Graded on a Curve: Legends of Old-Time Music, Fifty Years of County Records

Initially committed to the compiling of Old-time material cut early last century in the southeastern United States, County Records transitioned rather quickly into fresh documentation of the style’s thriving exponents. The impulse spanned across decades and the results help to shape Legends of Old-Time Music: Fifty Years of County Records, an absolutely stunning new 4CD set co-produced by Grammy winner Christopher King. Available now, those with an interest in the USA’s fathoms-deep rural roots will not want to miss it.

Started by Dave Freeman in 1963, County Records belongs in the same company as Moses Asch’s Folkways, Chris Strachwitz’s Arhoolie, Nick Perls’ Yazoo, and Arnold S. Caplin’s Biograph, all labels with shared interests but diverse personalities. County’s devotion to retrieving sounds grooved into shellac by companies like Brunswick and Gennett resonated somewhat like the Mountain music counterpart to Yazoo’s blues-focused endeavors as they emerged later in the ‘60s.

Once Charlie Faurot and Richard Nevins entered County’s scenario the combination of reissues (therewith the label’s 500 series) and contemporaneous output (given the 700 designation) became mildly reminiscent of Arhoolie’s mode of operation, though as this expansive yet thoughtfully assembled collection illuminates, Freeman’s focus largely remained on the hill music of Virginia, North Carolina, and to a lesser extent Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia.

A large portion of Legends of Old-Time Music was collected and recorded by Faurot; he gets the co-producer’s credit alongside King, and having passed in 2013, the set is dedicated to his memory. Freeman and Nevins were also involved in production, as were archivist Bobby Fulcher and Barry Poss on the majority of the selections sourced from Kentucky and Tennessee.

County calmly mentions these 113 tracks being “for fans of The Anthology of American Folk Music and the field recordings of Alan and John Lomax,” a resonant comparison as the individuals listed above were factors in a substantial wave of roots-based communication inspired by Harry Smith’s jewel of curated brilliance and the indefatigable documentation of Lomax père and fils.

In short, County was part of the mid-20th century folk boom, and as a component diligently capturing the music of a specific region it has perhaps occasionally taken a back seat to some of their more stylistically wide-ranging contemporaries in annotation. The four-hour-plus running time of these discs ooze fiddles and banjos in solo, duo, and string-band formations, sometimes accompanied by voices and traversing the spectrum from the unadulterated old-time of banjoist Sidna Meyers’ “Twin Sisters” to the bluegrass-cognizant approach of fiddler Otis Burris’ “Richmond.”

Recordings Faurot made in ’64 of Wade Ward on banjo open disc one (a crisp solo “June Apple”) and close disc four (an intensely syncopated “Arkansas Traveler” with fiddler Glen Smith), but a sizable amount of the music herein dates from the summer of ’68 in a house rented by Faurot and Nevins on Main Street in Galax, VA.

Their chosen locale is renowned as the site of the annual Galax Old-Fiddlers Convention (2015 marked its 80th year), so naturally the instrument is well represented throughout, both in the context of southwest Virginia and beyond; especially interesting is the fleet solo expression of West Virginia’s Melvin Wine on “Cold Frosty Morn.”

Additionally included is the duo interplay of the North Carolinians (and veterans of Mt. Airy radio station WPAQ) Esker Hutchins and Leake Caudle, the former teaming with guitarist Shag Stanley for “Puncheon Floor” and the latter joined by the banjo of Oscar Jenkins on “Mississippi Sawyer,” as Hutchins’ Surry County cohort Benton Flippen delivers the full string-band treatment on “Pretty Little Girl” and Wine’s fellow West Virginian Clark Kessinger (noted for prolific recording in the ‘20s for Brunswick and Vocalion) contributes five efforts in tandem with guitar and banjo.

The guitar mostly takes a secondary role here, though exceptions do arise, e.g. Virginian Eldridge Montgomery’s “Old Wandering Boy,” a previously unissued tune (one of 31 on the release) mingling Montgomery’s vocal with the second guitar of James Lindsey, plus a brace of cuts blending Virginian Bobby Patterson’s six-string and Carolinian Kyle Creed’s banjo to a relaxed, welcoming result.

