Tennessee Ramblers with Cecil Campbell and Harry Blair
Organized by Dick Hartman in the late 1920s, the Tennessee Ramblers transferred to Charlotte from Rochester, New York in 1934 under the sponsorship of Crazy Water Crystals. At that time, the band featured Hartman, “Horse Thief Harry” Blair, Kenneth “Pappy” Wolfe, Jack Gillette and native North Carolinian Cecil Campbell. The ensemble quickly established themselves as WBT’s most popular stringband, receiving over one hundred thousand pieces of fan mail by the end of their first seven months of broadcasting here.
After a stint of about a year at WBT, the Ramblers moved on to Atlanta to work at stations WSB and WGST. They returned to Charlotte the following year to perform again on WBT for the Southern Radio Corporation.
In the late 1930s and early 1940s, the Ramblers were in and out of Charlotte, visiting Pittsburgh, Cincinatti, and Louisville for radio work. (Dick Hartman left the band in 1937.) Also during this period the group was beckoned to Hollywood to make several successful western films with cowboy singing stars such as Gene Autry and Tex Ritter. Titles included Ride Ranger Ride, Ridin’ the Cherokee Trail, Swing Your Partner, with Dale Evans andOh My Darling Clementine, featuring a young Roy Acuff.
In the mid-1940s, Cecil Campbell took the reins of the band and led various organizations of the Tennessee Ramblers up into the 1970s.
Born in 1911, Campbell was raised on a tobacco farm in Stokes County, North Carolina near Belews Creek and took an early interest in the folk music which surrounded him as a child. He learned hundreds of songs and became a skillful player of several stringed instruments.
As a young man he determined that he would try to make a living as a country musician and songwriter. He was given his first opportunity to perform on radio by station WSJS in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Seeking new opportunities, Campbell hitchhiked in 1932 to Pittsburgh where he lived with his brother. He soon auditioned for Dick Hartman who was looking for a guitar player to join his Crazy Tennessee Ramblers. Campbell was given the job and followed the band up to Rochester and then back home to North Carolina. He has remained based in Charlotte ever since.
Campbell has stayed close to home for the past thirty years or so, but has been an active composer and performer. He is a prolific songwriter with dozens of published songs to his credit. He has also recorded a number of albums, several of which feature him on Hawaiian steel guitar. Every year, Campbell, along with other veterans of the old western films including Claude Casey, will perform a favorite number or two at the popular western film festivals held in Charlotte and Raleigh.
William Blair who came to be known as “Horse Thief Harry” is another original Tennessee Rambler participating in The Charlotte Country Music Story. Like Cecil Campbell, Blair joined the group in Pittsburgh in the early 1930s.
Blair was born in August of 1912 in New Martinsville, West Virginia. He went to work for Wierton Steel as a young teenager and picked up guitar from an uncle who also worked in the plant. Around the beginning of the Great Depression, he travelled to Pittsburgh to audition for Hartman’s band. He wasn’t offered a job and returned to West Virginia. But soon thereafter, he heard Hartman dedicate a song to him on the radio and then announce that he wanted the young musician to come back to Pittsburgh to join the band! Blair recalls with mixed emotions the countless dances the group played for in depressed coal mining towns. “We were lucky to earn seventy-five cents to a dollar for our services back then,” he remembers.
Blair remained with the Ramblers until 1943 when he entered the service. He returned to the group following his discharge in 1945 and performed often on theBriarhoppershow with Tex Martin (Martin Shope), Cecil Campbell, Jack Gillette, and Claude Casey. Also during the 1940s, he toured with the Grand Ole Opry Tent Show with some of Nashville’s biggest stars. At the end of the decade he worked for a time as a solo act in Newport News, Virginia and Nashville, Tennessee.
In 1949, Blair married and moved to Columbus, Ohio. Here the couple gave birth to a son and Blair decided to quit the road to raise his family. Eventually he returned to work at Wierton Steel where he stayed until 1968. Blair and his wife then retired to Murrell’s Inlet, near Myrtle Beach, South Carolina where they reside today in 1985.
— from George Holt, ed., The Charlotte Country Music Story (Spirit Square Arts Center and North Carolina Arts Council, 1985)
Cecil Campbell died June 18, 1989, but many of the Tennessee Ramblers’ records are now in print again on CD. The early band, as heard in Pittsburgh and on Charlotte’s WBT, is the subject of Dick Hartman’s Washboard Wonders / Tennessee Ramblers issued on the “British Archive of Country Music” label. The CD is mostly comprised of tracks from the band’s June and October 1936 Charlotte sessions. Fiddler Elmer Warren — later rechristened Fiddlin’ Hank when he joined the WBT Briarhoppers — contributes some of the first jazz-inspired “take-off” solos heard in any Charlotte recordings. After Hartman departed the band, they made a few last recordings in Rock Hill, SC, before leaving the area, heard on the BACM CD Tennessee Ramblers, Vol. 2, The Jack Gillette Years 1939 – 46.
Hartman’s accordion player Cecil Campbell stayed in Charlotte and kept another unit of the Tennessee Ramblers going there for decades, featured on the German CD label Bronco Buster/Binge Discs: Cecil Campbell and His Tennessee Ramblers, and Jasmine records CD Cecil Campbell and His Tennessee Ramblers, Steel Guitar Swing.
Musicians who took part in the Charlotte Country Music Story concerts
Briarhoppers and Charles Crutchfield
Joe and Janette Carter
George Hamilton IV
Snuffy Jenkins and Homer “Pappy” Sherrill
Johnson Family Singers and Betty Johnson
Zeke and Wiley Morris
Red Clay Ramblers
Tennessee Ramblers with Cecil Campbell and Harry Blair
Charlotte/Rock Hill Recordings available on CD (36 page pdf)