July 2023 - The Birthplace of Country Music
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Radio Bristol Spotlight: Lightnin’ Charlie

By Ella Patrick Radio Bristol Production Assistant

Radio Bristol is proud to offer a platform to local and regional artists who are often underrepresented on a national level yet deserving of that audience. In expanding upon Radio Bristol’s core mission we are pleased to bring you our latest series – Radio Bristol Spotlight. Radio Bristol Spotlight is a series highlighting the top emerging artists in our region. Through interviews and performance, we will learn more about the musicians who help to make Central Appalachia one of the richest, and most unique musical landscapes in the world.

Songwriter, storyteller, and soul-seeker local “songbook man” Lightnin’ Charlie recently paid a visit to Radio Bristol. Decked out in a velvet burgundy 3 piece-suit, and a black flat-topped cowboy hat, Charlie shared songs from his forthcoming release Life, and spoke with us about his journey as a working musician in the Tri-Cities. Well known in the area as a longtime staple in the music scene, Lightnin’ is also known for his magnetic personality and eclectic style, and can regularly be spotted cruising down State Street in his vintage Lincoln Limousine with the words “Lightnin’ Charlie” streaked down the side. “Lightnin’” has been a working musician since the mid 1980’s, making “good music for good people” and possesses all the musical chops and sordid stories of late night bar brawls to prove it.

Lightnin’ Charlie posing next to his vintage Lincoln Limousine, courtesy of Lightnin’ Charlie.

Charlie started things off in the studio with an unbelievably good cover of “Everybody’s Talkin’ At Me”. Accentuated by his silky blues-tinged voice, Lightnin’ played his expertly crafted rendition of the tune made a hit by Harry Nilsson in the late 1960s. Charlie shared with us that his musicality has always had a wide scope encompassing sounds from 60’s pop, classic rock, rootsy delta blues, and reflects his lifetime obsession with Elvis Presley, and his ability to effortlessly blend together different styles of music. When talking to Charlie you recognize instantly that he has an incredible depth of musical knowledge with a massive rolodex of a repertoire spanning multiple genres and decades. 

His repertoire and original music has won him regional accolades. He’s been voted favorite musician of the mountain south by Marquee Magazine several years in a row, and nationally he’s won awards such as best in piedmont blues at the International Blues Challenge held annually in Memphis, TN. Over the years Charlie has opened for countless large nationally touring acts such as BB King, Bobby Blue Bland, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, and Albert Collins. He even joked with me about Garth Brooks opening for him when Garth was just getting started at the National Guard Armory in Johnson City, Tennessee and about how he once taught Kenny Chesney how to plug in an XLR cable to a microphone. More recently Charlie ended a four year long residency at The Barrel House in Jonesborough, Tennessee that was always sold out, and extremely well attended by his large group of fans known affectionately as “The Lightnin’ Bugs”. You can find where Charlie will be performing, and catch his online stream of “The Lightnin’ Charlie Show” on his Facebook page 

Charlie began “playing out” while attending college at East Tennessee State University, when Walnut Street was “a happening” teaming with late night venues such as Poor Richards, and Quarterbacks. Local acts would be stacked up burning the midnight oil for college kids, and crowds that poured out of famed Johnson City historic venue, The Down Home. Known back then as Chip Dolinger, “Charlie” stumbled onto the scene and by his words when he accidentally became a lead singer when the band he was playing guitar for auditioned singers and couldn’t find the right fit. The then pre-med student found himself with gigs piling up, and gained his moniker “Lightnin'” from a friend who was sitting in the crowd at a show and said you playing like you were struck by lighting! Lightnin’ Charlie has tons of tales about his adventures of being a working musician and has compiled them in his book, Lightnin’ Charlie Off the Record the Trials and Tribulations of a Travelin’ Troubadour

Another song Charlie shared with us on air that will be featured in his forthcoming release was originally written by Washington state folkie, Danny O’Keefe; Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues. His version was recorded just before the pandemic at a Canadian based studio; Mushroom Studios. Charlie and his wife Elizabeth who regularly sings backup for his project happened on the recording space while visiting her brother in Canada. The studio houses a slew of vintage recording equipment collected from Bill Putnam’s United Western Recorders, considered legendary for turning out such albums as Brian Wilson’s production of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, and recording countless artists such as Sam Cooke, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and many many more! Lightnin’ Charlie’s new release is due out in spring of 2023 and is sure to wow his fanbase. To keep track of upcoming releases and learn more about Lightnin’ Charlie’s upcoming projects visit his website. 

Charlie closed out on air with an original song dedicated to his son called “The Gift of Wisdom”. The heartfelt acoustic tune instills tidbits of wisdom collected from a life well lived. One thing any listener can’t help but notice about Charlie is the joy he experiences from telling stories through music, a joy which is as uplifting as it is infectious. Artist’s such as Lightnin’ Charlie are the bread and butter of working musicians in this area, and we’re thankful to spotlight artists who continue to produce new exciting music throughout their career. Check out Charlie’s live performance in our studio and keep your ear to the ground for his new album Life.

Ella Patrick is a Production Assistant at Radio Bristol. She also hosts Folk Yeah! on Radio Bristol and is a performing musician as Momma Molasses.


