On an overcast day of last July, I arrived at 4 Music Square East in Nashville, the site of the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum. The building is unmistakable, with its glass-and-brick facade and a roofline that mimics the shape of a barn. Once inside the vaulted lobby, I approached an attendant at the front desk and asked directions to the office of Bob Pinson, the man I had come to interview. Bypassing lines of tourists, I soon found myself in the Hall of Fame, surrounded by bronze plaques honoring the greats of country music. Turning left, I entered a gallery where a special centennial exhibition of Gibson instruments was on display-vintage Gibson guitars, banjos, mandolins, banjo-mandolins, even mando-cellos and harp guitars, all set in plexiglas vitrines, gleaming like icons. In the rooms beyond, I glimpsed portions of the museum's permanent exhibits-a host of rare artifacts documenting the sounds and images of hillbillies, cowboys, and legends of the Grand Ole Opry. I planned to take in all of that later, but first I descended a staircase leading to the Country Music Foundation Library & Media Center, where a decidedly different atmosphere exists. These rooms below the museum include offices, a reading room, listening carrels, sound lab, stacks containing printed matter and photographs, and the archive of sound recordings-row after row of custom-built wooden cabinets housing 78s, 45s, radio transcriptions, LPs and CDs, probably the most extensive collection of country music anywhere in the world.
Bob Pinson, the man responsible for much of this collection, maintains an office in one corner of the library. A native Texan with a love of Western Swing music, Pinson began collecting records as a boy in the 1940s and continued as a young adult living in northern California. Married in 1960, he and his wife Gladys have lived in Nashville since 1973 when Bob was first hired by the Country Music Foundation. As a record collector, Bob Pinson holds the unusual position of curating an institutional collection that began as his own.
Bob's office has a lived-in look, his desk covered with notes and documents, with shelves of discographies and other reference books in easy reach, a separate typing table, and more shelves and boxes filled with records, mostly 78s. Two oil portraits of Hank Williams hang within view of the desk, as well as a painting of Flatt & Scruggs once used as an album cover. Bob himself is mild mannered with a quiet humor, and although he displays an encyclopedic knowledge of country music, he is quite modest. I sat down across from him at the desk and turned on my portable cassette recorder. What follows is a composite of our initial conversations of July 29th and 30th, as well as a telephone interview on September 16th, and a return visit on October 15th.
Pinson: I started [collecting records] when I was about eleven or twelve years old in Texas, where I'm from originally. At that time I used to listen to country music radio, and I wondered how I could get hold of the recordings. We didn't have much money in the family, but I could manage to order from the Sears catalog on occasion. So the first records I acquired were probably from around 1945 or '46 out of the Sears catalog, and then later I discovered where I could buy them in town-in Wichita Falls. I would go in the Western Auto store, I remember they handled records. At that time I was more interested in the Western Swing material because that's what I heard more of growing up in that area of the country. So I would leaf through the Bob Wills section or the Bill Boyd section and see what I would be interested in buying if I had any money to do so. That would be paying full retail. A few months after that I happened to be wandering down a back street in Wichita Falls and I saw a bunch of records stacked in the window of a store, and I said "What is this?" So I wandered in, and it was my first glance at a jukebox operator, in this case the Wichita Novelty Company. They had records that they sold for ten cents apiece. Of course being eleven or twelve years old, I didn't pay any attention to condition; if I saw what I wanted I probably didn't even pull it out of the sleeve, I just bought it for a dime. I remember that's where I found the Harry Choates recording of "Jole Blon" because I'd been looking for that, and for some reason had been unable to find it in the retail store.
