With our modern sensibilities it can be a little jarring to look at a picture like the one below, but ‘blackface’ performers are a part of music history, and most of us will recall reading about early minstrel shows or will remember Al Jolson, who specialized in blackface for many years. But in at least one instance, a mostly-forgotten contemporary of Jolson’s is said to have inspired several country legends, including Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams.
Georgia-born Emmett Miller first began to attract some attention during the 1920s, appearing in minstrel shows and eventually showing up on records too. On many of those records he was backed up by the Georgia Crackers, a band that included a couple of young instrumentalists who would later go on to stardom of their own — Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey.
Miller wasn’t a crooner by any stretch of the imagination, but he did have an interesting singing style that included stretches of something resembling yodeling. It would prove to be popular enough to sell a lot of records through the years, and it also caught the attention of some of the era’s folk singers, guys like Jimmie Rodgers.
Miller’s popularity would nosedive in later years — possibly because he hung on to the blackface style — and by the 1950s he was pretty much forgotten. (Although he has remained a cult favorite.) He died in 1962, but he could at least take satisfaction in how his music inspired many performers, including Lefty Frizzell, Bob Wills, Merle Haggard, and Hank Williams, who is said to have learned to sing “Lovesick Blues” by listening to Miller’s record of it. (Video below.)