1972: (seated) Bill Hicks, Vicky and Malcom Owen, (standing) Eric Olson, Blanton Owen, Tom Carter, and Sharon Sandomirsky (photo by Russell Rigsbee)
Edited from liner notes to first two Fuzzy Mountain String Band LPs by Bill Hicks, Blanton Owen, and Sharon Sandomirsky:
Informal music making was a regular thing at Tommy and Bobbie Thompson’s house near Durham, NC, in the mid 1960s. Alan Jabbour, Bertram Levy, Tommy and Bobbie eventually formed the influential Hollow Rock Stringband out of those jam sessions, and in 1967 another handful of regulars decided to form a band of their own which they called the Fuzzy Mountain String Band. Dave Crowder and JoAnn “Claire June” Stokes provided guitar accompaniment to the fiddling of Malcolm Owen and Dick Zaffron, who also played mandolin on occasion. Eric Olson played melody on the five-string banjo.
In the spring of 1968, the Fuzzies played to no great acclaim at the huge Union Grove fiddler’s convention, but did appear on the LP recording issued of that year’s convention. By 1969, the band’s membership changed. Bobbie Thompson joined as the sole guitar player. Malcolm’s wife Vickie Owen played the fiddle tunes on mountain dulcimer, and Blanton Owen joined Eric as an additional banjo man. Bill Hicks brought his fiddle to the group in 1970.
In the fall of 1971, we recorded our first LP, The Fuzzy Mountain String Band (Rounder 0010). We set up a two-track tape recorder in either Bobbie or Eric’s living room. Using several Rube Goldberg adaptations, we patched our shared microphones (some were only one step removed from tin cans with strings) into the recorder.
By the time we finished our first recording, Blanton had moved to Johnson City, TN to attend college, Eric had taken a library job at Cullowhee, NC, Malcolm and Vickie were making plans to buy land in western North Carolina, and Bobbie was on the verge of taking a new job as chief book designer at Princeton University Press. In February, 1972, Bobbie was killed in an automobile accident while en route to her new job in Princeton, and her daughter Jesse was critically injured. That winter was tough for us all. Jesse finally began to speak again after spending a month in Duke University Hospital.
Our record came out that winter and we all went to Union Grove again—this time with Sharon Sandomirsky on guitar and Tom Carter playing either banjo or mandolin. We played Tommy Jarrell’s version of “John Brown’s Dream” and –lo and behold!—won first place in the Old Time Band competition. The best “prize” Union Grove could give us came later, though. The Union Grove organizers sent the 1972 festival recording with our “Brown’s Dream” on it to Tommy, not to us. Not only did they think it was Tommy Jarrell playing the tune, so did Tommy—until he heard Bill’s singing.
Rounder asked us to record a second LP, which we did in August, 1972. This time we recorded in a radio station (WDBS, Durham) but still in live takes. The album was titled Summer Oaks & Porch after the Bobbie Thompson intaglio print of the same name and which was used on the cover. It shows Bobbie’s front porch, the site of many summer music playing sessions, and the huge white oak trees that shaded it. We dedicated the record to Bobbie Thompson.
The last major performance of the Fuzzy Mountain String Band was at the National Folk Festival at Wolf Trap in the summer of 1973. By the fall of that year, the band members were fairly well dispersed. Tom and Blanton were doing their historic “search for Henry Reed” in the Blue Ridge. Bill had formed the Red Clay Ramblers with Tommy Thompson and Jim Watson. Malcolm and Vickie were raising a family on a farm in Madison County, NC. Eric continued his job at Cullowhee, NC. Only Sharon stayed, the mainstay of old-time music for new groups of musicians in the Durham/Chapel Hill area.
From the beginning, members of the FMSB ventured forth to visit and record old-time fiddlers and banjoists throughout the upland South. And learning their tunes “right” was important. We took great pride in the fact that virtually all of our repertoire was learned first-hand, most from traditional musicians we visited, recorded, and got to know. Bobbie was especially critical; she was the one willing to tell any of us that we didn’t have a phrase quite right.
As the 1970s and 80s wore on, we noticed that “our” tunes, the tunes we learned from the great old-timers in North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia, had taken on a new life. They were no longer associated with Oscar Wright, or Tommy Jarrell, or Fred Cockerman, or Gaither Carlton, or Kyle Creed, or Taylor Kimble, or Frank George, or Burl Hammons. In most cases, they were not even associated with the Fuzzy Mountain String Band. Playing the tunes very much like someone else was not considered necessary or even good. The tunes were being played simply because they were good tunes, apart from who “originally” played them, or how.