The story behind this box set is just interesting as the music on the rare 78s that were remastered to produce this beautiful three-LP set. In March of 2010, Nathan Salsburg, a record collector who had always dreamed of unearthing a crate full of rare records from the early days of the American record business, had his dreams come true. A friend that worked in the Louisville city dump called him up and told him that a hoarder named Don Wahle had just died. Wahle left behind a massive collection of LPs from the '50s, '60s, and '70s. Salsburg rescued part of the collection from the dump and discovered that along with the LPs, Wahle has also hoarded every 78-rpm disc that came his way. Salsburg made his was to Wahle's house, which was slated to be torn down in the next few weeks, and found a closet filled with hundreds of 78s. He loaded them into his pickup truck, cleaned them up, sorted them, and started to program this box set. He'd been working on the Work Hard, Play Hard concept before he found Wahle's collection, going through the music collected by the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, but there were so many songs to choose from that the project lost inertia. Reinvigorated, and inspired by the many rare selections in Wahle's collection, Salsburg finally put together the Work Hard, Play Hard, Pray Hard anthology, and dedicated it to Wahle, a man who seemingly had no friends or acquaintances except for other record collectors.
The songs on the Work Hard LP were written by men who knew what it was like to toil away at soul-crushing, low-paying jobs. Songs about bad jobs have become a staple in country music, but it's hard to take them seriously when they're written and sung by well-paid professional musicians. The pioneers of country music may have been professionals too, but they'd lived the life they sang about and presented the facts in an unvarnished manner. Fiddlin' John Carson's "The Farmer Is the Man Who Feeds Them All" is a stark portrait of an economic reality that's still with us today. Carson's voice and minimal fiddle lay out the story of a working man who borrows what he needs to make a living only to end every year in debt. David McCarn tells the same woeful tale on "Poor Man, Rich Man." His presentation is more lively with ragtime guitar and harmonica accents, but the lyric is full of grim details about the monotony of hard work. Oscar Ford's "The Farmer's Dream" is more sprightly, and humorous, a fantasy about finding a rich woman who'll allow our hard-working fellow to live "like a millionaire." When the money runs out he'll hock all the gifts his girlfriend gave him and go back to riding the rails.
Gid Tanner, an early country music star, opens Play Hard with "Work Don't Bother Me," a tune George Jones later adapted for "Ragged But Right." Work doesn't bother him, because, he claims, he doesn't have to work. Despite the fact that musicians sometimes work even harder than folks with a day job, the image of the ne'er-do-well musician who can live on his music and his wits is a popular one and the subject of most of the Play Hard songs. Charlie Wilson and his trio celebrate a night of inebriation with "The Beer Party" a mix of sprightly instrumental work, and a lively rendition of "Alabama Jubilee," with some great mandolin work by Roy Hobbs. "The Preacher Got Drunk and Laid His Bible Down" is a galloping proto-bluegrass tune by the Tennessee Ramblers that celebrates the power of strong drink while poking gentle fun at the hypocrisy of churchgoers. The unknown musicians of the Aiken County String Band turn in "Charleston Rag," a smoking instrumental that includes quotes from "Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight" and "Hail, Hail, the Gang's All Here." The most bizarre track is Whit Gaydon's "Tennessee Coon Hunt," a combination of Gaydon's minimal fiddling and his imitations of hounds and coons running through the woods.
Pray Hard takes a more serious look at hard work and the hard lives of workers. It includes gospel and religious-themed songs from some of the collection's most obscure records performed by unknown artists. "I'm on My Way" was adapted by the civil rights movement in the '60s, and it's sung and played here by the unknown Kentucky Holiness Singers, who provide beautiful syncopated mandolin work and uplifting sanctified vocals. The Red Brush Singers sing "Beyond the Starry Plane," a simple song of faith that imagines the family reunions that will take place in heaven with bare-bones banjo and fiddle accompaniment. Gid Tanner delivers a solo version of "You've Got to Stop Drinking Shine," but it's not quite an antidote to "Work Don't Bother Me." His lively banjo and cheerful vocal suggest he's less than serious about sobriety. "Easter Day" was written by Dorsey Dixon, who also wrote "Didn't Hear Nobody Pray," a tune Roy Acuff borrowed for "Wreck on the Highway." Dorsey and his brother Howard deliver this uptempo song of faith in a powerful call-and-response style. "I'm S-A-V-E-D" by another unknown band, the Georgia Yellow Hammers, is a wry look at people who only live the word on Sunday, and spells out various words in the lyric, making you wonder how serious they were about their message of salvation. Elder G.P. Harris only made four recordings, two of them at his own expense, including the tune included here, "My Christian Friends in Bonds of Love." Harris supports his vocal with minimal fiddling, and while his wailing fervor is undeniable, it's hard to decipher individual words.