Author: Sargent, Geoff

First Generation Dobro

“Summertime…..and the livin is easy”, so goes the Gershwin song. Since I’m guilty of this verse, I am posting a column I wrote 2 years ago on Cliff Carlisle, a prolific country and bluegrass musician, and blue yodler. Maybe some of you already know of Cliff Carlisle but I just recently discovered his music and was surprised to find that he wrote several songs now considered standards in bluegrass and other related genres. I was even more surprised and excited to find that he was a first generation dobro player. Cliff was born Taylorsville, KY, on May 6, 1904 which makes him about 24 years older than Josh Graves, the reigning patron saint of dobro players.
I have to admit that my introduction to Cliff came via a song I heard performed by Jorma Kaukonen called “Tom Cat Blues” also know as “Ring Tailed Tom”. It is amazing to me that this song has not been covered all that much in any genre, though The New City Lost Ramblers and The Rooftop Singers covered Tom Cat Blues in the late 50s early 60s. Tom Cat Blues is one of those humorous clever bawdy songs that describes human male “courting” antics in the guise of a Tom Cat. It seems that Cliff Carlisle specialized in writing bawdy songs with his favorite themes covering farmyard bawdy and domestic strife. Some of these songs explored the antics of Shanghai roosters, ringtailed Tom Cats and used other metaphors for sex…one of the more unusual metaphors, involving phonographs, is in a song he wrote called That Nasty Swing. Occasionally, Cliff’s racier songs were recorded under pseudonyms, one of which is Ash Can Blues. Apart from the bawdy songs, Cliff actually was a very prolific song writer and claims to have written over 300 songs during his career. And he is credited with writing the bluegrass standard Footprints in the Snow and Just Because (the original title was You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone).

Cliff Carlisle had two other distinctions: his yodeling and dobro accompaniment. As contemporaries of Jimmie Rogers, Cliff and his brother Bill helped to pioneer blue yodeling and recorded with Jimmie Rogers in the early 1930s. Cliff is absolutely a yodeling maniac, which can be found in almost every song he recorded. Cliff also made the unusual choice to accompany himself exclusively on a dobro, usually a custom-built National. There are few modern dobro players, professional or amateur, that do this, which makes it even more unusual for the times. Cliff credited his early interest in dobro from listening the early Hawaiian slack key musicians Sol Hoopi and Frank Ferera and unlike many contemporary musicians he presented himself as either 'Hawaiian' or 'Hillbilly' (or 'Cowboy'), depending on where, and to what sort of audience, he was performing.

Given his prolific and successful song writing I would have expected Cliff to be enshrined as a member of the Grand Old Opry of Country Hall of Fame, but those honors belong to his more successful brother Bill Carlisle. Bill performed on the Grand Old Opry from 1953 until 2002 where he made his last performance in a wheelchair! Bill was inducted into the Country Music Hall-Of-Fame in 2002. Cliff Carlisle died April 2, 1983, at the age of 79 in Lexington, Kentucky.

More in depth information about Cliff Carlisle and his brother Bill are in the web sites below:

The adolescent in me, or maybe I should turn that on it’s head because I usually have to reach out to the adult in me, always enjoys a clever bawdy song and now I have a whole library of Cliff Carlisle songs to try and convince my bands to play.
Posted:  8/19/2012

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