I Hear a Sweet Voice Calling: The Long Life and Timeless Music of Alton Stitcher
“My name is Alton Stitcher and I have some old recordings you might want to hear.” No sooner had I picked up the phone than the affable-sounding fellow at the other end of the line made it plain what was on his mind. Stitcher’s call had been prompted by a newspaper article publicizing my search for musicians and recordings from the post-World War II era of live country and gospel music programs on a little radio station in Carrollton, Georgia. Swallowing the bait, I made an immediate beeline for his house, tucked away in the woods off a gravel back road between Carrollton and Villa Rica.
Wiry and of medium height, with close-cropped white hair, the soft-spoken gentleman who strode out of the front door of a remodeled house trailer to greet me on that perfect summer afternoon in 2001 cut a striking figure. In a sleeveless white t-shirt, black jeans, biker boots and sunglasses he brought to mind a gracefully aging rockabilly hipster straight out of the 1950’s. Nothing about his appearance or amiable demeanor betrayed the slightest hint of his eighty-five years of age.
After ushering me into his living room, Stitcher sat me down next to an ancient-looking Webcor reel-to-reel tape recorder. He reiterated that he had some old recordings from the 1950’s, while insisting, “they’re not much good.” Instinctively, I knew that just the opposite would be true. But just how good, I didn’t suspect until the tape began to roll and Alton’s beautiful rendition of the blue Sky Boys’ 1947 hillbilly hit “Kentucky” filled the room.
Filled with yearning, Alton’s plaintive voice shimmered like the silvery moonlight of which he sang. The steady, almost hypnotic drone of his softly strummed acoustic guitar accentuated the dream-like mood of pastoral serenity. As I listened, spellbound, to the rest of the songs on the tape, the outside world with its day-to-day cares and woes seemed to evaporate, gently eased away by a voice that could melt the coldest heart.
One of the first thoughts that popped into my head was a quote from the late, great Sam Phillips, the visionary record producer who introduced Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and other gods of country, blues, and rock and roll to the world back in the 1950s. The first time he heard the blues singer Howlin’ Wolf, Phillips told himself, “this is where the soul of man dies.” On the stylistic spectrum, the menacing, primeval growl of Howlin’ Wolf is far from the soothing balm of Alton Stitcher’s soft, sweet voice, but at that moment I had no doubt that the soul of man was still alive and well in the 21st century, deep in the west Georgia woods.
Alton’s cherished home recordings of old-time country, folk, and gospel songs were something special indeed. For recordings produced on relatively primitive equipment in 1959 or thereabouts, they captured the essence of his unique artistry with a surprising degree of warmth, presence and clarity. Another surprise lay in store when Alton picked up his vintage Gibson Country Western guitar, squeezed his eyes shut, and began to sing. Immediately, it became apparent that neither his singing nor his playing abilities had been adversely affected by the passing years. It was easy to imagine that the dapper young lady-killer with wavy auburn hair in the portrait hanging on the wall had stepped out of the past to entertain me.
But how could an artist of this caliber have ended up in total obscurity, depriving the world of his obvious gifts? The mystery is not so great, really. Like thousands of other talented singers and musicians whose failure to register even the tiniest blip on the radar screen of popular culture is indicative of nothing so much as the sheer fickleness of fate, Alton Stitcher had simply slipped through the cracks. This collection of brand-new and decades-old recordings is intended as a tiny step toward redressing the imbalances of an imperfect universe that could allow such a thing to come to pass.
The son of sharecroppers, Alton Curtis Stitcher was born in Villa Rica, Georgia, a few miles from his present home, on June 10, 1916. Half a world away, in the trenches and killing fields of France, the great armies of Europe were locked in a fight to the death. But in rural west Georgia, global events took a backseat to the more immediate struggle to eke out a living from the soil. Like most of the population of Carroll County, Alton’s parents, Cliff and Leila Stitcher, derived their livelihood from cotton. During seasons when their share of the harvest proved insufficient to support their growing family, the long hours and low wages in the nearby textile mill at Banning at least guaranteed a steady source of income. In the first few years of his life, Alton’s family made the transition from farm to mill village more than once.
