Grandson locates the Mitchell Brothers' lost songs in Country Music Hall of Fame
The Moulton Advertiser
A Thanksgiving conversation with his grandfather prompted Birmingham resident Mike Scott to begin a quest that turned up rare recordings by the 1930s Lawrence County musical group known as the Mitchell Brothers.
Scott's grandfather, retired Moulton barber Albert Mitchell, began performing in the 1930s with his older brother Eddie and Buster Bynum. In 1937, they recorded four songs on two 78-rpm records.
Scott was visiting in Moulton at Thanksgiving. He had always known that his grandfather was a good fiddler, and a conversation over the holidays prompted him to begin his search.
He had heard that the Mitchells had recorded some songs many years ago. At Thanksgiving, he asked his grandfather if any of the records sell existed. Mitchell found one copy of one of the 78-rpm records. It was cracked, chipped and unplayable.
Scott didn't know anything about record collecting, but he does know something about computers. He makes his living as an Information Technology consultant and web designer, so he began to search for information on the Internet.
He located some bulletin boards frequented by record collectors and within a few days of posting inquiries on them, he began to get responses from sources as far away as Great Britain.
Tony Russell, a record collector in Great Britain didn't have the records in his collection, but he had listened to them and was able was able to furnish catalog numbers, exact recording dates and instrumentation information.
Eventually, he struck pay dirt with the Country Music hall of Fame in Nashville, which had the records in its archives. They made a copy of the recordings on a music compact disc for Scott.
"Ten years ago this would not have been possible;" Scott said of his search via the Internet. "Now, there is so much information out there that is readily accessible."
Albert Mitchell, now 85, is the only surviving member of the trio that recorded the songs. Eddie, who was two-and-a-half years older than Albert, died last year. Buster died over a decade ago.
On the recordings, which were all old-fashioned country music, Eddie played guitar and sang the high tenor parts, while Albert sang baritone or bass and played the fiddle. Bynum played mandolin.
The recordings were made in Birmingham on April 8, 1937. The trio had been recruited by a Mr. Calloway, who was a talent scout for American Record Company, which was the parent organization for a variety of record labels.
"It wasn't a fancy studio like you see today," Mitchell recalled this week. "He just set up his recording equipment in a room in a building and we did the songs."
Calloway actually recruited the Mitchell Brothers after having heard of them. One of the things that attracted him to them, according to Albert, was that while most of the musical groups in the area were playing music that everybody knew, the Mitchell Brothers were playing songs they had written.
"We wrote all four of the songs we recorded for Mr. Calloway," Albert said. "Eddie wrote most of the songs. He would be working out in the fields and would get a song in his bead and he'd write it down when he got back home, then I'd help him fill in the gaps and polish it up."
The Mitchells, along with Bynum, grew up in the hickory Grove community of Lawrence County. Albert and Eddie both began playing the guitar at as early age, picking it up first from several uncles who played instruments.
An early influence on them was a blind black guitar player front the western part of the county whom Albert remembers only as "ol' Blind Jack." He taught them basic chords and offered advice.
"He told us to start with songs that didn't have more than two chords," Albert said. "He said we could work up from there."
Al some point in their early teen years Eddie decided that if they were going to have a group, they needed more than a guitar.
"He decided he'd learn to play a fiddle, so he ordered one from (Sears &) Roebuck" Albert recalled. "Well, he fooled with it for a good while and didn't do any good with it, but when he put it down, I picked it tip and just started playing."
From that point on, Eddie stuck with the guitar and Albert became the fiddle player. After Bynum joined them, they began to play at gatherings and soon had a regular live radio show on a Florence radio station. It was sponsored by a clothing store.
It was during this period they were contacted by Calloway. He reached them by mail and invited them to come to Birmingham for the session.
Albert said they never knew how Calloway came to hear about them.
The recording session was a learning experience for the young performers. Albert, who was 19 where the recordings were made, recalled that after their first take Calloway, who had a lot of experience, offered suggestions to improve the sound.
"He told us that the instruments were there to support the voices," Albert said. "We tended to play just as load when we were singing, but he taught us to back off on the instruments while we were singing, then play louder in the breaks."
Before they started the session, Calloway had Eddie, as the group's representative, sign a recording contract that provided a one-half cent per record royalty to the performers.
"They sold a good many records," Albert recalled, "I'm not sure how many, but I know we got royalty checks on a regular basis for several years."
Albert said he thinks Calloway also recorded some of the early work of the Delmore Brothers, a Limestone County duet who were contemporaries of the Mitchells.
The Delmore Brothers, known for their "Browns Ferry Blues" and "Deep River Blues" among other hits, were stars on the Grand Ole Opry for several years.
After the initial recording session with the Mitchells, Calloway told them he would he back the next year to make more recordings of their work.
True to his word, he contacted them about a year later, but they were never able to work out arrangements to get back to Birmingham. By then, both Mitchell brothers had begun cutting hair for a living and music, though still important to them, had become a sideline.
According to Albert, along about that time they received an invitation to audition for the Grand Ole Opry and had set an appointment for the audition. However, on the day before they were to travel to Nashville, Bynum had a death in his family and they had to cancel. They never rescheduled.
"We may have missed our chance at the big-time." Mitchell pondered this week.
Music has stayed an important part of Mitchell's life. Over the years, he has played his fiddle with country and dance bands all over North Alabama.
"I've played with a lot of people through the years." he said. At 85, he still enjoys playing his fiddle with friends. He finds it difficult to play the fiddle unaccompanied, but he keeps an electric guitar and amplifier hooked up in his living room to pick when he doesn't have anyone with whom to play.
Over the years, Albert learned to read music, and he has sung in the choir at First United Methodist Church in Moulton for decades.
Scott thoroughly enjoyed compiling the information and locating the recordings for his grandfather. "I had a ball looking into this," he said. "I learned so much about my roots. Once I got started, it all just started coming together."
His search continues. During the process, he met Joyce Cauthen online, She is executive director of the Alabama Folklife Association and has written a took about Alabama fiddlers. She has set a time to come to Moulton to interview Albert.
He said he is investigating whether anyone still owns the rights to the recordings. What was the American Record Company, he believes after dozens of mergers, is now part of Sony.
"There has been a real resurgence in interest in this music genre ever since 'Oh Brother, Where Art Thou' came out," Scott said.
Albert is obviously pleased to be able to listen to the recordings, and to become reacquainted what was a very happy part of his life.
"I had given up hope of ever hearing them again," he commented.
His only regret is that his brother Eddie, to whom he remained very close, didn't get to share in the revived memories.
Mitchell cherishes the fiddle he has had for over 50 years. After he had played the Sears & Roebuck fiddle for several years, he inherited a fiddle that his uncle had built.
"I was the only one he would let play that fiddle other than himself." he said.
The uncle had built the fiddle by hand, fashioning the fingerboard out of the leg-bone of a horse. It is a beautiful instrument with a very mellow tone.
"I've had people make a lot of offers for it, but I wouldn't -- I couldn't -- part with it," he said.
Mitchell lives in Moulton with his wife, Glenn.