Am’s real career, however—at least, the one for which he is primarily remembered now, began late in life. In the early 1920s, “hillbilly” music (as country, i.e. Southern white folk, music was known until 1949) represented a new market in the burgeoning record and radio industries, the former at the time suffering from the success of the latter. In a bid to reach new audiences, recording companies, OKeh and Columbia chief among them, recruited well-known regional musicians to travel to the big cities (Atlanta, New York) to record. In 1923, OKeh released the first commercial country recording featuring “Fiddlin’” John Carson, and in June of the following year, Uncle Am traveled to New York City to record with the Aeolian-Vocalion Co., one of the first Tennesseans to do so. While in New York, Am recorded at least fourteen selections, including “Cumberland Gap,” (listen here) “Grey Eagle,” “Old Liza Jane,” and “Waggoner.” He also performed for several radio broadcasts, a form of country listening that would reach its peak in the still-popular Grand Ole Opry, begun the following year (November 28, 1925) and broadcast from the Ryman Auditorium from 1943 to 1974.
In 1925 Uncle Am attended the famous Fiddlers’ Convention in Mountain City, Tennessee, where he competed against rivals and friends Charlie Bowman, John Carson, Dudley Vance, and others, taking home third (?) prize. In February of 1926, he added Champion Fiddler of the Middle Atlantic States to his list of titles when he won an “incognito” contest (for which Charlie Bowman acted as master of ceremonies) conducted from WRC Station in Washington, DC. He died of pneumonia at his home in Bristol, Tennessee/Virginia a month later, just two months before his younger brother George.
Though he gained a popular reputation as somewhat of a rebel-outlaw (one frequently recurring article emphasized that he was untaught, “smokes cigarettes, drinks corn 'likker' [quotes added], and likes the girls,” another that he knew “the James boys,” namely, Jesse), Uncle Am was remembered by more than one as a generous spirit. Alonzo E. (“Tony”) Alderman, a member of the “Hill Billies,” a group with whom Am became acquainted at the 1925 Convention and subsequently played, and who lent their name to the genre, called him “a polished Southern gentleman if ever there was one,” recalling that Am would often come onto the stage at the end of a show, ask the audience if they knew of anyone who was too sick or poor to attend and, if any were identified, give them all of his earnings from the evening. Like many musicians of his generation, he never 'gave up his day job,' so to speak, leaving the pursuit of musical professionalism to those who would arrive on the scene shortly after: the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, Ernest V. Stoneman, all of whom were ‘discovered’ at the legendary “Bristol Sessions” of 1927 and on whom Am and his cohorts had considerable influence (see: Ted Olson; The Birthplace of Country Music Museum). Today, Uncle Am’s fiddle is on display at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, now located just down the street from the Ryman, where visitors can hear a snippet of his recording of “Cumberland Gap.”
Header photos: (L) Dr. Geo. R. Stuart, photo published in a Chautauqua brochure, ca. 1905. Redpath Chautauqua Collection, University of Iowa Libraries, Special Collections Dept. (R) "Uncle Am" Stuart, photo from a Vocalion-Aeolian ad in The Talking Machine World, August 15, 1924: 53.
"Best in Three States—Uncle Am, a Champion Fiddler of South, Can't Read a Note (New York)," Los Angeles Times, Aug. 2, 1925: 7.
Bob L. Cox, Fiddlin' Charlie Bowman: An East Tennessee Old-Time Music Pioneer and His Musical Family (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2007).
"Captain T. G. Ryman: Funeral Service is Held For Him At Tabernacle," The Nashville American (The Tennessean), December 26, 1904: 5.
"Centenary College," in "Higher Education in Tennessee," Bureau of Education Circular of Information 5, no. 16 (Washington: GPO, 1893): 259-60.
Charles K. Wolfe, in assn. with The Tennessee Historical Commission, Tennessee Strings: The Story of Country Music in Tennessee (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1977).
Charles K. Wolfe and Ted Olson, eds., The Bristol Sessions: Writings About the Big Bang of Country Music (2005).
David Sullins, Recollections of an Old Man: Seventy Years in Dixie, 1827-1897, 2nd ed. (Bristol, TN: King Printing Co., Leroi Press, 1910).
Ed Byrne, "Before It Was The Ryman," Tennessee State Library and Archives Blog, June 27, 2016 (http://tslablog.blogspot.com/2016/06/before-it-was-ryman.html).
"Fiddlers' Contest from WRC Tonight: Charlie Bowman, Of Tennessee, Will Challenge Middle-Atlantic Champion (Washington)," Baltimore Sun, Feb. 9, 1926: 26.
"George Rutledge Stuart," in Thomas N. Ivey, ed., The Southern Methodist Handbook (Nashville: Southern Methodist Publishing House, 1916).
"'Hill Billies' Make A Big Hit With Two Performances: Uncle Am Stuart Proves Popular Favorite With Audiences," Kingsport Times, July 19, 1925: 6.
Pat J. Ahrens, Union Grove: The First Fifty Years (1975).
Paul Kingsbury, Michael McCall, and John W. Rumble, eds., The Encyclopedia of Country Music, 2nd ed., compiled by the staff of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).
"The Rev. Dr. G. R. Stuart: Widely Known Evangelist Dies in Birmingham, Ala.," New York Times, May 18, 1926: 25.
"Sam P. Jones Dies Suddenly On A Train," New York Times, October 16, 1906: 9.
Ted Olson, "Victor Talking Machine Company sessions in Bristol, Tennessee—The Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, Ernest Stoneman, and others (1927)," National Recording Registry, Library of Congress.
"Tom Ryman of Nashville," New York Times, December 26, 1892: 2.
"Uncle 'Am' Is Back Again For Visit to New York—Tennessee Fiddler, Who Is Expert Safe Man, Tells of Hold-Up by Frank James (New York, July 12)," Los Angeles Times, July 13, 1924: 37.
"'Uncle Am' Stuart, Violinist, Is Dead," Kingsport Times (Kingsport, TN), March 19, 1926: 5.
W. W. Pinson, George R. Stuart: Life and Work (Nashville: Cokesbury Press, 1927).