In 1922, Alton’s father succumbed to pneumonia following an operation to remove a bladder stone. Cliff Stitcher was only twenty-nine years old. From that point on, Alton began to shoulder his share of the family burden–quite literally. As he recalls, “I started pickin’ cotton when I was six years old. Go out in the field and stay out there just like grown people did. Of course, I couldn’t pick much then, but it helped.” When he was thirteen, the family moved to town so that Leila could be closer to her job at Carrollton’s Lawler Hosiery Mill. Not long after his sixteenth birthday in 1932, Alton joined her in the mill, where he learned to operate a sock-knitting machine in order to augment the family income. For the better part of the next forty years, his jobs at various hosiery mills would be his bread and butter.
For Alton and his four brothers and sisters, music was an essential part of growing up. Living out in the country without electricity, where as Alton reminisces, “there were no lights to light the Christmas tree,” opportunities to hear music not performed by relatives, friends, or neighbors were very limited. There was no radio in the house yet. While the family owned a few 78-rpm phonograph records and a wind-up Victrola, most of the music Alton heard during his formative years was homemade.
Although neither of his parents was musically inclined, Alton grew up surrounded by aunts, uncles, grandparents, and siblings who sang or played an instrument. As far back as he can remember, Arlin and Edna, his older brother and sister, were always singing around the house. “They were singing when they was just little bitty kids. And I started too when I got old enough to talk.” A frequent visitor to the household, Aunt Ella Stitcher entertained the family with old hymns and folk songs performed on the little pump organ in the front room. Uncle Amos Rooks sang and played harmonica. Alton’s maternal grandfather, Thomas Jefferson Rooks, played the fiddle at community square dances and family get-togethers. Alton vividly remembers Grandpa Jeff “playing the fiddle when I was four or five years old. We’d go to see him and sit around the fire, especially in the winter time, and he’d tell tales to us and then he’d take that fiddle and play some.” At square dances, Grandma Rooks provided percussion by rhythmically tapping on the hollow body of her husband’s fiddle with a sturdy length of broom straw while he sawed away at “Old Dan Tucker” or some other venerable tune. In rural Georgia in the 1920’s, just about any distractions from the tedium and social isolation of farm life were a welcome respite. In Alton’s own words, “that was entertainment for us back then. Even popping popcorn was entertaining to us! You’d hear that popcorn talk.”
The old fiddle tunes, shape-note hymns, sentimental parlor songs, traditional folk ballads and children’s songs that Alton absorbed while growing up in the west Georgia countryside were part of a shared inheritance of music among rural southerners in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They were also the basic building blocks of early country music. In 1923, the same year Alton got his first harmonica for Christmas, the money-making potential of undiluted southern folk music was discovered when “Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane,” a 78-rpm disc by a cotton mill worker from North Georgia named Fiddlin’ John Carson, sold like hotcakes. Seemingly overnight, the floodgates were thrown open for hundreds of fiddlers, balladeers, and string band musicians who tapped into a large rural audience hungry for the down-home sounds of “hillbilly music.” From the beginning, radio, even more than records, emerged as the prime medium through which country music was disseminated.
When he was seventeen, Alton acted on his long-simmering desire to learn to play the guitar. As he explains, “my brother was playing the guitar and I got an old guitar. Might have paid two or three dollars for it. And he told me to sit down in front of him and watch him. I’d watch him make them chords and I’d make them like he did. It wasn’t too long, a few weeks or a month or so, until I was making enough chords in order to keep time with it and I went from there to where I am now.” Perseverance and sore fingertips were rewarded when Alton learned enough to entertain his friends with “The Strawberry Roan,” a ballad popularized by the colorful “singing cowboys” who rode the mythical range on radio, records, and the silver screen in the 1930s.
