Historians love to talk about the influence of the blues in early country music, and it is true that many legends, from Jimmie Rodgers to Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith, featured blues in their repertoires. But when you look at the actual singing style of most of these early stars, very few sound like such singers as Blind Lemon Jefferson or Robert Johnson. One notable exception is the team of Tom Darby and Jimmie Tarlton, country music’s first really great duet team. They recorded over sixty songs for three major labels in the period from 1927 to 1933, and were best known for their two-sided Columbia hit “Birmingham Jail” and “Columbus Stockade Blues.” It was one of the best-selling records of the 1920s, and the first version of two songs that have become standards. In later years, acts like Willie Nelson and Danny Davis reworked “Columbus Stockade Blues,” and “Birmingham Jail” became so much a part of the country repertoire that many people consider it a folk song. Built on Tom Darby’s incredible lead singing and Jimmie Tarlton’s pioneering slide guitar work, the duo’s sound was one of the loosest, most soulful, most unpredictable in classic country music. And their repertoire was quirky, eclectic, and vast, ranging from real country blues to old Victorian parlor songs.
Jimmie Tarlton was born the son of sharecropper parents in Orange County, South Carolina, in 1892. From his mother he learned to sing old ballads; from his father he learned to play the archaic fretless banjo. He also learned the guitar, and by the time he was twelve he was playing in the open tuning and slide style he had picked up from black musicians in North and South Carolina and Georgia. At seventeen he left home, determined to make his living as a musician. Like many early country musicians, he spent time in the textile mills of the Piedmont region of North Carolina, and then took off “busking”—traveling around the country playing on street corners, in bars, at county fairs, wherever he could find listeners willing to pitch a nickel into his