The Reverend and the Fiddler: George R. & "Uncle Am" Stuart

This week I am exploring my Nashville roots in the stories of my great-great-grandfather George R. Stuart and his brother, Ambrose Gaines ("Uncle Am") Stuart. One a preacher, the other a safe-cracking fiddler, both made lasting contributions to the city’s legacy and their divergent stories come together in one of its most iconic buildings: the Ryman Auditorium.

The Rev. Dr. George R. Stuart (1857-1926)

George Rutledge Stuart was born in Talbott or Talbott's Station, Tennessee, a small village on the Southern Railway just north of Knoxville, in 1857. He was the youngest of four sons (with one sister) of Caswell Cobb and Maria Martin Stuart (née Worley). After his father, a prosperous antebellum merchant and proprietor, lost everything at the close of the Civil War, George, then still a child, worked the various farms to which the family relocated, attending school and eventually taking up teaching. In 1880, George left for Emory and Henry College in Virginia at the encouragement of the then-president Dr. David Sullins (founder, Sullins College, Bristol, VA, closed 1976), where he worked his way through education and graduated in 1882. He married Sullins's daughter Zollie at the college chapel in September of the same year. In 1884, the centennial of the Methodist Episcopal Church in America, George founded Centenary (Female) College in Cleveland, Tennessee (my hometown), where his father-in-law became president in 1885. Around this time, George became acquainted with the popular evangelist Sam P. Jones (1847-1906), whose daughters, it seems, attended the college. From then George became Jones's close co-worker and "constant companion," (one 1902 source describes him as Jones’s “complement” rather than his “counterpart,” stating that he “has much of the power and many of the strong points of Mr. Jones without those for which his co-worker has been censured by some") and eventually began a career as a traveling evangelist, temperance lecturer, and "one of the greatest orators in the South."

 Collins Studio - New York, Rev. G. R. Stuart. University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, photo: Anderson County Historical Commission.

Collins Studio - New York, Rev. G. R. Stuart. University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, photo: Anderson County Historical Commission.

For years George toured the nation with Rev. Jones preaching at some of its largest and most highly attended conferences and assemblies and inspiring, according to one ca. 1900 source, "more [...] moral reforms than any other man in the South." The most famous of George and Jones's converts, however, was one Thomas Ryman, the prominent Nashville businessman for whom the Ryman Auditorium, 'Mother Church of Country Music,' is now named. In 1885, Tom Ryman, who had profited after the Civil War on steamboats that carried both trade goods and raucous entertainments along the Cumberland and Ohio Rivers, attended a "tent revival" held on the corner of what is now 5th Avenue (then Summer Street) and Broadway in Nashville, where he heard Rev. Jones speak. According to accounts of the occasion, Ryman, who had spent "'a good part of his life serving the devil'" (i.e. drinking, etc.), was converted that day and henceforth took up a gospel mission, having proceeded, reported (somewhat hyperbolically) The New York Times, from the revival to the wharf and "as his boats came in, knocked them into kindling wood, and emptied the whisky into the winding Cumberland." Ryman promised Jones that he would construct a space large enough to hold thousands of people indoors, and in 1892 the Union Gospel Tabernacle, "the largest and most scientifically constructed convention hall in the South," opened to the public.

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When Ryman died in 1904, both Jones and George, "who loved and was loved by Capt. Ryman," spoke at his funeral, for which more than 4,000 people gathered at the Tabernacle on Christmas Day. According to a report in The Nashville American (The Tennessean): "Beautifully and eloquently did Mr. Stewart [sic.] pay his tribute to the life of Capt. Ryman," stating that, "'A city never gets over the fact [...] of a great man living so humbly, one whose great spirit has been exalted to that blessed home. I say with Brother Jones that I lay the sweetest and the rarest flowers of my heart upon this great man's grave.'" It was following the conclusion of these remarks that Jones suggested the name of the Tabernacle be changed to Ryman Auditorium.

When Rev. Jones died suddenly in 1906, George conducted his funeral services in Cartersville, Georgia. Eventually George returned to the pastorate, though he continued to lecture extensively through the 1910s. He died on May 11, 1926 in Birmingham, Alabama. Among his published works were: The Stump Digger: A Sermon on Temperance (1896), Sermons (1904), Stories and Parables to Illustrate Gospel Truths (1907), Famous Stories of Sam P. Jones (1908), and What Every Methodist Should Know (1922). George R. Stuart Elementary School in Cleveland, Tennessee, and George R. Stuart Auditorium in Lake Junaluska, North Carolina are both named for him.

 George R. Stuart with pony "Pasha," outside his residence on 17th Street in Cleveland, Tennessee (now the site of Faith Memorial Church). Photo: family collection.

George R. Stuart with pony "Pasha," outside his residence on 17th Street in Cleveland, Tennessee (now the site of Faith Memorial Church). Photo: family collection.

 

"Uncle Am" Stuart (ca. 1851-1926)

While George R. was traveling the region spreading his gospel with Mr. Jones, his older brother Ambrose was gaining notoriety as one of the best fiddlers and slickest (professional) safecrackers in the East. Though less is known about his personal life and history, “Uncle Am,” as he was called, made no less an impression upon his audiences, becoming, at the ripe old age of 73(ish), one of the first Tennesseans to commercially record country music in the early 1920s.

 Stuart, second from right, at the Fiddlers' Convention in Mountain City, Tennessee, May 1925. Also pictured, L to R: Al Hopkins, Joe Hopkins, Alonzo Elvis Alderman, John Rector (the "Hill Billies"), and Fiddlin' John Carson. Southern Folklife Collection, Wilson Library Special Collections, UNC.

Stuart, second from right, at the Fiddlers' Convention in Mountain City, Tennessee, May 1925. Also pictured, L to R: Al Hopkins, Joe Hopkins, Alonzo Elvis Alderman, John Rector (the "Hill Billies"), and Fiddlin' John Carson. Southern Folklife Collection, Wilson Library Special Collections, UNC.

Ambrose Gaines Stuart was born near Morristown, Tennessee sometime around 1851-53, the third of the four Stuart sons. According to accounts of his career, he learned to play the fiddle the “Old Time” way—from a young age, by ear, picking up tunes from passing Civil War soldiers and performing at local gatherings in the mountains of Appalachia. At some point, in the 1880s it seems, he began working for a safe and vault company which sent him all over the country to open locks that no one else could. His skill was such that a 1924 article that appeared in the Los Angeles Times claimed: “when it comes to opening a safe without a time lock on it he [Am] can make ‘Alias Jimmy Valentine’ [star of a then-popular crime drama with expertise in safecracking] look like an amateur.”

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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.

(Some) sources:

"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).