Rural String Bands of Tennessee

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by Kerry Blech (from The Old Time Herald):

Various ArtistsRural String Bands of Tennessee
County 3511

Ahhh, here is a very nice set of reissues, but please don’t be scared off by the bland cover art. It’s what’s inside that counts, and here we have some dandy recordings made originally between April 1925 (Davenport and the Young Brothers) and April 1930 (the Ridgel ensemble). Some of the Volunteer State’s finest fiddlers are represented here.

The best-known of the lot probably would be Charlie Bowman, who earned more than a modicum of fame with his stint with Al Hopkins’ Hill Billies. With his brothers, Walter (“that runt”) on banjo and Elbert on guitar, along with friend Frank Wilson on steel guitar, he illustrates why he was so popular among fiddle enthusiasts with Forked Deer and Money in Both Pockets / Boys My Money’s All Gone from the “Moonshiner” skit.

It is sheer pleasure to listen to these folks. Too bad they did not record much in this configuration. Anyone who’s spent time talking with Ralph Blizard knows about Dudley Vance and what an influential fiddler he was in Eastern Tennessee. His Tennessee Breakdown pulls parts from other well-remembered pieces to become a new melody, one that certainly illustrates why he was so popular.

Although it has become a darling number of the old time revival, Tennessee Mountain Fox Chase was never issued commercially. The old LP issue of it (and now this CD reissue) was taken from a test pressing. It’s a brilliant tune, exceedingly well-played. It boggles the mind to wonder why it was not issued on 78. Jimmy McCarroll was yet another gifted regional fiddler.

We get to hear him twice too, with his Roane County Ramblers, on Everybody Two-Step and the rousing breakdown, Alabama Trot, which the band seems to have called The Georgia Fox Trot. Jess Young was a powerhouse of a fiddler, though not very well-known outside his region. Unfortunately we only hear one of his hot numbers, The Old Hen Cackled and the Rooster Crowed, as he is backed by brother Alvin on guitar and the great fingerstyle banjoist Homer Davenport (who would later play with Lonnie Robertson out in Missouri).

Notable about this version of Hen Cackle is the dramatic key change, which apparently was a regional preference characteristic in the Sequatchie Valley, as both Bob Douglas and his father had been recorded playing similar versions to Young’s. Last, but certainly not least, in this category is G. B. Grayson. Grayson probably has made the deepest impression of all the artists on this disk. His seminal Going Down the Lee Highway is among his finest efforts.

While the above-named groups featured virtuoso, or “brag,” fiddlers, most of the other bands on this disk featured strong, if not mind-blowing, fiddling. Some of these other groups also were known for some novelty aspects of performance or for their singing. The Weems group kicks off the CD with Greenback Dollar, which seems closely related to the tune called Christmas Eve, that was recorded by the African American string band of John Lusk, Murphy Gribble, and Albert York for the Archive of Folk Song in the ’40s and was also played by Kentuckian Jim Bowles.  The only other side Weems recorded is also included here, Davy.

From the same county as the Weems group were the Perry County Music Makers, featuring Nonny Presson’s unique zither playing and a beautiful song, I’m Sad And Blue. One of my favorite novelty groups is Ridgel’s Fountain Citians, whose Baby Call Your Dog Off, featuring a whining vocal. The song is reminiscent of the Take a Drink or Take a Whiff songs, but also has interjections and asides that would stand up with the best of John Dilleshaw’s humorous commentary.

Well, I could go on, track by track, extolling the virtues of this wonderful recording. It is a fine package, nearly all around (I would love to see nicely laid out photos of one set of the musicians included, perhaps, rather than a bland cartoony cover illustration, as this and the Virginia stringbands CD, also on County, have). We have exquisite remastering from the 78s by Richard Nevins, a nice section listing personnel and recording data for each cut and a fine essay and biographical portraits by Charles K. Wolfe, as well as some fine portraits of the musicians.

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