For over four decades now Bill Carlisle and the Carlisles have been known as one of the zaniest and most colorful groups on the Grand Ole Opry. In recent years, their fans have been treated to the antics of octogenarian Bill Carlisle racing on stage in a green wig, urging the audience on to a “standing ovation,” and leaping as high as the WSM microphone in the midst of songs like “Too Old to Cut the Mustard.” What leader Bill Carlisle seldom tells the audience is that he and his group have one of the longest pedigrees of any act on the Opry—a pedigree that extends back to the very dawn of country music and embraces some of the raunchiest blues ever cut, rich gospel songs, outrageous novelty songs, and lively tunes that pointed the way to rockabilly and rock ’n’ roll.
Before there was the Carlisles, there was Bill Carlisle and his brother Cliff, two of the biggest stars of the 1930s. Born in Wakefield, Kentucky, in 1908, Bill followed in the footsteps of older brother Cliff, who helped pioneer the Hawaiian guitar and dobro and backed Jimmie Rodgers on several records. In July 1933, Cliff managed to land Bill a record contract with the old American Record Company, and soon the younger Carlisle had a major hit with a song called “Rattlesnake Daddy.” The ARC publicist was soon promoting “Smilin’ Bill” as a successor to blue yodeler Jimmie Rodgers, and was urging fans to see him as a hot young singer of white blues. And as Franklin Roosevelt struggled to get Americans off of soup lines, Bill Carlisle entertained them with off-color blues like “String Bean Mama,” “Copper Head Mama” and “Sally Let Your Bangs Hang Down.” By the end of the decade, Bill had switched to Bluebird and then Decca, and was demonstrating his versatility by recording hits like “The Heavenly Train” and “A Shack by the Side of the Road.”
Though he made dozens of records, Bill was like most of the other country singers of the time: He made his true living from radio. For a time he was at WLAP in Lexington, and then moved on to stations in