Hamper McBee: Music & Moonshine
By Jim Hornsby
As a native Tennessean, I am somewhat embarrassed to say that when my friend, Brian Buchanan, asked me to do an article on Hamper McBee, I didn’t really know who he was talking about. To orient me, Brian loaned me three items from his substantial collection of Americana: 1) the 1978 documentary film, “Raw Mash”; 2) an original LP entitled “Raw Mash/Songs & Stories of Hamper McBee“ issued by Rounder Records as a follow-up to the film; and 3) the new CD “Hamper McBee: Cumberland Moonshiner”, a Spring Fed Records reissue of an out-of-print LP originally released by Prestige/Folklore in 1964.
Noted music historian Charles Wolfe wrote the liner notes on the Rounder LP, and Dr. Robert Cogswell of the Tennessee Arts Commission wrote the notes for the new CD re-issue. Both are well written articles, and the entire package has given me a very entertaining introduction to the life and times of a unique fellow, a Tennessee original who is affectionately remembered as a “likeable troublemaker.”
Hamper was born in 1931 and grew up in the backwoods on Monteagle Mountain near Sewanee, Tennessee. He was, at various times, a construction worker, logger, carnival barker, river barge cook, mule driver, and tavern keeper, but his legacy is built on his remarkable talents as a singer, moonshiner and “wildly funny story teller.”
He had Andy Griffith’s rural charm with words, and you can almost hear Andy when Hamper says things like, “Yeah, it’s rainin’ outside, but I don’t know a thing in the world we can do about it.” But Hamper was the product of a more rough-and-tumble environment, and profanities that would never have passed Andy’s lips pepper Hamper’s stories like cayenne in a Cajun stew — as when he tells about the moonshiners who let too much steam build up in their boiler and “that g——n still left the forest like a g—–n rocket.”
Predictably, moonshining and heavy drinking kept Hamper at odds with the law, and there is some sadness and regret in his voice when he recounts his many arrests and bouts with alcohol withdrawal. But those melancholy reflections, along with the chill and hardness we hear when he talks about sheriffs, bankers, or “friends” who betrayed him to the authorities, allow us to see him as a real person, and in total, the recordings capture his authenticity and attest to his having genuinely lived the life he tells us about.
Hamper had a local popularity much of his life, but his horizons expanded after he was “discovered” by the students and faculty at the University of the South in Sewanee. In addition to his recordings and television documentary, he was boosted into the national limelight by appearances at the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville, and at the 1986 Smithsonian Festival of American Folk Life in Washington, D.C. where he “sang ballads and made whisky in the shadow of the White house.”
Hamper is gone now, but luckily the cooperative efforts of the Tennessee Arts Commission, the Arts Center of Cannon County, the Center for Popular Music at MTSU, and numerous other organizations and individuals have saved his warmth, wit and wisdom for generations to come. Hamper was a most entertaining fellow, and I have thoroughly enjoyed making his acquaintance.