The first prominent artist to specialize in bluegrass-style gospel music was Carl Story. He is known as the "Father of Bluegrass Gospel." Story's career in traditional country, bluegrass, and gospel music spanned more than six decades.
Carl was born on May 29, 1916 in Lenoir, North Carolina. His father played the fiddle and his mother played the guitar and Carl mastered both of those instruments along with the clawhammer-style of banjo playing. He formed his Rambling Mountaineers band in 1934.
BMI's database credits Carl Story with 178 published compositions and arrangements, including: “I Overlooked an Orchid While Searching for a Rose," “Always Be Kind To Mother," "I Heard My Mother Weeping" and "Light at the River," which is probably the most important single in Carl Story's recording history."
From 1947 until 1953, Carl Story and his Rambling Mountaineers recorded eleven sessions for Mercury, cutting a total of fifty songs. In 1953, Carl changed labels and landed at Columbia. Over the next three years, his group recorded a total of eighteen songs. In 1955, Carl returned to Mercury for three years, cutting sixteen more songs. Mercury Records was partners with Starday Records and for a period of time in the late 1950s, Starday supervised Mercury's country and western division. A number of Carl's releases were labeled Mercury-Starday. When the two labels terminated their partnership in 1958, Carl went with Starday. Over the next ten years, Carl released a dozen albums, making him one of the most-recorded artists on the Starday label.
Many of Carl Story's Starday Records albums featured the talents of the Knoxville-based Brewster brothers, Bud and Willie G., along with Claude Boone. It was an extremely talented line-up of musicians. They traveled the country performing great shows and selling lots of records.
In early 1957, Carl and his band stopped in Monticello, Kentucky for a show. It was there that he met his wife-to-be, Helen Guffey. In the fall of 1957, Carl returned to Monticello and was hired as a disc jockey at WFLW radio station. He re-met Helen and they started dating. About the time that Carl began living and working in Monticello, Mercury Records released the very first bluegrass gospel album ever: "Gospel Quartet Favorites" by Carl Story, which contained timeless classics like There's A Light At The River, Family Reunion and My Lord Keeps a Record, all of which exemplified Story’s raw-edged, “mountain style” of bluegrass singing defined by his distinctive high baritone harmony part and excellent songwriting ability. Following the album's release, Carl and Helen were married. The date was July 17, 1959. They moved to South Carolina, but returned to Monticello in November of 1960, where Carl began a second tenure at WFLW.
It was a common practice among rural entertainers in the 1940s and 1950s to move from radio station to radio station, using the exposure of live broadcasts to promote local concert appearances. When artists had been in one location for a while and had "played out the territory," they would move on to a new location. Such was the case with Carl Story, who did live radio shows and worked as a dee jay at WNOX in Knoxville, WPAQ in Mount Airy, North Carolina, WCYB in Bristol, Virginia, WAYS in Charlotte, North Carolina, WFLW in Monticello and WANY in Albany. Carl Story and his Rambling Mountaineers recorded at WROL in Knoxville, Tennessee, WCRS in Greenwood, South Carolina and WBT in Charlotte, North Carolina. Several recording sessions by Carl Story and his Rambling Mountaineers took place at WFLW during the two years that Story worked there. Six sessions are documented to have taken place between Oct. 8, 1958 and February of 1960. WFLW owner Fred Staples' son, Steve, engineered the recording sessions, while Story was the producer. Thirty songs that Carl and his group of musicians recorded at the radio station were pressed to vinyl and released by Starday Records.
More than likely, several more songs were recorded at the radio station but never released. In Carl Story's discography, one session took place in 1960 where the exact date and recording location is listed as unknown. Eleven songs were pressed to vinyl and released by Starday Records and, even though Story lived in Monticello during most of 1960, it apparently cannot be proven that the sessions took place there.
On October 8, 1958, four songs recorded by Carl Story and his Rambling Mountaineers at WFLW were released by Starday Records.
