The Forgotten Career of Country-Music Journeyman “Little Robert” Van Winkle

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Not too many people remember country-music entertainer Robert Van Winkle today—Google his name and you’ll get the other Robert Van Winkle—but he’s mentioned in the biographies of Roy Acuff, Chet Atkins, and Dolly Parton. Pictures of “Little Robert” turn up frequently in archival collections of many Knoxville music stars of the 1940s and 1950s. He was something of a mystery here at the Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound for years, until Van Winkle’s granddaughter Robin Bradley sent a collection of audio featuring her grandfather picking and singing, solo and with his family. In recent weeks, Bradley sent even more newly discovered audio tapes, and film footage from the 1950s featuring Van Winkle.

Born in Kingston, Ky., in 1923, Van Winkle was the eighth of 12 children. A rare birth defect meant his legs remained abnormally short, and he had only three toes on each small foot. When he was old enough to enter school, his family moved to Bethel, Ohio, where he was apparently so teased and bullied by classmates that his parents removed him and sought a private teacher. The family moved to Williamsburg, Ohio, where he returned to public school, carted there in a wagon or carried by his brothers. A life-changing moment occurred when a group of old-time string-band musicians performed at his school; they so enthralled Van Winkle that he decided to become a musician. He started out on the banjo, soon picked up guitar, and showed an aptitude for playing almost any stringed instrument.

At 18, Van Winkle moved to a coal-mining camp in Kirksville, W.Va., where he entered an amateur music contest hosted by Speedy Krise and his Blue Ribbon Boys. He was soon performing on a radio show in Beckley, W.Va., and moved on to a succession of other stations in the area. He joined up with Ralph Lawson and the Pioneer Pals as they performed throughout the mountains of West Virginia and North Carolina, eventually winding up playing with the Osborne Brothers when they were starting out at WCYB in Bristol. Toward the beginning of his career, Van Winkle crossed paths or played with a number of country and bluegrass greats. A memory he cherished his entire life was sharing a stage with Hank Williams, a year before the hard-living honky-tonk star passed away. Bill Monroe was so taken by Van Winkle’s song “Close By” that he recorded it in 1954, and it has since become a bluegrass standard.

A promotional pamphlet about Robert “The Biggest Little Man in the World” Van Winkle around this time described him this way: “Robert is 39 inches tall, weighs 85 pounds, black hair, brown eyes, sunny disposition, and is always energetic.” While a skillful picker, he also used his height for comedic effect. One popular routine was a staged boxing match with Bill Carlisle, aka “Hotshot Elmer,” in which the two would trade off victories each night.

By the late 1940s, Van Winkle had made the move to Knoxville, where he appeared on various radio stations and played a fair number of road shows, often with his wife Margaret, who also sang. Carl and Pearl Butler were particularly fond of playing with him, and he appears on stage with them at several points in their silent 8mm home movies. He was an emcee on Cas Walker’s WROL show and would later speak of helping Dolly Parton get her start on Walker’s program. Robin Bradley remembers an oft-told story of her grandfather and his family visiting Parton’s family for Sunday supper at their home—one of Van Winkle’s daughters had a crush on the same boy as Dolly.

A 1952 log book documenting Van Winkle’s gigs shows that he was working regularly, at times five days a week, most frequently for Walker at WROL, where he received $40 a week. For out-of-town shows he noted the miles he traveled and money received for gigs in towns such as Del Rio, Loudon, Morristown, Lexington, Ky., and Robbinsville, N.C. On Thursday, Sept. 25, he played with Bill Monroe in Sneedville. He’d play theaters such as the Gem in Chattanooga but also courthouses, high schools, and for Cas Walker’s Republican rallies at area elementary schools.

Van Winkle seemed to have had a mostly happy and successful life in Knoxville; the city directory listed him as a “WROL radio star.” There were some tough times, though. In a 1981 interview for the Star-Republican newspaper out of Blanchester, Ohio, where he had relocated in the 1960s, Van Winkle talks of wrecking a Cadillac that turned over multiple times, then crawling out of a hole that “didn’t look like a rat could come through.” A distraught bystander thought his legs had been cut off when she saw him walking around. The wreck is noted in the log book on Oct. 5 with the terse note, “wrecked our Cadillac.” An entry less than three weeks later reads, “Dad broke his back.”

Even more bad luck was coming Little Robert’s way, in the form of a scandalous shootout at his East Scott Avenue home, which resulted in the death of one of his close friends and a police officer.

Next: The shootout at Little Robert’s and life after Knoxville.

Inside the Vault searches the TAMIS archives for nuggets of lost Knoxville music history.

Eric Dawson is Audio-Visual Archivist with the Knox County Public Library's Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound, and with Inside the Vault combs the archive for nuggets of lost Knoxville music and film history to share with us. He's also a longtime local music journalist, former A&E editor of the Knoxville Voice and a board member of the nonprofit performance venue Pilot Light.

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