Uncle Josh Graves revolutionized the role of the Dobro in country and bluegrass. An extraordinarily gifted musician renowned for his rolling syncopated technique and astonishing speed, his seminal recordings as a member of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs' Foggy Mountain Boys established the resonator guitar as an essential component of postwar roots music. Born Burkett Graves in Tellico Plains, TN, on September 27, 1927, he first adopted the Dobro in emulation of boyhood hero Cliff Carlisle, a fixture of Jimmie Rodgers' landmark RCA sessions. Graves invented the "Uncle Josh" persona as a teen while working as an announcer for Knoxville radio station WROL, and upon joining the Pierce Brothers in 1942 he served as both a guitarist and comedian. Stints in support of Esco Hankins, Molly O'Day, and Mac Wiseman followed before Graves attracted broad attention backing Stoney Cooper and Wilma Lee on WWVA's weekly Wheeling Jamboree. While a member of Lexington-based WLEX's Kentucky Mountain Barn Dance in 1949, Graves apprenticed under banjo innovator Scruggs, eventually adapting Scruggs' syncopated, three-finger picking style to the Dobro. With his elegant yet bluesy approach, Graves was an invaluable addition to ballads, but it was the uptempo breakdowns where his lyricism and energy shone most brilliantly.
By the time Graves joined Scruggs and partner Lester Flatt full-time in May 1955, a move coinciding with the duo's recent addition to Nashville station WSM's legendary Grand Ole Opry, the Dobro was so much out of favor with country music tastemakers that he was instead installed as the Foggy Mountain Boys' bassist, additionally contributing comedic material to their live performances. Graves nevertheless brought his Dobro on tour and was given his own spotlight number, "Steel Guitar Chimes." The song proved so popular with audiences that Flatt and Scruggs hired a new bassist, Joe Stuart, to allow Graves to play resonator guitar full-time. Many country and bluegrass enthusiasts credit the Dobro for reinvigorating Flatt and Scruggs' sound, and Graves remained a member of the Foggy Mountain Boys until the band splintered in 1969. He also served as a member of Flatt's subsequent outfit, the traditional bluegrass combo the Nashville Grass, and later tenured with the Earl Scruggs Revue as well. Graves finally mounted a solo career in 1974, releasing his debut LP, Alone at Last, on Epic Records. He also emerged as a much sought-after session musician, contributing to LPs including Kris Kristofferson's Jesus Was a Capricorn, Steve Young's Seven Bridges Road, and J.J. Cale's Really.
In the wake of his fourth headlining effort, 1979's Same Old Blues, Graves shelved his solo career in favor of resuming his sideman career on a full-time basis. In 1984 he partnered with fiddler Kenny Baker, a collaboration that continued on an on-and-off basis for more than two decades. In 1990, they teamed with banjo virtuoso Eddie Adcock and mandolin great Jesse McReynolds as the Masters, winning the International Bluegrass Music Association's award for Instrumental Recording of the Year with their debut LP, Saturday Night Fish Fry. Graves also earned induction into the IBMA's Hall of Honor in 1997. Although he suffered from myriad health problems in the autumn of his life, eventually losing both legs to amputation, Graves continued recording and touring into the 21st century, often performing alongside son Josh Jr., a multi-instrumentalist who previously served as a member of surf-rock hitmakers Ronny & the Daytonas; in 2002, he issued his swan song, Memories of Foggy Mountain, teaming with a new generation of bluegrass pickers including J.D. Crowe and Audrey Haney. Graves died in Nashville on September 30, 2006, just three days past his 79th birthday. ~ Jason Ankeny