In 1924, Columbia Records Artist & Repertoire talent scout, Frank Walker, came to North Georgia asking himself, “who can I record from this area?”. Fiddlin’ John Carson’s recording of Little Old Log Cabin In The Lane with Okeh records was starting to sell in Atlanta and Frank wanted to get in front of the coming wave. Frank asked Gid Tanner, who was already a regional celebrity through live performances, if he would come to New York and record some songs. Gid replied that he would if he could bring along a blind guitar player by the name of Riley Puckett. Frank agreed and in March of 1924, Tanner and Puckett recorded numerous songs that proved to be successful.
Before this, there was no well-defined “country music” industry. Radio was still in its beginnings. WSB in Atlanta was only 2 years old. Nashville was just another city in the south. Record companies were recording orchestras and classical music as well as “big band” type songs. The music industry was still driven by sheet music and “tin pan alley” song pluggers.
Walker saw a new market, a market for a type of music he enjoyed. He wanted to record music that people already knew. He dubbed this brand of music as “familiar tunes old and new”. Once Gid Tanner and Riley Puckett’s recordings began to have success, he simply repeated the process, finding other popular artists in other areas to record and sell. This business model not only allowed him to discover some of Country music’s greatest pioneers, but also laid the foundation for the country music industry that is still intact today.
In 1926, Walker recorded a group of musicians from the Atlanta area that have since been declared “Country Music’s First Supergroup”. Walker took the ever popular Gid Tanner from Dacula, Riley Puckett from Alpharetta, Clayton McMichen from Altoona and Fate Norris from the Dalton area, and dubbed them “The Skillet Lickers”. Each member was already very popular in their respective hometowns as well as the entire region of North Georgia. Each member filled a very important role in the group. Gid Tanner was the “cut up” or the entertainer of the group. McMichen was the polished musician while Puckett was considered a singer’s singer. Norris, also an entertainer, never took much of a lead role, but kept the rhythm steady. Other musicians such as Lowe Stokes, Bert Layne, Ted Hawkins and Gordon Tanner contributed to their early success, as well. The Skillet Lickers seemed to have struck a nerve with rural Americans. They recorded songs that were already known, many of which were already in public domain. The Skillet Lickers performed and recorded those old songs with an all-new energy that no one, even to this day, could match.
For five years, the Skillet Lickers proved to be one of Frank Walker and Columbia Records’ biggest success stories for their “rural” or “hillbilly” classification of music. Their success also had an influence on other legendary musicians and superstars that would follow across all genres of Country music. People like Jimmie Rodgers, Roy Acuff, Bob Wills, Merle Travis, Hank Williams and many others were influenced and followed the path these men had cut before them.
Over 90 years later, the Skillet Licker name, music, and tradition has been handed down and continues to live on through four generations of Tanners. Gid’s grandson, Phil and great grandson Russ have kept the name, as well as the music, going for almost a century, and show no signs of slowing down.