The Skillet Lickers were one of the most important and influential string bands of the '20s and '30s. Led by fiddler Gid Tanner, the band combined old-timey country music with a wacky sense of humor and showmanship that made the group one of the most popular country bands in America. The original lineup of the band featured the dexterous and stunning interplay of Tanner, guitarist Riley Puckett, fiddler Clayton McMichen, and banjoist Fate Norris. From 1926 to 1931, the Skillet Lickers were the most popular country band in the country. Following the original band's dissolution, Puckett and latter-day fiddler Bert Layne led various bands called the Skillet Lickers, but the group wasn't relaunched until 1934, when Tanner formed a new lineup that recorded one final session that yielded their biggest hit, "Down Yonder."
Tanner did have the right to the Skillet Lickers name; after all, he was the musician that sparked Columbia Records A&R representative Frank Walker to assemble the entire band in 1925. Prior to the formation of the Skillet Lickers, Tanner had worked his way up through the conventional circuit of festivals and traveling shows that fiddlers frequented. His first great success arrived in the middle of the 1910s, when he began to regularly win fiddling conventions in Atlanta. In addition to playing, Tanner was also an accomplished comedian, which meant he was an all-around entertainer, capable of winning audiences easily. Eventually, Columbia asked him to record for their label, and in early 1924, he traveled to New York with his longtime friend and accompanist, Puckett, and made a handful of singles.
The following year, Walker traveled to Atlanta with the intentions of forming a string supergroup. Remembering Tanner and his records, he asked the fiddler and Puckett to be the core of this group, adding McMichen and Norris to the lineup. Choosing the name the Skillet Lickers (a tribute to the Lickskillet Band, a string band that used to play fiddler contests), the band recorded and released their first singles in 1926. The Skillet Lickers were an immediate hit, shooting to the top of the charts with the double A-sided single "Bully of the Town"/"Pass Around the Bottle and We'll All Take a Drink." The single was followed quickly by "Watermelon Hanging on the Vine"/"You," which confirmed their status as hillbilly stars.
With their third single, the Skillet Lickers released their first comedy record with "A Corn Licker Still in Georgia," which alternated music with a comic dialogue about backwoods moonshiners. The record was their biggest single yet, equalled by their second comedy hit, "A Fiddler's Convention in Georgia." Not only did the comedy records sell better than the straight instrumental fiddling records. Any single featuring Puckett singing became a huge hit.
Along with the success came internal tension within the band. All of their records were credited to "Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers," which became a source of irritation to Puckett and McMichen, both of whom felt that they were more integral to the sound of the band than Tanner. A compromise was reached, and the records bore the convoluted credit "Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers With Clayton McMichen and Riley Puckett." However, that didn't put an end to friction within the group, who had by then included several new, younger members like fiddlers Lowe Stokes and Bert Layne. The new members want to move the Skillet Lickers toward Western swing music. McMichen sided with the newer members, but the remaining trio wanted to stay true to their folk roots. By 1930, the members had begun to part ways and had stopped touring regularly. In addition to working with the Skillet Lickers, McMichen became a studio musician for Columbia and played with Jimmie Rodgers. Finally, he formed a new string band called the Georgia Wildcats. McMichen nevertheless participated in all of the studio sessions for the Skillet Lickers, which came to a halt in 1931.
Following the disbandment of the Skillet Lickers in 1931, Puckett and Layne both toured and recorded with groups called "the Skillet Lickers," but the name was officially reclaimed by Tanner in 1934, when he signed to Victor's Bluebird label. Tanner assembled a new group of Skillet Lickers -- including Puckett, mandolinist Ted Hawkins, guitarist Mike Whitten, guitarist Hoke Rice, guitarist Hugh Cross, and his sons Arthur and Gordon, on banjo and fiddle respectively -- and recorded over 30 songs in San Antonio. It was the final time Tanner ever entered a studio. The sessions produced "Down Yonder," which became Tanner and the Skillet Lickers' last big hit.
Following the 1934 session, the Skillet Licker name was retired, and not long after that, Tanner retired himself. Puckett, McMichen, and Layne all pursued solo careers. Following Tanner's death in 1960, his son Gordon continued fiddling, preserving the tradition of his father and the Skillet Lickers. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine