Tuesday, May 1, 2018


Several years ago I bought this book at a thrift store written by a guy who went on a long tour with THE GRATEFUL DEAD.  Being mostly absorbed in gospel and country music while pursuing my own career ambitions, I had never paid much attention to the band though they were immensely popular with other people at the time.  (By now you must be aware that I hardly ever do what other people do.)  I started reading because I thought it might be interesting to learn about the band members, the things they did on the road, and the people they met along the way.  The book went something like this:  "We got up in the morning, got high, traveled to the next gig, got high, set up, did the show, got high, slept a couple hours, got up, got high, traveled to the next gig, got high, set up, did the show, got high.......".  Well, you get the picture -- they did a lot of drugs!  About a quarter of the way in I gave up expecting anything sober and abandoned the book.  Later I was surprised to find THE GRATEFUL DEAD were very good when they tried to be and they had also made a hit cut of a "sacred number" I had liked very much when my favorite bluegrass band sang it on their TV show.  The man who wrote the song was even more surprised!

William Toliver Carlisle was born on December 19, 1908 in  Wakefield, Kentucky to Van Luther and Mary Ellen Carlisle. They moved to Louisville when Bill was ten. Being from a musical family, he learned to play guitar at an early age.  His father was a music teacher who taught the kids to read shaped notes in church.  Bill and his siblings listened to THE GRAND OLE OPRY on the radio.  He longed to be a country entertainer and thought if he could just get to play the OPRY he would have accomplished the greatest achievement possible.  By the 1920s he had begun playing shows around the region.  He and his brother Cliff, who was four years older, teamed up do shows on radio WLAP-AM  in Lexington, Kentucky and WNOX-AM in Knoxville, Tennessee.  In 1929, Bill, Cliff, their father and other family members landed a radio show on a Louisville station called THE CARLISLE FAMILY SATURDAY NIGHT BARN DANCE.

In 1933, Cliff helped him get a recording deal with ARC Records.  His first solo single RATTLESNAKE DADDY, which he written himself,  was a huge hit.  Bill and Cliff traveled the radio circuit during the 1930s performing in Lexington, Louisville, Charlotte, Winston-Salem, Greenville, Shreveport, and Knoxville.  Bill made popular such songs as STRING BEAN MAMA, JUMPIN' AND JERKIN' BLUES, and SALLY LET YOUR BANGS HANG DOWN.  The duo performed for several years on Knoxville's MID-DAY MERRY-GO-ROUND and TENNESSEE BARN DANCE shows.  Bill created an alter-ego named Hot Shot Elmer, a bumbling clown who would interrupt the performances with comedy.  His leaping around onstage earned him the nickname of "Jumpin' Bill which stuck with him throughout his career.  He had a unique guitar style and often enhanced his vocals by yodeling.  

After World War II, the brothers signed with King Records as The Carlisles.  Their first duo hit came the next year with an Ernest Tubb cover called RAINBOW AT MIDNIGHT.  That was followed by Bill's solo hit of TRAMP ON THE STREET.  Cliff retired in 1950 but Bill continued with a backup group known as The Carlisles though none of them were actual family members.  This group included singer Martha Carson and songwriter Betty Amos.  


Bill switched to Mercury Records where he continued to write and release often humorous songs that contained hints at sexuality.  His TOO OLD TO CUT THE MUSTARD was a top ten
hit in 1951.  That song was later covered by Ernest Tubb, Red Foley, The Maddox Brothers and Rose, and the odd duo of Rosemary Clooney and Marlene Dietrich.  That song was soon followed by his biggest hit NO HELP WANTED in 1953.

That same year, Bill was invited to join THE GRAND OLE OPRY.  He had just moved his wife and two kids to Minden, Louisiana to be near THE LOUISIANA HAYRIDE in Shreveport.  He became a regular on ABC-TV's OZARK JUBILEE.  His version of The Drifter's song HONEY LOVE was a surprise hit in 1954 reaching number twelve on the country charts.




His son Billy and daughter Sheila became The Carlisles in the 1960s.  Bill recorded his last hit song WHAT KIND OF DEAL IS THIS in 1965.  As his fame receded, Bill continued to appear on THE GRAND OLE OPRY and such shows as HEE HAW and later RFD-TV's COUNTRY'S FAMILY REUNION.  He was elected to the COUNTRY MUSIC HALL OF FAME in 2002.

In addition to the many novelty songs he had written, Bill also wrote a gospel song called GONE HOME that became a hit for Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.  I was a huge fan of Flatt and Scruggs so I never missed a single one of their weekly TV programs.  That is where I first heard the song.  It was later recorded by Ricky Skaggs.  Strangely enough, Bill thought he was too known for his comedy songs so he never recorded the song himself.  He loved to tell the story that one day in 1988 he received notice from his publisher the song was being recorded again.  He told his son that some group called THE GRATEFUL DEAD wanted to record GONE HOME.  He said "I don't even know who they are."  Billy said "You will Dad.  You will."  The group released the song as being by THE JERRY GARCIA ACOUSTIC BAND. Needless to say Bill became aware of just who they were when he received his songwriting royalty check!

Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs 

Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band

I gave you both versions because I personally love this song so much!

 Bill Carlisle continued to sing on THE GRAND OLE OPRY for over fifty years.  Often appearing with the aid of his walker after years of declining health,  he could still have the audiences laughing and cheering at his funny songs and antics on stage. His last appearance on the OPRY was on March 7, 2003.  He suffered a stroke on March 12 and passed away at his Nashville area home five days later.  He was 94 years old.





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