Cliff Carlisle, Blues yodeler and steel guitar wizard – some selections

Cliff Carlisle (1904-83)

A blues with a yodel : it may not sound much now, but in the 1920s a lot of careers were carved out of that curious amalgam. Jimmie Rodgers started it, and after him went Gene Autry, or Jimmie Davis, or Cliff Carlisle. The latter yodeled the longest and the best.

Raised in the countryside outside Louisville, Kentucky, Carlisle would say later : « My music is a cross between hillbilly and blues – even Hawaïan music has a sort of blues to it. » Teaming first in the early Thirties with the singer-guitarist Wilbur Ball, he went on the vaudeville tent show circuit, and afterwards he told they had actually been the first yodeling duet.

Then in 1930 he recorded in a Jimmie Rodgers vein (« Memphis yodel »), but with a distinctive touch on the Dobo resonator steel guitar. At this point he was also making a name on Louisville stations (WHAS and WLAP), billing himself and Ball as the « Lullaby Larkers ». That’s how his career took off.

In 31 or 32, he was in New York, extending his own port-folio, and recalling Jimmie Rogers singing a number about a rooster : « What makes a Shanghai crow at the break of day ? To let the Dominicker hen know the head man’s on his way.. » Ralph Peer wouldn’t let him record that, because it was kind of a risqué tune at that time, but finally he let Carlisle go. Hence « Shanghaï rooster yodel n°2 ».

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In 1932 Carlisle was working solo, but in the years that followed he was often partnered by his younger brother Bill. On one of their records they even staged a fight over who would do what. « Hold it, buddy, » says Cliff indignantly as Bill starts to yodel. « This is my « Mouse’s ear blues », and I’ll do the yodeling. » It isn’t the only unusual feature. « Moose’s ear blues » is, probably uniquely in the corpus of recorded hillbilly music, a song about defloration. « My little mama, she’s got a mouse’s ear, but she gonna lose it when I shift my gear. »

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By the mid-’30s, when he was working on WBT in Charlotte, North Carolina, and recording for Bluebird and Decca, Cliff was making a fair bid to corner the hillbilly disc market in sniggery songs about roosters and ashcans (there was an occasional double entendre loitering in this vicinity), and humorously violent tales of marital discord like « Hen pecked man », « Pay day fight » or « A wild cat woman and a tom cat man », where Cliff’s boisterous flights of fancy are powered by the twin engines of his Dobro and Bill’s inventive flat-picked guitar. By the end of the decade he had been on four record labels and made almost 200 sides. He and Bill had a cross-section of country music just prior to WWII. So it was hardly surprising that their family group, the Carlisles, with various sons and dauhters, was popular on the Grand Ole Opry and had hits in the ’50s with « Too old to cut the mustard » and « No help wanted ».

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In the mid-’50s Cliff retired to a quiet life of painting, fishing and church work. He did the occasional comeback on not very memorable albums for small labels, even reuniting with Wilbur Ball and playing for college audience or folk festivals.

(Freely adapted from the chapter devoted to Cliff Carlisle in Tony Russell’s « Country music originals – The legends and the lost »)

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Here are some selections of Carlisle’s work in very different styles.

From 1932, backed by a wild slapping-bass, for the evergreen « Goin’ down the road feelin’ bad ».

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Accompanied by two guitars (Bill Carlisle) and a string-bass for « That nasty swing » from 1936.

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In January 1947, from one of his last recording sessions, with his Buckeye Boys and for a song very close to Bill Monroe‘s « Rocky road blues » (February 1945), «A mean mama don’t worry me ».

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Recommended listening, if you can find them: Cliff Carlisle volume 1 & 2 on Old Timey 103 & 104.