With the nation in the grip of the Great Depression, the urgent quest for employment kept Stitcher bouncing back and forth between hosiery mills in Carrollton and Griffin, Georgia. While living and working in Griffin in 1936, Alton and Arlin began actively pursuing their musical ambitions on the side. With twenty-year-old Alton singing lead and twenty-two-year old Arlin harmonizing on tenor, they cast themselves as a brother duet in the mold of Bill and Earl Bolick, whose group the Blue Sky Boys had a popular radio program on Atlanta station WGST at the time. Calling themselves the Stitcher Brothers, they joined the swelling ranks of non-professional, small town radio entertainers whose contributions to country music have largely gone undocumented and ignored.
On their weekly Saturday morning broadcasts on Griffin station WKEU, the Stitcher Brothers serenaded listeners with selections from their repertoire of sad, sentimental numbers. According to Alton, he and his brother were so adept at copying the gentle, quiet harmonies of their musical idols, the Blue Sky Boys, that some listeners were fooled into mistaking them for the real deal. On Sundays, the duo joined Rev. Marvin Stallings, from Griffin’s Eighth Street Baptist Church, on his radio program, performing what Alton calls “sacred ballads” such as “If I Could Hear My Mother Pray Again.”
The Stitcher Brothers’ radio debut came at a time when America’s love affair with the medium was in full flower. During the Depression years, radio catered to the escapist urges of millions of listeners pining for a palatable dose of alternate reality. A wide variety of “hillbilly” music acts and comedy skits were featured on radio barn dance programs broadcast live by stations powerful enough to reach millions of households. Among the most popular were the National Barn Dance, the Wheeling Jamboree, the Crossroad Follies, and the Grand Ole Opry. On smaller stations, as well, pickers and singers promoted their personal appearances and hawked their songbooks over the air. Listeners, in turn, found solace and inspiration in the old-fashioned mountain ballads and sober, god-fearing songs of morality that dominated the repertoires of the Carter Family, the Blue Sky Boys, Karl and Harty, and legions of lesser known acts. At radio stations both big and small, live country music programs remained a popular staple well into the 1950s.
Following their sting at WKEU, Arlin graduated to Atlanta radio station WGST, where he and his friend Hugh Anglin performed as the Melody Boys. Alton drifted back to Carrollton, occasionally performing at house parties and square dances. In 1938, he married Helen Gable, a local girl. During World War II, the couple relocated to the suburbs of Atlanta, where Alton did his part for the war effort from behind a rivet gun at the huge Bell Bomber plant in Marietta. While living in Kennesaw in 1945, their first daughter, Diane, was born. Two years later, the arrival of Vicki completed the family unit. The war over, Stitcher returned to Carroll County, where he worked at Lawler and other hosiery mills until his retirement in 1972.
During the flush of economic expansion that followed World War II, hundreds of AM radio stations sprang up in small towns and rural communities all over the United States. In 1947, Carrollton got its own station too. With its little 250-watt, army surplus transmitter, WLBB immediately established itself as the voice of the local community. A form of musical democracy reigned as practically anyone with a modicum of talent and a compulsion to be on the radio had access to a ready-made audience. At WLBB, live fifteen-minute programs by hometown hillbilly bands like the Southern Kinfolks, the Georgia Playboys, the Happy Valley Boys, Uncle John Patterson’s Ozark Mountain Boys, and Alton and the Craven Twins were a regular feature. For a few years at least, programs like theirs did their tiny part to stem the nation’s rising tide of cultural homogenization by preserving and popularizing musical styles and traditions with a distinctly local or regional flavor.
WLBB had not been on the air long when Stitcher’s close friend Lee Williams talked him into a return to live radio work. Calling their act the Silver Dew Melody Boys, the duo performed a mix of hymns and popular country songs such as “Kneel at the Cross” and “As Long as I Live” on their Saturday morning show. Judging by how often his name appears in WLBB program logs from the late 1940s and early 50s, Alton quickly carved out a niche for himself as a local favorite. For a singer with Stitcher’s naturally soft voice, whose subtle nuances could easily be drowned out by other instruments or more powerful vocalists, radio provided an ideal vehicle for communication. Amplified by WLBB’s big condenser microphone and projected through the ether into the privacy of listeners’ homes, he could make a direct, emotional connection that may have been harder to achieve in venues where his voice was at the mercy of a room’s natural acoustics. In retrospect, it is not hard to imagine the effect of his plaintive voice, unassuming persona, and reassuring blend of romantic ballads and sacred songs on a predominately rural radio audience during an era when older, more sedate styles of country music served as a comforting reminder of a less unsettling time.
