Speedy Krise: The First Bluegrass Dobro Player?

Reprinted from Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine

May 1975, Volume 9, Number 11

When bluegrass music was in the developmental stage some thirty years ago only five instruments were associated with the music. Those were the ones that appeared in the famous Bill Monroe band of that period—guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle and bass. Somewhere along the line a sixth instrument, the resonator guitar—often called by the name of its most popular brand, Dobro—came to be accepted in some bluegrass bands. From 1955, the Foggy Mountain Boys with Buck “Uncle Josh” Graves on the “old hound dog” revived the instruments’ popularity. However, this certainly was not the first use of the Dobro in bluegrass. During the forties the Dobro had been used in such non-bluegrass groups as those of Roy Acuff, the Bailes Brothers, Esco Hankins (played by the aforementioned Graves) and Molly O’Day. Two early users of the Dobro in bluegrass were Ray Atkins of the Carl Story band and Speedy Krise who played mostly with non-bluegrass bands in the Knoxville area and West Virginia. However, in 1950 and 1951, he made a number of recordings with Carl Butler which are excellent examples of vintage bluegrass. With the possible exception of Carl Story’s radio shows, these recordings certainly constitute the earliest known examples of the Dobro in bluegrass.

George Edward Krise was born on May 7, 1922, near Hinton, West Virginia. Bradley Kincaid and J.E. Mainer were among his early favorites and somewhat later he developed a tremendous appreciation for Bashful Brother Oswald of the Roy Acuff band for obvious reasons. At age twelve, he learned to play guitar, but became attracted to the Hawaiian guitar through the influence of his future brother-in-law. During this time he and his sister, Rene, won first prize at an amateur contest at Hinton High where Speedy played “Hilo March” on the Hawaiian guitar while Rene accompanied him. Although he was capable of fairly rapid movement and was a fairly fast runner in high school, young Krise acquired the nickname Speedy because of his slow mannerisms and a hesitation in his speech patterns. 

After graduation from high school in 1940, he went to Beckley, West Virginia which was somewhat of an area center of country music, being the location of radio station WJLS which featured quite a bit of live string band music. For the first year or so at WJLS he used an all-metal Hawaiian guitar, not having obtained a Dobro as yet. His father had previously bought him an electric model but he never used it on radio or records. At a time when many were switching to the more modern instruments, Speedy preferred the older acoustical sound. After a time, Speedy found and bought a broken Dobro for five dollars. Following some extensive repair work it was ready to be played.

There were several country musicians of note who played on WJLS. Skeets and Dixie Lee (Molly O’Day) Williamson, along with both Johnnie and Walter Bailes had been there but seem to have moved on by the time of Speedy’s arrival. However, Mel Steele and Blue-Eyed Jeannie were around, and so too were Little Jimmy Dickens and the Lilly Brothers. In 1941, Lynn Davis and his Forty-Niners with Dixie Lee as featured vocalist who was now also Mrs. Davis, did a show for Dr. Pepper. Speedy first worked with the Davis’ during that summer. When they left he also worked with the Lilly Brothers, Jimmy Dickens, Walter Bailes and the other artists who were at WJLS.

He then formed a band known as the Blue Ribbon Boys which included Ed “Rattlesnake” Hogan on bass fiddle and the Barbour Brothers, Roy and Carl, on mandolin and guitar. Sometimes the Lilly Brothers and Jimmy Dickens also worked with them. After a couple of years Speedy was drafted into the service and remained in military life until 1946. While in the service he was married to Freda Pettry who he had met at Beckley. They now have four children (all grown) and eight grandchildren. Shortly after his release, he was summoned to WNOX by Lynn Davis and went to work for the Cumberland Mountain Folks.

At the time Skeets Williamson recalls that Speedy was proficient on both Dobro and electric steel but Lynn indicated that he preferred the former and so Speedy almost always played the Dobro. The Cumberland Mountain Folks were one of the most popular acts at WNOX and Speedy was kept busy for a two year period with radio work and personal appearances. At the time Speedy, his wife and children lived in an apartment which had once been part of a funeral home and knowing that fact tended to make him a little nervous. Like other groups, the Cumberland Mountain Folks enjoyed a little fun now and then at the expense of an individual in the band. Speedy recalls one night when he was being dropped off in front of the house, Lynn managed to delay him at the car long enough for Mac Wiseman to hide in the bushes and suddenly leap out with a scream giving him a good scare. Such was life with the Cumberland Mountain Folks.

Speedy did two record sessions With Molly and Lynn, the first at Chicago in December, 1946 where eight sides were cut including the classic “Tramp On The Street.” A year later he went to Nashville and did ten more numbers with them including “Matthew 24” and “At The First Fall Of Snow.” The Davis’ had left WNOX at that time and were in semi-retirement at Wheelwright, Kentucky. Speedy was then working for another artist but they got him to do the session with them and again made excellent use of his talents.

