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Mountain Music Roundup

By John Lilly

FSA

The late Senator Robert C. Byrd was one of a kind. As most GOLDENSEAL readers know, Byrd was an excellent old-time and bluegrass fiddler, who used his music as a campaign tool during the early decades of his lengthy career. [See “Robert Byrd: Mountain Fiddler,” by Dave Wilbur; Fall 2010.]

Only one commercial recording was ever made of Senator Byrd’s music, and it is a good one. Originally issued on LP in 1978, U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd: Mountain Fiddler (CO-CD-2743) has recently been reissued on CD by County Records of Charlottesville, Virginia. It features Byrd fiddling and singing his way through 14 numbers, mostly old, familiar melodies and songs, such as “Turkey in the Straw,” “Cumberland Gap,” “Old Joe Clark,” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” Also included are a couple of relatively modern country music songs: “Don’t Let Your Sweet Love Die” and “Come Sundown She’ll Be Gone.”

Accompanied by Doyle Lawson (guitar), James Bailey (banjo), and Spider Gilliam (bass), Byrd sounds relaxed and confident on the traditional numbers, performing them as he no doubt had done for better than a half century. The more modern selections sound less self-assured but add variety to the collection. Highlights for me include Byrd’s enthusiastic vocals, as well as his spoken introductions to several of the songs, revealing where he learned these numbers and what they meant to him.

As West Virginia contemplates the legacy of this historic political figure, it is nice to have his music and personality preserved and documented, as well. Mountain Fiddler is available from County Sales, on-line at www.countysales.com; phone (540)745-2001.

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Fiddler Scott Prouty has quietly become one of the leading proponents of authentic West Virginia and Kentucky fiddle styles. A resident of the Washington, D.C., area, Scott has been influenced by West Virginia music for many years and has been awarded first place in the under-50 fiddle competition at the West Virginia State Folk Festival at Glenville several times. His playing is reminiscent of the music of Wilson Douglas, Melvin Wine, Edden Hammons and other tradition-bearers from central West Virginia – he uses open tunings, prefers rugged or “crooked” tunes, and generally plays either solo or with a single accompanist.

Scott’s first CD is called Puncheon Floor, and it includes 17 relatively obscure old-time instrumentals from West Virginia and Kentucky. Roughly half feature Scott’s rich, understated fiddling in a solo setting; the remainder include either guitar or banjo backup. Puncheon Floor is a wonderful collection of mountain fiddling from one of the finest young musicians playing today. I listened to this recording while driving across the Potomac Highlands on a crisp October afternoon, and it offered a near-perfect soundtrack for the spectacular fall scenery.

Puncheon Floor is available for $15 from Scott Prouty via e-mail at sprout333@gmail.com.

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Along the Ohio’s Shores (Volume One: Fiddle Music Along a Great River) [Rounder 11661-0544-2] is a remarkable collection of old-time fiddling from southern Ohio and northern Kentucky. Released in 2005 as part of Rounder Records’ North American Traditions Series, this CD includes field recordings made between 1973 and 1999 of 18 fiddlers from the Ohio River Valley, between Ashland, Kentucky, and Madison, Indiana. A few of these musicians and their tunes have West Virginia ties, but the majority are firmly rooted in the small towns and farming communities where these musicians have spent their lives. The disk contains a pdf file, including a generous 22-page booklet of liner notes, biographical sketches, and contextual information. The tunes are generally uncommon and the playing is pure, strong, and straight-forward. I highly recommend this CD to anyone with more than a casual interest in authentic fiddling styles, particularly to musicians searching for rare and unusual repertoire.

Along the Ohio’s Shores is available from Rounder Records, One Camp Street, Cambridge, MA 02140; on-line at www.rounder.com.

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Another remarkable collection of field recordings comes from east Tennessee titled, Old-Time Smoky Mountain Music. Recorded in 1939 by linguist Joseph S. Hall, these tunes, songs, hymns, and ballads had previously only been available to researchers at the archives at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park or East Tennessee State University. Established in 1934, Great Smoky Mountains National Park eventually comprised nearly a half-million acres and displaced thousands of individuals and families. The park service commissioned Hall to document the language, stories, customs, and culture of these residents before they left. When they heard Hall was from California, many of the locals volunteered to perform musical numbers, thinking erroneously that Hall could help get them “discovered.” The discovery has been a long time coming, but it is good that these marvelous performances are finally available to the general public. Similar in many ways to folk music collected by Louis Chappell and others in West Virginia during the same time period, this CD is as down-home and authentic as it gets. A few, especially unaccompanied singer Myrtle Conner, could easily have performed professionally, but the majority here are simply rock-solid mountain folks, sharing their music with a stranger from the city.

Old-Time Smoky Mountain Music is produced by the Great Smoky Mountains Association, and it is available for $14.95 by calling 1-888-898-9102, ext. 126.

Other recent recordings that bear mention include Carrie & Michael Kline’s Damp as the Dew: A Tribute to Appalachian Miners, a fine collection of mining songs from these longtime GOLDENSEAL contributors (phone 304-636-5444); Joe Herrmann’s Gather ‘round, a varied disk of songs and tunes from a founding member of the Critton Hollow String Band (phone 304-947-7314); The Fox Hunt’s America’s Working So We Don’t Have To, a relatively traditional set from one of the state’s most exciting and popular young string bands (e-mail thefoxhuntband@gmail.com); Short Mountain String Band, a relaxed collection of front-porch favorites from Hampshire County (phone 304-822-5818); and Kim Johnson’s Keepers, an eclectic CD of duets from Clendenin’s banjo-playing woman (e-mail banjowv@gmail.com).

You can read the rest of this article in this issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.