For nearly fifteen years, Stitcher continued to perform on WLBB, sometimes with just his guitar, but more often than not with one or more musical partners. When asked to explain the secret of his popularity, Alton replied with modest good humor, “I guess it’s because I had some good lookin’ woman singing with me. That can help, you know.” It doesn’t seem to have hurt. The growing acceptance and popularity of female country singers and musicians during the 1940s was not lost on Alton, who in the fall of 1947 formed the first in a string of acts featuring female accompanists.
As “Alton and Myrtle,” Stitcher and his sister-in-law, Myrtle Brown Gable, performed live on WLBB three afternoons a week. A few months later, he hooked up with Billye and Betty Craven, seventeen-year-old twins from the little town of Bowdon, Georgia, who by all accounts, were a sister act to be reckoned with. With Betty on lead guitar and Billye on vocals, Alton and the Craven Twins’ popular fifteen-minute program, sponsored by Carrollton’s City Taxi was broadcast live every weekday afternoon at 5:00. Among the mounds of fan mail they received was a letter from a listener fifty miles away in Rome, Georgia. After hearing them perform the popular country standard “Tramp on the Street,” one of its composers, Grady Cole, wrote, “Dear Artist Friends, I appreciate you using ‘The Tramp on the Street.’ You do a very nice job singing it. Please keep up the good work… Wishing you all the good luck and much success in your chosen career.” Sadly, none of the transcription discs recorded at WLBB of Alton and the Craven Twins, or any of Stitcher’s other programs, are believed to have survived.
After the Craven Twins moved away in the autumn of 1948, Stitcher enlisted the help of a talented singer named Frances Ashemore. A few months later, Maureen and Louise Suddith, another sister act, took her place. On occasion, a fiddle player from Villa Rica named James Millians joined them on the radio or at gigs. But like the others, this group was destined to break up after the Suddith Sisters both got married. Although his ideal group would have incorporated mandolin and fiddle, Alton found that it was easier to perform solo or with one accompanist. Commenting some fifty years later on the difficulty of keeping a group together, he explained, “back then when you’d have a group–you thought you had a good group playing–they’d come for a while and then they’d start staying at home. And that would ruin your whole program.” Filling in as his backup musicians around this time were his friends Eugene, Rayford, and Faye Nell Akers, whose group the Radio Homefolks had its own program on WLBB.
During WLBB’s early years, when a local radio station was still a novelty to many in the community, an impromptu audience often congregated on the other side of the big plate glass window that separated WLBB’s studio from the outside world. Among the spectators who wandered in off the sidewalk when Stitcher performed was a young woman named Eula Mae Akers, a first cousin of the Radio Homefolks and a fan of Alton’s guitar playing. An aspiring musician and songwriter, Eula was destined to one day become better acquainted with her guitar hero.
Unlike performers at some larger radio stations, those on WLBB did not get paid for their services. Nor did their gigs at local schoolhouses leave them with much more than gas money in their pockets. For Alton, the postcards and song requests that poured in from fans of his program were gratifying, but it was still his job in the mill that paid the bills. Even though he primarily defined and expressed himself through music, the necessity of holding on to a steady source of income held him back from aggressively pursuing a full-time career as a musician.
Despite the drudgery of working in the mill, Alton discovered that his day job was useful for more than just a paycheck. Alone with his thoughts for much of his shift, he often passed the time by composing lyrics in his head and jotting them down on the back of a time-sheet the first chance he got. When he got home from work, he would sit down with his guitar and work out a melody for his latest set of verses. Wary, however, of having his original songs stolen, he chose not to perform any of them on his radio program. Alton preferred to save his poignant expressions of love and devotion to his sweetheart and his children for another day.
