Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2024/spring/Section13/Bill Carlisle

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Bill Carlisle[edit | edit source]

Bill Carlisle was an American hillbilly (a genre that may be referred to as bluegrass today) singer, songwriter, guitarist, and comedian from Kentucky.

Mrs. Caudill and her daughter in their dugout, Pie Town, New Mexico, listening to the radio.

Biography[edit | edit source]

Early Life[edit | edit source]

Carlisle was born in Briar Ridge, in the southeastern hill country of Kentucky. He was one of seven children, all of whom were interested in and practiced music. Bill first learned to play guitar at 7 years old and accompanied that with singing, both of which he learned easily. It was around this time when he started to perform his music, in duets with his older brother Cliff, for his neighborhood’s tobacco farmers.

At 15, Carlisle and his family moved from rural Kentucky to Louisville to find jobs. At 17, Carlisle composed his first song, “Little ‘Dobe Shack”. He then worked at the Ford plant in Louisville, while writing, recording, and performing music on the side. After feeling dissatisfied not being able to pursue music more and a work-related finger injury, Carlisle stopped working there after 3 years.

Later Life and Music Career[edit | edit source]

In 1931, Carlisle followed his family when they moved from Louisville to a small town on the Ohio River. It was around this time when Carlisle’s genre, hillbilly, began to grow popular on the radio. Carlisle and his brother Cliff reunited in their musical efforts as the Carlisle Brothers. They performed on radio stations in four southern states, and even as far north as New York when they traveled there to make records.

After Cliff started a family and the brothers realized the financial benefits, they began to perform separately. Carlisle began performing with his group The Mountain Music Boys. By 1939, they were frequent guests on radio programs in the southeast. Besides hillbilly music, Carlisle also performed comedy on the air, in the form of his uber-hillbilly alter ego, Hot Shot Elmer, who would speak with an exaggerated hillbilly accent and stutter. This character gained him dedicated fans who would come to see his radio performances in person and who would send Carlisle fan mail, mostly addressed to Hot Shot.

Social Contexts[edit | edit source]

Increased Prevalence of the Radio[edit | edit source]

Though the depression proved devastating for most businesses, the radio grew in production and use during this time, especially in the rural south. From 1930 to 1940, the percentage of rural southern homes that had a radio receiver increased from 9% to 70% (Craig, 4). While the radio was used for news and weather broadcasts, it was perhaps entertainment, such as music, that was the most impactful on the rural South. “Although instant access to news, weather, and agricultural information was important, it was radio's entertainment programming with its tantalizing advertisements that showed Depression-era rural families the lifestyle a modernized rural America would bring,” (Craig, 5). These advertisements did help the depressed economy, a CBS study found. There was a positive correlation between the amount of radio listened to and the amount of advertised goods purchased. As said by CBS: "The more they listen, the more they buy," (Craig, 10). {1}

A Shifting Access to Music[edit | edit source]

Music also saw a great transformation during the Depression. With little access to touring bands, many people relied on the radio for musical performances. “Although not directly a project under the FMP [Federal Music Program], the organization also took advantage of the growing popularity of the radio as a means of reaching broader audiences, specifically to gain listeners among people who did not have the means, or perhaps the desire, to attend a concert in person. Many FMP bands had weekly broadcasts, as noted in numerous advertisements in newspapers, such as the Arizona Republic, which discussed the events for National Music Week in 1938, including an FMP band concert over KOY radio station, and a similar concert following every day that week,” (Carey, 76). {2} As mentioned above, this reliance on the radio for music access can be seen in newspaper advertisements for radio musical programs of all genres, such as from Henderson, N.C.’s The-Times-News. "The Blue Ridge male quartet, composed of Hendersonville colored men, will sing over radio station WWNC from 4:45 to 5 p.m. Friday.” {3} Another newspaper during the Depression called music, especially instrumental, the form of entertainment most suitable for radio. {4}

The Rising Popularity of Bluegrass Music[edit | edit source]

The Depression era saw the rise in the popularity of bluegrass music, which was often referred to as hillbilly music at the time. The genre gained popularity through the radio performances that its musicians were doing regularly during the time period. Live radio shows were professional hillbilly musicians' primary source of activity and income, as they were unable to receive attractive payments from record companies, who were hurt by the effects of the depression, for records. “Generally a band was employed by a Southern radio station and might have a weekly series of live shows in addition to their appearance on the station's Saturday night Jamboree," (Rosenburg, 144). As record companies bounced back and musicians began to record their tracks, as well as rural bluegrass listeners moving to larger city markets for work, expanding the audience, the genre was pushed to prominence. Bill Monroe along with his band The Blue Grass Boys, the namesake of the genre, were some of the very first musicians to become stars of the genre.{5}

Footnotes[edit | edit source]

  1. Craig, Steve. 2006. “‘The More They Listen, the More They Buy’ Radio and the Modernizing of Rural America, 1930-1939.” Agricultural History 80 (1): 1–16. https://www.jstor.org/stable/
  2. Carey, Rachel. 2018. “Music in Unconventional Spaces: The Changing Music Scene of Great Depression America, 1929-1938.” 143–49. James Madison University Scholarly Commons: James Madison University. https://commons.lib.jmu.edu/master201019/562/pdf3745101.pdfrefreqid=fastlydefault%3Ae3e60d426fe581e7ce42c3d4c457a4c5&ab_segments=0%2Fbasic_search_gsv2%2Fcontrol&origin=&initiator=&acceptTC=1.
  3. 1935. “Local Quartet on Radio.” The-Times-News, Henderson, N.C., May 23, 1935. https://www.loc.gov/resource/sn86063811/1935-05-23/ed-1/?sp=4&q=radio+listings&r=-0.209,0.318,1.571,0.659,0.
  4. 1931. “Poor Radio Programs.” Peninsula Enterprise, September 5, 1931. https://www.loc.gov/resource/sn94060041/1931-09-05/ed-1/?sp=6&q=music+on+radio+during+great+depression&r=-0.065,-0.228,1.092,0.458,0.
  5. Rosenburg, Neil . 1966. From Sound to Style: The Emergence of Bluegrass. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University. https://www.jstor.org/stable/538627?searchText=hillbilly+music+during+the+great+depression&searchUri=%2Faction%2FdoBasicSearch%3FQuery%3Dhillbilly%2Bmusic%2Bduring%2Bthe%2Bgreat%2Bdepression&ab_segments=0%2Fbasic_search_gsv2%2Fcontrol&refreqid=fastly-default%3Ab90561a4cca6760739544165e2bba8e9&seq=1.

References[edit | edit source]

-Carey, Rachel. 2018. “Music in Unconventional Spaces: The Changing Music Scene of Great Depression America, 1929-1938.”

-Craig, Steve. 2006. “‘The More They Listen, the More They Buy’ Radio and the Modernizing of Rural America, 1930-1939.”

-Rosenburg, Neil . 1966. "From Sound to Style: The Emergence of Bluegrass." Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University.

-1931. “Poor Radio Programs.” Peninsula Enterprise, September 5, 1931.

-1935. “Local Quartet on Radio.” The-Times-News, Henderson, N.C., May 23, 1935.