The banjo shares dominance with the fiddle; together with Wade Ward there are two glorious solo bursts (also circa ’64) from George Stoneman, a bedrock figure spanning back to Ernest “Pops” Stoneman’s vastly important ‘20s sides, and a pair of excursions by Doc Watson’s father in law Gaither Carlton, with “Pretty Saro” featuring singing of warmth and power.

Further solo banjo spotlights include the refreshing glide of North Carolinian Willard Watson’s “Cousin Sally Brown” and Kentuckian Clyde Troxell’s “Skippin’ through the Frost and Snow,” a track reminding these ears a little of Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground.” A more refined group setting is proffered by Will Keys’ three numbers; they fruitfully contrast with Matokie Slaughter’s boisterous precision on her trio of solo entries.

Equally adept on banjo and fiddle are Oscar Jenkins, Esker Hutchins, Glen Smith, Oscar Wright, and Kyle Creed, and distinguished amongst the two-axe mastery is the splendid old-time individualism of Kentucky’s Clyde Davenport and an extensive helping of Carolina’s versatile Fred Cockerham. But the cream of a ludicrously bountiful multi-instrumental crop and one of the true gems of Legends of Old-Time Music’s whole is the Tar Heel State’s Tommy Jarrell.

Seldom is music as emotionally rich as what Jarrell produced on an abundant string of LPs for County with playing partners Creed, Jenkins, and Patterson. Other than Cockerham on banjo for a single piece Jarrell is heard alone here, and the severity of tone on the mournful “When Sorrows Encompass Me Around” is simply astounding.

E.C. Ball and the Friendly Gospel Singers add a bit of mountain gospel to the program, though the tunes pairing E.C.’s guitar and Blair Reedy’s mandolin are quite enjoyable. Numerous string bands evince pure instrumental dexterity; Earnest East and the Pine Ridge Boys, The New North Carolina Ramblers backing Grey Craig and Jim Willie Pruitt, The Korn Kutters (with George Slusher’s distinctive harmonica), John Ashby and the Free State Ramblers, The Coon Creek Girls (wielding the terrific Lily Mae Ledford), and the Camp Creek Boys (composed of Cockerham, East, Creed, and Roscoe Russell).

Bringing an added touch of gospel are siblings Joe and Jeanette Carter, the son and daughter of country music cornerstone A.P. Carter and an integral aspect of Legends of Old-Time Music’s attention to the familial in old-time music making; along with The Russell Family and The Kimble Family there are the brothers Sidna and Fulton Myers, the married duos Beverly and Mildred Thompson, and Dee and Delta Hicks, and the father and sons, namely Oscar Jenkins and Herman Oscar Jenkins Jr., Virgil Anderson and Willard Anderson, and Hiram Stamper and Art Stamper.

I’ll admit my favorites lean toward the edgy and unabashedly backwoods; the heavy locomotive bowing of Carolina fiddler Steve Ledford’s “Mitchell Blues,” the off-kilter tension of Virginia banjoist Dan Tate’s “Old True Love,” the fragile beauty of Tennessean Dee Hicks’ “Lost Gander,” the distant sound of a rooster crowing during his wife’s a cappella rendition of “Man of Constant Sorrow,” and the sheer agedness of Hiram Stamper’s fiddle and thump on “Brushy Fork at John’s Creek.”

Lacking are moribund notions of purity. The notes in the 28-page information-drenched booklet mention that much of what’s here was aptly assessed as rural pop music of its time, and while delving into the internet in prep for this review I discovered a photo of Bobby Patterson posing with banjo, mandolin, acoustic guitar, and an electric bass. But maybe the finest refutation of any spurious ideas of museum-housed relics derives from Virgil Anderson’s superb “You Been Gone So Long,” the Kentuckian vocalizing amid bluesy banjo to “put on your high-heel sneakers/do your hair high on your head.”

The majority of the singers and players on Legends of Old-Time Music are no longer alive, but its contents are permeated with vibrancy and a value only increasing over time; it’s easily one of the best reissues of the year.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A+

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