Sam & Kirk McGee
Sam & Kirk McGee were one of the earliest country music duos. During the nearly six decades they were active, the McGees performed and recorded as a duo and in conjunction with Uncle Dave Macon’s Fruit Jar Drinkers, Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys, and fiddler Arthur Smith. One of the first acts to become members of the Grand Ole Opry, Sam & Kirk McGee continued to share their unique hybrid of old-timey country music and blues with enthusiastic audiences until the mid-’70s.
Raised on a family farm in Franklin, TN, south of Nashville, the McGees inherited their musical skills from their father, who played fiddle. As youngsters, they often accompanied their father on banjo. By the time they were teenagers, Sam & Kirk were performing at local dances for as little as ten cents apiece. Inspired by the syncopated music played by black railroad workers who congregated outside his father’s store, Sam McGee switched to guitar and developed a soulful style of fingerpicking. A turning point came in 1923 when the McGee brothers attended their first concert and heard a performance by Uncle Dave Macon. They were so absorbed by Macon’s playing that they continued to ask to join his troupe until Macon agreed the following year. When Macon joined the WSM Barn Dance, which later evolved into the Grand Ole Opry, the McGees, who joined with guitarist Hubert Gregory and bassist Golden Stewart to form the Fruit Jar Drinkers, were members of Macon’s band.
Sam McGee’s recording debut came in April 1926 when he recorded several tunes, including “Whoop ‘Em Up Cindy” and “Late Last Night When My Willie Came Home,” in a New York studio. In May 1927, the McGees recorded with Macon and fiddler Mazy Todd. In addition to serving as Macon’s accompanists, the brothers recorded nine duets and three songs with Macon on banjo.
Sam & Kirk McGee continued to explore musical possibilities. In July 1928, Sam used a six string banjo-guitar during a recording session in Chicago. He later became played the first electric steel guitar on a broadcast of the Grand Ole Opry.
In 1931, the McGees teamed with fiddler Arthur Smith to form a new band, the Dixieliners. The group continued to perform together until the late ’30s, when Smith submitted his resignation. In 1957, Sam & Kirk reunited with Smith, continuing to perform together through the mid-’60s, including a memorable appearance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965.
In the late ’30s and early ’40s, the McGee brothers worked with a comedy act, Sara & Sally, before joining Bill Monroe’s revue. In addition to playing with Monroe’s band, the Bluegrass Boys, the brothers were featured in their own segment of the show. The McGees continued to perform on their own through the ’50s and made numerous Grand Ole Opry appearances as the Fruit Jar Drinkers. They remained active into the ’70s, and ended with a stunning performance at the Country Music Fan Fair in 1975.
On August 21, 1975, Sam McGee was killed in a tractor accident on the family farm. Kirk continued to perform until the early ’80s. He passed away in 1983. ~ Craig Harris, Rovi
Sam & Kirk McGee