Bob Douglas has big plans for Friday night. He’ll be busy making history as the first 100-year-old to perform on the Grand Ole Opry.
“I’m looking forward to it,” he says. “I never did think I’d be performing for so long, but the years just kept piling on and I just kept on playing.”
Born in Sequatchie College, Tenn., on March 9, 1900, Bob learned about fiddling from his father, Tom Douglas. “My dad was a fine fiddle player,” he says. “I got a lot of my fiddling ideas from him, but I never could play like him.”
Tom Douglas and a banjo-playing cousin used to travel through the hills and valleys of the Cumberland Mountains playing for square dances. At the age of 17, Tom recruited Bob to be his guitar player –it didn’t matter that Bob didn’t know how to play. “Dad knew three chords on the guitar and I learned them three chords, and it wasn’t long before I could play with them.”
However, it was the fiddle that had really captured Douglas’ interest, and it wasn’t long before he had taught himself to play it, too. In 1925, the year the Grand Ole Opry was first broadcast on Nashville radio station WSM, Douglas was doing some broadcasting of his own — the first country musician to perform on Chattanooga radio.
“I heard that some people had moved a new radio station down there,” Douglas recollects, “so I decided I’d like to play in a radio station even though I’d hadn’t ever seen one. I got me a couple of boys and we cut loose on some tunes. We were the first country musicians to play on it and they had just been opened a couple of days.”
A few years later, Douglas heard of a fiddling contest in Chattanooga. The senior Douglas encouraged his son to attend and perhaps “learn something.” It turned out to be not just any contest but the All-Southern Convention, and it featured some well-known fiddlers such as Clayton McMichen and Bert Layne, members of the popular string band the Skillet Lickers. It was the other contestants who learned a thing or two when Douglas, who had never competed before, walked away the winner.
Fiddling proved to be Douglas’ key for opening doors of opportunity, musical adventures and friendships. He shared the stage of his first professional performance with childhood friend and future Opry fiddling legend Curly Fox when they both joined the White Owl Medicine Show. Later, in the 1940s, two more future Opry stars, Charlie and Ira Louvin, would get their start in radio by playing in Douglas’ band, The Foggy Mountain Boys. Douglas beat Flatt and Scruggs to the name by a couple of years.
Douglas himself would turn his back on fame. Perhaps disillusioned by the rigors associated with the life of a musician — the late hour performances, 5 a.m. radio shows and constant travel — he opted instead for the security of a factory job. He would remain, however, one of Chattanooga’s most active country musicians, inspired not by fame or money, but by his love for fiddling. He continued playing radio and stage shows, festivals, school and museum programs wherever he and his fiddle were welcomed.
In 1969 he earned the title of Tennessee Valley Fiddle King, and due to his many fiddling contest victories in 1975 he was invited to participate in a National Fiddle Contest sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Seventy-five year-old Douglas and his backup guitarist, Ray “Georgia Boy” Brown, were the hands-down winners.
Fifteen years later, at almost 90 years of age, Douglas took first prize at fiddling meets in Hiawassee, Ga., and Brasstown, N.C. So far, his accolades include 45 trophies and 25 ribbons, all on display at the Museum of Appalachia in Norris, Tenn.
In his 100th year, Douglas maintains an active fiddling schedule and shows no signs of slowing down. His accomplishments during this last year include a national performance on the popular national public radio show A Prairie Home Companion, a week-long stint at Seattle, Wash.’s Festival of American Fiddle Tunes, a headline performance at the WNOX Auditorium in Knoxville and the production of a new music video entitled “Fiddling Bob Douglas: 100 Years Old — Ain’t Done Yet.”
Douglas will be joined on the Opry stage by his “boys,” banjo-player Bobby Fulcher and guitarist Mike DeFosche, whom he says, “won’t let me retire.”
“Bobby says we’re going to play ’Muddy Road to Ducktown,'” Douglas says, “and I learned that tune from Sawmill Tom Smith, one of the finest country fiddle players there ever was. I believe everything he told me about this tune, because he was a man dying of cancer when he said this. Years ago, there were some soldiers building a bridge from Georgia to Ducktown [Tennessee]. It was a real muddy road they were working on. Well, the soldiers played at a square dance every Saturday night, and one of the soldiers played this tune. Someone asked him what was the name of it and he said it had no name. They were trying to come up with a name for it and someone blurted out, ’Why don’t you just call it ’Muddy Road to Ducktown?” That’s how this tune got its name.”
Like the Opry, Douglas is a living, vital link to our musical heritage, and Friday night, for a little while at least, that history will come alive.
Douglas’ performance is part of the Grand Ole Opry’s multi-generation fiddling presentation spanning 88 years. Also on the billing are 12-year-old Jed Bulla, 18-year-old Michael Cleveland, 36-year-old Stuart Duncan and 62-year-old John Hartford — all accomplished fiddlers.