When Molly O’Day left WNOX in August, 1947, Speedy Krise stayed on in Knoxville working with various groups as a sideman and also having his own group for a while. One person that he worked with most was Archie Campbell. Best known today as a comedian on Hee Haw and the Grand Ole Opry, Campbell spent many of his earlier years in Knoxville, both at WNOX on the Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round and at WROL on the Country Playhouse and the Dinner Bell Show which he headed for a time. He was probably best known for his comic role of “Grandpappy” and his group consisting of Speedy and Red Kirk was called the Oldtimers. Archie also recorded on Mercury where Speedy did at least one session with him including one song of which George Krise co-authored, entitled “No One Ran To Meet Me.” Like the Cumberland Mountain Folks, Archie’s band had a lot of fun. Speedy remembers coming home from a show date one night when he and Red Kirk got into a heated argument about which one could run the fastest. Archie decided they could best settle the dispute by a foot race on the highway then and there. Speedy won the race in spite of the widespread reputation for slowness.

When the Oldtimers moved to WROL, Speedy went along while still associated with Archie and formed his own group known as Speedy Krise and the New River Gang which included one “Southpaw” Thacker, a left-handed guitar player. This band soon dissolved and Speedy and Fred Smith formed a duet called the Arkansas Travelers. He and Fred did both comedy and sang duets on Knoxville’s NBC outlet. Fred, of course, has become well known in recent years for similar comedy and duet work with Red Rector on the Cas Walker TV show. After a while Speedy and Fred came back to WNOX to work with Jack Shelton and his Green County Boys. Shelton had considerable prior experience with such groups as Wade Mainer and the Sons of the Mountaineers and Carl Story’s Rambling Mountaineers. Benny Sims, who was one of Flatt and Scruggs’ early fiddlers and recorded with them on Mercury including the lead vocal work on their classic “Salty Dog Blues”, also worked with the group. Only the lack of a banjo kept his band from being one of the area’s premier bluegrass bands. Speedy and Fred continued to work as a singing and comedy team while with the Green County Boys.

It was during these years after Speedy left the Molly O’Day group that Speedy began to take an interest in song writing and over a three or four year period wrote a number of songs which were recorded on major labels, primarily by artists of Knoxville background. It was also about this time that he recorded on Capitol with Carl Butler. These were the recordings which seemingly introduced the Dobro to bluegrass. Six of the twelve sides recorded at the two sessions were songs which Speedy had written. The others who helped on the first session were Tater Tate, fiddle; Hoke Jenkins, banjo and Jake Tullock, bass. Perhaps the best known of the four sides cut was “White Rose’’/“Heartbreak Express” (on Capitol 1335), the latter which was written by Krise. “A Plastic Heart” was another song of Speedy’s recorded at that session. A little later Roy Acuff recorded the song on Columbia and it became something of a country hit. This past year Roy has recorded the song again and it has been released on his “Back To The Country” album.

In early 1951, Carl Butler did his second session on Capitol with Speedy and Jake again present. Johnny Whisnant and Art Wooten played banjo and fiddle this time respectively, with Smokey White assisting on guitar. Four of the eight songs done at this time had been penned by George Krise, “String Of Empties,” “You Plus Me,” “No Trespassing,” and “Our Last Rendezvous.”

Mac Wiseman was another bluegrass artist who waxed songs written by Speedy Krise. “Georgia Waltz,” “You’re Sweeter Than Honey,” and “Goin Like Wildfire” were all good songs, the latter being also covered in the popular music field by Frankie Laine and Jo Stafford, who were near the top of their class in those days before the advent of rock and roll. Acuff-Rose published most of Speedy’s compositions and he came to have very high regard for Fred Rose and the aid he gave to young writers. Some of Speedy’s other numbers were recorded by Carl Smith, Don Gibson, Ray Smith and Randy Hughes.

As Knoxville began to slip somewhat as a country music center in the 1950’s due in part to Nashville draining off many of their newer stars while some of the older ones either retired or drifted into obscurity with changing styles, the Green County Boys broke up. About 1954, Speedy moved back to West Virginia. For about two years he worked at WOAY in Oak Hill with Billie Jean and Red Lydick and the Dixie Drifters on both radio and TV. On the show Speedy played Dobro and also did some solo vocals. He remained with the Dixie Drifters until they left the station. Then he followed the path of many of his fellow Mountain Staters and moved to the industrial city of Akron, Ohio. There he left the music business and has lived in Akron since the late 1950’s and has played but little in the last several years. He still owns the Dobro he played on record sessions, radio and personal appearances. Retired on disability for the last two years, he nonetheless maintains considerable interest in the older styles of country music and has many pleasant memories of the days he spent with the Lilly Brothers, Tater Tate, Carl Butler, Molly O’Day and other greats and near greats of the world of bluegrass and country music.

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  1. Speedy Krise, if I am not mistaken, passed away in a nursing/assistance facility after living with his daughter in the Tidewater area of Virginia. Unfortunately, I was not aware of that until after his passing, or I would have looked him up. I am not sure of the year, but I had a conversation with (then BU’s) Walt Saunders about Speedy. Walt told me he was one of his favorite dobro players.

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