[my relatives] weren't well known, they were just in the area-not in wichita falls, but down on the farm where my mother was raised east of dallas in wills point. i remember as far back as 1939 or '40 going down there on the farm and this was in the days of no electricity, so the entertainment was furnished by anybody who could play an instrument. kenneth sewell, a first cousin to my mother, was there in the area and he was a fiddle player and jack jarosh, her brother, played a guitar and piano. then others would play whatever they could; it wasn't a big ensemble, but it was fun because everybody joined in and sang. that was my first experience listening to the old-time fiddle material. years later, kenneth sewell did some recording with the bluegrass band, shady grove ramblers, in the 1970s. kenneth's father was a fiddle player, his name was elijah sewell. and then elijah's father was a fiddle player by the name of john sewell. john's other son, george, also fiddled as does one of his sons, homer lee sewell, who has done some recording and owns a studio in fort worth. and it's trickled on down: kenneth's son winston plays guitar; then winston's son, keith sewell, he's here in nashville performing, getting ready to cut a cd on rising tide. he's becoming a solo act after playing in ricky scaggs' band for about five years. he's still only in his mid-20s and seems to be one of these guys who can write a song a day. anyway, i guess there's something to say for the genetic factor.
what is your educational background?
actually just that of a high school graduate. i went right out of high school into industry, working in the printing field for a while and then later for a an aircraft subcontractor in sunnyvale in california. after that, i went to work for memorex in silicon valley and worked for them for about five years as the production control supervisor. i was there in the company's infancy, i had the employee number of 87, so i was the 87th employee they ever hired.
through these various jobs you were still collecting records?
oh yes, that was always an interest of mine. the country music field in general was always of interest and the historical part was interesting to me. and i was dismayed at not being able to find any books on country music in the library. if you wanted to find out anything you had to find the artist and ask him questions. or get to know other collectors who had done similar research, and begin sharing information. the whole collecting aspect continued from age eleven all the way up until today!
your first records were western swing. how did your collecting expand beyond that?
When I got into collecting the whole gamut, I was living in San Jose [California] at the time. I remember that a friend and I had been to a San Francisco "49er" football game out at Kezar Stadium back in the mid-'50s. As we were coming back on a Sunday night we had the car radio on and we were listening to a program on KYA called "Music for Young Old-Timers." The fellow who produced the show was a record collector in San Francisco by the name of Chuck Lindsley. And Chuck was advertising that if anyone was interested in old recordings of any kind to drop him a line. So I dropped him a line to find out if he had any old Bob Wills records that I didn't have. In no time at all I got a long listing back, and it had recordings on there by artists I'd never heard of at that time. Like Gid Tanner & the Skillet Lickers, they were a new name to me, but when I saw the old-time fiddle tunes on there I recognized them, so I wanted them. I went up to his place then within a matter of a week or two and was amazed at the thousands and thousands of records he had there in his house on Stanyan Street. So I got to pulling things out and starting buying a lot of the old recordings from him. I would take them home and listen to them, and that's how I got to really like some of the old-time string bands. That was my first discovery of the old-time material. I had no idea it was around, and I discovered for myself: "Wow, there's some great music here!"
What other sources for records did you find in the Bay Area?
At that time, there was no one else interested in country music in the Bay Area to my knowledge, and I think that's probably a safe statement. But I did get to know other collectors through meeting them at two or three record haunts there in San Francisco. There was Jack's Record Cellar which was on the corner of Haight and Webster, down in the basement. Norman Pierce was the operator at the time, I got to know him. There was another store on Jones Street, Andy's Records, they had a lot of old 78s, and a third store on Eddy Street run by a Mr. Hoffman. Each of those three places in San Francisco had literally thousands and thousands of records. I still remember going into the place on Eddy Street one time and finding five or six copies, all together in the original sleeves, of "The Baltimore Fire" by Charlie Poole. Brand new Columbias just sitting there, six mint copies. I bought one for myself, but I didn't have a lot of money then either. He was probably charging a dollar and a quarter apiece, which to me was a lot of money at the time. But after I bought one I let other people know who I corresponded with: "Are you interested in 'The Baltimore Fire'? I can get you a copy." So I think I went back and bought at least a couple more.
