Various Artists

Nashville: The Early String Bands, Vol. 1 [1976]

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The two volumes that exist of this series are quite different on LP and CD. There is potential for confusion, something that has from the beginning dogged this well-intentioned and musically quite breathtaking compilation of recording activity from Nashville in the late '20s. The title of the series itself was a touch-off base for starters, as not all of these groups were string bands or bands at all. Some of the tracks are by solo performers. Why is DeFord Bailey, a solo harmonica player, on an album of string band music? Because the real focus of these sets, despite the title, was the first wave of performers over Nashville's radio WSM. Beginning with players such as fiddlers Uncle Jimmy Thompson and Fiddlin' Sid Harkreader and actual string bands such as Dr. Humphrey Bate and the Possum Hunters, the station was carefully casting its nets out into what must have seemed like a deep, dark, and unknown sea -- the notion of a radio-listening audience for country music. The recordings of these performers, whether they are soloists or entire bands, are not only some of the earliest examples of recordings of Appalachian music, but also represent a new crest of energy as musicians began to face the prospect of technological innovations. To play on the radio or to make records must have seemed like quite a step beyond barn dances, picnic lunches, and do-it-yourself promotions in school cafeterias. The impact of these performances is beyond question, and buyers of either the LP or CD versions will find themselves in possession of great music, looking at lists of songs that will soon become favorites, that much is guaranteed. But back to the quibbling, best gotten out of the way early. The biggest problem with the LP releases was that the label created only one booklet for both volumes and saw fit to include it only with the first one. The concept that all consumers would buy both volumes is part of the deep space of "record company thinking." The CD releases did not repeat this error. The label could have simply put all the material from both the LP volumes onto one CD, which might have been great. Instead, County seems to have been devoted to the idea of two volumes, and fleshed out the CDs by adding other material -- some of it by artists already featured, some of it related. One advantage of the LPs is perhaps the really brilliant quality of the first choice of selections. Since old-timey tracks tend to be short, it takes quite a bit of additional material to flesh out to CD length -- almost doubling the number of tracks available on the vinyl. There are those listeners who might view this as dumping a double amount of mashed potatoes on the plate -- it could be too much. The sequencing was also changed on the CD, meaning the delightful beginning of the entire series, the Bate track "My Wife Died Saturday Night," is replaced with something else. Suscribers to the "less is more" doctrine will love this LP. It gets the point across about old-timey music quickly and with a good deal of variety. The importance of fiddle tunes is quickly understood and provides lovely musical moments, while the instrumental lineups of groups such as the Bate ensemble or the fine Paul Warmack & His Gully Jumpers are sure to be pleasing to fans of stringed instruments being plucked, frailed, clawhammered, and bowed. Brinkley Brothers' Dixie Clodhoppers are beyond magnificent with "Give Me Back My Fifteen Cents," one of the great songs about money. "Old Joe" presents both the lustre of Sid Harkreader's fiddle playing and the solid punch of Grady Moore's rhythm guitar, a cornerstone of the Nashville sound. The brothers Sam and Kirk McGee are heavily represented, performing both on their own and as part of a rare band under the leadership Uncle Dave Macon, the Fruit Jar Drinkers. Macon also does a superb solo version of "Railroadin' and Gamblin'."