Most people do not exactly consider Nashville a mecca for old-time music. At fiddlers’ contests in Alabama, bluegrass festivals in Virginia, and back-step dances in North Carolina, “Nashville” has become synonymous with everything that old-time music stands against. Yet when you get beyond Music Row Nashville, and get to Nashville the town, or Nashville the community of musicians, a different picture emerges. From as long ago as the 1920s the rolling hills around Nashville have produced an impressive stream of traditional musicians, and over the years more than a few of them were drawn into the periphery of the Nashville music industry. It is still possible in Nashville or its suburbs to find people who toured with the Delmore Brothers, played bass for Uncle Dave Macon, jammed with Arthur Smith, picked with the original Coon Creek Girls, or crossed bows with Fiddlin’ Cowan Powers. Go out a little further from Nashville, down to Tullahoma or Tracy City or Manchester or Dickson, and you’ll find even more remnants of old-time music, and hear tales about an old-time music culture that existed, and still exists today, in the very shadow of Nashville’s bizarre glamour. This is a story about a part of this culture. It is about a man that many people consider the best old-time singer in the state: a lean, lanky, easygoing man named Roy Harper.
Roy’s commitment to the old songs he sings is not superficial, nor is it academic, nor is it a matter of family heritage, nor is it a matter of aesthetics. “I want you to tell people that I live in the past,” he said recently, “and that I dwell on and thrive on memories of the past. If I had my way, we’d still be driving Model A Fords and listening to Jimmie Rodgers on the Victrola.” As a matter of fact, Roy does have an impressive collection of 78s—Jimmie Rodgers as well as others—which he does listen to and which he does learn songs from. And as a matter of fact, when Roy shows up for a job, he does arrive in his cherry-red 1948