Stories of I’ve Endured: Women in Old-Time Music: Etta Baker

Voice Magazine for Women, a free, monthly publication distributed regionally in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia to 650 locations, partners with the Birthplace of Country Music an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, to take you inside the special exhibit I’ve Endured: Women Old-Time Music, on display at the museum through December 31, 2023. Each month through the duration of the exhibit, Voice features impactful stories of the hidden heroines, activists, and commercial success stories of the women who laid the foundation for country music. Inspiring, insightful, and Dolly-approved, you may just find a piece of yourselves, or a loved one, in the stories of some of these hidden figures in American music.

With their permission, we have duplicated our “I’ve Endured: Woman in Old-Time Music” special feature article for this month – we hope you enjoy it! To read this month’s issue in its entirety, click here.

A photo of Etta Baker in her youth, wearing a coat and head scarf and playing her guitar.
Photo from the Music Maker Relief Foundation archive.

The Stories of I’ve Endured: Women in Old-Time Music
Etta Baker
By Guest Contributor Charlene Tipton Baker

“Etta Baker didn’t put up with any of that foolishness, either. You know, she would call somebody on it. She’d say ‘Lord, honey, I have been around so long, how could you call me a girl?” ~ Sheila Kay Adams, Appalachian ballad singer

Born in 1913 in Caldwell County, North Carolina, Etta Baker learned how to play guitar before she could hold one. She grew up in a musical household, with influences passed down from her African American, Irish, and Native American lineage. When she was just shy of three years old, her dad would lay his guitar on a bed face up as she stood, teaching her tiny hands how to pluck the strings and work the frets.

It was around that time her family moved to Keysville, Virginia. She would often get up in the middle of the night to listen to her dad play, and she played music at churches, parties, and dances with her family as a child and young woman. In interviews she has said that she practiced on her guitar an hour or more every single day. The music she made brought her great joy and, while sleeping, Etta often dreamed of the melodies she would write. She played 6-string and 12-string guitar and the 5-string banjo. The majority of Etta’s songs were instrumental; she chose instead to let the chords and melodies of her instrument do the talking.

Married at the age of 36 to a piano player, Etta’s husband forbade her to play music outside the confines of the home. Decades would pass before Baker was given the opportunity to perform her music in public again, so she helped make ends meet working in a textile factory. Together they had nine children and she played for her kids and encouraged their musical abilities. When asked how she had time to play music with so many children, she laughed and replied “I made them be quiet!”

Baker’s distinct, two-finger style of picking the Piedmont blues would later influence artists like Bob Dylan, Taj Mahal, and Kenny Wayne Shepherd, but she never achieved the money or the fame she so deserved—an all too familiar narrative around the careers of many women in early American music.

“This gracious grandmother was the source of a great deal of joy and surprise when I found that she still played guitar after I had heard her early recordings in the ’60s,” says blues legend Taj Mahal. “One of the signature chords of my guitar vocabulary comes from her version of ‘Railroad Bill.’ This was the first guitar-picking style that I ever learned.”

In fact, Etta was 43 years old before she was “discovered” by renowned folk singer and scholar Paul Clayton who, along with Diane Hamilton and Liam Chancey, recorded and released five of her songs on the compilation album Instrumental Music of the Southern Appalachians. Those historically significant recordings were among the first commercial releases of African American banjo music, and though Etta’s songs “One Dime Blues” and “Railroad Bill” became traditional standards, she was unpaid for the session.

Baker was invited to perform at the 1958 Newport Folk Festival due to the impact of those recordings, but was denied the opportunity by her husband. After he passed away in 1967, she left her job to pursue music full time. In 1991, at the age of 78, Etta released her first album, One Dime Blues, on Rounder Records. She soon became recognized as one of the foremost practitioners of the Piedmont finger-picking style—her right forefinger picking out melodies as the thumb strummed the bass notes.

Decades passed before Etta was able to regain the rights to those early recordings, doing so with the help of the Music Maker Relief Foundation, a North Carolina-based nonprofit that provides traditional musicians 55 years and older with financial and professional support for their art.

Whatever hardship or challenge Baker may have endured over her long life, she remained positive and focused on playing the music passed on to her by her father and his family before him. She also loved to garden, grow and can her own food, and forage for herbs. She had many grandchildren and also loved playing music for them.

“Just the sound of happiness,” Etta said in a recorded interview for Music Maker. “It gets on your mind heavier than your ailments do, I think.” It must have been a healing kind of magic; in the same interview Etta proclaimed she never knew any doctors or treatments until she was 89 years of age.

A photo of Etta Baker in her later years, holding an acoustic guitar and smiling.
Photo courtesy of Music Maker Relief Foundation, photograph by Tim Duffy

In 1991 Etta was honored with a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts after winning the North Carolina Folk Heritage Award from the North Carolina Arts Council two years prior. The wunderkind passed away in 2006 at the age of 93, having performed music into her 90s.

Etta Baker possessed a soul that breathed the essence of music, transcending the ephemeral allure of fortune and fame. With each pluck and strum, her hands were vessels, channeling the sounds of her ancestors. Her guitar was an extension of her very being, an instrument of liberation and expression. Her legacy transcends the trappings of success, forever embodying the boundless joy of music for music’s sake. Her enduring legacy serves as an inspiration for women and musicians of all ages, showcasing the unwavering passion and dedication that can carry an artist through a lifetime of creating and sharing their art.

Stay tuned! Next month’s I’ve Endured: Women in Old-Time Music spotlight will focus on the dynamic performer, musician, and forward-thinking businessperson Cousin Emmy, born Cynthia Mae Carver, the first woman to take home a win from the National Old Time Fiddler’s Contest, and a teacher and influencer to Hee Haw’s Grandpa Jones. She also appeared in Hollywood films and on television.