Bradley Kincaid was a married college student looking for cash to make ends meet in 1924 when he stumbled into stardom.
Now a bronze medallion with the Springfielder’s name on it rests on Starr-Gennett Foundation’s Walk of Fame in Richmond, Ind., the same walk that honors Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, Tommy Dorsey, Hoagy Carmichael and Fats Waller.
Son Jim Kincaid’s account describes his father’s rise from obscurity in Point Leavell, Ky., to the Grand Old Opry as “a classic story where poverty meets church, church brings light, lights brings education and education brings success.”
That same story also cuts a path through the days when the YMCA had a college; when Sears and Roebuck called its radio station WLS for the World’s Largest Store; and when Berea College was establishing itself as a route young people of Appalachia could take from backwoods hollows to a wider world.
Most accounts of Bradley Kincaid’s musical career begin with a guitar now on permanent display in the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame. That “Houn’ Dog” guitar got its name long before Elvis Presley.
The guitar was named instead for the animal Kincaid’s father traded to a fellow fox hunter to get it.
The instrument proved to be a steadier companion in Kincaid’s childhood than his father, who left his children shortly after Kincaid’s mother died in 1909, when the boy was 14. Looked after by his older sister, he was what son Jim calls “a typical under-educated country boy” the day he went to a camp meeting akin to a revival at the nearby church his father had helped to build.
There, Kincaid and his constant pal Jim Ralston, later of Ralston-Purina fame, answered the altar call and pledged to make something of themselves, Jim Kincaid writes.
Soon, young Bradley was studying music at the Berea Academy, a preparatory school attached to Berea College. After finishing high school there, Kincaid married one of his teachers. Eventually in search of a college education for him, the two “boarded a train for Chicago, where he enrolled in the YMCA college,” Jim writes. “To help pay the bills he sang in the college quartet.”
It was with that group that Bradley Kincaid was asked to sing at the National Barn Dance, which was broadcast at not always predictable times, but always on Saturday evening from the station associated with the World’s Largest Store. (A city with a broad ego as well as shoulders, Chicago was also home to WGN. Associated with the Chicago Tribune, its call letters stood for World’s Greatest Newspaper.)
On the air, Bradley Kincaid sang “Barbara Allen,” one of the melancholy English ballads his mother had taught him. In a Windy City home to so many who had moved north to find factory work, the song seemed like a fresh breeze from home.
Days after he was paid $15 for going on the air, Kincaid received “two huge mail bags filled with fan mail,” his son reports. “Literally an overnight success … he ended up singing ‘Barbara Allen’ every Saturday night for four years.”
Fame reflected by 300,000 pieces of fan mail led to a place on Lakeshore Drive, a Stutz Bearcat to drive, and recording sessions at Gennett’s Chicago studios. Those earliest records were thick one-sided discs made for RCA Victor’s Victrola. The studios were rudimentary.
“Dad told me he remembered recording (in Richmond) in a big barn-like building, totally empty except for one mic hanging down in the center,” Jim Kincaid said.
Starting in that building with its organic brand of reverberation, he went on to record with Champion, Silvertone and Supertone, the latter two associated with catalog giants Sears and Montgomery Ward. He also recorded with Brunswick, RCA Victor, Decca and Capital.
“He accounted for more than 2 million records during the 1920s and ’30s,” Jim Kincaid said.
His father’s multiple labels may be evidence of ruckuses over royalties; that may, in turn, explain why Bradley Kincaid ended up moving from radio station to radio station.
First at WLS, then at Cincinnati’s WLW, KDKA in Pittsburgh, WBZ in Boston, NBC New York and WHAM Rochester, N.Y., Kincaid followed a similar strategy: He used the popularity of the air waves both to land musical bookings and to sell his song books, which produced their own incontestable royalties. (The rights eventually were donated to Berea College.)
The books included sheet music for mountain ballads Kincaid collected on visits to hamlets and hollows in Kentucky and West Virginia — songs his music teacher wife transcribed for publication. The books contained the heart of his work.
Biographer Loyal Jones said Kincaid “became an instant success just by singing the songs he had learned in his native Kentucky from ordinary people.”
And “his success was due mainly to his modest and pleasing personality and his feel for a knowledge of a rare treasure of folk music.”
His trek took his family through the 1930s and ’40s as he sang favorites including “Liza up in the ‘Simmon Tree,” “Give My Love to Nell,” “When the Work’s All Done This Fall,” “Pretty Little Pink” and “I’ll be All Smiles Tonight.”
In 1945, the Kincaids landed in Nashville with WSM radio and the Grand Ole Opry. But the world was changing.
Just as fans were using fewer battery powered Atwater-Kent radios in a more fully electrified America, guitars were making room for electric guitars, pianos and drums on the set of the Opry.
Bill Knowlton, who wrote notes for the dedication of Kincaid’s marker, said Kincaid “left in 1950 feeling that his authentic mountain ballads and pure Appalachian singing style were no longer being accepted by contemporary audiences.”
With those days behind him, the man whose family had lived a nomadic life for 25 years wanted to settle down. Having invested in a string of radio stations, Kincaid came to Springfield to turn around or spin off an unprofitable one and ended up staying. He then returned from a trip to a music store in the city’s Arcade one day owning not just a guitar but the store itself, a forerunner of the Kincaid’s music store now on First Street in Springfield.
Having settled into retirement, Bradley Kincaid played his last game of golf at age 92, two years before being taken by a heart attack on Sept. 23, 1989.
Jim Kincaid said after news of his father’s death went out on the Associated Press wire service, a fan whose favorite Bradley Kincaid song was “Barbara Allen” mailed $5 and a request.
The song tells the sad story of young William, whose love Barbara Allen ignores and takes for granted until he dies of a broken heart. Realizing her mistake, Barbara has herself buried next to William.
“On William’s grave there grew a red rose; On Barbara’s grew a green briar.”
“They grew to the top of the old church wall; till they could not grow higher.”
“There they entwined in a true lovers’ knot and the rose grew round the briar.”
Jim Kincaid honored the writer’s request and placed a rose on his father’s grave — a symbol not only of the love described in the song, but the enduring love his fans had for Bradley Kincaid.
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