Past rows of ramshackle shotgun houses, some burned and boarded, Fort Hill Cemetery sits as a hidden green space in the long-stalled development on Macon’s east side. At the cemetery’s northwest corner, half buried under a tangle of weeds and anthills, there’s a gravestone bearing the name Emmett D. Miller and a range of dates.
Macon is well known for its contributions to the canon of popular music, especially as it concerns iconoclasts credited with the invention or perfection of genres — soul via Otis Redding, funk via James Brown, Southern rock via the Allman Brothers Band.
It could be argued that the man underneath that weather-beaten piece of stone in Fort Hill Cemetery ties Macon to the origins of another genre: country.
Emmett Miller, who started his career as a traveling minstrel singer, made several records for the Okeh label in the 1920s and ‘30s, which were hugely influential on a number of artists who came after him. According to musical historian Nick Tosches, he’s “one of the most intriguing and profoundly important men in the history of country music.”
Miller’s voice, a compressed nasal whine that often wanders haphazardly into high yodels, was directly copied as early as 1935, when Bob Wills released an almost note-for-note recording of Miller’s “I Ain’t Got Nobody.”
Later, Hank Williams Sr. would borrow from Miller for his trademark high lonesome vocals, even covering “Lovesick Blues,” which was originally released in 1925. Merle Haggard featured several of Miller’s songs on his “I Love Dixie Blues” record, and the yodeling influence can be heard as far along as albums like George Strait’s “Right or Wrong.”
Miller’s legacy is in part a troubling one, which no doubt contributes to his obscurity. He performed in blackface long after the format fell out of style, reviled as a racist relic, but his recordings are also an unparalleled document of musical development in America.
At the time his best-known recording, “Lovesick Blues,” was made, musical genres as most would recognize today didn’t exist. Miller was just a hillbilly singing over a jazz band, a young man from Macon interpreting an amalgamation of sounds and styles in search of a payday through the country’s nascent record industry.
He likely picked up some of those sounds as he navigated Macon’s landscape, revealing another facet of the city’s broad influence on American culture.
Jared Wright is a member of Field Note Stenographers, a collective of local musicians who write about shows in Middle Georgia. He is also a musical historian, curator and archivist. Contact him at email@example.com.