1. "Who Will Sing For Me" Starday SEP-101 SEP-113/Starday SLP-105 Nashville NLP-2005 SRC-5 BCD 16839
2. "Old Country Baptizing" Starday 45-411 SEP-101/SLP-107 Nashville NLP-2007 Spin-O-Rama M-3117 BCD 16839
3. "Paul and Silas" Starday SEP-101/SLP-105 Nashville NLP-2005 Countryville S-787 SRC-5 BCD 16839
4. "Angel Band" Starday 45-411 SEP-113/Starday SLP-105 SLP-127, Smash SRS-67016 Nashville NLP-2005 London SL-240 [JAP] BCD 16839
*Carl Story on vocals and guitar, Bud Brewster on banjo, Willie Brewster on mandolin, Claude William Boone on bass and Tater Tate on fiddle.
On November 26, 1958, two songs recorded by Carl Story and his Rambling Mountaineers at WFLW were released by Starday Records.
5. "Don't You Love Your Daddy Too" SLP-107 BCD 16839
6. "For My Lord" SEP-101/SLP-127 BCD 16839
*Carl Story on vocals and guitar, Chuck Henderson on banjo, Buster Moore on mandolin, Bonnie Lou Buster on bass or guitar, Lloyd Bell, bass or guitar and Benny Sims on fiddle.
On January 29, 1959, six songs recorded by Carl Story and his Rambling Mountaineers at WFLW were released by Starday Records.
7. "Old Gospel Ship" 45-449 SEP-113/SLP-107 SRC-5 BCD 16839
8. "Shout and Shine" 45-427/SLP 107 SLP-116 [va] NLP-2003 [va] BCD 16839
9. "A Beautiful City" 45-427 SEP-113/ va SLP-105 NLP-2005 [va] SRC-5 BCD 16839
10. "Set Your House In Order" 45-449 SEP-113/SLP-107 BCD 16839
11. "Old Time Religion" SLP-104, SLP-116, NLP-2003, NLP-2011, KMCD-9100, BCD 16839
12. "Life's Evening Sun (A Beautiful Life)" SE-113/SLP-127, SLP-104, NLP-2011, SRC-5 KMCD-9100, BCD 16839
*Carl Story on vocals and guitar, Chuck Henderson on banjo, Buster Moore on mandolin, Bonnie Lou Buster on bass or guitar, Lloyd Bell on bass or guitar and Benny Sims on fiddle.
On July 29, 1959, eight songs recorded by Carl Story and his Rambling Mountaineers at WFLW were released by Starday Records.
13. "Life Boat" SEP-121, SEP-141/SLP-107, BCD 16839
14. "I'll Be A Friend" 45-465/SLP 107, BCD 16839
15. "This Lonesome Road" SLP-107, BCD 16839
16. "Hide Me (Rock of Ages)" SLP-107, BCD 16839
17. "The Circle Was Broken" SLP-107 BCD .16839
18. "I Heard My Mother Weeping" 45-465, SEP-127/SLP 107, SLP-207, SD-3004, BCD 16839
19. "Be Kind To Mother" SLP-127, SLP-115, NLP-2001, BCD 16839
20. "My Lord's Gonna Lead Me Out" SLP-107, BCD 16839
*Carl Story on vocals and guitar, Peppie Pealer on electric guitar, Chuck Henderson on banjo, Buster Moore on mandolin, Bonnie Lou Buster on bass or guitar and Lloyd Bell on bass or guitar.
In February of 1960, ten songs recorded by Carl Story and his Rambling Mountaineers at WFLW were released by Starday Records.
21. "When Jesus Spoke To Me" SLP-127
22. "Family Reunion" SEP-129/SLP-127, NLP-2009, SLP9-164, SLP-455, SD-3004
23. "(I Heard My Name) On The Radio" 45-492, SEP-164/SLP-127
24. "I Didn't Hear Nobody Pray" SEP-129/SLP-127, SLP-455
25. "Someones Last Day" 45-514, SEP-141/SLP-127
26. "Somebody Touched Me" SEP-129/SLP-127, KMCD-5111
27. "Ship That's Sailing Down" 45-514, SEP-141/SLP-127
28. "Sweeter Than The Flowers" 45-492/SLP-127, SLP-169, SLP-455, SD-3004
29. "If I Could Hear My Mother Pray Again" SEP-129/SLP-127
30. "Light At The River" SEP-129/SLP-127
*Carl Story on vocals and guitar, possibly Buster Moore on mandolin, Bonnie Lou Buster on bass or guitar and Lloyd Bell on bass or guitar.
