Old-Time Mountain Guitar

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review by Jim Nelson:

Old-Time Mountain Guitar: Vintage Recordings 1926-1931 (County CD 512)

Historically, little attention has been paid to the guitar and its important role in the development of country music, at least in comparison to the fiddle or banjo. Recordings like Old-Time Mountain Guitar will hopefully serve to rectify this situation. This is one dandy reissue.

Featured throughout are solo and duet performances by some of the best guitarists of the first generation of commercially recorded country music, many of whom are probably well known, but primarily for their work as accompanists or within ensembles. A lot of musical ground gets covered in this collection. Robert Fleder’s essay in the accompanying booklet (which also has some rare photographs of some the players) examines a few of the historical reasons for this.

As he points out, parlor guitar music of the late 19th century is the direct ancestor of much of the music heard on this CD. There is much aural evidence present in many of these performances to support this claim. The most noticeable stylistic elements of parlor guitar heard here are the use of the thumb as an alternating bass while the other fingers picked out intricate melodies, and the use of a variety of open tunings.

Both black and white musicians adopted these stylistic elements, applying them to whole new musical genres, which emerged in the early part of this century. Readily recognizable in many of the cuts on the CD are the many African-American influences that greatly affected early country music (and all that was to follow). Among the selections we hear in this great mix are blues pieces, rags, and even a little jazz.

There’s not a disappointing selection to be found here, but there are some true standouts. The CD starts with “Lonesome Weary Blues,” a duet from Roy Harvey and Leonard Copeland in which the two guitar parts (one in an open D tuning) are so completely intertwined that it is nearly impossible to discern one guitar from the other. Frank Hutchison and fellow West Virginian, Jess Johnson (with Roy Harvey) are featured playing slide guitar on one cut each.

Johnson and Harvey give us “Guitar Rag,” which closely follows Sylvester Weaver’s influential 1923 recording of the piece, and which probably served as the basis for the Western swing classic, “Steel Guitar Rag.” Hutchison’s piece, “Logan County Blues,” bears no small resemblance to the parlor piece, “Spanish Fandango,” which is also heard here in a classic version played by John Dilleshaw and the String Marvel.

The finger picking on the cuts by David Fletcher and Gwen Foster (the Carolina Twins) bears more than slight resemblance to the ragtime style that dominated the playing of many black guitarists in the Piedmont region. I haven’t mentioned the two cuts by Sam McGee, but it goes without saying that he was one of the all-time great finger-style guitar pickers. This is certainly evident in his renditions of “Buck Dancer’s Choice” and “Franklin Blues.”

Some inventive and exciting flat picking pieces are also included among these recordings. Hoke Rice’s dazzling breaks and fills on “Take Me to that Land of Jazz” are nothing short of amazing and probably represent one of the earliest examples of flat picked lead guitar in country music or jazz.

Flatpicking is also featured on the cuts by Melvin Dupree and the Crockett Brothers, Johnnie and Albert (of Crockett’s Kentucky Mountaineers). Dupree’s numbers are pretty ragged both in style and execution, while the Crockett’s playing reveals a polish that can only be realized from years of working on the vaudeville stage. Old-Time Mountain Guitar is a great collection from start to finish; it is both historically significant and makes for immediately enjoyable listening.

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