Uncle Jimmy Thompson (Jesse Donald Thompson)

Uncle Jimmy Thompson

Uncle Jimmy Thompson

In 1925, the National Life and Accident Insurance Company established WSM, the first radio station in Nashville that could reach a regional audience. In September of that year, WSM began airing rural musicians from the Nashville area, namely Humphrey Bate, Sid Harkreader, and Uncle Dave Macon. Realizing the popularity of old-time music, WSM hired George D. Hay, a Chicago radio announcer and host of the National Barn Dance on Chicago’s WLS. Hay adapted his show’s format to WSM, where it was to be called the WSM Barn Dance. For the show’s initial airing on November 28, Thompson’s niece, Eva Thompson Jones, who worked as piano accompanist for WSM at the time, suggested her uncle to Hay as his first guest.

Thompson’s performance began at 8 P.M. that night, with Hay introducing Thompson and stating that Thompson would take requests from listeners. Phone calls and telegrams immediately began pouring into the station. At the end of the hour, Hay asked Thompson if he had done enough fiddling, to which Thompson replied, “a man don’t get warmed up in an hour,” and showed Hay the blue ribbon he had recently won at the eight-day fiddle contest in Dallas.

Thompson’s performance on November 28 and his follow-up performances on WSM in subsequent weeks made him an instant celebrity. During this period, Hay issued a challenge to Maine fiddler Mellie Dunham, who had recently captured first prize in a nationwide fiddle contest held by automobile magnate Henry Ford. Dunham declined, prompting Thompson to say “he’s affeared of me.” Nevertheless, Ford held a second national contest in 1926, which Thompson entered. Thompson easily advanced through the early rounds to the contest’s Tennessee state finals, which were held at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville on the evening of January 19. Thompson outplayed five other finalists, including Lynchburg fiddler Uncle Bunt Stephens and a one-armed fiddler from Hartsville named Marshall Claiborne, to capture the state championship. In the contest’s regional finals in Louisville, Kentucky the following day, however, Thompson failed to place in the top three, being ousted by both Stephens and Claiborne and a South Indiana fiddler named W.H. Elmore (Stephens went on to win the national contest).

Thompson continued making appearances on Barn Dance (renamed the Grand Ole Opry in 1927) throughout 1926 and 1927, but as the show became more structured, Thompson’s role was minimized. Hay grew impatient with Thompson’s general unreliability, and the two bickered over such things as Thompson’s penchant for drinking a jug of whiskey before each program to “lubricate” his playing arm, and Thompson’s tendency to play well over his allotted time. In 1928, Thompson made only two appearances on the program.

In 1926, Thompson went to Atlanta, where he recorded two traditional tunes, “Billy Wilson” and “Karo” for Columbia Records. The latter, “Karo,” is probably derived from the folk song “Flop-Eared Mule.” Thompson’s only other recording session occurred on April 5, 1930 in Knoxville, Tennessee, for Brunswick/Vocalion. This session produced the recording known as “Uncle Jimmy’s Favorite Fiddlin’ Pieces,” a mini-interview conducted by producer Bill Brown in which Thompson plays “Flying Clouds” and “Leather Britches”, and discusses whiskey and the violin’s superiority over the guitar (the brief guitar solo was probably played by Willie Sievers of the Tennessee Ramblers).

Thompson died of pneumonia at his Laguardo home on February 17, 1931. Music historian Charles Wolfe notes that while Thompson’s active career (1925–1931) was relatively short, it was “one of the most potent” in the history and development of country music, and that the photographs of Thompson seated with his fiddle before a WSM microphone are among the Grand Ole Opry’s most enduring images.

More Images

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Born

  • January, 01, 1970

Died

  • January, 01, 1970

Cemetery

  • Laguardo Cemetery
  • Laguardo, Tennessee

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