The first major collector that I corresponded with [at that time] was Gene Earle. Gene at that time was working at Patrick Air Force Base, he was living in Cocoa Beach, Florida. And I knew Archie Green of course, the folklorist in San Francisco. Archie and I got to know one another around 1957 or '58. We were introduced indirectly through Norman Pierce at the Record Cellar, because Archie would go in there looking for labor songs and picking up some of the recordings by the old-time groups, relevant ones he was interested in. So Norman Pierce let him know about me. Pretty soon I was making treks up to Archie's house there on Caselli Street, having a good time with him just talking about old-time music and learning a lot from him, too, about folklore in general and labor songs especially. And it turned out he was something of a Bob Wills fan because he was in the Navy during World War II and heard some of the old Wills things on board ship. Archie would have an occasional party even with a musical guest. I remember at one of his parties were The New Lost City Ramblers. He had them at his house, and that was fun. He would let me know if someone was appearing, folk artists or whoever, in the area that he thought would be good to see and so sometimes I would go and pick him up and we would go across the bay or wherever, to see Brownie McGhee & Sonny Terry or people like that.
There was another collector down in L.A., Fred Hoeptner, he was a Western Swing buff, he was temporarily living up in the Bay Area while he was in the Navy. Fred visited Jack's Record Cellar with some frequency and met up with Archie Green. And Archie told him that I was living there in Santa Clara, so Fred started visiting me there while he was in the Navy. And Archie persuaded Fred and me to take a southern junket to try and find old recording artists and do interviews with them. This was in June of '59. Fred and I had talked about going down to Texas on the brief two-week vacation that I happened to have since I was gainfully employed at the time. We only had two weeks, so he and I talked about going down to Texas to look up some old Western Swing folks, since Western Swing was a love of his as well as mine. Visiting with Archie one day, or probably over the course of more than one visit, Archie prevailed upon us to extend the trip farther east and make sure we went to see D.K. Wilgus in Bowling Green, since D.K. and he were buddies, of course, as folklorists. Then we went on from there. We interviewed Knocky Parker, the jazz pianist, in Owensboro, then over to Louisville where we interviewed Clayton McMichen. In Atlanta we interviewed Polk Brockman, the old A&R man with OKeh Records, and also Irene Spain, the daughter of Blind Andy Jenkins. Then we also interviewed Bill Callahan in Dallas, and we interviewed D.H. Williams, the fiddler who founded the East Texas Serenaders, we interviewed him in Lindale, Texas. We accomplished all that in just two weeks' time.
Oh, and we went to the Delta area, we were looking for Bo Carter, but it turned out we found Sam Chatmon, his brother. And he told us that Bo was in Memphis, and we didn't have time to go up to Memphis, but we nevertheless wanted to stay with Sam there a while and talk to him and do an interview with him. It was a good visit there, at his little shotgun shack out adjacent to the cotton fields in Hollandale, Mississippi.
Had Chatmon ever been interviewed by a researcher before?
No. And he took out his old guitar and played and I think we have that on the tape. Not that it's studio quality. I think he played some of the same things they had recorded in the '30s. I think he did "Corrina Corrina," some of those sorts of things. We took some pictures. On that interview trip, I don't know why we didn't take any pictures of McMichen or Irene Spain and people like that. It was only when we got to the Delta there with Sam that we took the camera out. I think Fred had the camera, in fact he had the tape recorder, too. I had the car! (laughs)
We also went out to Drake, Kentucky, a little place east of Bowling Green, because Freeman Kitchens, the Carter Family Fan Club president and Carter Family collector, lived out there. We heard that he had records to sell, so we drove out to Drake, and took a photo, not of him, but a photo of a little gas station-grocery store-post office combination that he ran, Kitchens Grocery. That's one other photo I remember.
What was it like to meet Clayton McMichen?
The interesting aspect of that was, Fred and I were very interested in really hearing him expound on the Skillet Lickers, but certainly by this time, and long before really, he had wanted to distance himself from that scene. He was thinking of himself as more of a Bob Wills-type fiddle player than an old-time fiddler, and liked to talk about that aspect of his music more than he did the Skillet Licker days. So we had that problem, getting him to talk very much about the Skillet-Lickers. He worked at a used-car lot at the time-I don't know if he was doing any kind of personal appearances or not, probably he was, but he was making a living at least as a used-car salesman. We went to the used-car lot to find him, we told him we'd be interested in interviewing him and he said, "Yeah, we'll go on out to the house if you want to, we can do it out there." He wanted to stop at a bar along the way and get a drink before he got home, so we made that stop. When we got to the house, he was more interested, at least in the beginning, in showing us his workshop where he did a lot of wood work. So we had to go through that whole routine before we finally got him sitting down with the tape recorder on, then after that it seems he was more interested in talking about the Decca McMichen recordings rather than the Skillet Licker recordings.
