Georgia has a rich musical history all its own, from the Allman Brothers to Ray Charles, Little Richard to James Brown, and R.E.M. to OutKast. So what about Gwinnett’s slice of the musical pie? We did some DiGging at the Gwinnett Historical Society and – thanks to Frances Johnson and her loyal staff of volunteers – uncovered some unique musical artifacts.
GWINNETT COUNTY: THE THEME SONG
“The eyes of Georgia shine on us
Because we are the place to be.
Home for you and me.”
Reading like an over-the-top slogan from a local tourist guide, it’s actually a snippet from Gwinnett County’s very own pop-country theme song. Rather blandly titled “Gwinnett County,” the song was written in the mid-1980s by Jackie Daughtry and commissioned for the grand opening of the Atlanta Marriott at Gwinnett Place. Daughtry, living in Norcross at the time and married to Dean Daughtry of Classics IV and Atlanta Rhythm Section, was struggling to make it as a songwriter when the Marriott people approached her for the song. Billy Joe Royal would eventually perform it. Daughtry would later write a fundraising song for the Atlanta Falcons in 1987, sung by James Brown, with whom she would have a very odd and ultimately tragic relationship. Google it if you dare.
Early country music
Much has been written here about the Everett family and their bluegrass music barn in Suwanee. But an even earlier group came out of Dacula, performing from the 1920s-30s, called The Skillet Lickers. This classic string band was formed by chicken farmer James Gideon “Gid” Tanner (1885-1960), famously jamming in a chicken house. They were among the first country music groups ever recorded, and in a career spanning 15 years made 188 recordings. String bands — or hillbilly bands — were widely featured locally back then on radio stations WSB and WGST. Tanner’s son Gordon recorded “Down Yonder” in 1934 for RCA Records in San Antonio, Texas. Gordon, 17 at the time, played lead fiddle on that cut as well as “Back Up and Push,” which sold over a million copies.
You can still catch a few of Gid Tanner’s direct descendants today, performing as The Skillet Lickers II (Phil Tanner: guitar; Russ Tanner: fiddle; Fleet Stanley: dobro; Joel Aderhold and Art Rosenbaum: banjo; Brian Morgan: mandolin). Local musician Levi Lowrey brings an ever-younger connection to this music. “I grew up in Dacula. I was a twelve-year-old fiddle player and it was a small town halfway between Athens and Atlanta. A lot of things have changed. The town’s not so small anymore and I’m a songwriter in my 30s who tours the country to make a living. Every Friday night, if I’m home, you can find me at the Chicken House, still sitting around playing this North Georgia string band music with the Skillet Lickers. They don’t do it for the money. They don’t do it for the recognition. They do it for the community, and that’s one thing that will never change.”
Jesus take the wheel
Gospel music is big in the South — can we get an amen?! The first published use of the term “gospel music” appeared roughly 60 years after Gwinnett’s creation in 1818. It wasn’t until 1926 that gospel would become hugely popular in this area through recordings, when J. Frank Smith, a Lawrenceville barber with a shop on the courthouse square, started Smith’s Sacred Singers. Playing a rather staid and plodding style of shape-note gospel — as opposed to the more rousing and fiery black gospel blues — the Smiths were performing on a WSB radio broadcast when a Columbia Records scout heard them and offered a big contract. Born in 1884 on a farm near Braselton, Smith died in 1937 and is buried in Lawrenceville’s Shadowlawn Cemetery.
Rose gardens, big organs and custom violins
Singer-songwriter Joe South (1940-2012) wrote and recorded some of the most iconic and heavily covered songs of the 1970s: “Down in the Boondocks”, “(I Never Promised You A) Rose Garden” and “Hush.” Born in Atlanta, South died at his home in Buford.
If you’ve ever enjoyed organ music at the Fox Theater, Spivey Hall, Cathedral of Christ the King or St. Philip Episcopal, you should be grateful for the work of John Widener of Grayson (1922-2004). He founded Widener & Co. in 1950, and either built, installed, restored or maintained these mighty pipes and over 200 others throughout the southeast.
Robert D. Kimble of Lilburn was a professional violinist for 25 years, including a stint with the U.S. Army strings band assigned to the White House, and he actually played for President Johnson’s inaugural reception back in the day. Kimble is now a highly respected and sought-after custom violin builder whose instruments fetch prices in the thousands of dollars.
There’s plenty of live music in Gwinnett these days, so get out there and hear the next big thing and be a part of history for the next generation!