There are dozens of unsung heroes in the annals of country music; some are instrumentalists, like the legendary Georgia fiddler Joe Lee, who introduced the “long bow” style to greats like Clayton McMichen; some are songwriters, like the gospel singer Grady Cole, who wrote “Tramp on the Street”; others were promoters and radio personalities, like the late Eddie Hill, who helped introduce the music of the Louvin Brothers to a wide audience. But one of the most unsung, and one of the most mysterious, was a remarkable blackface comedian and singer named Emmett Miller. He flourished in the 1920s and 1930s, made a handful of records, and left an indelible impression on several generations of major country singers.
How major? Try Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills and Tommy Duncan, the Callahan Brothers, Hank Williams, Merle Haggard. Hank Williams had Miller’s old 78s in his personal record collection; Merle Haggard dedicated his I Love Dixie Blues album to Miller. What kind of musician could inspire such a wide variety of imitators? Miller’s story is as fascinating as his music.
Until recently, only bits and pieces of Miller’s story had been known, and several of his earliest records are so rare that no copies are even known to survive. Miller himself died before historians could interview him, and it is doubtful that he even knew the extent of his influence on modern country music. He left behind, though, a number of friends and colleagues who remembered him and kept scrapbooks. Best of all, one of them preserved a “self-interview” that Miller did in the 1940s—a script he gave to local radio announcers when he was doing personal appearances in the area. In it, Miller describes himself and his partner as minstrel men. And it was this tradition, not folk music or blues or country music, that gave Miller his start.
We now know that Emmett Miller was born in Macon, Georgia, in 1903. In 1919, when he was only sixteen, he started performing as a