My interest in Fisher Hendley began many years ago with a fascination with the band name, “Fisher Hendley and the Aristocratic Pigs.” As it turned out, the name came straight from the radio show’s sponsor’s contention that their pork products came from high-class hogs. Other than this, I learned little more about Fisher Hendley and his group until the late 1990s, when I was assembling the two-CD set, The North Carolina Banjo Collection, for Rounder Records. On this set, I included a cut of Fisher’s banjo playing (“Shuffle, Feet, Shuffle”) and I began my first research into his life for the album’s booklet. A deeper investigation of Hendley’s early life followed when, simultaneously, I was researching my book String Bands in the North Carolina Piedmont and Gail Gillespie uncovered some pictures of Fisher Hendley from his time at Trinity College (now Duke University) in 1914 and 1915.
When most of us think about old-time country music recording and radio performers of the 1920s-1940s, we imagine overall-clad musicians with blacked-out teeth, fresh out of some mountain hollow, carrying a load of moonshine. The truth of the matter is much different from this fiction generated by the publicists of the time. Fisher Hendley’s story helps illuminate something of the real history of early country music, which defies many commonly held stereotypes about “hillbilly” musicians. Hendley was not from the mountains at all, but rather a sparsely populated farming area of the North Carolina Piedmont, an area as rich in music as the better-known mountain regions. He also attended several institutes of higher learning, including the prestigious Trinity College in Durham. Due to his school experiences traveling with choirs and participating in dramatic presentations, Fisher usually wore, and insisted that his bands wear, full theater “pancake” make up and evening dress onstage. A shrewd and successful promoter and businessman, Fisher Hendley was also a trained singer, and he played the best instruments available. He exhorted his children to “always buy the best” and kept his own council by at the height of the depression by having high-end musical tools including those made by Gibson and a spectacular one-of-a-kind Epiphone Recording Deluxe “Dragon” banjo.