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Milton Estes: From Claiborne Co. to the Grand Ole Opry

Milton Estes, born at Arthur, Tennessee, on May 9, 1914, became an early star of the Grand Ole Opry where he started in 1937 as a singer and master of ceremonies with Pee Wee King’s Golden West Cowboys.

In his early years with Pee Wee King, he shared vocal billing with Eddy Arnold, Cowboy Copas, Redd Stewart, and Tommy Sosebee, all destined for stardom in country music on the Opry, recordings, and concerts.

For about five years, from 1940 to 1945, Milton moved from Nashville and country music to Raleigh, North Carolina, and Southern gospel music. He was lead singer, manager, and master of ceremonies for the Lone Star Quartet. The group had been organized in Texas, but found a very successful following in the Raleigh area where they appeared regularly on the 50,000-watt radio station WPTF.

In this new-found success, Milton further developed skills in management and leadership, and an impressive stage presence in the role of emcee. He also provided comedy routines as “Uncle Milt” for the quartet.

By 1946, barely 30 years old, this Claiborne County native returned to Nashville and country music to perform on WSM and in a featured role with the Grand Ole Opry. He was the leader of the band, the Musical Millers, and for a decade or more he recorded for Coral, Decca, King, and MGM Records.

He became a host on Martha White Flour segments of the Grand Ole Opry and on daily morning and noontime programs on WSM Radio. On one of the Opry segments in 1948, Milton’s guests were String Bean, Lew Childre, and Jimmy Selph. Milton opened that segment with “New Filipino Baby” and closed with the gospel song, “I’ll Fly Away.”

Milton’s interest in gospel music showed up not only in his Opry appearances but on single and album recordings that he completed through much of the 1950s.

With Nashville’s Joe Allison, Milton co-wrote a song titled “20/20 Vision and Walking Around Blind,” first recorded by the cowboy star, Gene Autry. The song would later become popularized by blue grass singer Jimmy Martin.

Milton was also an excellent square dance musician and caller; he frequently called the dances on the Grand Ole Opry, and he and his band recorded square dance music. He was an accomplished musician (guitar, bass, piano, and mandolin) and acclaimed emcee.

He left Nashville in the early 1950s and in 1953 was working in Detroit bringing Grand Ole Opry stars to the area and emceeing the Motor City Jamboree. Later, he was a television announcer in Columbus, Georgia. He died in August, 1963, in Oklahoma City, and was buried in his native Claiborne County.

William H. Baker, native of Claiborne County and former resident of Middlesboro, Kentucky, may be contacted at Wbaker@limestone.edu