Carolina Tar Heels



The Carolina Tar Heels recorded their first sides on Feb. 19, 1927 for Ralph Peer on Victor Records.  Atlanta was the first of three southern locations Peer brought his new portable recording system. The Tar Heels featured a cast of talented Country musicians revolving around three-finger banjo virtuoso Dock (Doctor Coble) Walsh. In 1925 Walsh made his first recordings for Columbia as a solo artist and formed the Carolina Tar Heels with harmonica wizard Gwen Foster and Tom Ashley. Ashley was not present at the first session so Foster played harmonica and guitar with Walsh playing banjo.

Eventually Garley Foster (no relation) replaced Gwen Foster. Coincidentally both men played harmonica (French harp) and guitar. One of the unusual things about the Carolina Tar Heels was the absence of a fiddler, standard fare for most early string bands. Gwen Foster has been recognized as one of the finest harmonica players in early Country Music. His  “Wilkes County Blues,” and the Tar Heel’s “Drunk Man Blues” or “My Sweet Farm Girl” showcase Fosters brilliant harmonica work.

The career of Walsh was rivaled by band member Clarence (Tom) Ashley who would record solo (banjo and vocal) and with Gwen Foster, also with Byrd Moore and his Hot Shots, The Blue Ridge Entertainers and later in the 60s with Doc Watson, Clint Howard, Fred Price and Gaither Carlton. Ashley also played an important role introducing songs like “Rising Sun Blues (House of the Rising Sun),” “Little Sadie,” “Dark Holler,” and “Greenback Dollar.” A new CD is out entitled Greenback Dollar which chronicles Ashley’s recordings with different groups from 1928 to 1933.
The Carolina Tar Heels featured a rotating group of four musicians from the North Carolina mountains: Dock Walsh (banjo and lead vocals); Gwen Foster (guitar, vocals and harmonica); Tom Ashley (banjo; guitar and lead vocals) and later Garley Foster (guitar, harmonica vocals) who replaced Gwen Foster (they are not related). Ralph Peer named the group (Walsh and Gwen Foster) at their first Victor session in Atlanta. According to some sources Walsh and Tom Ashley met at a fiddler’s convention in 1925. Later he asked Ashley to join the Tar Heels as a guitarist and singer (both vocal lead and harmony).

The Carolina Tar Heels made 18 records (36 songs) in seven sessions for the Victor label (Feb. 19, 1927 in Atlanta; Aug. 11-14 1927 in Charlotte; Oct 10-14, 1928 in Atlanta; Nov. 14, 1928 in Atlanta; April 4, 1929 in Camden, NJ; Nov. 19, 1930 Memphis and lastly Feb. 25, 1932 in Atlanta). The last two sessions were made after the Great Depression (Oct. 1929) which was largely responsible putting an end to the recordings of The Carolina Tar Heels. Most groups folded in the early 1930s and looked for suitable work outside the music business.

Ashley wasn’t present at the first sessions in 1927, which were made by Dock Walsh and Gwen Foster, or the last in 1932. Some of the songs recorded for Columbia by Walsh in 1925 and 1926 were recorded again for Victor with different titles (“Going Back to Jericho” became “Back To Mexico”) to avoid copyright infringement. Individual members of the group (Ashley with Byrd Moore and his Hot Shots and solo for Columbia at The Johnson City Sessions in 1929 and Gwen Foster with the Carolina Twins) would make records with different groups until the Ashley- Gwen Foster sessions for Vocalion in Sept. 1933.

During the 1960s folk revival Walsh reorganized the Carolina Tar Heels with his son Drake and former member Garley Foster. The new band recorded an LP for Folk Legacy produced by Eugene Earl and Archie Green. I interviewed Green briefly and obtained his permission to use the liner notes, which I received from Sandy Patton. Many of the original Tar Heel’s songs were covered on the 1962 recording. “Gene had an Ampex recorder and I was his assistant,” recalled Green. “I remember Dock telling me, ‘Wilkes County has a lot of moonshiners’, they claimed it was moonshine capital of the world. We recorded a bunch of songs and picked out what we thought were the most representative.”


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