|Uncle Jimmy Thompson bids ‘Opry’ goodbye|
|Thursday, May 24, 2012|
By KEN BECK
After 1926, Thompson’s “Opry” career was about kaput. Only four appearances are documented for 1927, and his only turn in 1928 was on the anniversary show. His age and his taste for liquor most likely hastened his exit from the show that made him an instant celebrity.
“Uncle Jimmy was getting pretty old. He was 77 when he played on WSM and had a stroke and was blind in one eye. So it was pretty tough to get along, and it was a 40-mile trip from Laguardo. It was not just hopping over on the interstate,” Rumble said.
Alcohol proved the elderly musician's undoing.“He really liked to drink. It was natural for those coming out of his tradition,” Rumble said. “Entertaining around the house and traveling along the road for tips, you get yourself a couple of snorts of whisky, everybody danced and had a good time. But that did not really work on radio where you had a structured show and have to get performers on and off. Sometimes they couldn’t get Uncle Jimmy to stop, and Hay had to escort him off stage. During his last performance, he had more than one too many, and he conked out and fell off the chair.”
Two of Thompson’s Laguardo neighbors were "ear" witnesses to the fact.
Bert Norther told scribe Wolfe, “I remember one night when Bill Bates had the store here (in Mt Juliet). We went down there on Saturday night to listen to Uncle Jimmy on his radio. Bill Bates called down there and told George Hay to get Jimmy to play ‘When You and I Were Young, Maggie.’ He cut loose on it and he never did quit. Finally, they had to stop him, got him out of the way. He’d just had one drink too many.”
And neighbor Sam Kirkpatrick said, “I’ll never forget the last night Uncle Jimmy played. He kinda like his bottle pretty well. He was playin’, and before he finished his piece there was this stopping, and we didn’t hear nothing for a minute, then George Hay come and said, ‘Uncle Jimmy was sick tonight’ or something. Come to find out later, he had just keeled over and passed out.”
WSM, which represented the National Life and Accident Insurance Company, was a family company, so this habit was not in the station’s best interest nor was it making Thompson wealthy.
“That was pretty much it for Uncle Jimmy,” Rumble said. “He could make a lot more money playing at fairs and by the side of the road. The ‘Opry’ performers were only getting $5 a show, and he could pass the hat and make more than that. His attitude was ‘if I can’t go down there and have a good time, I’ll just forget it. I’ll just go play out and play fairs and where I want to.’”
Leonil A. Hayes owns faint memories of Thompson, whose wife Ella was his grandmother’s sister. The DeKalb County native, 87½ years old, lives near Birmingham, Ala., and says of his great aunt, “Aunt Ella buck danced and drank. She didn’t do like the rest of the sisters. My grandfather bought a farm, and Uncle Jimmy and Aunt Ella followed him and bought land down there. That was 100 years ago.
“It was a second marriage for both of them. They really liked to live it up in their time. They was good people, but they were a little bit different: more or less like people are today. They were ahead of their time in being modern. A woman back then was looked down on if she drank or smoked. They was quite lively people,” said Hayes, whose most distinctive impression of Uncle Jimmy was his white beard.
Thompson, who claimed to know a thousand fiddle tunes (a WSM press released stated he knew 375 tunes), was once asked how he learned to play.
His response: “Huh! Never took a music lesson in my life. I’d jest as soon look a mule in the face as look at a sheet of music. I been playin’ over 60 years and I learned it all myself.”
The hard-living fiddling icon, who at 80 still could tote a bushel of corn on his back to a mill several miles away, died of pneumonia at his Laguardo home around 3 p.m., Feb. 17, 1931, at 82. His wife Ella died the next year.
Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum senior historian Rumble wraps up Thompson’s legacy, saying, “He had a large, large repertoire: everything from minstrel songs to Tin Pan Alley tunes to gospel numbers, Stephen Foster songs, western tunes like ‘Home on the Range.’ Uncle Jimmy was born in 1848. He fiddled early on, and the fiddlers he was learning from, they could probably have learned from fiddlers who were a generation or two older than they were. That gets you back to Revolutionary War times.
“Somebody like Uncle Jimmy was a definitive link in transmitting America’s musical heritage. Here’s a guy who would be performing as much as two hours at a time and playing all of these different tunes, and WSM was getting out, even in the late ’20s, to where you could hear WSM from the Gulf Coast to Canada and the Atlantic to the Rockies. So you can almost speculate as to how many people he influenced. He was certainly one of the most colorful characters of the early ‘Grand Ole Opry.’”
Sources for this story include: a Eugene Chadbourne article online at allmusic.com, “Birth of the Grand Ole Opry” by Don Cummings; Thersa Franklin’s "The Life of Uncle Jimmy Thompson" scrapbook; and the late Thomas K. Wolfe’s three books: “The Grand Ole Opry, The Early Years, 1925-1935,” “A Good-Natured Riot: The Birth of the Grand Ole Opry” and “The Encyclopedia of Country Music: The Ultimate Guide to the Music.”