The eleven songs that were pressed to vinyl from the 1960 session listed as 'unknown' are:
Heavenly Child, I'm Ready To Go, The Rock of my Soul, He Will Walk Through The Shadows With You, Will You Pray For Him Today, Alone, The Greatest Gift, I'm Going Home Someday, The Lord Is Your Shepherd, It's A Mighty Hard Road To Travel and Thank The Lord For Everything.
The recordings made at WFLW radio station are important because out of the 30 songs in the Starday catalog, only seven had previously been pressed: (I Heard My Name) On The Radio, The Circle Was Broken, and I Heard My Mother Weeping were previously recorded in 1947. My Lord's Gonna Lead Me Out and Who Will Sing For Me were first recorded in 1952 and Light At The River and Family Reunion were recorded in 1957. The other twenty-three songs that Carl Story and his Rambling Mountaineers recorded at WFLW were pressed for the very first time. These were all great songs. Some had previously been recorded and all of them had a great impact on bluegrass gospel music. Songs like Paul and Silas, Angel Band, For My Lord, Old Gospel Ship, Shout and Shine, A Beautiful City, Old Time Religion, Life's Evening Sun (A Beautiful Life), Lifeboat, Hide Me Rock Of Ages, I Heard My Mother Weeping (written by Carl Story), My Lord's Gonna Lead Me Out, Somebody Touched Me and If I Could Here My Mother Pray Again are considered among the finest songs ever recorded in the bluegrass gospel field. Carl Story's versions of these twenty-three songs were first recorded at WFLW Radio Station.Their importance in Carl Story's discography are seen in the liner notes of several albums that mention recordings having taken place at legendary studios in Nashville, like Columbia, Mercury and Castle, and in the same breath, if you will, it will say...and at WFLW radio station in Monticello, Kentucky.
All of the songs on the album, "America's Favorite Country Gospel Artist" (Starday SLP-107), by Carl Story & His Rambling Mountaineers (1959), were recorded at WFLW.
1. Life Boat (7/29/59)
2. I'll Be A Friend (7/29/59)
3. This Lonesome Road 7/29/59)
4. Hide Me (Rock Of Ages) (7/29/59)
5. The Circle Was Broken (7/29/59)
6. I Heard My Mother Weeping (7/29/59)
7. Old Gospel Ship (7/29/59)
8. Shout And Shine (7/29/59)
9. Set Your House In Order (7/29/59)
10. Old Country Baptizing (10/8/58)
11. My Lord's Gonna Lead Me Out (7/29/59)
12. Don't You Love Your Daddy Too (11/26/58)
All of the songs on the album, "Gospel Revival" (Starday SLP-127), by Carl Story and his Rambling Mountaineers (1961), were recorded at WFLW.
1. Light At the River (2/60)
2. I Heard My Name On The Radio (2/60)
3. If I Could Hear My Mother Pray Again (2/60)
4. When Jesus Spoke To Me (2/60)
5. Be Kind To Mother (7/29/59)
6. For My Lord (11/58)
7. Angel Band (10/8/58)
8. Family Reunion (2/60)
9. Ship That's Sailing Down (2/60)
10. Didn't Hear Nobody Pray (2/60)
11. Someones Last Day (2/60)
12. Sweeter Than The Flowers (2/60)
13. Somebody Touched Me (2/60)
14. Life's Evening Sun (1/59)
The album, "Old Time Religion, Country Style" (Starday SLP-116), by Various Artists (1961), includes the song, "Old Time Religion, which was recorded by Carl Story and his Rambling Mountaineers at WFLW Radio Station on January 29, 1959.
