Charles K. Wolfe, author of A Good-Natured Riot: The Birth of the Grand Ole Opry (1999) and a trove of other books and articles on country music, died Thursday night (Feb. 9) at Middle Tennessee Medical Center in Murfreesboro, Tenn., of complications from diabetes. He was 62.
Wolfe was a towering figure in country music scholarship, admired both for his relentless and omnivorous original research and his accessible writing style. He was also a popular teacher in Middle Tennessee State University’s English Department, from which he retired as full professor in 2005.
Born Aug. 14, 1943, in Sedalia, Mo., Wolfe did his undergraduate studies at Southwest Missouri University. He went on to earn his master’s and doctor’s degrees at the University of Kansas. In 1970, soon after receiving his doctorate, he joined the MTSU English department and remained there until his retirement.
Murfreesboro’s proximity to Nashville enabled Wolfe to indulge his growing interest in the roots of country music. In 1975, he published Grand Ole Opry: The Early Years, 1925-35 and followed it with Tennessee Strings: The Story of Country Music in Tennessee (1976) and Kentucky Country: Folk and Country Music of Kentucky (1982).
Collaborating with Louis Marshall “Grandpa” Jones, Wolfe wrote Everybody’s Grandpa: Fifty Years Behind the Mike (1984). Other of his titles included Don Gibson: A Legend in His Time (with Richard Weize, 1990), Mahalia Jackson: Gospel Singer (1990), Life’s Like Poetry: The Life of Lefty Frizzell (1991), DeFord Bailey: A Black Star in Early Country Music (with David Morton, 1991), The Civil War Music (1991), The Life and Legend of Leadbelly (with Kip Lornell, 1992), In Close Harmony: The Story of the Louvin Brothers (1996), The Devil’s Box: Masters of Southern Fiddling (1997), The Carter Family: In the Shadow of Clinch Mountain (2001) and Uncle Dave Macon (2004).
At the time of this death, Wolfe had two more books in press: The Music of Bill Monroe (with Neil Rosenberg) and The Bristol Sessions (with Ted Olson). His articles appeared on CMT.com and in virtually every scholarly journal and popular magazine having to do with country music.
Wolfe’s album notes were three times nominated for Grammys. Other honors included a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, two MTSU Outstanding Research awards, an Award of Merit from the International Bluegrass Music Association and a Lifetime Achievement award from the Curb Music Business Program at Belmont University. He was a writer and chief consultant for the PBS series American Roots Music.
Wolfe is survived by his wife Mary Dean and daughters Stacey and Cindy. His funeral will be held Sunday (Feb. 12) at 1:30 p.m. at the Woodfin Funeral Home in Murfreesboro. Burial will be at the Evergreen Cemetery in Murfreesboro.