Did he perhaps think there was a stigma attached to being a hillbilly?
I think so, yes. And I think he also felt, and rightly so, that he was a better fiddle player than Bob Wills and he couldn't understand why Bob Wills was such a big artist and why he had not made it in that realm of music. Of course, located where he was geographically didn't help any. Louisville is not a hotbed of Western Swing.
Did you ask him about his association with Jimmie Rodgers?
I think we probably did touch on that, because I'm pretty sure we were aware that he recorded with Rodgers by that time, because I believe the John Edwards discography may have mentioned the fact. It's hard, looking back on these various acquaintances you've made among the artists, it's almost painful to listen to the interviews anymore, because you realize how little you even knew then as compared to what you might know now, where you could have asked them more intelligent questions.
Can you describe your visit and interview with Polk Brockman?
When we went to see him, Brockman was probably at least in his sixties and he was retired. I recall that Brockman elaborated on the story of the first Fiddlin' John Carson record coming out with no number on the label and selling hundreds of copies locally before OKeh finally put it out with a release number on it. Of course that story has not yet been corroborated in terms of anyone yet finding a copy of such a record with no issue number. But I have no reason to doubt his story, I don't know why he would make up anything like that.
OKeh was in Atlanta doing recording anyway, they didn't come down strictly to record Fiddlin' John, but when Brockman got him in for a session, he did the recording that was first released without the release number on them. Brockman owned a furniture company that sold records and he handled the OKeh line and knew certainly their salesman and that was the bridge that led him to Ralph Peer. As I recall, Polk Brockman was in a movie theatre and saw a film of a fiddler's contest and got the idea of having Fiddlin' John make records for OKeh. Fiddlin' John flashed into his mind when he saw these fiddlers on the screen and I guess he made a mental note to approach OKeh about it.
How did you locate D.H. Williams of the East Texas Serenaders?
We found Williams only on the basis of the fact that he had recorded "Mineola Rag," and we went to Mineola, Texas. I knew that Jack Rhodes, the songwriter who wrote "Satisfied Mind" among other things, lived in Mineola. So we went to see him and he knew all about the East Texas Serenaders and where Williams lived. He was the one that directed us to Lindale and we got to tie in with Williams there-Huggins Williams-most people called him by his middle name. He did some fiddling for us while we were there, and this is when I discovered he was a left-handed fiddler.
We were talking to him to an extent about the East Texas Serenaders' role as kind of a cross between the southeastern stringbands and Western Swing. They were sort of like the bridge to Western Swing. He readily admitted in his own mind that he might have played a role in that, not taking credit for being a Western Swing musician, but so much of the kind of fiddling he was doing was carried into Western Swing, things like the long bow. And incidentally, the ace Western Swing fiddler, Johnny Gimble, was an acquaintance of Huggins Williams.
Did you find any good records on that field trip?
We managed to find one little stash of records at an old general store in Texas that still had some old Victors. Of course Fred and I were both collectors, so when we got back to L.A. we had to "eenie-meenie-meinie-moe" through them, you know. We kind of played the psychological game with one another. I remember it was heads or tails and he won the toss, so the first record he chose was the Carter Family recording of "Anchored In Love" on Victor. Then the one I took was the first Gene Autry recording from 1929. Other records in there, I remember there was a Clifford Gibson in there. Probably the Jimmie Rodgers records had sold out before this old man had ever put the records away. There were probably four or five hundred records altogether, but most of them were pop, and I think Fred and I bought maybe a hundred or so country and the one Clifford Gibson was the only blues.
