Eck Robertson was the first country musician to make a record. He might have been called “the Hendrix of the fiddle” if only he’d been born half a century later.
Born in 1887, the same year that Emile Berliner invented the gramophone, he never achieved the stardom of Jimmie Rodgers, who came along five years later.
But he’s equally (if not more) influential on successive generations of country musicians. His dexterity and virtuosity on the violin as he drones and saws to a powerful conclusion still sound astonishing today.
Born in Arkansas in 1887 and raised in Texas, Alistair Campbell “Eck” Robertson came from a long line of fiddlers who competed in local contests, though his father – a Civil War veteran turned farmer – gave it up to become a preacher.
Like his five brothers and two sisters, Eck began learning the fiddle as a small child, killing a cat to use its hide for a home-made instrument before his brother traded a pig for a real violin. He had added banjo and guitar to his repertoire before leaving home at 16 to join a travelling medicine show, touring through Indian territory, and performing in costume as The Cowboy Fiddler.
Marrying soon after and finding work as a piano tuner, he and his wife Netty performed together in silent movie theatres, fiddle contests (which he usually won – often by playing this tune), and at old Confederate soldiers’ reunions across the South.
At one of them he met another fiddler, 76-year-old Henry C Gilliland, and they began playing together before travelling to New York to
showcase their skills – dressed in full cowboy regalia – to a reluctant record company (RCA Victor). It worked, and the next day they recorded several duets – the first commercial recordings ever made of rural music.
Sallie Gooden, recorded solo by Eck, was the first to come out in September 1922, sparking widespread interest in what is still known as “old-time” country music.
He only made 16 commercial recordings, in 1922 and 1929, accompanied on later discs by Netty, their children Daphne and Dueron, and pianist Nat Shildret. He also recorded more than 100 songs for radio in the 1940s but tragically they got lost and have never been found. He died in 1975.