Omer Forster’s “Flowery Girls”: Southern Marvel #1

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First in a series of Southern Marvels, recordings of southern music that combine both singularity and beauty:  Omer Forster’s “Flowery Girls.”

In old time music, there are a number of tunes that stand alone; they have a haunting, almost mystical quality that transports the listener. I used to run down to the local record store and buy all the Davis Unlimited records as soon as they were released. I remember getting the Omer Forster record, not knowing who he was, or even what he sounded like, but it looked promising.  When Flowery Girls played on side one, cut one, I was floored by the beauty of the tune. It sounded made-up, maybe not in the “tradition” but it didn’t matter. The unique finger picking (two finger) gives it a great, syncopated feel. It is a lyrical masterpiece. Give it a listen: (from Michael Donahue)

FLOWERY GIRLS – Omer Forster, banjo
Featuring Houston Daniel and The Highland Rim Boy

Spring Fed Records SFR-DU-33037.  Available here.

Review of Omer Forster’s “Flowery Girls” by Charles Wolfe

“There’s not many old-time musicians left up here in Humphries County,” said Houston Daniel during a break in this session. “Those of us that do still play it all know each other and keep in touch.” Humphries County, lying due west of Nashville in an arm of the Tennessee River, was once the stomping ground of musicians like Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith and Floyd Ethridge; these and other lesser-known musicians have left their mark in the music of the region though, and a small but devoted band of local musicians have kept the region’s distinctive styles and tunes alive. Two of the finest of these musicians are banjoist Omer Forester (from McEwen) and fiddler Houston Daniel (from Waverly).

76 year old Omer Forster has, through the years, quietly developed one of the most distinctive styles and repertoires of any old-time banjo player in the country. All his life Omer has played in an archaic two-finger style (thumb and index finger) which he can’t remember learning from anyone; “it’s always been natural with me.” Nor has he during his life been aware that his style was all that unusual; apparently his friends and neighbors in rural Humphries County accepted the style without much comment. But distinctive it is: soft, graceful, complex, different both from the classic three-finger vaudeville styles of the other middle Tennessee artists like Uncle Dave Macon, and different from the claw-hammer style of the eastern mountains. Rick Good of the Hotmud Family has called Omer’s banjo playing “mystic,” and Harper van Hoy, the founder of Fiddlers’ Grove, has called Omer “the best old-time banjo player in the country.”

Omer was born on White Oak Creek, northeast of McEwen in Humphries County, in a small house where he still lives today. Both sides of this family were musical; his mother’s family, the Ethridges, had an especially important influence on him. He learned some of his old tunes from his grandfather Andy Ethridge, and others from his uncle Sam Ethridge, who was noted in the area as a leading fiddler. Other old fiddlers he learned from include Walter Warden and Morgan Marsh. By the time he was in his twenties Omer was regularly playing square dances in the area, and in 1927 began playing with Dickson county fiddling great Arthur Smith.

Omer was a member of the original Dixie Liners that played over WSM in 1927 (before Arthur met up with Sam and Kirk McGee) and played over Chattanooga station WDOD. Omer appeared several times on the early Grand Ole Opry, often with his cousin fiddler Floyd Ethridge, who later played with the Crook Brothers band; his last Opry appearance was in 1943, when he played with Grandpappy George Wilkerson’s Fruit Jar Drinkers. Since then Omer has contented himself with playing for dances and contests in the area; once he defeated the legendary Uncle Dave Macon at a contest in Murfreesboro. “I’ve won everything from shirts to money at these contests,” he recalls. “One time I won a 24-pound sack of flour, and I even had to go get it from the store.” Recently he has won contests at Fiddler’s Grove, North Carolina (1976) and Clarksville, Tennessee (the state championship contest) in 1977.

Omer is a quiet, shy, modest man who would just as soon plant a row of Irish potatoes as go to a fiddling contest. (In fact, we had to post pone this recording session because he tore his picking finger while out stringing barbed wire.) When he does go to a contest, he sits quietly in a corner hunched intently over his Kay banjo doing things that attract mainly people who really know banjo playing. Though his playing has won the praise of people like Merle Travis, Grandpa Jones, and the late Stringbean (“He makes more notes with his little finger than I knew was on a banjo”), Omer has never recorded before. When he finally agreed to record an album, he wanted to do some tunes with the local band he has been playing with for several years, Houston Daniel and The Highland Rim Boys.

Houston Daniel and his band are a real rarity in middle Tennessee today: a regular, working old-time square dance band. The band consists of Houston on fiddle, Omer on banjo, Maurice Dunaway on guitar, and Dan Hornsburger on bass. (On this record, they are augmented by the fine guitar work of Lee Forster, Omer’s son.) For years this band has been playing on an almost weekly basis around the Waverly area, and has built up a style and cohesion that only a working dance band can generate. Houston’s fiddling, much of which he learned from his mother, a native of the same area, has won him numerous awards and prizes over the years.

The tunes heard here fall into three categories: standards, regional pieces, and originals. Most of the latter stem from Omer’s fertile imagination, and include pieces like “Union Grove” (which he composed after his visit to Harper van Hoy’s Fiddler’s Grove contest least year). “McEwen Drag” (which he has played for years), and “Jimmie Rodger Blues” (which is a dense melodic anagram of one of Rodgers’ old blue yodels). Regional pieces include “Rattlesnake Bit the Baby,” a local favorite seldom heard; “Goin’ Uptown,” an old tune popularized by Dr. Humphrey Bate and his Possum Hunters over WSM in the 1920’s; “Blue Creek,” a tune Houston’s mother used to play; and “Lexington,” popular in the area and related to, but distinguished from, “Love Somebody.”

“Flowery Girls,” one of the most haunting pieces on the album, was one of Walter Warden’s tunes, and according to Lee Forster, is one of Omer’s favorites. “Morgan March Shottische” was an old fiddle tune played by local fiddler Marsh, and is similar to several shottisches played in south central Kentucky by fiddlers like W.L. Gregory and Jim Gaskin.

This album was recorded in one marathon session in McEwen, Tennessee on 21 May 1977. By the time the session was over, the front yard of Lee Forster’s house was full of cars, and over fifty numbers had been taped: a testimony to the impressive richness of the Forster – Daniel repertoire. “I’ve forgot lots of pieces,” Omer said. “I’ve let ‘em get away from me. Sometimes they come back to you.” Here are a few that came back.

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