Eck Robertson Pioneers Commercial Country Music

This Week in Texas Music History, a Panhandle fiddler launches the commercial recording era of country music.

Written by Jason Mellard and Avery Armstrong

Eck Robertson records for Victor Talking Machine Co.

Jason Mellard from the Center for Texas Music History at Texas State University.

On June 30, 1922, Alexander “Eck” Robertson recorded two fiddle tunes for the Victor Talking Machine Company in New York, often considered the very first commercial country recordings. Born in Arkansas, Robertson grew up on a small farm near Vernon, Texas. From a musical family, Robertson began playing his first fiddle at age five, a homemade contraption made of a long-necked gourd and tanned hide.

He left home at sixteen to join a traveling medicine show. Robertson and his wife Nettie married in 1906 and performed together in vaudeville theaters and fiddle contests across the Southwest.  Robertson, who promoted himself as “The Cowboy Fiddler,” soon began winning at fiddler’s conventions, often facing competitors such as John Wills, the father of the King of Western Swing, Bob Wills.

Henry and Eck

On the contest circuit, Robertson met Henry Gilliland – a fellow fiddler in his mid-seventies who would become Robertson’s musical partner. On a whim, the duo traveled to New York City in 1922 in hopes of making a record. They talked their way into the studio, and Robertson’s outfit playing to New York stereotypes of Texas may have helped—a satin Western shirt with pearl studs, wide-brimmed cowboy hat, and pants tucked into his boots.

He cut traditional fiddle tunes “Arkansaw Traveler” and “Sallie Gooden,” the kind of Southern string music that had not really been heard in the young record industry. The session led to Robertson’s debut 78, which is considered the first commercial release in the genre of country music.

Robertson would go on to play fiddle for over 80 years, with a career that spanned from country’s very first recordings to performing at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival where Dylan went electric. Robertson passed away in 1975 at 88, his tombstone appropriately inscribed “World’s Champion Fiddler.”

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