When did you first meet Chris Strachwitz? Chris Strachwitz and I met up really early in the game before he ever started Arhoolie Records. This is when he was still teaching German at Los Gatos High School and lived up in the mountains there in Redwood Estates I think the area was called, on Old Navaho Trail Road. This was in late '59 I think, maybe early '60. I'd seen a mention of him in Record Research magazine which I was already a subscriber to at that time. So I thought, wow, this guy is pretty close by, I'll give him a call, he may have some hillbilly stuff. So I went up there and sure enough he did have some. He and I struck it off real well at that point and visited one another and listened to music from each other's collection. I think I was the one who probably introduced him to Cajun music, because I don't think he had heard Harry Choates or the Hackberry Ramblers before. So he and I became real good friends and still are today.
I was telling him about a couple of stashes of 78s. I knew he was interested in post-war blues and I remember having been in Fort Worth the year before going through a bunch of records and seeing a lot of Gold Stars by Lightnin' Hopkins. He was real excited about that so he planned that summer to go down to Texas and farther east, because he was really seriously thinking about starting up a record company at that point. I only had two weeks' vacation and he had the whole summer so I wound up going down there with him for the first two weeks and then I took the bus back to California while he continued on. We found Li'l Son Jackson there in Dallas, went through all those records in Fort Worth, went out and had a visit with Sleepy Johnson, the old Light Crust Doughboy-Texas Playboy, visited with him for a while. From there Chris went on down to Houston and recorded Mance Lipscomb in Navasota on the way. Then he came back up to Dallas and Fort Worth and recorded Li'l Son Jackson and Black Ace. He also went over into Mississippi to record the Hodges Brothers over there. He recorded Sam Chatmon, too, because I made him aware of where he was, he recorded that album I Have to Paint My Face.
I understand that you and Chris Strachwitz once booked Bill Monroe into some clubs in northern California.
Chris and I booked Bill Monroe at a dance hall there in Santa Clara, this was in '63. Of course Chris had already moved to Berkeley by that time, away from the Los Gatos area. We realized that in order to make any money at all we had to attract two types of audiences. We had to attract the people down from Berkeley as well as the displaced Southerners. We booked Monroe at this dance hall and printed up show posters and all that kind of stuff and went out and put them on poles and advertised on radio, rented the hall and rented the security that was necessary to book him there. Then we set up chairs off to one side of the dance floor because we knew the people from the Berkeley area were not going to be there to dance anyway. They were there for a concert basically. The Southerners on the other hand that came were a little bit disappointed because they couldn't really dance to Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys. Chris and I had also forseen that problem too and we took out one of these portable P.A. systems with the turntable all housed in one unit. For intermission purposes we took out LPs by Hank Thompson and Bob Wills and we played those LPs during the intermission when Bill wasn't playing and so the Southerners were very happy. But when Bill came back out, they all groaned! While everyone from Berkeley was over there clapping, because they hated the other kind of music! It was an interesting audience. A social experiment I guess. We wound up that night losing like twenty dollars apiece. It could have been a lot worse! (laughs)
The other thing I remember about that night was George Morgan, the Opry artist, was appearing in Santa Clara that same night, I think at the 1440 Club out on Bayshore Highway. So he found out that Bill Monroe was at Napredak Hall. So between sets at the 1440 Club, he and the owner of the 1440 Club came over to Napredak Hall to see Bill. George came in and visited with Bill. We let him in free (laughs). I was the one there at the window taking admissions when George walked up. I recognized him right away, but he probably felt nobody knew him, so he said, "I'm George Morgan, I'm with the Grand Ole Opry." And I said, "I know, George, go right in."
What was it like dealing with Monroe at that time?
Very amiable. Had a great band with him at the time too. The booking fee for Monroe at that time was four hundred dollars. Ralph Rinzler was the one who was managing him and Ralph is the one who got in contact with us because he had these open dates, so that's why Chris and I got together and decided to go ahead and take the plunge. Bill was real easy to work with. He had Bessie Lee on the bass, and had Bill Keith on the banjo, Del McCoury on guitar and vocals, and Kenny Baker on fiddle. Good lineup. It was a fun night.
Back in the 1950s, was discographical information shared among collectors? How much did you know concerning discography?
