Sam McCracken is designated as the father of the Tennessee Valley Old-Time Fiddlers Convention held in Athens each October, partly because of the music sessions that sprang from his kitchen, but also because he was a fine fiddler who was so well loved by his friends, family and fellow fiddlers.
Sam McCracken lived in the Elkmont area of Limestone County. Prior to the first renewals of the Athens fiddling conventions, his home sessions became regular opportunities for the old fiddlers and younger musicians to gather and make old-time music. Much of the energy generated by these sessions set in motion the ideas and planning for the Tennessee Valley Old-Time Fiddlers Convention held each fall on the campus of Athens State University.
In addition to enjoying other fiddlers and their music, Mr. Sam, as he was affectionately called, had a prolific roster of tunes himself, many of which are unique to the area. He credited other fiddlers with borrowed pieces, fortifying the importance of community and sharing amongst the old fiddlers. I would describe his fiddling as stately. His tunes were filled out with grace notes, lots of fourth finger work, good range, and a very strong danceable pulse. His strong beat may have developed from performing at dances where it helps keep the dancers on queue. It’s hard to remember they had no sound systems in those days.
Mr. Sam also enjoyed beautiful waltzes, often accompanied by his wife Mary Boyd McCracken on piano. One of their favorite pieces was a late 1880’s waltz composition, “I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight.” The lyrics lament a secretly broken heart, concealed by appearing cheerful and “all smiles.” Mr. Sam’s confidence, old-time fiddling knowledge, and competitive ability won him the Sr. Fiddler at the 5th TVOTC in 1970.
While studying some of these tunes, Ed McCracken was able to help me learn and identify some of his father’s tunes and titles. One of Mr. Sam’s tunes, “Chuck-a-luck,” share’s its title with an old card game. Kenny Baker, Bill Monroe’s most famous fiddler, recorded a version of this tune. I discovered another tune as a published song from 1856, titled “Bonnie Eloise”. Mr. Sam credited it to a fiddler named Billy McKinney. Fiddle tunes sometimes pick up unsavory titles, but gentlemen can alleviate the situation with polite, yet still correct titles. Tune titles can also be comical, quizzical, or poignant. Perhaps titles are colorful, to help fiddlers remember them for a lifetime
Ed, shared his father’s affection for music with others. He hosted sessions of his own at a log cabin in Chapman Hollow. Many will remember the pickins’ at the “holler” which commenced with a big meal of breakfast fare, followed with music by the huge fireplace. Martha Beasley McCracken indicated the family cabin pre-dates the civil war, making it a perfect place to share homemade music.
Not content to keep the music in the kitchen, Ed and my father Bob Holland once put together a surprise retirement party for NASA lab director Charles Lundquist in Huntsville. Both Ed and Dad were employed at NASA along with old-time singer Tauna Moorehead of Mulberry, Tenn. I watched about 100 scientists and engineers cram the hall while enjoying good music, perhaps hearing a fiddle and banjo for the first time.
Another generation influenced by Mr. Sam is on the move. After expressing interest, Will McMeans of Lester received a bit of fiddle instruction from his cousin Ed McCracken. Will’s uncle Randall Boyd, who’s father was Mr. Sam’s guitar accompanist Bob Boyd, also helped Will develop his talent. Will recently brought home top honors at the 40th Smithville Fiddlers’ Jamboree after besting the other junior fiddlers, and finally bested the senior winner in the prestigious fiddle-off.
With a legacy still actively inspiring musicians and family, Mr. Sam embodied the community of fiddling and music, and was a true ambassador, friend and father for generations of musicians to come.
Jim Holland is a regular at regional and national conventions and competitions as well as recent instructional opportunities at the Alabama Folk School, the Chattanooga Folk School and other regional workshops. Jim invites those interested in old-time music to contact him at his Athens home at 256-771-0242 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.