County Records October 1998

Pinch Hits Due 9/30/98

The Independent

By Art Menius

Only 35 years ago the search for recordings of classic southern dance music – old-time music – led to sorting through 78s at yard sales and flea markets in slim hopes of finding titles by hillbilly favorites from the 1920s or 1930s. That all changed with the birth of County Records, a label dedicated to presenting the finest old-time string band music on LP. County Records now enjoys the process of reissuing those albums on CD complete with updated notes, new tracks, and even entirely new compilations and projects.

The latter include Dancing In The Parlor (County CO-CD-2721), the latest by folklorist and performer Stephen “Banjo Dancing” Wade. No one can claim a better overview of the five-string banjo’s rich resources, and he explores many of them on these 24 cuts ranging in sources from Beethoven to Appalachia. Wade’s deep yet accessible playing is supported by a wealth of guests including Dudley Connell of the Seldom Scene, Red Clay Rambler alumnus Mike Craver, and Seamus Egan of Celtic supergroup Solas.

The Skillet Lickers drew a still unmistakable power from the creative tension in the ensemble between traditionalist Gid Tanner and the more adventurous Riley Puckett and Clayton McMichen. That synergy between change and preservation has fueled southern roots music ever since. Old-Time Fiddle Tunes from North Georgia (County CO-CD-3509) provides nine songs from a 1966 County LP and adds seven cuts. Although this is some of the Skillet Lickers most traditional stuff, this remains one kick-ass record.

Eck Robertson made the very first country music phonograph recordings (“Arkansas Traveler” and “Turkey in the Straw,” both heard here) in 1922, yet his performing career lasted well into the 1960s. Old-time Texas Fiddler: Vintage Recordings, 1922-1929 (County CO-CD-5515) captures his seminal records, many of them still the signature interpretations of such traditional material as “Sally Goodin.” Mixing a remarkable melodic clarity with distinctive stylistic markers, Robertson’s magisterial fiddling remains hard to beat 23 years after his death.

Before the flat-picking guitar styles of Doc Watson and Tony Rice or the boogie riffs of Arthur Smith came pre-1940 country guitar playing, a compelling assortment of often idiosyncratic, invariably African-American influenced, usually bass heavy hillbilly approaches to the six-string. A few players, such as Sam (“Buck Dancer’s Choice) McGee, possessed the vision and technique to set standards for the next generation. The 18 tracks on Old-Time Mountain Guitar (County CO-CD-3512) stress this tantalizing music, nearly forgotten due to the primacy of banjo and fiddle.

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