Very little. Disc Collector magazine had started back in 1950, I believe, up in Michigan. Joe Nicholas had started that. But I didn't make the discovery of that magazine until around '58 or '59. And of course it was off and on. He would put out maybe three or four issues a year and maybe the next two or three years you wouldn't see anything. And then of course I saw where people shared information. Will Roy Hearne, the scholar of record labels down in Los Angeles, was providing Joe Nicholas with numericals of country product. They were running them piecemeal in Disc Collector, so that was probably the first indication. And there were a few artist discographies in there too, but mostly there were numerical things. But once Joe started the adjunct publication called Country Directory, that seemed to focus more on artists' discographies. And John Edwards, whom I corresponded with for probably a year or so before he died, he of course had done a Jimmie Rodgers discography that was published in Fresno by a magazine called International Discophiles. That may have been the first full-blown discography of an artist that I had seen.
John Edwards was living in Australia?
Yes. He never made it to the States unfortunately, but there were attempts at one time to get him over here to continue his schooling here, but it just never happened before his premature death.
The John Edwards Memorial Foundation [JEMF housed at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill] is a well-known archive and research center devoted to the study of American folk music. Were you involved with that organization?
I was not one of the organizers, but I was asked to serve on the board of advisors from the start. The JEMF was pretty much put together by Archie Green and Ed Kahn and Gene Earle and D.K. Wilgus and Fred Hoeptner; I think maybe the five of them were most involved in the formation of it. Once they had gotten the tax-exempt status and all that, they asked me to serve on the board of advisors, so I would go down there annually to attend the meetings. If any question came up needing any kind of opinion, why that's what we were all there for, so we had some correspondence, all of us. Ed Kahn was the secretary at that time before Norm Cohen eventually took over that slot.
John Edwards was killed in a car wreck?
Yes, in December 1960. He was hit by a truck while he was driving at night near Sydney. It was a big shock for everybody associated with him. Of course I didn't have a long correspondence with him, probably a year or so. John was a real pioneer in discographic research in terms of country music and I think we all borrowed from him.
Gene Earle before long had done a Bill Cox discography, and worked on Cliff Carlisle, which is another major interest of Gene's. Those discographies came out then when Country Directory started publishing, the first one I did was a Milton Brown discography, then a Callahan Brothers discography followed that. The Callahan Brothers were another interest of mine; they were North Carolinians, but they were on Wichita Falls radio along with the Herrington Sisters trio. I used to listen to both of them a lot in my pre-teen years.
How did you piece together these discographies? What were your sources of information?
In the case of the Callahan Brothers, I wrote to the record company, Columbia, which had the rights to the product, and they indeed did send me back a listing of everything that they had recorded. And I also wrote to Decca Records, not only for the Milton Brown material, but the Callahan Brothers too, since the Callahan Brothers did have one Decca session. So I was able to get fragmentary data from them. Then of course I pieced in the personnel parts. In the case of Milton Brown, I was down in Fort Worth, Texas, on one or more occasions and talked with Fred Calhoun, the piano player with the Brownies, and he gave me quite a bit of information. Then on another trip into Nashville I talked to Cecil Brower, the fiddle player with the Brownies, who was doing session work in Nashville at that time. The major information I got from him was the second fiddle player's name on the second San Antonio session. Prior to him telling me who it was I had thought it was possibly Jesse Ashlock, but I was dead wrong! It was Ted Grantham. And Cecil said he'd just done the one session. Grantham's background was interesting too, in that he'd also played with Paul Whiteman at one time. Cecil filled me in on that.
In the case of the Callahan Brothers, I was able to talk to Bill Callahan. Homer actually was his earlier name, he started going by Bill by the time he was in Texas. Bill was able to fill me in on quite a bit on their sessions.
I know one method of collecting, especially in those days, was canvassing houses, just going out and knocking on doors. Did you ever do any of that?
No, I never did. I think maybe I was lucky in some respects, although I wouldn't have known it at the time, living in the Bay Area where I did and being the only one interested in collecting country records. By getting to know the other collectors in the area who collected pop or jazz or whatever, and who were always on the prowl for records, often I would get calls from them when they discovered a stash of country material. And they would say, "You should go and look through this stuff, there might be some things you're interested in."
