The Highwoods String Band
Feed Your Babies Onions
Rounder CD 11569
review by Art Menius
During the 1970s Ithaca, New York’s Highwoods String Band irrevocably changed the old-time music revival. Drawn to the spirit and the tunes of traditional string bands of the 1920s, the Highwoods followed their own musical path. Inspired by the New Lost City Ramblers, most previous revival string bands had endeavored to recreate the music of either certain regions or specific living old masters or recording artists of the 1920s and 1930s. The Highwoods broke that mold with twin fiddles, a bluegrass inflected upright bass, and effervescent high spirits that made their sound and listeners dance. They became the heroes of those desired a good-time rather than academic approach to classic hillbilly music. Suddenly both young people and folks from outside Appalachia had an old-time string band music of their own, and countless groups adopted the Highwoods style. Some imitators remain active, but too many nights on the road to too many poorly paying gigs eventually robbed the Highwoods of the joy that they gave to so many.
Feed Your Babies Onions compiles 23 tracks from their three Rounder albums recorded between 1972 and 1978. It proves a delight to have this compelling dance music on compact disk. Even those who feel the overall impact of the Highwoods String Band proved somewhat deleterious would be hard pressed to deny the excitement present in these cuts. This is decidedly not music to be taken sitting down. Like the Grateful Dead, the Highwoods String Band belonged to that part of the 1970s which refused to admit that the 1960s had passed. Like the Red Clay Ramblers and the Hot Mud Family, they symbolized a time when old-time revivalists tried to make a living as full-time musicians.
With speed, energy, and a big beat the Highwoods kicked and dragged a lot of contagious adaptations of 1920s tunes into a burgeoning country dance revival. The opening cut, “Dance All Night,” surges out of the speakers, fiddles and banjo pushing at the edge of the envelope, but never losing the beat. “More Pretty Girls Than One” or “Meeting in The Air” demonstrate that the Highwoods could slow to a stately pace and genuinely sing a song with harmonies and everything. “Who Broke The Lock” and “You Ain’t Talking to Me” display Mac Benford’s irresistible approach to the humour of the old-time songs. “Way Out There” finds a western swing song from the Sons of the Pioneers reborn as old-time string band music. The ferocious drive of the swirling fiddles and shouted vocals of “Fire on the Mountain,” the title cut of their debut LP, or “Sleeping Lulu” became their trademark. Feed Your Babies Onions will bring back some spectacular memories for certain folks. Others will find a hear a delightful introduction to a spirited, engaging music risky enough not too sound dated after 20 years.