MUSIC FROM THE LOST PROVINCES
Old-Time Stringbands from Ashe County, North Carolina & Vicinity
Old Hat CD-1001
Off The Beaten Track
by Mark Greenberg / Sing Out! / Summer 1999
Although North Carolina’s “Lost Provinces” constitute one of the most geographically isolated regions of the state, music from this area managed to find its way onto commercial recordings during the late 1920s. Many of the sounds on those records later reached the ears of old-timey revivalists, thanks to whom several of the songs and tunes on this collection remain familiar. Followers of the New Lost City Ramblers should be particularly delighted to find both a general model for much of that group’s early fiddle-banjo-guitar sound and the source of such oddball tunes as the Woodie Brothers’ woeful “Likes Likker Better Than Me.”
Overall, the region’s style features pinched, nasal vocals, fiddle leads (usually just the melody, slightly embellished at times), with firm (and often boomy) guitar back-up, and in some cases, 2- or possibly 3-finger banjo accompaniments. But this music is hardly formulaic. Jack Reedy provides a driving 2-finger banjo lead on “Chinese Breakdown” which also includes a steel guitar, while Lawton Woodie’s harmonica replaces the fiddle on “Likes Likker,” and the Hill Billies’ sprightly “Cluck Old Hen” boasts a ukulele. The latter group may have given southern mountain folk their most widely-used sobriquet, but the fiddle-guitar team of Grayson and Whitter is probably the best known group on this collection. Centered on Grayson’s unadorned singing and bluesy, droning fiddle playing, the duo tends towards such ostensibly mournful fare as “Train 45” and “I’ve Always Been A Rambler,” that exemplify what the liner notes refer to as an “introspective brooding quality’ that mirrors the region’s long-time isolation. Yet Grayson’s energetic bowing and Whitter’s random comments also lend a jovial note to even such tales of lost love as “Short Life of Trouble” and “Handsome Molly.” Similarly, Jack Reedy and His Walker Mountain String Band bounce through an exuberant “Ground Hog,” while the peppy approach of the North Carolina Ridge Runners gives a lift even to the earnest “Be Kind To A Man When He’s Down.”
Other groups also feature raggy fiddle bowing and angular banjo playing reminiscent of one of the state’s most popular groups, Charlie Poole’s North Carolina Ramblers- especially the Smyth County Ramblers’ deadpan “My Name Is Ticklish Reuben” and the Carolina Night Hawks’ jaunty “Al Smith For President,” which is clearly based on Poole’s “White House Blues.” Fiddler Frank Blevins exudes a similar quality on his six cuts with the Tar Heel Rattlers, including a stellar version of the traditional dance tune, “Sally Ann.” The twenty-two tracks on this collection include all of Blevins’ recordings as well as the complete output of Ephraim Woodie and the Henpecked Husbands, the Carolina Night Hawks, and the North Carolina Ridge Runners.
With this, its premier release, Old Hat joins the ranks of the brave, independent labels that are helping both to keep some of America’s most vital regional music alive and to celebrate the people who first recorded it. Welcome; this is a terrific collection.