The other big advantage in addition to almost having a monopoly in that particular area was when you did find country product there it could be the sort of thing where a person would buy it on speculation perhaps, maybe recognizing a song and taking it home and playing it. But not really being a true afficionado of the music, they'd play it one time and shelve it. So more often than not when you'd find records out there, you would find them in really nice condition, unlike scouring in the South where they would be worn to bits. So that was one big advantage.
And being from Texas, I would periodically travel down there. Having previously discovered that you could buy records at a jukebox place, I started looking in the phone books under "Phonographs-Coin Operated" and giving them a call and finding out if they still had anything. I found all kinds of stashes down there while on vacation, and hauled them back to California. Not the entire jukebox stock, you understand, but culling what I wanted out of there.
And a lot of it would be Western Swing, which again was one of my main interests anyway, so I was able to find the Wills and the Boyds and the Jimmie Revards and the Light Crust Doughboys and the Adolph Hofners in fairly clean condition if you looked long enough. The jukebox operators would buy them in lots of 25 to the box and maybe not all of them would hit the jukebox, so there would be mint copies lying around in addition to the ones that were worn. And you would find occasional old-time records there too, you would occasionally find a southeastern Bluebird as opposed to a southwestern one.
Columbia operated a record-pressing plant in Oakland for a number of years. Living in the Bay Area, did you ever run across stashes of records that may have come from that facility?
Only indirectly. There was a radio station, KWBR, in Oakland that apparently had been on a mailing list receiving all these OKehs and Columbias from the pressing plant. And some of the collectors started buying records off that station. There was one particular collector in San Francisco, a longshoreman named Howard Bodine, who was really a jazz and blues collector, but fortunately for me he recognized the rarity of the country product even though he had no particular interest in it. He was getting it at a cheap-enough price that he just went ahead and bought the country stuff too. Ultimately I did buy out Bodine's country collection, and he told me that a lot of the Columbia 15000s and OKeh 45000s that he had came from KWBR.
Also you would find occasionally an ad, somebody selling records in the newspaper, especially in the Oakland area, in the East Bay area. If you went to their house you might occasionally discover that they had OKehs and Columbias and they had worked at this pressing plant at one time or another and just carted them home and probably never even played them. Those sorts of discoveries weren't like every week, but they did occur.
I never went to WKBR myself, but from the way others talked, they were definitely on a mailing list of some sort to get those records, because they apparently had reasonably complete runs of those things. I remember "Sullivan's Hollow" by Freeny's Barn Dance Band, of the three Freeny OKehs that's probably the most common, if you want to use that that word! I remember three copies of that going through my hands in the Bay Area, three mint copies.
In the 1960s you were working for Memorex, living in the Bay Area, and collecting records. How did your job with the Country Music Foundation come about?
I got kind of burned out as a production control person at Memorex. After working there for five years, I got a little bit weary, and by that time I'd been dabbling in buying non-country collections on the side and doing record auctions for extra income. So I had decided that I could afford to just simply drop out. I should explain that in 1967 the Country Music Hall of Fame was built and it opened on April 1st. And being a country music fan I knew all that was going on and I'd heard rumors that they were going to possibly establish a library, and even had one small one going already. So by this time, after having moved my collection numerous times, and the thing kept growing, I decided I would first of all go on a trip to Nashville and see how serious they were on starting a library.
So I came here with the thought of maybe resigning from Memorex and moving to Nashville to come to work here in the library. I talked to Bill Denny at the time in 1967, in addition to Jo Walker Meador. Her name was just Jo Walker at the time, she was executive director of the Country Music Association. That was my first look-see down here in the basement area. And they explained to me: "Yes, we'd like to establish a library but we don't even know if the Hall of Fame is going to be successful as a tourist attraction. So we don't have the money." They both figured that it was maybe five years away before they would ever, if lucky, establish a library. Jo Walker Meador's office was right down here in the basement area, over on the opposite side from where we're sitting now. The CMA offices were in a finished-off area of this basement, but Jo walked me over onto this side of the building where the library is now, and it was just nothing but concrete, nothing else, no carpeting, nothing! So I thought: "OK, I'll just file that date in the back of my mind and get back to California, maybe I'll reapproach them in another five years or so."
