Athens State University

Athens State University

300 North Beaty Street, Athens

The oldest continuously operating public institution of higher learning in Alabama, Athens State University hosts the annual Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers Convention and houses a museum dedicated to legendary country music duo the Delmore Brothers. 

Athens State University is Alabama's oldest continuously operating public institution of higher learning, and is perhaps most widely known today for hosting the annual Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers Convention. Held on the first full weekend in October, the convention draws 15,000 or more spectators and participants each year, and has raised more than $500,000 in scholarships for Athens State students.

The inaugural convention was held in 1966, at the height of a folk music revival, and was organized by Redstone Arsenal manager Bill Harrison, who had previously hosted gatherings of fiddlers at his home on the Elk River. The success of the first two conventions, held on the grounds of rural schoolhouses, inspired Harrison and other organizers to form the Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers Association, and establish Athens College as a permanent location for the convention. The association disbanded in 1982, and the convention is now overseen by a group of local musicians and university faculty and staff, in coordination with the Athens State University Foundation.

The roots of the Old Time Fiddlers Convention reach back decades before the first official gathering to the mid-1920s, when "old fiddlers' contests" became popular throughout Limestone County as fundraisers for local schools. One of the groups that performed at these contests, the Delmore Brothers, is the subject of a dedicated museum located in the basement of Athens State's McCandless Hall

Born in Elkmont, Alabama, to tenant farmer parents, Alton and Rabon Delmore “grew up in a gospel music tradition of shaped note songbooks and singing schools." Together, they blended these gospel roots with blues influences and folk-style guitar, and in the process helped to create what is now known as country music.

“The Delmore Brothers. God, I really loved them! I think they've influenced every harmony I've ever tried to sing.” 

    —Bob Dylan

Rabon and Alton Delmore. (Photo courtesy of Debby Delmore.)

The brothers made their recording debut in 1931, cutting "Got the Kansas City Blues" and their theme song, "Alabama Lullaby," for Columbia Records. Two years later, in 1933, they signed with RCA Records subsidiary Bluebird, for whom they went on to record more than 100 songs, including the pop and country hits “Blues Stay Away from Me” and “Beautiful Brown Eyes.” It was also in 1933 that the brothers made their debut on the Grand Ole Opry, eventually becoming one of its most popular acts.

In 1938, Alton and Rabon left the Opry due to disagreements with management over bookings, and started touring the south with a small string band called the Tennessee Barn Dance Boys. Following the outbreak of World War II, Rabon took a job at the Wright Aircraft plant in Ohio, and the brothers relocated to Cincinnati. There, they revived their career as the Delmore Brothers, joining the Boone County Jamboree on radio station WLW and performing a mix of “comedy, sacred songs and instrumental numbers.”

The Delmore Brothers during their Grand Ole Opry days. (Photo courtesy of Debby Delmore.)

The Delmores signed with Cincinnati-based King Records in 1944. Inspired by the “race records” released on King’s sister label, Queen, they started “mixing blues and boogie with their songs.” By 1946, Alton and Rabon were performing with a full band, which included bass, mandolin, steel guitar, fiddle and the bluesy, “choke style” harmonica of Wayne Raney. The brothers’ 1946 single for King, “Freight Train Boogie,” is considered by some to be the first rock and roll record, and in 1949 they cut their best-known song, "Blues Stay Away from Me" (later covered by Gene Vincent, the Everly Brothers, and others) with black King producer Henry Glover.

Tragedy brought an end to the group's career in 1952 when Rabon died of lung cancer at the age of 36. Alton himself suffered a heart attack shortly thereafter, and "dropped out of music, bitter and disillusioned." Following the birth of his daughter Debby, Alton moved back to north Alabama and settled in Huntsville, where he taught guitar lessons, "worked as a postman and a salesman" and did other odd jobs, while continuing "to work infrequent show dates" and record as a solo artist. He also began writing short stories, and had nearly completed his (posthumously published) autobiography when he died from a hemorrhage in 1964.

Alton and Rabon Delmore in Memphis during the late 1940s. (Photo courtesy of Debby Delmore.)

Athens State University traces its history back to 1821, when Alabama Supreme Court Judge John McKinley donated property to establish the private Athens Female Academy. During the 1840s, the school became affiliated with the Methodist Church and changed its name to Athens Female Institute. In 1931, Athens Female College (as it was then known) became a coeducational institution and shortened its name to Athens College. The state of Alabama assumed ownership of the school in 1975, and in 1998 it adopted its present name.

The Athens State College Historic District was added to the National Register of Historic Places on February 14, 1985. Founders Hall, built in the 1840s, is also listed on the Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage.

Interview with Debby Delmore, daughter of Alton Delmore.