When old-time country and folk singer Alton Stitcher passed away at age 90 last December, Georgia lost a unique talent and a vital link to the music of its rural past. Yet, up until the last few years of his life, this soft-spoken songster with the soothing, plaintive tenor and vast repertoire of old tunes was known only to family, friends, and listeners to his programs half a century ago on small-town radio stations.
Stitcher was born to sharecropper parents in Villa Rica on June 10, 1916. Growing up in the West Georgia countryside near the Chattahoochee River, homemade music was all around him, provided by aunts, uncles, grandparents, and older siblings who sang or played an instrument.
For the rest of his life, Stitcher drew from the deep well of ancient English ballads, 19th century parlor songs, square dance fiddle tunes, and shape-note hymns he first heard as a boy. Children’s ballads from earlier centuries, such as “Froggie Went A-Courtin” and “Babes in the Woods,” were among the batch of traditional, popular, and original tunes Alton recorded in 2003 for his album, I Hear a Sweet Voice Calling.
That release also included Stitcher’s radio theme song, “Just an Old Chimney Stack.” Not long after Carrollton’s first radio station, WLBB began transmitting in 1947, he secured his own weekly program on the 250-watt station. For the next fifteen years, Alton took to the airwaves to serenade his West Georgia neighbors with folk, gospel, and country songs.
Stations such as WLBB and Piedmont, Alabama’s WPID – where he was billed as “The Poet from the Mountain” in the late 1950s – offered exposure and an artistic outlet, but the necessity of providing for his family kept Stitcher from pursuing a full time career in music. He held fast to his day job as a machinist at Lawler Hosiery Mill in Carrollton until his retirement in 1972.
By 1962, WLBB had eliminated programs by local acts such as Stitcher. For the next forty years, he confined his musical activities primarily to singing and playing at home, where he documented his distinctive performance style and extensive repertoire with a reel-to-reel tape recorder. His musical style remained frozen in time, virtually unchanged since the early 1930s, when he learned his first chords on guitar.
My own introduction to Mr. Stitcher occurred in the summer of 2001. When he found out that I was looking for old recordings of hillbilly and gospel artists who had performed at WLBB to use on a CD project being funded by a grant from the Georgia Humanities Council and the Georgia Council for the Arts. Alton invited me to his house outside of the Carrollton to listen to some of his tapes.
Looking far younger than his eighty0five years, the laid-back, affable gentleman who greeted me in his front yard wearing mirrored shades, a sleeveless white t-shirt, black jeans, and motorcycle boots made an unforgettable first impression. But it was the music I heard that day that had the strongest impact.
Alton’s delicately phrased vocals on his forty-year-old home recordings possessed a tenderness and sincerity that I found utterly captivating. When the reel of tape ran out, he picked up his Gibson and began to sing over softly strummed chords. His voice and playing seemed remarkably unaffected by the passing decades, and I left his house with the conviction that this charming man’s music should be shared with as many people as possible.
Several of those home recordings appeared in 2002 on the multi-artist compilation Everybody’s Tuned to the Radio: Rural Music Traditions in West Georgia, 1947-1979, released by the Center for Public History at the University of West Georgia. A year later, I Hear a Sweet Voice Calling followed with a mixture of new and vintage recordings that showcased Stitcher’s range of material. He was also featured on Set Your Fields on Fire, Volume 1: A collection of Sacred Music, in 2006.
Alton seemed genuinely flattered by the attention and acclaim he received after being out of the public eye for so long. Although he was eighty-six when his music first became commercially available, he relished the opportunity to perform again.
Stitcher played to the largest audiences of his life at concerts promoting the above-mentioned CDs. He dipped into his bag of traditional songs for a series of well-received folklife presentations in West Georgia middle schools. His name appeared on the paly lists of college radio stations and the BBC’s influential disc jockey John Peel. In 2004, he was inducted into the Atlanta Country Music Hall of Fame.
In December 2006, Stitcher was admitted to the hospital in a severely weakened state. On December 10th, he slipped away peacefully, with his wife Eula and daughters Vicki and Diane at his bedside.
Alton’s gentle spirit has traveled on, but the recordings he left behind are fitting testament to a lifetime of song, and a reminder of his dedication to making music simply for the pleasure it brought to himself and to those around him.
Learn more about the Regional Music Project at the Center for Public History, University of West Georgia, and its CD releases, including Alton Stitcher’s I Hear a Sweet Voice Calling, here: http://centerforpublichistoryuwg.wordpress.com/the-regional-music-project/