When I got back, I did decide that although it would be five years before I could actually make the move, that I would just go ahead and resign from Memorex and see what the record business would do for me on the side, just to make ends meet. I was kind of glad to get out. My wife was agreeable, we figured we could put out the occasional record auction. I had built up such an inventory at that time, I figured I could probably stay away from the workplace for a year or two maybe, and just survive that way. I ended up surviving six years! During the course of that time, we were in San Jose from 1967 to '70 basically, then we wound up moving down to Santa Maria. It was less expensive down there to live than San Jose, and the air was cleaner too. So we packed up the belongings, and the record collection too, and hauled it down to Santa Maria in 1970.
After I'd set up the collection again in Santa Maria, I decided to write the Country Music Foundation to see how things were going in terms of the library and found out that indeed as of 1971 they had already finished off this area of the building and had now established a library. I didn't know how serious they were about collecting on a large scale but I wondered if they'd be interested in the collection that I'd built up and so I wrote to Frank Jones who was the chairman of the board. Bill Ivey had been hired as executive director by that time, so Bill wrote back and indicated that they were interested and wondered if I would simply allow the CMF to take out an option of buying it. And I said, yes, if they wanted to look at it and see. So we agreed on a six-month option for them to buy the collection, during which time they would come out and inspect it. And Bill came out the same month, he came out in December of '71 to Santa Maria and looked at the collection.
In the meantime, at their request, I prepared an inventory of the major label product. I prepared an inventory of all the LPs, 45s, and 78s on the major labels and sent that to them. I think Bill Ivey took the list to Brad McCuen, a CMF board member, who was a record collector and previously worked for RCA and was instrumental in the Vintage Series of LPs that came out. He recognized what the value of a collection would be, so he looked at the inventory. And I heard that the big record dealer up in New York, Jacob Schneider, looked at it too. And both of their inputs to the board was to buy it. And so once we agreed upon the price, they bought the collection and ended up transporting it here in September of 1972.
Was there any connection between buying the collection and hiring you as librarian?
No. As a matter of fact, when I mentioned that to them, Bill Ivey said he didn't think it was wise to couple the two together, that they should be separate things. So I said, OK, that was fine. They went ahead and hauled the collection back and then I just sat and waited for a while and didn't hear anything, so I decided it was up to me to make the next move, find out whether they were interested or not in my services in any way, shape, or form. So I thought one way out of this was to simply draw up a job description of the position that I felt they should create whether I was the person to do it or somebody else. After I drew up the description they offered me the job, and I moved here to Nashville in May of 1973.
When you wrote the job description that you hoped would materialize, what exactly were the duties required by that job?
It involved primarily acquisitions, but also being on hand, since they had no reference library at the time. All they had when I came here was the library director and his secretary and I thought if they needed someone on the staff that would be able to handle the questions that would come in from people using the library, maybe I would be the person to help in that realm. So I think that was part of the job description as well. So in effect, before there was a reference library, I was the reference librarian. Although I don't have a library degree, I functioned in that slot as well as collecting and disposing of materials.
I explained to them how I felt the collecting could be done on a shoestring if that person was allowed to create their own coffer for raising money by selling off the duplicate holdings, and just simply have money coming in and going out, and therefore not asking for an annual appropriation but just operating that way. So that's basically how I've operated for two decades. I've never had to ask them for any appropriation to buy any of the out-of-print material that's gone into the collection. So I think it's worked out fairly well.
End of Part One The interview with Bob Pinson will conclude in the next issue of the Old-Time Herald: Pinson describes his encounter with Hank Williams in 1950, discusses his friendship with Bob Wills, gives his views of the Country Music Hall of Fame, provides details of the long-awaited country music discography, and more.
Marshall Wyatt is a researcher and record collector who currently serves on the board of directors of the North Carolina Folklife Institute. He has recently produced an anthology entitled Music from the Lost Provinces, a reissue of old-time string-band music from Ashe County, North Carolina and vicinity. The CD is available from Old Hat Enterprises, PO Box 10309, Raleigh, NC, 27605. http://www.oldhatrecords.com/