The first great Nashville session fiddler, Tommy Jackson has probably been heard on more country records than any other musician. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, he dominated the field, appearing on records by every major star of the era, from Hank Williams to Bill Monroe, from Ray Price to George Jones. He virtually invented the standard country fiddle backup style, and in the early 1950s had a string of hit albums of his own that both reflected and stimulated the square dance craze.
Born in Birmingham, Alabama, March 31, 1926, Jackson and his family moved to Nashville when he was barely one, and he grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry and Nashville radio. He remembered being especially impressed with two of the fiddlers on the early Opry, George Wilkerson of the Fruit Jar Drinkers and Arthur Smith of the Dixieliners. Even though there was not much music in his immediate family, Tommy’s father, a barber, encouraged him, and Tommy became a child prodigy of sorts; when he was seven, he went into Nashville bars and sawed out fiddle tunes for nickels and dimes. By the time he was twelve, he was going on tour with Johnny Wright and Kitty Wells. With a neighbor, he formed a group called the Tennessee Mountaineers and soon began to play over Nashville station WSIX. By the time he was seventeen, he was playing regularly on the Opry with Curly Williams and his Georgia Peach Pickers, and later with Paul Howard. But on April 17, 1944, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps, and spent the rest of the war as a tail gunner on a B-29. (He eventually won four bronze stars and an air medal for his service.)
Discharged in April 1946, Tommy returned to Nashville and did road tours with various Opry stars, including Whitey Ford and Jimmy Selph. He didn’t like the road grind, though, and hooked up with Milton Estes, then starting a radio show on WSM. This job led to a similar one with Red Foley, who had just come to town as a replacement for Roy Acuff on the Opry. This band, the Cumberland Valley Boys, including