Stitcher’s sporadic attempts to work as a professional musician were dogged by bad luck. While residing temporarily in Dallas, Texas in early 1953, he was offered a gig playing guitar in a traveling show that toured all over the western states. As fate would have it, a broken finger kept him from hitting the road as a roving minstrel. In 1957, a pair of record company talent scouts came sniffing around Carrollton in search of prospects. On the recommendation of his old friend Lee Williams, by this time a local disc jockey and gospel music promoter, they paid Stitcher a visit at home, where he performed an impromptu audition. Recognizing his talent, they wanted him to come to Knoxville, Tennessee to make a record. According to Alton, the proposed album would have featured a combination of his original songs, including “They Call me a Dreamer” and “That’s My Baby,” traditional folk songs like “The Fox,” and a few old hymns. Circumstances, however, conspired to prevent his making the journey and another opportunity to reach a broader audience passed him by. As a result, Stitcher, like thousands of other radio “hillbillies” with a local following, left behind no commercial recordings.
In the wake of that disappointment, Alton adopted a do-it-yourself attitude toward chronicling his music. In 1959, he acquired a reel-to-reel tape recorder similar to those in use at the time by university folklorists and college students fanning out across the South in search of authentic practitioners of American “roots” music. In Stitcher’s case, he inadvertently served as his own folklorist when he began documenting his repertoire in the privacy of his home. Recorded in his living room, these earliest available samples of his music offer a glimpse of a seasoned performer at his peak, his one-of-a-kind voice and masterfully understated guitar playing captured for posterity in an intimate setting. Fortunately, he also had the foresight to preserve several of these reels of what proved to be durable magnetic tape. These tapes verify that Alton’s music was deserving of much greater exposure than small town radio could provide.
In the late 1950s, Alton ventured across the state line every Saturday morning to perform live on Piedmont, Alabama radio station WPID. Sponsored by a local bakery, he relished the pay. “I was on thirty minutes and I got thirty dollars. And that was pretty good back in them times, ’cause you didn’t make too much money in the factories either. You did good to make forty dollars a week.” In an attempt to capitalize on the station’s location in the Appalachian foothills, a disc jockey at WPID billed Stitcher as “The Poet from the Mountain.” Ideas for promoting his program included having him ride bareback on a mule through downtown Piedmont, playing his guitar. Alton politely refused, having ridden on enough mules when he was growing up on the farm. Besides, the visual image that Alton projected was hardly of a hayseed from the hills. As photos of Stitcher from the 1940s and 50s suggest, he prided himself on his appearance. For his performances at schoolhouses and church and family socials, he typically dressed in a sports jacket, dress slacks, and a string tie. As applied to the well-groomed balladeer from the rolling cotton fields of Carroll County, the “Poet from the Mountain” handle was probably a bit misleading.
At the dawn of the 1960s, Alton inhabited a musical universe that had changed a great deal since he first began playing on the radio. Television ruled and the days when the whole family gathered around the radio at night to listen to live barn dance programs were a fast-fading memory. Commercialized country music was shedding its rustic “hillbilly” image in a bid to win a broader audience. Live radio programs were out–hit records were in. To the detriment of local and regional talent like Stitcher, country music disc jockeys dedicated themselves to spinning the latest studio productions from Nashville. In place of a fiddle or mandolin, listeners to country radio in the early 1960s could expect to hear a syrupy wall of violins and a slick chorus of back-up singers on records by their favorite singers. Although weekly broadcasts of the Grand Ole Opry, the Renfro Valley Barn Dance, and the Louisiana Hayride still commanded a large and loyal audience, country music’s golden age of live radio had passed into history.
