Bob Douglas, from
County, was the first 100-year-old fiddler to play on the Grand Ole Opry, a claim to some well-deserved fame. But, more significantly, he was a well-known and well-loved regional performer from the early 1920s until his death at the age of 101 in 2001. When he was finally laid to rest in the St. Elmo cemetery, his headstone -- purchased and put in place when he was in his 80s-- was already covered with moss.
Douglas, or Uncle Bob, as he was known by musicians and fans in the area, had for over 60 years performed at the many fiddle contests, square dances, and social events of the area, and was a regular performer at the Mountain Opry on Walden Ridge, in the plateau above
Bob Douglas first began as a guitar accompanist for his father, fiddler Tom Douglas, who performed around the
Cumberland Plateau playing hoedowns and hornpipes for local square dances with his cousin who played banjo. "My dad was a fine fiddle player," he said. "I got a lot of my fiddling ideas from him, but I never could play like him."
Born on March 9, 1900 in
Tennessee, and resident for many years in
County, shortly after joining his father on the guitar at age 17, he gravitated to the fiddle, and taught himself how to play well enough by the age of 25 to play on the new
Chattanooga radio station. "I heard that some people had moved a new radio station down there, so I decided I'd like to play in a radio station, even though I hadn't ever seen one. I got me a couple of boys and we cut loose on some tunes. We were the first country musicians to play on [the radio station] and they had just been opened a couple of days."
Douglas was a surprise winner at several important fiddle contests-- surprising because he had not competed before. He won out over some semi-professional players such as Clayton McMichen and Bert Layne, of the well-known old time band, Gid Tanner and the Skillit Lickers, at the All-Southern Convention in
He played with fellow
County resident, Curly Fox, on the White Owl Medicine Show, a touring band that touted patent medicine and featured entertaining speakers as well as inspiring country music. When Douglas became a band leader, he hired the two young brothers from
Mountain, Southeast of Chattanooga, Ira and Charlie Loudermilk, who became better known as the Louvin Brothers, to join his band, The Foggy Mountain Boys. The band put together by
Douglas had prior dibs to the name that was later used by the more famous Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.
In contrast to other early radio days country music talents, Bob Douglas chose to remain a semi-professional fiddler in the
Chattanooga area rather than tour and turn professional. He kept his factory job, but played continuously for regional dance, radio programs, and social performances. It was a demanding schedule, but preferable to
Douglas than the long hours of travel, early and late live radio broadcasts, and rough touring life of the professional musician.
Due to his many fiddling contest victories, his innovative tune smithing --he said that he 'made' songs rather than 'write' them-- in 1975 he was invited to participate in a National Fiddle Contest sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution in
D.C. Douglas played with his long time partner, guitar accompanist, Ray "Georgia Boy" Brown, of
County. Together, the two won "hands down."
Local fiddlers Tom Adkins, Joe Decosimo, and Mike DeFousche, among others, play the signature tunes of Uncle Bob Douglas. In recent years, an annual Bob Douglas Fiddle Fest held at Audubon Acres is held in his memory, featuring the local fiddlers and the bands that feature local fiddle tunes.