The album, "Preachin', Prayin', Shoutin', Singin'" (Starday SLP-105), by Various Artists (1959), includes three songs written by Carl Story and recorded by he and his Rambling Mountaineers at WFLW Radio Station: "Paul and Silas" and "Who Will Sing For Me" on Oct. 8, 1958 and "A Beautiful City" on Jan. 29, 1959.
Singles released by Starday between 1958-60, while Carl Story was living in Monticello and Albany are:
Old Country Baptizing/Angel Band (45-411) March 11, 1958
Shout And Shine/A Beautiful City (45-427) April 1959
Old Gospel Ship/Set Your House In Order (4A -449) Aug. 1959
I'll Be A Friend/Heard My Mother Weeping (45-465) Nov. 1959
On The Radio (I Heard My Name)/Sweeter Than The Flowers (45-492) May 1960 Someones Last Day/Ship That's Sailing Down (45-514) Sept. 1960
Why Don't You Haul Off And Get Religion/Hear Jerusalem Moan (45-531) Dec. 1960
Carl and Helen Story left Monticello in late 1960 or early 1961 and moved to nearby Albany, Kentucky, where Carl worked for a few months at WANY radio station. Soon, Carl and Helen left Albany and moved to South Carolina. Carl Story spent the last thirty years of his life in Greer, South Carolina. His last disc jockey work was a five-year stint on WESC in nearby Greenville, South Carolina. He died from complications of heart bypass surgery on March 31, 1995 in Greenville, South Carolina. He was placed in the Bluegrass Hall of Fame in 2007.
In 2008, I purchased a letter on eBay that was written by Carl Story to country singer Jim Reeves. It was written on WANY letterhead and dated September 15, 1961. The seller was a lady from Ohio and the letter was among several written documents she had purchased from the sale of the Jim Reeves estate in 1996.
Again, it is important to note the WFLW recordings that a young Steve Staples engineered between 1958 and 1960 are as much a part of Carl Story's success as were the recordings made at Mercury and Columbia. How important are these recordings? In 2011, Bear Family Records released "Carl Story And His Rambling Mountaineers - Bluegrass, Gospel And Mountain Music 1942-1959," a 4-CD box set with a 112-page hardcover book and 134 tracks...Carl Story's complete recordings from 1942-1959. The songs that were used in this box set came from recordings made at Bradley Film & Recording Studio in Nashville, Castle Studio in Nashville, RCA Victor Studio in Nashville and...WFLW radio station in Monticello. This set includes every recording that Carl Story made for Mercury, Columbia and Starday, including the recordings that were made at WFLW radio station, plus some ultra-rare demos recorded before World War II.
Carl Story truly was a bluegrass pioneer, proven by his title, "The Father of Bluegrass Gospel." His Rambling Mountaineers included very prominent bluegrass musicians: Red Rector, Tater Tate, Claude Boone, Bobby Thompson, and Bud and Willie Brewster. The recordings they made at WFLW are historic and should be recognized as such, not only for Carl Story and his Rambling Mountaineers, but, just as important, they add to the legacy of an already legendary radio station that has been on the air and serving Monticello and Wayne County, Kentucky since 1955.
“.. I remember one day, I think me and Keith Whitley were selling records at the record table – that was our gig when we got done working a show with Ralph [Stanley]; we’d go and set the records up and sit there and sell records all day.
Anyway, Carl Story was on and they had the speaker just blaring. I mean, it was like blown out. And Carl said, (in a deep voice), ‘now, I’d like to sing a song from the great Martha Carson.’ And then he went into that falsetto voice, and it was so loud. I think it spayed cats in five counties, son, I’m telling you what. I mean, it was like the loudest thing.
He had this high falsetto voice, but it was funny hearing him talk and be in this low voice. So, he would go into this falsetto voice and sing, and it was the same key that Martha Carson did it in. It was ‘I Know My Lord’s Gonna Lead Me Out.’ We just sat there and said, ‘my God, how high is that?’ But he was great." - Ricky Skaggs (Dan Armonaitis, 11/20/15, Sound Observations)
For a more in-depth look at the Carl Story Discography visit:
Praguefrank's Country Music Discography