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How Country Music's Roots Trace Back To The Kentucky School For The Blind

Kentucky School for the Blind
Courtesy Kentucky School for the Blind

Mike Hudson taps the play button on an old boombox, and soon music fills a small conference room off the main exhibit floor at the Museum of the American Printing House for the Blind.

“So this is Mac and Bob, Lester McFarland and Robert Gardner off of a CD that we found online,” Hudson says. “It’s really a compilation of their 78 recordings that they did back in the 1920s and 30s.”

Hudson is the director of this museum, which is adjacent to but separate from the Kentucky School for the Blind. As part of his preparations for the school’s 175th anniversary this year, he was looking at the histories of various alumni, and that’s when he first found Mac and Bob.

“So Mac and Bob basically are these two kids, right," he says. "That are attending the Kentucky School for the Blind. They are both blind and they are both pretty much musical geniuses."

Almost totally forgotten now, Hudson says McFarland and Gardner, better known as “Mac and Bob,” were the first duo to earn success in what later became known as country music. Not the first blind duo, the first duo. Period.

McFarland and Gardner

Now he wants to bring their story back into the spotlight. But to do that, he knew he’d need some help.

And he knew just the man to contact — Thomas A. Adler.

Adler is a folklorist, a five-string banjo player and the founding director of the International Bluegrass Museum in Owensboro, Kentucky. He’s also kind of like a walking encyclopedia when it comes to Southern string musicians.

“In the early years of country music, McFarland and Gardner as they were then known, were probably as heavily-recorded as just about anybody in country music,” Adler says.

Adler has spent months researching their stories.

As Hudson mentioned, the duo met at the Kentucky School for the Blind in the 1920s. They were pretty young at the time, but really enjoyed playing together.

“And something interesting about the school for blind, back in the day they used to push music education pretty religiously because music was one way that a blind guy could get work,” Hudson says.

And they got work on the vaudeville circuit, initially probably as kind of a novelty act, Adler says, but their talent got them noticed by some serious music industry members.

“On the strength of their popularity there, they in 1926 were hired in Knoxville, Tennessee on WNOX, a pretty important early radio station,” Adler says. “On the radio there, they were so immediately popular that they got a recommendation to the Brunswick recording company.”

The Brunswick recording company was a big deal at the time, but it was also based in New York City.

“So they brought McFarland and Gardner to New York,” Adler says. “It’s interesting to envision these two young blind men traveling to New York. And almost on the very start, they proved to be immensely popular. They sold very well. And so the Brunswick company kept bringing them back to New York for more sessions.”

An Early Influence

One of the reasons Adler believes Mac and Bob were so popular at the time was that they sounded so different at a time when country music was still pretty new.

“And the truly important thing about them that’s been forgotten — except by country music history nerds like me — is that they were the real pioneers of the close harmony duet-style of singing as accompanied on mandolin and guitar,” Adler says.

This is something that proved to be powerfully influential for groups like the well-known Monroe Brothers. And while they didn’t write many of their own songs, Mac and Bob had a real knack for picking and performing hits — songs that went on to be recorded by people like Alison Krauss and Johnny Cash.

But then, they were just kind of forgotten, which Adler chalks up to something as simple as presentation.

“You know, having started so early in country, this was before the two most prominent later tropes of country music presentation developed,” Adler says. “Where people in the 40s and 50s doing country music would present themselves either as hillbillies or cowboys.”

He continues: “Well, McFarland and Gardner — or Mac and Bob — they dressed in suits or sometime even tuxedos. They were there to entertain with their music.”

And that music and their legacies is what Hudson wants to ensure lives on. The Museum for the American Printing House for the Blind holds a ‘Bards and Storytellers’ series to highlight the histories of various blind performers and storytellers.

With Adler’s help, a full history of Mac and Bob will be told this Saturday at the museum (1839 Frankfort Ave). More information can be found here.