At WLBB, a popular DJ named Bob Green managed, for a spell, to keep one foot planted in country music’s Top 40 present and the other in its hillbilly past. Until the station changed owners and management in 1963, Green not only spun the latest discs but hosted several live music programs as well. In addition to up-and-coming local country singers like Clyde Durrough and Marshall and Pearl Hannah, Green provided an outlet for older, more traditional performers such as Stitcher and Uncle John Patterson, the “Banjo King.” A distant relative of Alton’s, Patterson was born in Carroll County in 1910 and won acclaim while still in his teens for his performances of traditional banjo tunes at the Georgia Old-Time Fiddlers’ Convention in Atlanta. As a musical associate and fellow traveler of Georgia string band legends Fiddlin’ John Carson, Riley Puckett, Gid Tanner, and Ahaz Gray, Patterson was a direct link to the embryonic days of country music. In 1931, the Vocalion label released a record by the Carroll County Revelers, a group that consisted of Patterson and Alton’s first cousins, Jesse and Henry Chamblie. Like Stitcher, Uncle John had been a popular fixture on WLBB almost since the station first went on the air.
During 1961 and ’62, Alton was a frequent guest performer on his younger friends Marshall and Pearl Hannah’s weekly program. Elizabeth Cooper, a young woman who got her start singing gospel on WLBB in the late 1940s when she was only eight or nine years old, sometimes accompanied him on duets. During this period, he could also be heard on Rev. Lenny Palmer’s program, warming up listeners with two or three sacred songs before the preaching commenced.
The flickering torch of live country music on WLBB and most other radio stations had been snuffed out altogether by 1963. As country music drifted further and further from its roots in rural traditions, Alton dropped out of the entertainment business altogether. From that point on, he chose to share his talents mainly with family and friends. Unlike a number of other tradition-oriented musicians during this period, including his former neighbors, J.N. and Onie Baxter, Alton did not seek a refuge in bluegrass music. As country music historian Wayne Daniel has noted, many country musicians during the 1950s and 60s “turned to bluegrass music in search of a sound and a musical philosophy more in keeping with their backgrounds and tastes.” But in Alton’s case, the fast tempos, tightly-arranged ensemble sound, and instrumental virtuosity of bluegrass were the antithesis of his own unhurried and economical approach. In other words, Alton’s music was built for comfort, not for speed.
Conceivably, Stitcher, by this time in his forties, might have been able to take advantage of the renewed interest in older styles of rural music that fueled the folk music revival of the late 1950s and early 1960s. By rights, an artist with his background, repertoire, and talent should have had little difficulty finding a receptive audience during the folk boom. However, the coffeehouses, nightclubs, and college campuses where the folk scene was in full swing were a world away from working-class Carrollton, where Alton remained focused.
Alton tied the knot for the second time in 1963. His new bride was the former Eula Mae Akers, whose path had first crossed his in the late 1940s. In 1968, the couple left the Carrollton city limits behind to live undisturbed on two acres of wooded land several miles outside of town. They were still there thirty-three years later when a curious graduate student from the nearby State University of West Georgia dropped by in search of old recordings. In many ways, the forty years that had passed since Stitcher went into virtual seclusion as a performer had treated him kindly. Certainly, the quality of his music had suffered little, if at all. With Eula’s unwavering encouragement and support, he simply went right on singing and playing his favorite old songs the same way he had for decades, paying scant attention to musical trends and passing fads.
Diligently preserved and documented on reel-to-reel tapes, cassettes, and notebooks containing several hundred pages of song lyrics transcribed by hand, Stitcher’s music and repertoire are distinctly the products of another time. He is a direct link in the “unbroken chain of musical performance” that are country music historian Bill C. Malone has identified as running through early country music acts like Karl and Harty, the Blue Sky Boys, Mac and Bob, and the Carter Family. Like them, he draws from an old and deep reservoir of song. His sources include ancient, death-obsessed folk ballads brought over by boat from the British Isles; pre-Civil War songs composed for the black-face minstrel stage; genteel parlor songs composed during the late 1800s by professional, urban songwriters from the north and quickly taken to heart by folk musicians in the mountains, valleys, and flatlands of the South; and a large body of old hymns learned from shaped-note songbooks. Another major source of inspiration for Stitcher are the romantic ballads written in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s and popularized by country music’s first generation of professional entertainers. Regardless of their sources–whether taught to him face-to-face by a family member or fellow musician, plucked out of the air from a radio barn dance, cribbed off a record album, or composed in his own head–the songs he sings all boil down to “just plain country music and good, old-time sacred songs,” in Alton’s estimation.
