It was during one of the Grand Ole Opry’s “Old-Timer’s Night” shows from the 1980s, and it was one of the most memorable scenes in a night that had seen many. Backstage, waiting to go on, was a tall, dignified man with fine white hair, a classic ice-cream suit, and a regal manner. Under his arm he held a fiddle. Around him were a diverse group of friends, reporters, and younger musicians anxious for a glimpse of a legend. He talked about growing up in the 1920s and learning from an earlier generation of fiddlers that few at the Opry had even heard about: Uncle Jimmy McCarroll, Sawmill Tom Smith, Jess Young, Joe Lee, Natchee the Indian. A burst of applause from the front signaled that it was time for the guest to go on. He walked quickly on stage and began to entertain. First a fast, deftly played version of “Listen to the Mocking Bird”; then a comic version of “Johnson’s Old Gray Mule,” in which the fiddler lowered his instrument, sang a verse, pulled on his chin and gave a raucous imitation of a mule in full bray. In the wings, Grandpa Jones walked up. “Only one person can make that sound,” he said. “It’s the flower of the flock, Curly Fox.”
Out front, the audience agreed and gave the man in the white suit a rousing ovation. Some of them realized that for three decades, from the 1930s to the 1960s, Curly Fox and his wife, Texas Ruby, were one of the best-known husband and wife duos in country music. Ruby’s deep, sultry voice and honky-tonk songs, coupled with Curly’s love of blues and novelty songs, had won them fans far beyond the normal arenas of country music—they played places like the Hollywood Bowl, the Village Barn in New York, and the Pump Room in Detroit. They were at the peak of their popularity in the late 1940s and early ’50s, just as network radio was giving way to the new medium of television. And though Curly and Ruby made their mark in both areas, they were among those many country stars who made it big without ever having very many hit records. Their remarkable career was still in full flight when tragedy ended the partnership in 1963.