had noticed an increasing interest in his gospel music and he wanted to record songs of a religious nature, but the management of Mercury showed very little interest in the project. Hubert Smith had sent Carl a song called; “My Lord Keeps A Record,” and he wanted very much to record the song. Because of the lack of interest at Mercury, Carl chose another way to test the market. He played the song on the “Mid-Day Merry Go Round,” and asked the audience to write-in to the radio Station, and the response was enormous.
Wally Fowler, the man who started The Oak Ridge Quartet, who evolved into the Oak Ridge Boys, and was also responsible for the beginning of “The All Night Gospel Singings,” contacted Carl and hired him to come to Birmingham, Alabama and sing that one song. The audience loved Carl, his group, and the song so much, they called them back for nine encores, and kept them on stage for over forty five minutes. This began Carl Story’s commitment to gospel music, that continued through the remainder of his career. He found gospel songs were not only well received when first released, but sold well over a long period of time.
Carl left Knoxville in 1951 and moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, with a show on WAYS radio. He was also involved in the beginning of The Tar Heel Barn Dance in Mineral Springs, North Carolina. He was playing guitar by this time and never returned to the fiddle, except to occasionally play it at home. Carl signed with Columbia Records, but was dissatisfied with that arrangement, so he returned once again to Mercury. That company was now very interested in Carl recording gospel songs. Carl had written the lyrics and Bud Brewster the music to a song that is now one of the most recorded Gospel songs of all time, “Light At The River,” that he recorded for Mercury. Carl had two albums released on Mercury: (MG 20323) Gospel Favorites and (MG 20584) More Gospel Favorites, and one on Mercury/Wing (1229/16291) Good Ole Mountain Gospel Music. Carl and his band also recorded a song for Mercury called, “Mocking Banjo,” featuring the mandolin and banjo playing of the Brewster Brothers. This was a remake of the tune “Dueling Banjos,” written by Arthur Smith, who had played tenor banjo with Don Reno on five string, on the original recording. This was the same tune that was later featured in the movie, “Deliverance,” as played by Eric Weissberg.
Carl moved to Starday Records and recorded six songs for an extended play 45RPM, with band members Red Rector, the Brewster Brothers and “Tater’ Tate. Featured on Wayne Raney’s radio program, the record sold more that 400,000 copies in twelve weeks. Carl stayed with Starday for the next eighteen years, recording many great songs released in various combinations on albums. Carl moved into television in 1957 in Asheville, North Carolina. In 1958 he returned to Knoxville, working for Cas Walker, who sponsored radio and television shows, providing much exposure to many of the future stars of country and Bluegrass music.
Song writing played a very important role in Carl’s career, but he loved to tell the story of the one that got away. Carl was eating lunch in a cafe in Knoxville when a man named Arthur Q. Smith, neither the great Opry fiddle nor the one who wrote “Dueling Banjos,” came in and sang a song he had written, and wanted to sell the song to Carl for $10.00. Carl turned to Claude Boone, who played with Carl for many years, and told him to listen to the song. Claude not only listened, he bought the song that became a major hit for Hank Williams Sr. Boone’s original investment in “Wedding Bells,” paid great dividends.
Carl Story attracted many fans through his awesome vocal range. He sang wonderful lead with a mellow approach, a very high falsetto tenor, and a resounding bass. He always worked within the vocal capabilities of the members of his group to produce the best arrangement of a song. Carl had a problem with his throat for a three year period, but fortunately that problem went away. During that time period, Carl did not maintain a band, but used whatever backup musicians were available. In late 1991, Carl announced he would resume playing with The Rambling Mountaineers in 1992.
Carl and his wife, Helen, lived in Greer, South Carolina. Carl had a Bluegrass radio show on 50,000 watt WESC-AM in nearby Greenville each Sunday from 1:00-3:00 p.m. Carl formed the North Carolina-South Carolina-Georgia Bluegrass Association with more than 1,000 members by mid-1993.
The contributions Carl Story made to Bluegrass Music, made him a giant figure in his own time. His installation in SPBGMA’s Preservation Hall Of Greats in 1988 was a just reward for the man who was known as, “THE FATHER OF BLUEGRASS GOSPEL.”