His highly individual vocal style seems to have been copied from no one. Useful comparisons can be made, however, to the “Kentucky Mountain Boy,” Bradley Kincaid, a sweet-voiced folksinger and radio balladeer popular during the 1920s and 30s. Like Stitcher, his repertoire incorporated a large number of traditional folk songs and genteel parlor songs from the 19th century such as “Listen to the Mockingbird.” Yet, while Stitcher recalls hearing Kincaid’s music and admired his singing, he never owned any of his recordings nor does he acknowledge him as a direct influence. Any similarities between them are probably coincidental. Apparently the two singers soaked up a number of the same songs from the common pool of traditional and popular music that was floating around in rural communities throughout the South when they were growing up.
Alton’s “rediscovery” has led to a number of unexpected developments. In the fall of 2002, the release of four of his old recordings on the compact disc “Everybody’s Tuned to the Radio: Rural Music Traditions in West Georgia, 1947-1979,” nudged him out of self-imposed retirement. A bit nervous at first, he sang into a radio microphone for the first time in approximately forty years when he appeared as a guest on the Appalachian Trails folk music program on Carrollton station WUWG, performing a few songs and discussing his life and his music. A few months later, he faced the largest crowds of his life when he performed at two sold-out concerts at Carrollton’s Cultural Arts Center to promote the CD. Proud of the fact that his young granddaughter, Angela Tyson, knew many of his songs and showed a real interest in carrying on the traditions of his music, he brought her onto the stage to sing with him.
Around this time, Stitcher introduced his music to a generation of listeners whose parents had not even been born when he was in his prime as a radio entertainer. In the company of West Georgia bluegrass pioneers J.N. and Onie Baxter, he took part in a series of concerts designed to demonstrate to Carroll County 8th graders the vitality of music traditions in their own communities. At the end of the one of these middle-school performances, Alton found himself surrounded by admiring female students as moved by his heartfelt delivery of a love song as their grandmothers may have been during an earlier era. As one student commented, “it is really cool that an eighty-seven-year-old can still play music and have fun doing it.”
In the midst of all this public activity, Stitcher entered a recording studio for the first time. Between March and June 2003, he recorded over sixty selections from his extensive repertoire. Some were representative of the romantic ballads and sacred songs that were requested over and over by listeners to his various radio programs between 1936 and 1963. Others were traditional songs that have stayed with him since he first heard them as a child. He also finally got an opportunity to record some of the original compositions he wrote back in the 1950s.
A sympathetic musical backdrop was provided by a small cast of players steeped in old-time country and folk music. In a throwback to his radio days, he was joined in the studio by singer, guitarist, and songwriter Faye Marshall, who, as Faye Nell Akers of the Radio Homefolks, had performed with Alton on WLBB in the late 1940s. His niece, Donna Fuller, blended her voice with his on several duets that serve as a reminder of the folk roots of country music. Russell McClanahan, an accomplished old-time country and bluegrass musician from Rome, Georgia, contributed mandolin, banjo, harmonica, and backing vocals. Also present were master fiddler James Bryan from Mentone, Alabama, who has recorded as a solo artist for Rounder Records as well as performing and recording with legendary guitarist Norman Blake. James’ daughter Rachel Bryan, who has been playing guitar for a relatively short time, made a lasting impression on everyone with her professionalism and skill. Comfortable in the studio around family members, old friends, and newer musical associates attuned to his wavelength, Alton performed song after song with unself-conscious ease, never seeming to tire.
The songs on this collection are a reflection of the eighty years or more that Alton Stitcher has been making music in one form or fashion. During his lifetime, the world around his has transformed itself in strange and disturbing ways, yet the man and his music both seem impervious to the negative effects of these changes. In reality, his job as a mill worker was only a cover for his true calling: digging down deep into the mother lode of American folk, gospel, and country music in order to communicate the sincerity, tenderness, and truth of his own heart. As long as artists like Alton Stitcher live among us, the soul of man will never die.
Mick Buck, 2003